ANDRE MARKOWICZ ON TRANSLATION.

The Fondation Carla Bruni-Sarkozy has an online interview (French) with translator André Markowicz:

Born in Prague in 1960, André Markowicz spent the first four years of his life in Moscow. Brought up in France in a family of Russian intellectuals, he began translating under the guidance of the linguist Efim Etkind. Chekhov offered Markowicz an initial opportunity to translate prose, but it was with his translation of the complete works of Dostoyevsky for Actes Sud in the early 1990s that he first rose to prominence.

The interviewer’s introduction says: “By the time he finished the mammoth undertaking in 2002 he had proved something: what people had been reading by Dostoyevsky wasn’t Dostoyevsky. It wasn’t his style, there was nothing of his collision of linguistic registers, which had been smoothed out to obtain a language far too literary for an author whose strokes of the pen were like axe blows.” This illustrates a major difference between French tradition, which expects translations to read like French literature, and the Anglo-American tradition, which welcomes variety of style, including the kind of “low” register that is resisted in France. Some excerpts:

When you read the original text alongside the first translations (which came out almost immediately), you realize that you’re not looking at the same author. Dostoyevsky writes obsessively, there is a very striking use of repetition. The early translations took out those repetitions. On the other hand, he also makes up sentences which are not proper written Russian. That’s quite normal; in Russian, nobody tells you how to write properly. But the translators would construct sentences in proper written French. All the same, the ideas were still there. The issues which Dostoyevsky addresses are so crucial: responsibility, the relationship between God and the world, humanist values in modern society, good and evil, the nature of obsession. These are questions of philosophy, not style. So you can read a very bad translation of Dostoyevsky and still be gripped by reading him. The fact that Dostoyevsky’s works had already been translated meant that I was in the fortunate position of a writer putting forward his own vision of that output. I was lucky to be able to work on the style, using the ear that I had for the text in my native language. Now, in Dostoyevsky, as in any writer, style is sense. My translation was not so much a new reading as a way of clarifying a number of points, after a century of reading Dostoyevsky…
[. . .]
I was one of the first translators to become the focus of very personal discussion. What the readers of my generation were arguing about was not so much my translation, in the end, as the ones they’d grown up with. Was my own reading right? At any rate, I can certainly account for it. But the way I translate, not respecting the canonical norms for French literature because the author is Russian, well, that of course upsets those readers who only see foreign literature through the lens of French literature. But it seems to me that we should be able to go beyond this difficulty. For me this is extremely important. It is in this respect that translation is a political act. It is not simply a question of turning what is foreign into French, but of understanding that it should not be the same as we are. Translation should be a process of reception, not of assimilation.

There’s much more of interest, including an illuminating discussion of Shakespeare towards the end. And I like his modesty: “People quoted me as saying that I was restoring the true face of Dostoyevsky. I never claimed to be doing so much. The earlier translations were clearly inaccurate in terms of style, but they did give a certain face to Dostoyevsky. Mine gave him a different one.” Next up, Pushkin: “‘I’ve taken thirty years to translate Eugene Onegin,’ he says. ‘It’s my whole life’.”

Comments

  1. I particularly liked this:

    C’est pour ça qu’on ne peut pas apprendre à traduire, comme on ne peut pas apprendre à vivre. On fait des catastrophes, on répare, on essaie de faire mieux, et voilà.

    Asked about his command of English, Markowicz gives a coy answer. He seems to be saying that a translator need not have mastered the original language, provided he is master of the target language (here French):

    Je ne prétends pas être un spécialiste de l’anglais. Je l’ai appris à l’école, comme tout le monde et l’ai toujours lu depuis mon adolescence (mon père était angliciste de formation et Shakespeare fait partie de ma vie depuis toujours). Encore une fois, la question, c’est la langue dans laquelle on traduit. J’ai traduit du breton, langue que je comprends mais que je ne parle pas car je n’en ai jamais l’occasion. J’ai même travaillé à une traduction de Strindberg (suédois). Je l’ai fait avec des gens qui le parlaient. On faisait du mot à mot, ensemble. Il se trouve que je lis l’anglais. Et j’ai voulu traduire Shakespeare, car il fait partie de ma vie depuis toujours.

