Heavy Weather: Overthinking Translation

This post is probably going to annoy a lot of translators, academics, publishers and critics – so it’s just as well that not many of them read my blog. I’ve recently read two books which made me wonder if some people consider learning a new language or translating literary fiction to be an opportunity to show off.

Maybe I am not the right person to be criticising this approach, since I was fortunate enough to grow up trilingual and therefore never had to work hard at languages or think of them as something to boast about. I hasten to add that I will always, always admire people who make themselves vulnerable by learning a new language, and that I am endlessly grateful to translators for making so much wonderful work available to us readers. I can also spend hours or even days debating punctuation marks or a particular word when translating a text – a pleasure-challenge-despair that only other translators will understand, while normal people will say ‘Get over yourselves!’ However, at times, it feels like a performance sport: who can be most opaque, most complicated, most scholarly – and thus most ‘valuable’ as a language expert and translator? Under the guise of being most ‘congruent with the original’, I find tortuous language patterns and syntax in the English translations which occasionally might give me a small flavour of the original, but usually end up putting me off that particular author.

I am by no means a proponent of smoothing things so much for readers that they feel they are reading an English book (someone commented recently on my blog that they translated Reichsmark currency in Emil and the Detectives as pounds in a recent edition!!!). Yet overcomplicating things simply to show off your erudition also feels like a disservice to readers – and ultimately to the authors themselves. This tends to happen less with the major languages (French, German, Spanish), where you have professional translators who are extremely good at capturing the right tone. But publishers of translations from ‘small’ languages tend to prefer academics to do the translation – probably as a quality assurance tool – and the result can be deplorable.

Take for example Nostalgia by Mircea Cărtărescu. It is one of his best and most accessible ‘novels’ if we can call it that (it is a loosely-linked set of novellas), but the translation by Julian Semilian feels heavy-handed and verbose. I am not saying that the author is not verbose in the original, but he is limber and lithe, playful with language, skipping through metaphors, slippery yet hypnotic – everything that Javier Marias is, but which is rendered so elegantly and easily into English by Margaret Jull Costa.

Meanwhile, Nostalgia is anything but effortless. Whole paragraphs seem lumbersome and clumsy, but there are certain phrases which simply sound wrong in English.

Suddenly the animation of the ‘stockholders’ – as I was to find out was the name given to those who bet on this game – abated.

I claim no merit for knowing him or that I can write about him.

For better than ten years’ time…

While I wrote these lines, my room, my tomb, has whirled so quickly through the black fog outside that I got sick.

Of course, there is an additional element to that confusion and I’ve ranted about it before. When you only get a few translated titles from Eastern Europe every year, publishers tend to prefer those that fit in with their preconceptions of what that should look like (and what they think readers expect): difficult, worthy, filled with trauma, mainly about the disaster of Communism (if you aim to sell more than a few copies) or post-modernistically dense (if you wish to appeal to a niche audience and get reviewed in academic journals). And yet Ottilie Mulzet’s translation of László Krasznahorkai (who is all of the above) seems capable of conveying the endless sentences and breathless narrator voice without making them too impenetrable and off-putting.

I look forward to reading Sean Cotter’s translation of Solenoid when it comes out and seeing what he makes of Cărtărescu’s later style (although I think it is a weaker work in the original). I would certainly recommend Cotter’s translation of Vol. 1 of the Blinding trilogy, if you want a better introduction to Cărtărescu’s work (I do have quite a lot of issues with the way he portrays women in his work though – very typical of Romanian male writers or perhaps Murakami Haruki). See what Tony Malone thought of that book.

If you feel I’ve been too harsh with Julian Semilian, I should say that on paper he seemed to be an excellent translator for this particular author: they are of roughly the same age, Semilian was born in Romania but soon moved to the States, where he had a successful career as a Hollywood film editor, and more recently as a writer and documentary filmmaker. He corresponded with the author during the translation process and I can imagine they became friends. But I couldn’t help feeling that Julian is not immersed in the Romanian language and culture, especially not in the way it has evolved since he left the country – it does not come as naturally as breathing to him, so he overthinks it. [Or maybe he is just too much of an academic now.]

