Reading in Translation

Tips for Reviewers: Translators’ Introductions Are Your Cheatsheet

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Years ago, a friend shared with me Richard Pevear’s introduction to his and Larissa Voloknonsky’s translation of War and Peace. In it, Pevear writes, “Translation is not the transfer of a detachable ‘meaning’ from one language to another, for the simple reason that in literature there is no meaning detachable from the words that express it. Translation is a dialogue between two languages. It occurs in a space between two languages, and most often between two historical moments.” (xiv) While I must confess that War and Peace remains on my reading list, these words in Pevear’s introduction have continued to resonate with me as I study and practice literary translation, and the concise case Pevear makes for his translation choices makes me want to reach for his version when the time is right. Among other discrepancies, Pevear observes that many of Tolstoy’s previous translators chose to ignore or reduce the author’s conscious employment of repetition. However, to me the most compelling case Pevear makes for his collaborative translation is his version of the following sentences: “‘Drops dripped. Quiet talk went on. Horses neighed and scuffled. Someone snored’… Other English versions translate the first sentence as ‘The branches dripped,’ ‘The trees were dripping,’ or, closer to the Russian, ‘Raindrops dripped.’ They all state a fact instead of rendering a sound, which (by a stroke of translator’s luck) comes out almost the same in English as in Russian.” (xvi) Without having read Pevear’s introduction, or other translations of War and Peace, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that this sentence could be translated any other way. As a reviewer, without having read Pevear’s introduction, I would not have appreciated the work that went into this exquisite passage and that allowed Tolstoy’s meticulous prose to shine through.

A good translator’s introduction provides the reader, and critic, with a guide to the translator’s choices and approach. Don’t know how to evaluate the quality of a translation? The translator’s introduction is a great place to start. Translators will make the case for their choices, often comparing their work to previous translations (if they exist) as Pevear does, and even sometimes conceding places where something is lost. In their translators’ introduction to Federico García Lorca’s Poet in New York, Pablo Medina and Mark Statman acknowledge that translating chino for example, as “Chinese man,” cannot possibly convey the multiple connotations the word carried in Lorca’s Andalusia including, “a small juicy orange,” “aural cacophony,” “deceitful, a trickster,” or a paving stone (xxi). As readers or reviewers, we can engage each of these other meanings with Medina and Statman’s version of Lorca’s poems because we have their introduction.

As Pevear does for Tolstoy, Lydia Davis guides her readers through Flaubert’s idiosyncrasies in her introduction to Madame Bovary. This can be another route to justify what might otherwise be perceived as error on the part of the translator. Among other particularities she points out are Flaubert’s inconsistent capitalization, which she has retained to maintain the texture of the French text; the prevalence of the comma splice, which as she astutely observes, is used with great rhetorical effect to give equal weight to clauses or lend momentum to a sentence; and finally, imbalance in the use of parallel structure (xxiv-xxv). Without Davis’ illumination of the original text, a reviewer, in the course of a comparative analysis against other English translations like I did here, might assume she had been a careless translator in rendering these stylistic deviations faithfully.

In addition to contextualizing the author temporally and within his or her literary milieu, translators’ introductions can open up historical works to new interpretations in light of the contemporary moment. Medina and Statman’s introduction does this beautifully, framing Lorca’s New York after the 1929 stock market crash in light of New York post-September 11, 2001:

New York had received a deep wound and we felt those airplanes reach inside us, crash, and burn through our sun-filled morning again and again:

                        The light is buried by noises and chains

                        in the obscene challenge of rootless science.

                        In the neighborhoods are people who wander unsleeping

                        like survivors of a shipwreck of blood. (xvi)

Quoting from their translation of Lorca’s poem, Medina and Statman make the work new, and offer their new translation as a comfort for a terrible reality.

It is typical for translators’ introductions to provide insight into the translator’s research process, as well as the challenges posed by the original text, but the level of transparency offered by Lisa Rose Bradford in her Between Words: Juan Gelman’s Public Letter is extraordinary. Calling her introduction “an orientation,” Bradford describes the strategies she employed to approximate each of the distinctive features of Gelman’s poetry with examples from her translations, practically doing the work of analysis for her reviewers. Naturally, in my review, I used her introduction as my point of departure, but of course, noticed other strategies at work in her translation myself. While most texts don’t come with the sort of roadmap Bradford provides, reading a translation in light of the translator’s introduction can help you to penetrate the sometimes invisible work of the translator. With this point of entry, anyone can read a text with attention toward the features mentioned by the translator, both praiseworthy and worthy of criticism.

Readers, translators, and reviewers, what are your favorite translators’ introductions? Please share in the comments below.

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