June 2005

Damien Weaver

features

A Thankless Job: A Translators Roundtable

Most of us English speakers are too lazy, busy or stultified to read Goethe, Gogol, Kafka, and Mishima in their original languages. Many of us, however, have at some point cracked open a legendary work, translated from a foreign tongue, and finished it wondering: is that really all? What am I missing? Then, and perhaps only then, do we seek out the small-font name tucked below the cover art, huddled even smaller alongside the bar code on the back cover, or languishing with the Library of Congress classifications on the copyright page. We eye the name with disdain, speculating unpleasantly about his or her qualifications. O the unlucky translator, invisible in success, responsible for so much!

They've been indispensable since the dawn of literature, laboring over the masterpieces of others, coaxing them into approximation. Four gifted translators-into-English of four very different works gave generously of their time for this roundtable, mostly concerning their experiences with a recent book. May we introduce, with the respective works on which the roundtable is focusing:

Ms. Dorna Khazeni, who translated controversial novelist Michel Houellebecq's 1991 essay "H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life" (Believer Books, 2005) from French; Mr. Benjamin Paloff, who translated then-teenaged Dorota Maslowska's intense, unconventional debut novel Snow White and Russian Red (Black Cat, 2005) from Polish; Mr. Mark Polizzotti, who translated the gentle, erudite spy spoof Chopin's Move (Dalkey Archive Press, 2004) by Jean Echenoz, past winner of the Prix Goncourt and Prix Médicis, from French; and Mr. Peter Wortsman, who translated a collection of 18-century Viennese innovator and bon vivant Peter Altenberg's slice-of-life prose poems, titled Telegrams of the Soul, (Archipelago Books, 2005) from German.

This obliging foursome's responses, submitted through e-mail, have in some cases been delicately trimmed, massaged and repurposed, but except where paraphrase or clarification are indicated by brackets, the language is entirely, gloriously, originally theirs.


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To begin with, what was your background in translation, and how did you come to translate this work?

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Paloff: I work comparatively in three Slavic literatures (Czech, Polish, and Russian), as well as with contemporary American literature, and translation is a natural feature of my work. I have been studying translation theory far longer than I have been facing the practical rigors of translation. My earliest translations were a hodgepodge of poems, essays, screenplays, and articles, some done for love, others as contract work in college.

The Maslowska project was spearheaded at Grove Press by Amy Hundley, a truly excellent editor, and I assume that she made the final decision about who would translate the novel. [Candidates for the job were] asked to translate three short passages. Working on the sample was as important for me as it was for Grove: this was my first chance to see if I could invent a hybrid language that would be readable in English and faithful to Maslowska's Polish.

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Khazeni: I haven't done a lot of translation, actually. But I had translated some short fiction from Farsi and from French and a lot of non-fiction. I also work as an interpreter.

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Wortsman: I had all but given up translation, having been burnt in the past by a publisher who essentially cheated me. It is such a thankless task. There was one review in particular of a past -- and I might add, critically acclaimed -- translation of mine, Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, by Robert Musil (originally published by Eridanos Books in 1987 and reissued by Penguin 20th-Century Classics), in which the reviewer noted everything from the rich complex style of Musil to the quality of the paper, the cover and even the cloth bookmark, but did not say a single word about the translation.

In this case, I happened to meet Jill Schoolman, the publisher, at a party. She knew my work and asked me to do something for her. I said, "No, I don't translate anymore, but if I did, and I'm not saying I will, somebody really ought to do Peter Altenberg."

Altenberg is a literary godfather to me. I am his "love god-child," -- not his bastard, since there is no anger or shame in my confession of a literary illegitimacy I discovered long after the fact.

I tried my best to resist translating, but the whole project poured out of my pores. I've never worked so quickly and don't suppose I ever will again. It was all over and done with, including the process of [selecting the pieces], in a matter of months.

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What were the unique challenges of this job?

