Posted tagged ‘literary translation’

Translation 31. David Bellos on Google Translate and Much Else

24 September 2011

In this article published in The Independent recently (which I found insightful but about which many of the 128 commenters expressed reservations and doubts), Professor David Bellos, a French literary translator, sings the praises of Google Translate, that extraordinary multilingual translation tool used by millions of web surfers. Bellos illuminates several points which many casual users of Google Translate may not have been aware of, including two which aroused my special interest.
1. English is the predominant “tool” in the Google operation. Because of its ubiquitousness in print, English provides Google with the major part of the input material on which its very complex translation operations are based.
2. Literary translators (like Bellos) play a quite important part in providing the essential raw material on which Google Translate relies.

Much more importantly, this thousand word article is an extract from Bellos’s recently published book on Translation: Is that a Fish in your Ear? and the Meaning of Everything, published in USA (by Faber) and more recently in UK (by Penguin). (Check the Wikipedia page on David Bellos.)

I have just ordered a copy and will offer more comments when I receive the book.
(See also a much earlier article , with references, published by the New York Times.)

Translation 23. Literary Translation: A Review Essay by Brian Nelson

30 November 2010

As I pointed out in an earlier blog, with reference to the very warm welcome accorded to Edith Grossman’s recent book, Why Translation Matters, ripples of overdue recognition of the craft of literary translation are spread when such skilled and respected practitioners of literary translation share their secrets and insights with us.

A more recent related plea for appropriate recognition for the work of literary translators has recently been presented by another distinguished literary translator and academic spokesman for literary translators, Professor Brian Nelson, in his review essay, ‘The Great Impersonators’ (The Australian Literary Review, 3 November 2010).

[Although no Internet reference seems available for this monthly section of The Australian newspaper, here is the version published in its November 2010 issue by The AALITRA Review (the Review of the Australian Association for Literary Translation). Also contained in this .pdf is a bonus piece on Grossman’s work by Jorge Salavert.]

In this review of three important recent books on translation, Emeritus Professor Nelson, who has translated several works by Emile Zola and is currently the President of the Australian Association for Literary Translation, briefly outlines and deplores public misunderstanding and underestimation of the input of the literary translator since the persecution of Saint Jerome, now the patron saint of translators.

According to Nelson, literary translation is still seen by too many (including many publishers and reviewers) as “an unfortunate necessity at best and, at worst, as a terrible form of treachery” – an allusion to the age-old slander, “Traduttore, tradittore” (translators are traitors).

After praising the recent memoir by Grossman and highlighting her passionate insistence on fidelity to the original text, Nelson goes on to present some aspects of the academic debate on translation studies in Umberto Eco’s Experiences in Translation (itself translated into English, by Alastair McEwen), such as the cultural differences between languages and the need to sacrifice “literal translation for the sake of preserving an appropriate style”.

However, it is Antoine Berman’s work Toward a Translation Criticism: John Donne (translated and edited by Françoise Massardier-Kenney) with its “theoretically sophisticated exploration of the ways in which translation is a critical process as well as a creative one”, that Professor Nelson singles out for recognition as a trail-blazing theoretical work well suited to a more rigorous discipline of translation studies, which he sees as vital to a more extensive (and overdue) public discovery and recognition of the real merits of literary translation.

(As an example of academic polemics over literary translation, see here.)

Translation 20. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex

30 July 2010

An interview with writer Sarah Glazer on (Australian ) ABC Radio’s “Bookshow” on 29 July 2010 provided the trigger for the following short but fascinating investigation of a long-running and multifaceted publishing controversy about the translation of the renowned French intellectual’s seminal feminist and existential work (Le Deuxième Sexe). The radio programme dealt with the longevity of the original unsatisfactory 1953 translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s work and the publisher’s decades-long unwillingness to replace the translation of this bestselling work with a more accurate and unabridged one. Topics covered: the frequent distracting translation errors, the publisher’s decision to omit between 10% and 15% of the original, and the final appearance and mixed reception of a second translation of the long text last year. Read all about it on the “Bookshow” for 29 July 2010.

Further examination of these different issues reveals evidence of a tussle between the original publisher of the English translation (Alfred Knopf), which has allegedly sold one million copies over 50 years (mainly to college students taking gender and feminist courses) and American feminist academics who, in view of the book’s importance and density, had been advocating an annotated edition produced by, or subject to, guidance from a committee of experts in philosophy and feminism.

In the end, the academics appear to have lost this battle (although an annotated edition is still possible in the future) and a fresh controversy has arisen over the quality of the new translation.

In a 2008 article celebrating the centenary of de Beauvoir’s birth and advocating a much wider audience for The Second Sex, Professor Toril Moi (author of Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman) announced that a new translation was finally in preparation.