This ‘immersion’ is precisely the subject of the second book that made me ponder on linguistic expertise recently: Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words. I read the bilingual version, with the Italian on the left-hand side and the English on the right, and was surprised to discover I could understand quite a bit of the Italian – which Italian speakers have told me is partly because the author starts out with quite simple, basic Italian, but that it gets more sophisticated as it goes along. I enjoyed this book and found the passages about growing up bilingual but with very different approaches to the two languages extremely relatable. However, it seemed more self-absorbed and far less interesting than Polly Barton’s Fifty Sounds, which is also about falling in love with a language and a culture.

I too have recently started learning Italian for no other reason other than that I love the language and the culture – but I did not feel that I was getting a full sense of the beauty, charm, history of the place and its people in this book. For something that has been labelled ‘a love story’, there was little attempt to capture just what made the object of one’s love so irresistible. I admired the hard work and determination in learning the language, and I could understand the temptation of starting afresh in a new language, the freedom of being allowed to be imperfect. But at times she does make things needlessly complicated and repetitive, and I feel like saying: ‘Get over yourself!’ Still, I was relieved to discover this was not Eat Pray Love with a lexicon attached. Despite its simplistic style (a style that is neither English nor Italian, I feel, but hovers somewhere in the middle), there are moments of true insight, beautifully expressed.

Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t, in fact, return anywhere. The concepts of exile and return imply a point of origin, a homeland. Without a homeland and without a true mother tongue, I wander the world, even at my desk. In the end I realize that it wasn’t a true exile: far from it. I am exiled even from the definition of exile.

In conclusion, I suppose what I am trying to say is that I am glad that translators are gaining more visibility and sharing their thoughts on the challenges of moving between languages and cultures. I greatly enjoyed Daniel Hahn’s translation diary, for example, and found much food for thought there. I am pleased that language learning and translation are viewed as serious and praiseworthy undertakings. But, just like in ballet I admire something that seems effortless even though I know the huge amount of effort that goes into it, I prefer translations to feel as natural as leaves on a tree, not to poke my eyes out with their branches.

18 thoughts on “Heavy Weather: Overthinking Translation”

  1. So many great points – and as you know, this idea of translations fitting a preconceived, anglophone notion of what a certain nation’s literature is like is a bugbear of mine. I often think the distinction you’re making here is between the sort of translators who are windows and those who are doors. Windows allow people to look through into other landscapes without drawing attention to themselves. Doors also allow access but require you to engage with them too. Like you, I think translators should be properly acknowledged and credited but they shouldn’t try to have us do this in the text itself.

    1. I love that metaphor: windows and doors. And yes, there is a whole issue with what gets translated, who gets to translate etc. The problem is that with unknown (especially contemporary) authors from ‘small’ languages, you only get one chance to win readers over with a translation, while many different translations of Tolstoy or Flaubert can happily coexist, something for all tastes.

      1. I remember when the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace first came out, most readers raved about it, but some protested, saying that it wasn’t as good and it didn’t read as well as the Rosemary Edmonds translation. At around the same time, Anthony Briggs also came out with a translation of War and Peace and it sunk without a trace. But as time passed, the reputation of the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation is slowly sinking (it didn’t help that Pevear doesn’t know a word of Russian. His wife Volokhonsky does all the translation, while Pevear dots the ‘i’s and crosses the ‘t’s and writes an introduction about how Tolstoy’s prose style is different from Dostoevsky’s and then puts his name on the cover. I still don’t know how he can differentiate between the prose styles of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, when he doesn’t know a word of Russian). And interestingly Anthony Briggs seems to be making a comeback with more readers reading his translation.

        Your mention of Tolstoy made me think about all this 😊

        1. How did you guess I was thinking of P&V when I wrote this? I do not like their translations, even though I don’t understand Russian. They just seem to try too hard – and therefore become unintelligible, or over-mannered. As for the translations via literal translations (which seem to be more common in poetry)… well, they work for certain things, but not for others.