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Khazeni: I don't think I was prepared for the stylistic challenges that Houellebecq's writing presented. His sentences appear so deceptively simple, [but] upon closer inspection you realize they aren't constructed in anything resembling a straightforward way. He often expresses a thought with great economy using syntax that's unusual. There are lots of really short sentences -- exclamations, almost -- sometimes lacking a verb. But it all reads really fluidly and beautifully in French. It was so much harder than I'd anticipated to try to turn that language into English.

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Polizzotti: In the case of Echenoz, I feel particularly fortunate because his style seemed to "connect" with a style that felt natural to me. Plus, over twenty years of knowing each other and working together, I've noticed a certain effect of symbiosis: even in our correspondence I often find myself unwittingly "speaking Echenoz." I think it also helps that we seem to share a number of likes in literature, movies, and music: we had a not dissimilar formation.

Stylistically, Echenoz differs from a number of the authors I've translated in that he tends to be much sparer in emotion and extremely economical in expression, which I value and admire. Although one can find bits and pieces of many precursors in his work, ranging from the New Novel to American pulp, the writer who seems to have the greatest stylistic affinity with him (or vice versa) is Flaubert. Not surprisingly, [Flaubert's] Bouvard and Pecuchet, which I'm now translating for Dalkey, is Echenoz's favorite book. Having translated Echenoz's novels beforehand makes me feel a lot more comfortable with Flaubert than I might otherwise have.

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Wortsman: In this case, the translation was a labor of love. That having been said, I do try to feel my way into the soul of the author to find the apt term and tenor. For instance, does one translate the German "man" as "one" or "you" -- as in "one says" or "you say?" That's always a question. Then there are words and even notions that don't exist in the English of our time. In the piece "Autobiography" ("Selbstbiographie") I searched and failed to find the precise English for a "Liebig-Tiegel," a kind of device that no longer seems to exist. Not even the librarian at the Austrian Cultural Institute had ever heard of it. So, by the logic of the sentence and context I came up with "reduction pot" -- as in "The life of the soul and what the day may bring, reduced to two to three pages, cleansed of superfluities like a beef cow in a reduction pot."

[With regard to] the particularity of Altenberg's cadence, I would have to confess that I worked more by intuition than anything else. Being the son of Viennese-Jewish refugees and having heard this uniquely Viennese German spoken throughout my childhood, I heard the lines, rather than read them, and the act of translation was more of a filtration through the invisible channel linking heart and ear.

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Paloff: I did have some difficulty with the ending, though not just because the voice changes in the last few pages. By that point in the novel, it was fun to face the challenge of reproducing that shift. But that last section, with the exception of the last page, is no longer spoken by Nails, [the main character and the narrator until then], but by an anonymous young woman who provides a very glancing commentary on some of the novel's themes. In Polish, it is very obvious that this new speaker is a woman: grammatical endings for verbs are gendered in the past tense, so there is no need to remark on the speaker's gender. I got around this by beginning the passage, "Indeed, we're girls talking about death..."

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Did you have any interaction with the author?

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Polizzotti: The obvious advantage of working with a living author is that you can query unclear wordings or points of fact, though the Internet has made this less necessary than it used to be. In some instances, Echenoz and I have even made a few minor changes to some of the books -- small inconsistencies that the French copyeditor hadn't noticed, things like that. In the case of [the earlier novel] Piano, we had to find a suitable singer/actress to replace the original's Doris Day, after the US publisher decided to change it for legal reasons (in the English edition, her part is played by Peggy Lee). The title Chopin’s Move was also the product of some discussion back and forth, because Dalkey felt, rightly, that the literal title Lake (the French title is Lac) wouldn’t convey much to an American reader. The other advantage is that a living author uses contemporary language and settings, which require far less research and second-guessing than older works.

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Paloff: Maslowska and I have met, but I did not consult her directly on the translation. I have found in the past that, if I can get linguistic or cultural queries answered elsewhere, I have a much easier (and happier) time finding original solutions to the original problems posed by a literary text without having someone peering over my shoulder. Odd as it may sound, even though we may share the same ultimate goal -- a good book -- translator and author often do not have the same investment in the process of translation. There have been cases where I have found this to be otherwise -- for example, in translating critical or theoretical literature -- but generally I prefer to stand alone with the book.