“Unfortunately, the only English translation of The Second Sex, done in 1953 by the zoologist H. M. Parshley, is seriously defective. Almost 15 per cent of the text is missing. The philosophical inaccuracies are such that it is difficult to get a clear sense of Beauvoir’s thought. For decades, Random House, Beauvoir’s US publisher, resisted every suggestion that the translation was flawed. Last year, however, it suddenly announced that a new translation has finally been commissioned.”

The professor added: “The translators, Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier, are best known as cookery book writers. Let’s hope they do justice to Beauvoir’s masterpiece.” (Following that acidic comment, puzzled outside observers should take note that this controversy is 100% American in character, given that the two recent translators emigrated from America to Paris four decades ago and have held French university positions teaching English and literature. As for fellow American and the only male in the dramatis personae, Professor Parshley, he has not suffered at all from the criticism of his work, having died in 1953.)

Two years later, following the publication of the new 800-page translation (The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir, translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, Cape, 2009, ISBN 978 0 224 07859 7), the main London newspapers, The Times, The Independent, and The Guardian praised the efforts of Borde and Malovany-Chevallier, while one or two U.S. broadsheets were less welcoming.

Shortly afterwards, Professor Moi wrote a vigorous 5,000-word essay in the The London Review of Books (LRB), ‘The Adulteress Wife’ .

This article re-introduces The Second Sex and its importance as a feminist text as well as sketching the 25 years of efforts to persuade the reluctant publisher to replace the first translation (“lively and readable”, but full of errors and incomplete) with a more accurate and unabridged one.

Professor Moi mentions a few of the other protagonists in this long quest, including Professor Margaret Simons (‘The Silencing of Simone de Beauvoir: Guess What’s Missing from The Second Sex’ in Beauvoir and The Second Sex (1999), pp. 61-71) and the more accessible 2004 article by Sarah Glazer in the New York Times, which was followed in 2005 by the announcement that British publisher Cape and Knopf in U.S.A. had jointly commissioned a new translation (with a partial grant from the French government).

Moi then confirms her misgivings about the credentials of the two contracted translators by devoting more than half of this review-essay to an aggressively detailed analysis of her reasons for pronouncing the new translation to be unsuitable, and in some aspects less readable than the universally criticised version by Professor Parshley.

“Now we have the new translation. Many will turn to it with high hopes. Is it the definitive translation? Does it convey Beauvoir’s voice and style? Unfortunately not.”

“After taking a close look at the whole book, I found three fundamental and pervasive problems: a mishandling of key terms for gender and sexuality, an inconsistent use of tenses, and the mangling of syntax, sentence structure and punctuation.”

On that third aspect, Moi criticises the translators’ decision “to reproduce Beauvoir’s long sentences connected by semicolons in English, on the grounds that they are ‘a stylistic aspect of her writing that is essential, integral to the development of her arguments’. In French, her long, loosely connected sentences convey speed, passion, and sheer delight in piling up her discoveries. If English sentences are strung together in the same way, however, the impression won’t be the same. French and English differ significantly in their tolerance of relatively vague connections between sentence elements.” (In this connection the reviewer refers to research by the translation linguist Jacqueline Guillemin-Flescher.)

The final dismissive verdict:
“The best I can say about the new translation of The Second Sex is that it is unabridged, that some of the philosophical vocabulary is more consistent than in Parshley’s version, and that some sections (parts of ‘Myths’, for example), are better than others. The translators claim that their aim was to bring ‘into English the closest version possible of Simone de Beauvoir’s voice, expression and mind’. The ambition is laudable, but the result is what Nabokov, a great champion of literal translation, called ‘false literalism’ (as opposed to ‘absolute accuracy’). The obsessive literalism and countless errors make it no more reliable, and far less readable than Parshley.”

The replies from readers in subsequent issues of the LRB are mixed (and include one by the two translators and a reply by Toril Moi) but more than one hint like the following (from a French reader) refers to the unfulfilled academic publishing demands: “Many of Moi’s criticisms of Parshley are valid, as other scholars have substantiated; her derision of Borde-Malovany-Chevallier, however, has a taste of sour grapes.”

For a refreshingly urbane overview of this translation saga, with further interesting revelations, see Professor Carlin Romano’s recent article on The Second ‘Second Sex in The Chronicle of Higher Education. His concluding remarks are a plea for an end to the heated discussion:

“Beauvoir’s point, like most in the book, comes through in either translation. And so it’s a shame that the Second Sex Translation Follies are turning into a well-made play in which everyone acts the role assigned by theatrical cliché. Maybe a wiser way to look at things is that it’s precisely because all have done so that we find ourselves in such a happy place.”
“Pardon me, then, if I applaud Beauvoir scholars, translators, and rights people alike …”

Footnote for Encyclopedists
The article on de Beauvoir on the “Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy” website, which styles itself as “A Peer-reviewed academic source” (U.S- based), refers to The Second Sex as “one of the foundational texts in philosophy, feminism, and women’s studies” but fails to warn the prospective reader about the quality of the first translation or of omissions, except for the ambiguous statement: “Published in two volumes in 1949 (condensed into one text divided into two “books” in English) …” Consequently, there is no mention of the lengthy campaign for a second translation into English nor of last year’s publishing event.

