The Translator’s Impossible Dilemma

Gustave Caillebotte, "Portrait of a Man Writing in His Study"

Here’s another column from my favorite Slovene translator, reminding us once again of the unheralded but absolutely essential work of those who make accessible so much of the literature that we rely on.

By Jason Blake, English Dept., Univ. of Ljubljana

With supreme cart-before-horseness, I learned much of my Slovenian by translating everything from restaurant menus to concert programs. Word by word I would plod towards a first draft, deliver it to my wife to weed out gaffes, then polish the text for final delivery. It was painstaking labor and took three hours per page, earning us perhaps two dollars an hour. If this sounds like drudgery, know that most translating – like the greater part of language learning (think verb charts and vocab lists) – is drudgery with flashes of fun.

For me, the first stage of translating is exhilarating: I zip through the text as fast as I can, sometimes when half-asleep in the evenings, and generally when I don’t want to do work that demands concentration. At this stage I’m closer to file conversion program than craftsman.

Stage Two, checking for grammar and spelling, is marginally harder; Stage Three, checking line-by-line for accuracy, is slow; Stage Four, consulting a Slovenian proofreader, is becoming less and less humbling as my Slovenian improves; stage Five, making sure the text sounds reasonable, takes forever and calls for absolute and bothersome focus. Stage Seven is regretting what you’ve delivered.

Though I have translated a few dozen short stories, most of my work is academic writing about Slovenian literature – that is, about primary literature that does not yet exist in English. There are always plenty of quotations from well-wrought poems, stories and novels to pain me.

These primary quotations are like speed bumps because they require proper concentration, even in Stage One. Unlike most essays and academic articles, which work according to a plan and do not stray too far, literature thrives on surprises, word plays, aural associations, sneaky allusions, and other linguistic quirks. Moreover, Slovenian has changed more in the past century than English has, and translating literature that’s just a few decades old requires a switch of gears as I slow down to puzzle things out.

This two-speed translation ride mirrors the two main theories of literary translation: the first theory favours a faithful, literal, word-for-word rendering of the original; the second argues that a translation should read naturally in the target language. (Note the prejudicial language used by adherents of both schools. In practice, of course, it’s not “faithfully literal” or “natural” but both.)

I am gleefully intrusive with non-literary texts: I unblinkingly subdivide any sentence over 20 words, or insert a parenthetical note about, say, who Ivan Cankar (1876-1918; Slovenia’s leading prose writer) was. With deceased authors, I live in fear of botching the meaning, so I opt for unthinkingly literal translation.

I bumped into the following example last month when translating an article on portrayals of Jews in Slovenian literature. It is from Ivan Cankar’s depressing 1904 novel Hiša Marije Pomočnice (Ward of Our Lady of Mercy) about a group of dying teenaged girls in a sanatorium. On Sundays their dreary week is interrupted by not-always-welcome visitors. One cute young man is welcome:

Mlad je bil in lep, bela so bila njegova lica, na visoko čelo so padali svetli črni kodri; hodil je z lahkim gosposkim korakom in ko je govoril, ko se je nasmehnil, je bilo Tini, da bi mu stregla vdano in da bi bila njegova dekla za zmerom […] Zaprle so se duri, ali Tina ga je videla, ko je stopil prednjo mimogrede in se je nasmehnil veselo; prišla je noč in Tina ga je videla pred sabo še zmerom in je čutila njegovo roko na licih, na laseh, na prsih. Čakala je nedelje s težkim srcem in žalostna je bila, če ni prišel.

Got it?

Here’s what I produced in the semi-automatic first stage of translating (the capitalized words or phrases are self-reminders to go back and check very, very carefully). This passage sounds awful, but at the draft stage I’m mostly concerned about clear mistranslations, not style – in this case, showing that Tina has a crush on a co-patient’s brother rather than on, say, her own cousin:

He was young and handsome, his cheeks were white and from his high forehead fell fair SHINING black curls; he walked with an easy MASTERS STEP and when he spoke, when he laughed, IT SEEMED TO TINA that she would devotedly serve him and would his girl forever. […] The doors closed but Tina saw him as he stepped NONCHALANTLY before her and LAUGHED joyfully; night fell and Tina still saw him before her and felt his hand on her cheek, on her hair, her chest. She waited for Sunday with a heavy heart and would be saddened if he did not come…

In my First Stage haste to translate in a hurry, I’d overlooked that Henry Leeming translated this particular novel years ago. Good practice, perhaps, but a total waste of time given the looming deadline. His version reads:

He was so young and handsome with pale cheeks and black curls drooping over his high forehead. He had an easy masterly gait and when he spoke to her or smiled at her Tina felt she was his devoted slave, his girl for always… Even after the door closed behind him Tina could still see him walking by, smiling happily. When night fell she saw him once more before her and felt his tender hand on her cheeks. Days and weeks went by but Tina still saw him there before her and still felt the touch of his hand on her cheeks, hair, breast. She awaited each Sunday with a heavy heart and felt very sad if he did not come.

There aren’t too many gaffes in my own ad hoc, first-stage translation. However, Leeming’s translation reminded me of how gutless I am when faced with a dead author.

Leeming’s version is stronger precisely because he does not go word-for-word. Some examples: because the Slovenian for “door” is always plural, I slavishly wrote “the doors closed” because, well, Cankar told me to; “IT SEEMED TO TINA” is clunky, but for fear of departing too much from Cankar’s text, I opted for Slovenglish (Leeming’s “Tina felt…” is less intrusive); where Leeming wisely begins anew with “When night fell…”, I used the coward’s semi-colon so I didn’t have to chop up Cankar’s sentence.

I can easily defend my preference for overly literal translation by claiming that it arises from my respect for the author, or that I want to highlight that the work is from another culture, with a totally different cultural vocabulary and syntax, but really I’m just blaming the dead guy. In other words, though I can’t speak for other translators, my reverence for the original sometimes stops me from taking a necessary interpretative stance on a text.

In a recent Queen’s Quarterly article Richard Teleky indirectly points out the dangers of being too literal. He examines the translation history of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and argues that “too often” the most recent translation’s “rendering of dialogue is awkward, if literal”:

When Emma, her husband, and Monsieur Homais compare country life and food with that of the city, the sentence in [Lydia] Davis is, ‘“‘Because of the change in regimen,’ agreed the pharmacist, ‘and the resulting perturbation of the whole system.’” [Francis] Steegmuller wrote, simply, “‘Because of the change of diet,’ agreed the pharmacist, ‘and the way it upsets the entire system.’” The first version makes the reader pause unnecessarily, the second doesn’t. Dull passages like this are common in Davis’s Flaubert.

As an unperturbed reader, I like the more flowing snatch from the Steegmuller translation; as a sympathetic translator, I prefer the more literal one. As a self-conscious translator, I realize anew that my literal approach is often not respect but an avoidance strategy. Like my avoidance of the rolled Slovenian r.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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