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Wortsman: My affection for Altenberg is profound and sincere. I think of him as an old friend who just happens to be dead, but whose voice continues to echo in the texts. I am also convinced of the modernity of this voice. My intent was to take him out of the nostalgia ghetto of fin-de-siècle Vienna and present him as a voice which, though uttered in another time and place, speaks with an almost uncanny prescience to our own moment.

His creative method had a peculiar impact on my translation. It was as if Altenberg haunted me. In the past I have always labored profusely over every word, in my translation as in my own writing, but in this case it was as if the translation dictated itself and all I had to do was type it out. I am taking a touch of poetic license here, as there were passages I had to struggle with, but by and large it really was as if dear old Altenberg was whispering the words in my ear.

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To what degree does your sense of the original author's intent shape your choices?

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Khazeni: When I'm translating, I attempt to be as faithful as possible to the text that I am working with, in terms of language, tone, voice, nuance, as well as syntax, rhythm and structure. At the same time, there's a point at which you also work with your instincts of the language you are translating into. It's not as black and white as working this one way all the time or this other way. I can't say, "This is my system." I approach the sentence and translate it as I read it, so I'm both reading it in the original language and translating into English. My translation is an extension of my reading. But it's also a function of the fact that I read and write English. So these things dance around each other, my reading, my understanding and my translating. It is also a fact that there are things you come across that you're not sure about, "Did he mean this or that?" you wonder. "If this three word phrase doesn't make any sense in English, do I add a verb? Or not?" In my limited experience, the answer varies. I also tend to believe that there's not one way of translating anything. I imagine that there can be more than one good translation of a work and that each will have different merits. Each will be a reading as well as a translation, though, other than in some inconceivably extreme case, the differences are of nuance and the original work is what comes across in each one.

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Polizzotti: As mentioned earlier, one great help in translating Echenoz is that I feel close to his sense of humor and tone, and our personal contacts over the years have helped further this. So in that sense, I suppose I can "hear" his voice more easily in the English, when I feel I've gotten it right. But any text, to a large degree, has its own internal logic and shape, and you don't need to know the author personally to immerse yourself in this. By the same token, there are certain books I simply wouldn't take on because the writer's voice is opaque to me, or antipathetic. This is more an issue with fiction than with nonfiction. Not every translator is well suited to every book.

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What's your greatest satisfaction in translation? The day-to-day engagement with a text? The finished product?

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Khazeni: It's definitely not the finished product. You always worry that maybe you should keep tweaking it. I do, anyhow.

I really love the process. I like the reading of a text with that devotion and the inquisitive attention that translating requires. Pondering and weighing the words of it, the place of each sentence, the concert of all of them. It's a very pleasurable way of being with a text. Sometimes too, I'll read something that I think is really important, or that I know a friend would love to read, and then it's a kind of sense of mission: I feel I have to translate whatever it is so others can read it.

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Polizzotti: The part I enjoy best is revision, after the basic draft is on paper and all major vocabulary issues have been resolved. In other words, the process of turning it from a mass of Translatorese into something that sounds, first like English, and then like English the original author might have written. I generally reread and revise each complete draft half a dozen times, sometimes more. And it's never really finished, of course -- you could revise forever.

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Wortsman: Altenberg brought me back to translation as a craft which I have resumed as a daily exercise, for an hour or so, a priming or loosening up prior to leaping into the chilly waters of composition. As a trilingual author -- English, French and German -- translation helps me align my tongue with my soul, to clear the throat and let the voice out.

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Paloff: I treat a translation the same as I do any other piece of writing, which means many drafts, many revisions, and development over time. When the language of a project fails to evolve, I become very skeptical of my work. The upside of this is that the project generally picks up nuance and flavor as it goes on. The downside is that the process never really ends, and I am never really satisfied with the outcome, even once it is published. If translation is truly something that "begins in failure," as Robert Pinsky once said, then the best I can hope for is "good enough," and I put a big burden on myself to make "good enough" really good. I learned a great deal about the Polish language from translating this book, and that continues to serve me well.