    Regarding the soliloquy in Hamlet Act 1, scene 2, he speculates on whether the printed “this too too solid flesh” might have sounded like “this too too sullied flesh” in performance. That would certainly have been a nice play on words, and I suppose the idea is not unknown to Shakespeare scholars. But Markowicz has a strange take on Hamlet’s suffering and brief contemplation of suicide. He seems to think it’s about the Word Become Flesh, washing away sins in the Blood of the Lamb, and related Catholic guff – cleaning your laundry on stage, in other words:

    D’après moi, tout le sens d’Hamlet repose sur la transformation de la chair. La question n’est pas : « Être ou ne pas être » mais « Comment être et ne pas être ». C’est-à-dire comment être et faire que la chair ne soit pas de la boue. Et ce qui est bouleversant dans Hamlet, c’est que le lieu de Dieu, le lieu où le verbe se fait chair, ce n’est pas l’église, c’est le plancher du théâtre. Dire cela en 1600, c’est extraordinaire.

  2. @Grumbly Stu: Regarding the soliloquy in Hamlet Act 1, scene 2, he speculates on whether the printed “this too too solid flesh” might have sounded like “this too too sullied flesh” in performance.
    Weird. I’m pretty sure that the edition I read had “this too, too sullied flesh” as the main text, with a footnote suggesting a “solid” pun or variant.

  3. Pushkin is the Fermat’s Last Theorem of translation, as I understand.

  4. @Ran: Markowitz quotes the “solid” text, then says that “another variant” has “sullied”:

    e premier monologue d’Hamlet dit : « Oh, si cette trop trop solide chair pouvait fondre, se dissoudre et se perdre. » Sauf qu’une autre variante emploie « sullid » (souillée) à la place de « solid » (solide). … Mais les pièces de Shakespeare étaient faites pour être dites. Il n’y avait pas de droits d’auteur à l’époque. Si Shakespeare publiait une pièce qu’il était en train de jouer, il se privait de son gagne-pain. Par conséquent, il n’avait pas intérêt à les publier. Or à l’oral, en 1600, on pouvait entendre de la même façon « souiller » et « solide ».

    The English translation of the interview does not have “another variant”, but just “variant”. And it has “sullied” as the primary text, reversing what Markowicz is quoted as saying in French:

    In his first soliloquy Hamlet says: “Oh that this too too sullied flesh would melt, / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,…”. Except that for “sullied” there is a variant: “solid”. … But the copies of Shakespeare’s plays were for performance. There was no copyright at the time. If Shakespeare had published a play that he was still producing, he would have deprived himself of a source of income. In the English of 1600, “sullied” and “solid” could be pronounced the same way.

    This might be an slip-up by Markowicz, or editorial carelessness. However, it also might be that opinions about editions of Hamlet among French-speaking Shakespeare scholars differ from such opinions among English-speaking Shakespeare scholars. That is, some French scholars – including Markowicz ? – may regard the English version with “solid” as just one variant among others, in particular one with “sullied”. But I vote for carelessness.

  5. I mean editorial carelessness. If the English version corrects the French version, then this should have been corrected as well – as far as “definitive edition” goes.
    The interview as a whole shows Markowicz to be slightly overweening, or himself careless, as regards English – in addition to showing him in a more favorable light as regards Russian. I wonder if that was a deliberate decision on the part of the interview editor. It would have been if I were the editor.

  6. For a literary translator, childhood exposure to Shakespeare might outweigh lack of experience with the contemporary language or lack of native-speaker fluency, especially but not only if Shakespeare is what’s being translated.

  7. John, when I wrote “mastered the original language”, meaning English, I of course in the current context meant mastery of Shakespearean English as well, since that is what Marcowicz is intimating that he is able to handle. You don’t seriously think there are many people who have learned to understand Shakespeare as a child, and yet cannot speak everyday English fluently ? Such a person would surely be boastful of that achievement – for instance scholars of ancient Greek who eagerly admit that they don’t understand modern Greek. Yet Marcowicz is evasive about his knowledge of English. No boastfulness there.
    On the evidence of that interview, in its two versions, I am satisfied that Marcowicz is trying to pull a fast one with respect to his knowledge of English. There is no dearth of people who pretend to know more than they do. I myself do it at least once a month, and more frequently when job-hunting.