        2. I read somewhere that the P&V translations are clunky and too literal, like every word and sentence was translated separately. I’m happy to know now that you were thinking of this translation when you wrote this 😊

  2. So interesting. Translation is definitely an art as well as a science. I’ve occasionally set myself the task of translating from the French, just to see how it feels, and it really is tough to get it right in the technical sense, as well as to retain the feel of the author’s work. So huge respect to you. But clunky or over-technically correct translation clearly stands as real barrier between author and reader. I rarely persist with a book imperfectly translated.

    1. That’s why I don’t dare to translate poetry (only attempted it once) – because it is hard enough to get the technical meaning and tone right, without having to worry about the form and sound and rhythm as well!

  3. Fascinating post Marina Sofia, thank you for sharing. I think as a reader of translated fiction I want to have a strong sense of being transported elsewhere but I want that through the story and its setting, even a different stylistic approach, but not a constant awareness of the translation process. As Ann has commented – windows not doors! But I realise it’s a tall order – translation is such an art.

  4. This really is fascinating, Marina Sofia. And I know just what you mean about overthinking and – is it the right expression? – trying too hard. When you’re a really skilled translator, that part of a story almost fades into the background, so that you get caught up in the story, not thinking about the translation. Like you, I admire those who can do that well, and bring so many excellent books to different audiences; it isn’t easy. But this sort of translating really can take the reader out of the story.

  5. I actually had no idea the Lahiri text was bilingual until after I’d forked out more for the Italian-language original!

    1. Argh, how annoying! I don’t think all the editions are bilingual, though. I did quite enjoy the book, but I was not putting post-it notes on every paragraph like I did with Polly Barton’s work (I wonder if that is because of the Japanese connection, though).

      1. Well, it did force me to really read it in Italian, rather than skipping across to the English after every sentence or two 😉

  6. Loved your post, Marina 😊 Such beautiful, thought-provoking insights you’ve shared. I always love comparing my favourite sentences in different translations and finding out which my favourite version is. I loved doing that with ‘The Master and Margarita’ (Bulgakov), ‘The Words’ (Jean Paul Sartre), ‘Notes on the Underground’ (Dostoevsky), ‘Ruslan and Lyudmilla’ (Pushkin). In nearly every case, one translation stood out. I am not able to say whether it is the best translation or the most accurate translation (because in most cases, I don’t know the original language), but I’m always able to pick out a favourite translation. I’m happy about that. Thanks so much for this fascinating post and for making me think about translations.

    1. Yes. I have certain favourite books which I own in every translation edition I could find (Genji, Cavafy’s poems) and I may be more sympathetic to a particular translation, but occasionally I do like certain passages better in another edition.

      1. I love your collection of Genji editions! So jealous 😊 The only edition for which I’m jealous more is the one-volume edition of Marcel Proust that you have 😊 I still can’t believe you have that!

  7. Fascinating post, Marina and of course I am with you. Sometimes there is a marriage of author and translator which seems made in heaven, but other times a factory churning out clumsy translations which are unreadable (and you can guess to whom I’m referring…) Those quotes you give sound really, really awkward to me and I would struggle if I can across them in sometime I would reading. And it must be frustrating for you if you know a language and see clumsiness like this. Even with my limited French, I’ve been known to disagree with a bilingual text!!!

  8. I just hate it when I dislike a translated book but am sure that the original was probably better. I remember when my oldest son was in High School, they made them read Catcher in the Rye in Hebrew (remember, I live in Israel), and the translation was SO bad he eventually stopped reading the Hebrew version and read my copy in English instead (which he promptly lost afterwards and never replaced. GRRR)

  9. So fascinating! I get what you mean by the overthinking leading to clunkiness. I read Lahiri’s little book of essays, The Clothing of Books, which she wrote in Italian and her husband translated into English – that combo actually worked well. I wish I was better at French, my best other language, but find my immersion in a text is usually ruined by having to pause to look things up! (I should read newspapers and watch more French telly etc to practise, shouldn’t I.) I love Ann’s comment about windows and doors which is the perfect metaphor.

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