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Did you bring to the job of translation, or accumulate through the process, your own critical analysis of the book's underlying "big picture" ideas or messages? How did your evolving sense of the work affect your translation at the word-to-word level?

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Polizzotti: Not so much in the translation. This has been relevant when I've written an introduction to the book, but even then that kind of analysis comes after the fact. The only "big picture" work that goes into the translation itself is a first reading straight through, so that I know where the book is going and what clues I might need to pick up on along the way. Otherwise, the work happens at a very local level, in trying to reproduce as well as possible the tone, voice, mood, information, rhythm, and "feel" of each sentence and each paragraph. That said, at the local level, one often has to interpret and analyze. It sometimes happens that the meaning of a sentence in French and the meaning of its literal translation into English are two different things, and one has to alter the wording a bit to preserve the author’s intention.

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Paloff: What makes [Snow White and Russian Red] a worthwhile book for me is that my understanding of its linguistic and rhetorical nuances changed a great deal the more I worked on it, the more I read (and wrote) it. This is what good literature does, I think: it changes as we read it, and it continues to change as we change. It is difficult for me to say whether my appreciation of the book evolved so much because I was working so closely with the language, or my work with the language evolved so much because my reading of it was developing.

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Khazeni: I don't think the work's underlying ideas or messages affect my word-to-word work. But I do think the more I know about a writer's body of work, the easier it is for me to approach the translation. It informs the translation on a deeper level, perhaps. It's not always possible and sometimes you just go at a piece cold, with no context, but in Houellebecq's case, having read his novels, it was interesting to see him develop his intellectual thesis in this literary essay. Working on a sentence-level, I was always aware of him as the probing intellectual writer of, say, Elementary Particles, so it made me more acutely aware of the precision of his thinking and language.

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We'll conclude with a round of specific questions. Mr. Polizzotti, if you had to identify a primary aspect of Chopin's Move that you worked to bring across, what would it be?

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Polizzotti: Ultimately, to me, Echenoz's books are all about the act of writing. The plot is somewhat secondary, like Hitchcock's MacGuffin. A crucial part of this is the particular humor, which is perhaps the hardest part to preserve, and which involves a combination of timing, concision, reference, sound, and even whether or not the reader has kept certain earlier details in mind.

What I'm trying to recreate more than anything is the effect the original text had on the French reader. This could entail any number of small departures -- anything from changing a cultural reference to making a small addition or deletion to clarify a point -- but, paradoxical as this might seem, always with an eye toward preserving the integrity of the original. By clinging too faithfully to the sentence structure or cultural system of the original, you're more likely to end up with gibberish, with something the reader finds incomprehensible. Where's the advantage in that?

Up until Piano, most of Echenoz's books would appear in the UK in a British translation, which to me sounded a bit unnatural, even as mine no doubt seemed to them. British and American English are moving farther and farther apart, it seems to me, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to have a translation truly "work" on both sides of the Atlantic. Even Piano, which was published in my translation in the UK, underwent some Anglicizing first ("chap" instead of "guy"; various turns of phrase that struck them as too American). Personally, I wouldn't want to show that edition as an example of my work -- the difference is subtle, but it makes the whole thing sound "off" to me. And not because it's British English, but precisely because it's a bastardization of the two. There are sentences in that version that I simply would never have written.

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Mr. Paloff, how vital to your translation was maintaining cultural fidelity?

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Paloff: The question of cultural fidelity in translation will rattle translators for all time. I think it's something that depends very much on the text itself, and on the translator's own intentions in bringing the work into the target language. There's a point when translation becomes adaptation -- look at all the versions of Latin poets that suddenly make reference to American pop culture -- but we would be much poorer without these as well. Because Maslowska's book is about intercultural conflict -- those few who have written about the novel as a cautionary tale about drug use have given it a very superficial reading -- it would not have worked to change the cultural references, though this was hardly necessary. McDonald's is the same company everywhere. The mistake we sometimes make is when we think that McDonald's means the same for a Pole as it does for an American, and this is simply not the case. There were a couple times when I needed to use a couple more words than Maslowska does. When she says Arka Gdynia, her readers know that it's a soccer team, thus: Arka Gdynia Football Club.

