Speaking In Tongues (And Writing In Them, Too)

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2017-12-10 08:00:00-05:00 No comments

Gained in Translation | by Tim Parks | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books

Translators are people who read books for us. Tolstoy wrote in Russian, so someone must read him for us and then write down that reading in our language. Since the book will be fuller and richer the more experience a reader brings to it, we would want our translator, as he or she reads, to be aware of as much as possible, aware of cultural references, aware of lexical patterns, aware of geographical setting and historical moment. Aware, too, of our own language and its many resources. Far from being “just subjective,” these differences will be a function of the different experiences these readers bring to the book, since none of us accumulates the same experience. Even then, of course, two expert translators will very likely produce two quite different versions. But if what we want is a translation of Tolstoy, rather than just something that sounds good enough sentence by sentence, it would seem preferable to have our reading done for us by people who can bring more, rather than less, to the work.

When I read Donald Keene's English translation of Osamu Dazai's No Longer Human, which was created in 1959, I was not aware of how many passages in the book had been condensed or rewritten.

This is not a slap at Keene. I've tried to read the original in Japanese and was staggered by how difficult it would have been to render precisely into English. Many of the sentences in the book run to a whole unbroken paragraph, a breathless run-on. Keene discarded this approach and made the book more conventionally readable. He also rewrote and condensed a couple of passages that would otherwise have required footnoting to be comprehensible. The end result is highly readable, and conveys the book's meanings if not a total analogue for its original experience.

Some time later, I picked up the French translation of Human and compared the two. I read some French, enough to get myself into trouble if not always out again, and while the French version also doesn't try to reproduce Dazai's run-on sentence structure, it does preserve and annotate the material Keene skipped over for the sake of greater readability. (It has a few footnotes.)

My guess is that a new translation of Human in English today would have attempted to keep more of the second issue, the condensed passages. But the first issue, making Dazai sound like Dazai even in English, might well run into the same issues as before. There might not be any point in trying to find an analogue in English for an idiosyncrasy that was rough going even for some Japanese readers.

Some people would argue, the whole point of a new translation is to try a new approach. You've still got the original translation, and people can always fall back to that one if they find the new one too difficult. But most people, even those self-consciously inclined to read literature in translation to begin with, only get to read something for the first time once. A bad first experience with a maverick translation might turn them off to something that still deserves to be read, even if the long-standing way to experience that story hasn't been forensically accurate. The idea that we can bring something like forensic accuracy to translation is a misleading idea anyway.

That said, I'm not in favor of translations that are arbitrarily misleading or incomplete. I bought the new translation of The Count Of Monte Cristo because all the previous ones in English were bowdlerized to some degree, and because I like footnotes. But not every case of revisiting a translation is going to be that clear-cut. Sometimes it's an obvious, easy win. Sometimes it's because the translator's sensibilities can provide us with a different experience, and we might well be all the richer for having it even if it doesn't consist of decisions we might have made.

Tags: Donald Keene Osamu Dazai translation writing