On translation.

Thank you, Mr. Reeder.
Thank you, Mr. Reeder.

My turn in our local library’s queue to read Peter Buwalda’s “Bonita Avenue” has just arrived, which means that now feels like as good a time as any to jot down a couple thoughts on translation.  After all, I wouldn’t get to read this novel if not for the hard work that Jonathan Reeder did for me and all other English-speaking, non-Dutch-speaking readers.

Obviously, I’m not an expert — I can only read in English, and there are only a handful of works, like the Bible, the Ramayana, the Iliad, The Stranger, and In Search of Lost Time, that I’ve read in multiple translations — and like most other non-translators, I probably underestimate how hard that work is.  Not that I think it’s easy, but translating a novel seems like one of those things that everyone knows would be difficult, but turns out to be even more difficult to actually do.  And I wish translators got more appreciation, like their names printed on book covers.  So much of what I read, and what I’ve loved, I could never have experienced without the effort of translators, so it’s painful to see their work go uncredited.

That said, here are my two thoughts about translation for today:

Picture 6Dance Dance Dance is my favorite novel by Haruki Murakami.  And I was talking to the friend who’d gotten me started reading his work, explaining why I liked it, and one of the things I said was that I appreciated how dark and scary the book was (I can’t quote the conversation exactly because it transpired about twelve years ago).  She was surprised; she hadn’t thought the tone of the book was like that at all.  But then it turned out that she’d read that novel in the original Japanese; later she read Alfred Birnbaum‘s English translation and agreed, that version is terrifying.  In part, that conversation made me wonder whether it’s the work of specific translators who’ve influenced which Murakami books I enjoy most — I know that several translators have worked on Murakami’s novels, and how much of my love of Dance Dance Dance is due to Birnbaum’s masterful rendition of the work?

Second thought: it must be very difficult to do fescennine slang in another language.  To me, the English renderings of Marcel and Albertine’s last big fight sound quite strange; she accuses Marcel of being too tentative, too dainty, and too restrictive of her freedoms.  Rather than throw parties and spend his money, she’d rather go out and have sex (which, right, Albertine, despite being female, uses a slang term for receiving anal sex in this passage, after which Proust provides some rationalization, speculating that perhaps lesbians would use that term to refer to any sexual encounter with a man — this is probably the only passage in the work where I feel like Albertine’s gender transposition has a serious deleterious effect on the novel as art, because it makes the dialogue and the subsequent passages ring false), which she could do for free.

Marcel_Proust_et_Lucien_DaudetBut it’s the belatedly-swallowed revelation from Albertine that seems like it must’ve been incredibly nettlesome to translate.  In both the Moncrieff / Kilmartin / Enright translation, which reads:

“Thank you for nothing!  Spend money on them!  I’d a great deal rather you left me free for once in a way to go and get myself b . . . (me faire casser) . . .”

…and the Carol Clark translation (which I read less often, but through no fault of hers.  My copy is a British printing, apparently there was some issue with copyrights or some such thing and the U.S. versions of the final volumes won’t be released until 2018.  But this means that the book is formatted in an unfamiliar style for me), which I think presents the dialogue more smoothly in English but makes the idea of guessing the final words less plausible:

“Thanks a lot!  Spend money on those old gargoyles, I’d much rather you left me alone for once, let me go out and get . . .”

…a reader could easily feel befuddled as to how Marcel managed to guess what Albertine was about to say.  Which does matter; it changes how suspicious Marcel is acting if her statement is relatively devoid of sexualized clues, and it changes how the reader views Albertine depending on how crude her usage is perceived to be.  I don’t know French, but given my impression of what Proust is trying to do with this scene (I should mention, by the way, that both translations provide helpful endnotes to explain this passage), I’d almost like to see Albertine use a curtailed prepositional phrase like “up the…” to end her statement.  It seems clear that a structure like that would not match Proust’s language, but might mirror his intent.  Or is it wrong to want new translations of older works to use contemporary language?