The language of Snow White and Russian Red is nothing like what one learns in the classroom. For one thing, it is delightfully vulgar. For another, it creates a hybrid of high and low diction that moves at a rapid tempo and sometimes strains the limits of sense. Fortunately, I've spent enough time in Poland to know a lot of the things they don't teach you in school. The rest I picked up from a variety of sources: plenty of reading in Polish, native speakers, dictionaries (including specialty dictionaries ranging from slang to technical language), and the Internet. The last of these was extraordinarily helpful; the Internet, as a ubiquitous presence in Europe and North America, is an increasingly necessary tool for the translator of contemporary literature. I picked up a lot from reading Polish chat-rooms and blogs, where people almost unconsciously translate their spoken language into text.

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Mr. Wortsman, how did you decide when to keep Peter Altenberg's emphatic punctuation, and when to lighten a ?!? to a ? What influenced these decisions?

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Wortsman: This was one of the rare cases in which my wonderful publisher-editor, Jill Schoolman, interceded, gently suggesting a lightening of the opulent punctuation. In my original translation I was religiously faithful, but I came to agree with Jill that the contemporary American reader might be put off by this eccentric and ever so slightly hysterical use of punctuation. In Vienna they slather "schlag" (whipped cream) on every cake. This is dear PA's indulgence. I have always envied the license in Spanish to start a sentence with upside-down punctuation, thereby to whisper from the start which way the sentence is going, so the profusion of question marks and exclamations points -- like punctuational walking sticks and canes -- did not bother me.

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Ms. Khazeni, where Houellebecq's original quoted Lovecraft, you made the decision to insert Lovecraft's original words instead of re-translating the translated-to-French Lovecraft Houellebecq worked from; what difficulties did you have tracking down the passages Houellebecq was excerpting, and what was your method? Did you perform a literal translation of the French excerpt, and then look for something similar in Lovecraft's originals?

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Khazeni: I do believe Houellebecq's only read HPL in translation. [As far as] "the decision to insert Lovecraft's original words," I don't believe it could have been done any other way. It's extremely dicey to attempt to retranslate back into the original language from a translation of someone's original voice. Not a good idea, I'd say. I had qualms about the way we had to handle the situation -- dropping the quotes and retranslating passages-- but it seemed like the only solution. Mr. Houellebecq was satisfied with the final result, based on my conversations with him during his recent visit.

I really didn't have a very scientific method. Early on, I figured out that many of the quotes came from Lovecraft's letters. Often there'd be some clue as to when chronologically in Lovecraft's life this or that quoted comment was made. If, for example, the sentence Houellebecq had written in French had something to do with [Lovecraft's] impressions of New York, I'd figure out what year it was [Lovecraft] first visited New York and then I'd sift through all the letters around those dates looking for something that resembled the quotes. It was kind of crazy that it worked, this non-method. Each time I stumbled across the exact passage I'd feel so relieved and gratified. Then there were the times when I didn't find the equivalent in Lovecraft's letters (or fiction, as the case might be). [Lovecraft scholar] S. T. Joshi was so grand and generous to help us look for missing original quotes, but in the end, we were still left with a few mysteries.

I think I reached the conclusion that [since] in the introduction Houellebecq wrote to the Lovecraft book, ten years after its first publication, he refers to it as a sort of first novel, one might be led to assume that the Lovecraft of this essay is in part a character of Houellebecq's creation.

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Thank you all for your contributions and for the enthusiasm of your responses. Thanks also to Chad Post at Dalkey Archive Press, Kara Mason at Archipelago, and "John" at Believer Books for putting me in touch with your talented translators.