On the other hand, in the Wikipedia article on Simone de Beauvoir and a separate one on The Second Sex, the inadequacy of the first English translation, the prolonged lobbying for a replacement translation, and the 2009 publication are briefly documented:

“Chapters of Le deuxième sexe (The Second Sex) were originally published in Les Temps modernes.[53] The second volume came a few months after the first in France.[54] It was very quickly published in America as The Second Sex, due to the quick translation by Howard Parshley, as prompted by Blanche Knopf, wife of publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Because Parshley had only a basic familiarity with the French language, and a minimal understanding of philosophy (he was a professor of biology at Smith College), much of Beauvoir’s book was mistranslated or inappropriately cut, distorting her intended message.[55] For years Knopf prevented the introduction of a more accurate retranslation of Beauvoir’s work, declining all proposals despite the efforts of existentialist scholars.[55] Only in 2009 was there a second translation, to mark the 60th anniversary of the original publication. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier produced the first integral translation, reinstating a third of the original work.”
[Attention, Wikipedian editors: “a third” should be whittled down to “15%” and check whether the Professor’s appointment was in biology or zoology.]

The websites of fledgeling online Encyclopedias Citizendium and Knol have nothing of interest to offer.

Credit where credit is due.

Translation 15. A Few Links on Literary Translation

31 March 2010

Whereas the peak achievement for interpreters is seen as the very public and volatile arena of international (geo)politics, the most highly regarded area of the translation world is the domain of literary translators and their solitary craft; to them we owe our appreciation of and insights into the work of those who translate works of literary merit from foreign languages into our own.

On the rare occasions when the acknowledged best of these lonely translators attempt to explain their linguistic and artistic input into the translation, they offer invaluable insights into their generally misunderstood (or underestimated) contribution to the translated works, especially to those of us who do not speak the language from which they translate.

In the language area with which I am most familiar, Spanish to English translation, the following interviews are well worth reading or listening to by all lovers of literature.

Gregory Rabassa and Edith Grossman

2. Edith Grossman

In addition, Edith Grossman, who published a highly acclaimed new translation of Don Quijote a few years ago, has just published a book about her professional life:
Why Translation Matters, Yale University Press, March 2010.

A recent interview by Heidi Broadhead, an books editor, will further whet the reader’s appetite for the revelations of this accomplished writer.

The relationship between translators and the authors of the books translated is another area into which readers are occasionally allowed to peep. Among my cuttings are the following different reactions by J.M. Coetzee (the Nobel-Prize novelist and occasional translator from Dutch and Afrikaans), and Australian novelist Shane Maloney.

J.M. Coetzee, ‘Speaking in Tongues’, The Australian, Weekend Review, 28 January 2006, pp. 4-6. (No longer listed online as far as I can tell.) Later published in Meanjin (subscription needed) and, reportedly, as part of one of the essays in Identity as Change in the History of Culture, edited by Alexandra Lianeri and Vanda Zajko (Oxford University Press, 2008. ISBN: 9780199288076). My yellowing cutting from The Australian of this lengthy and difficult-to-acquire article is summarised thus: “Drawing on his experiences with translators, Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee identifies some of the practical difficulties involved in the craft of translation.” (Try to locate a copy.)

Shane Maloney: ‘On being translated’ (also published in Australian Author, Vol 36, No. 3 on 3 December 2004 and in The Age, 24 December 2004, as ‘When language gets on your unicorn’s goat’).

For those contemplating the possibility of working in this area, the following two items offer practical advice on some of the the major problems facing the freelance literary translator.

1. A plea for fairer treatment and better remuneration by the European Council of Literary Translators’Associations” (December 2008)

2. The American Branch of International PEN’s Handbook for Literary Translators, Fourth Edition, 1999

“Prepared by the Translation Committee of PEN American Center
Copyright © 1971, 1981, 1983, 1985, 1991, 1995, 1999 by PEN American Center All rights reserved.
An earlier version of “The Responsibilities of Translation” was originally drawn up in cooperation with the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) and The Translation Center (Columbia University).
“A Translator’s Model Contract” was prepared with the generous assistance of Peter Skolnik, literary agent; Jerry Simon Chasen, Esq.; and Leon Friedman, Esq.
PEN American Center, New York.”