  8. Variorum Edition. (Qq means all the quartos.)
    The quartos have ſallied. Folio ſolid. I’m not sure when Anon* was, but it had sullied.

  9. Let Markowicz put his monnaie where his mufle is, by publishing a translation of Hamlet. Then we shall see what we shall see.
    Apart from that, I hope to find an opportunity some day to look at one of his French translations of Dostoyevsky. I recently saw a TV interview with the impressive Swetlana Geier, who at more than 90 years of age is in the middle of retranslating Dostoyevsky into German. I have heard many good things about her work, and I think it was her version of Der Großinquisitor (that section of The Karamazov Brothers published separately) that I read last year. It was such a shock to the system that I didn’t think to peer closely at the style.
    By the way, John, Geier too thinks that the heart of Pushkin can be heard only in the Russian breast. Well, why not. I have always maintained that Thomas Mann’s grandiloquence cannot be rendered into English. At least it can be demonstrated that no one has yet succeeded. On arte last week there was a documentary about an opera based on texts by Saramago, who died recently. His Spanish (or French ?) translator, a youngish woman, expanded on her conviction that it is more important for a translation to be alive than to be “correct”.

  10. I should have said that Geier (Jahrgang 1923) is almost 90, not older than 90.

  11. Dostoyevsky writes obsessively, there is a very striking use of repetition.
    This – and the ensuing discussion here – reminds me of a little project Mr. Emerson and I were engaged in a while back – translating Hašek’s “Political and Social History of the Party of Moderate Progress Within the Bounds of Law” (hope it’s ok with you, John, if I mention it). Hašek’s writing is brilliant, but disorganized and rambling, with 40-word sentences, many pauses, strange syntax and so on and so forth. I tried to keep the spirit of the original alive while at the same time making Hašek’s world accessible to speakers of English – with much help form Mr. Emerson – but to what extent we succeeded, I just can’t tell.
    The project is on hold for various reasons, but every now and then I go back to my batter copy of “Politické a sociální dějiny Strany mírného pokroku v mezích zákona” and work on another chapter, so perhaps it’s time to pick up where we left off and even share the results with the class. What do you say, John?

  12. michael farris says:

    “There is no dearth of people who pretend to know more than they do. I myself do it at least once a month, and more frequently when job-hunting.”
    As a fully licensed Bee Keeper, Moped Mechanic, Pastry Chef and Lumberjack; As the inventor of the modern riding lawnmower and the paperclip, who’s helped popularize such diverse trends as Merengue Dancing, the expression “So’s your old man!” and pineapple as a pizza topping; And as a published author of articles on topics as diverse as 19th century Kenyan Drama and Cobra husbandry I find your claiming to know more than you do to be morally reprehensible…

  13. perhaps it’s time to pick up where we left off and even share the results with the class
    Yes! Finish it or at least let us read what you’ve got. You both have a great ear for vernacular English, I’m sure we’d all love it.

  14. And talking of husbandry, how about those spies? I’ve heard of arranged marriages, and I suppose they had a common interest in state secrets, but would you let your boss choose who you were going to have children with? You could hold out for James Bond.

  15. Wow. Although the setting of my writing couldn’t be more unlike Dostoevsky’s, Karamazov is my life’s favorite novel, and that phrase “collision of linguistic registers” blew me away.
    Everything said in this post would also be vital to the idea of Karamazov as a “polyphonic” novel.

  16. You don’t seriously think there are many people who have learned to understand Shakespeare as a child, and yet cannot speak everyday English fluently ?
    Yes, anyone whose education is primarily literary and bookish. The fact that he failed to boast about this is meaningless and I’m surprised that you used that argument.
    Bulbul, I’m game. I might mention to the others that during the brief time we worked on this I mostly worked at flattening out Hasek’s unique style, so that if we start over I’ll have to retool.

