Sunday, April 24, 2005


Lost in Translation

Today's Washington Post carries Michael Dirda's review of Gregory Rabassa's new meditation upon his own life and work, Translation and Its Discontents: A Memoir. The translator of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other leading Latin American writers, Dirda notes, "comes across a charming (if somewhat garrulous) old coot," and is not the least shy about revealing work habits worthy of Grub Street:

" 'I translated the book as I read it for the first time. . . . This would become my usual technique with subsequent books. I used the excuse that it gave the translation the freshness that a first reading would have and which ought to make others' reading of the translation be endowed with that same feeling.'" This sounds convincing until Rabassa goes on to add, with disarming candor, "I have put forth this explanation so many times that I have come to believe it, loath as I am to confess that I was just too lazy to read the book twice." If that seems a little shocking, there's more to come: "It's my notion, loose as it might be, that when I'm translating a book I'm simply reading it in English. The further technicalities, many of which I have obviously missed, are taken care of by the copyeditor. These are the writers who will perfect the work."

Fortunately, the authors seem to like Rabassa's translations anyway.

One of the more curious experiences I've had in foreign literature is reading, side by side, two translations of the Carlos Fuentes novel The Death of Artemio Cruz -- both the 1964 Sam Hileman translation, and the then-new 1991 translation of Alfred Macadam. I can't say the books were hugely different, but the shadings of meaning were very altered indeed: it's as if two illustrators were painting the same pictures with paints by different manufacturers: pretty close, and yet different. One thing it convinced me of was the danger of relying on "close reading" in interpreting any novel in translation: your assertions about an author can't pivot on any one word or phrase, because they are not the words they originally used -- in fact, depending on how loose the translation is, the source text might not have anything like it at all.

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