  17. You don’t seriously think there are many people who have learned to understand Shakespeare as a child, and yet cannot speak everyday English fluently ?
    Like JE, I do not find this unlikely at all.

  18. John,
    OK, give me a few hours.
    You don’t seriously think there are many people who have learned to understand Shakespeare as a child, and yet cannot speak everyday English fluently ?
    I’ve had teachers like that. Plus swap Shakespeare for Petőfi and English for Hungarian and hello, there I am.

  19. Like JE, I do not find this unlikely at all … I’ve had teachers like that.
    Let’s detach this little matter from the person of Markowicz, since I have no animus against him. I just can’t imagine what “understand” would amount to in the following imaginary situations:
    1) a young person learns to understand Shakespeare, although his/her mother tongue is not English
    2) an adult learns to understand only Shakespeare, but none of Shakespeare’s contemporaries
    Of course there are non-Anglophone scholars of Elizabethan literature. But which of them understood Shakespeare as an adolescent ? Wherein consisted this understanding ? Did they ask Daddy to lend them, not the car, but Henry IV, Part 2 for their first important date ?
    Can anyone cite even one scholar who can read Hamlet, but not Volpone ? Or Rabelais, but not Montaigne ? Seneca the elder, but not Seneca the younger ?
    Anyone who is at home with 16th-17th century English is unlikely to say: il se trouve que je lis l’anglais, and Je ne prétends pas être un spécialiste de l’anglais. I find the focus on Shakespeare to be suspicious, at the very least. A content-oriented analogue would be those American fundamentalist Christians who claim to understand “the bible” (i.e. the KJV), but have never heard of James’ contemporary Spinoza, say, much less read his critical analysis of the biblical narratives.
    Even if someone could understand Shakespeare but none of his contemporaries, what purpose would that serve ? Such a person could appear in a freak show, but not participate in a civilized discussion.

  20. Borges addressed these issues in a satisfactory manner many years ago.

  21. It’s July 1! HAPPY BIRTHDAY, LANGUAGE!

  22. By golly, I didn’t know that. Hatty Birthday ! It’s always reassuring to see the tooth of time gnawing (Ger.loc.) on someone else and not just me. Which reminds me that I should go to the dentist sometime soon.

  23. Stu,
    Can anyone cite even one scholar who can read Hamlet, but not Volpone ?
    Where did that come from? I thought we were talking about the – quite common, to my mind – scenario of people with good passive knowledge but almost no active knowledge.

  24. And indeed, many hatty returns!

  25. bulbul: I thought we were talking about the – quite common, to my mind – scenario of people with good passive knowledge but almost no active knowledge.
    Yes, we are, but I still don’t see how such knowledge can exist and yet be restricted to one writer, namely Shakespeare (not to mention Bacon). Markowicz coyly allows it to be understood that he might deign to translate Shakespeare. But why Shakespeare in particular ? Elizabethan English as a whole is not easy to understand even for the Muttersprachler. It is only by reading the playwrights, poets, essayists in critical editions that one can even begin to squirm out of preconceptions about what their words meant à l’époque. But it is still helpful to have that resemblance to modern English, so one can read criss-cross, and up and down the time line.
    Is it plausible that a Hungarian, say, could take an English edition of Shakespeare’s works and translations of these into Hungarian, commit them all to memory, integrate them into a passive understanding, and yet be unable to read other Elizabethan writers ? What would be the value of that, if it were possible ? For one thing, such a person would be completely unable to judge the reliability of the translations, because he would have no alternative points of reference from his own reading. So in what would this understanding consist, apart from a blind reliance on the translators ? Not even a native English speaker is likely to lay claim to such a restricted command of the works of one writer.
    Markowicz says “it so happens that I can read English”, and “I don’t claim to be an expert on English”. Does this sound like someone who knows his way around in 16th-17th century literature ? If so, why doesn’t he say it straight out ? If not, in what sense can he claim to understand Shakespeare’s English ? Why is Shakespeare being singled out ?
    It all sounds like a Borgesian conceit (Pierre Menard) when you think closer about it, and like blufforooney when you don’t. As one who regularly gets too big for his britches, I can modestly claim to recognize the symptoms all too well.

  26. I’m willing to assume that Markowicz is a nice and capable guy, yet he appears subject to one ill that many French intellectuals are heir to, namely pretentiousness.

  27. This sort of thing isn’t a new phenomenon. Here’s a passage from Alberto Manguel’s book Homer’s The Iliad and the Odyssey: A Biography, talking about the scholarly centre in Baghdad founded by the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun for the translation of Greek works into Arabic:
    “Translators were highly specialised; they had no overall knowledge of Greek but acknowledged being familiar with the style and vocabulary of only certain authors. For instance, translating a medical text by the second-century physician Galen, Hunayn [ibn Ishaq al-'Ibadi, the head of the translation centre] comes across a quotation from a play by Aristophanes and confesses to the reader: ‘But I am not familiar with the language of Aristophanes, nor am I accustomed to it. Hence, it was not easy for me to understand the quotation, and I have therefore omitted it.’ Not all translators displayed (or display today) such disarming honesty.”

  28. Refreshing honesty, to be sure.
    But I am not familiar with the language of Aristophanes, nor am I accustomed to it.
    Markowicz says about previous translators of Dostoyevsky – a point that makes him so interesting to me – that they silently suppressed “repetitiveness”, because readers of elegant French prose are not accustomed to that.

  29. they had no overall knowledge of Greek but acknowledged being familiar with the style and vocabulary of only certain authors
    What does “familiar” imply here ? How could such a familiarity be acquired ? What criteria, apart from comparative ones, could be applied to test whether one’s sense of familiarity was reliable ? As I have explained above, to me this is both self-deception and, given the nature of language, an impossibility.

  30. When I look at the Greek texts of Aristotle and Plato, I am overwhelmed by a sense of familiarity. Having studied classical Greek for several years, I even know what “to on” means. But I don’t understand what I am trying to read.

  31. It does not directly bear on Grumbly Stu’s contention, but I am reminded of an Internet oddity: Cinna’s Easy Plays from Shakespeare. The plot’s the same, but the dialog is ESL, except (thankfully) for the most famous lines. Apparently aimed at Japanese high-school students.

  32. I read a bit of the Hamlet, MMcM. Quite interesting, I’m all in favor of such-like. Let a hundred paper flowers blossom when you can’t smell the real thing.

  33. I still don’t see how such knowledge can exist and yet be restricted to one writer, namely Shakespeare
    I don’t understand where you’re getting the idea that Shakespeare is the only writer of the era he can read. He presumably only mentions Shakespeare because that’s the only writer of the time he’s interested in translating. Where does he say he can’t read Marlowe?
    Thanks for the birthday wishes, everyone!

  34. Where does he say he can’t read Marlowe?
    He doesn’t. What he does say is evasive. If you agree with that, then I have nothing more to say. But don’t agree with me just to shut me up … I could cease and desist as a birthday present, would you like that ?

  35. The idea that he could read Shakespeare but not Jonson is a red herring and probably not even true. It’s just a wild guess based on the fact that he only mentioned Shakespeare.
    We’re talking about someone who a.) only has a passive knowledge of English b.) only knows written English as used in literature (and read aloud), and c.) only knows the classical literature of a certain era. First of all, there are many such people. In fact, almost everyone who claims to read classical Greek, Latin, or Chinese. But there are also many who are in that situation with regard to other languages with highly admired literatures: English, French, and Italian certainly, but also as many more as you might care to name (Bulbul mentioned Hungarian).
    Contrast that to the polar opposite, a very bright immigrant who taught himself English on the streets of New York starting from an early age, but never learned to read and had little contact with language more elevated than the TV news. They might have native-speaker fluency in one sense, but they’d be a poor translator of anything other than the latest pop novel.
    You could stack up the names of authors better translated by the Shakespeare-only guy, and the ones better translated by the street-smart guy. The street-smart guy or lady) would probably do a fine job of the “Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants”, a basketball player’s ghosted biography, or anything else very close to the contemporary oral, but not much else.

  36. bruessel says:

    Is it your birthday already? Gosh, how time flies! Many Happy Returns!

  37. I read his answer as indicating that M. Markowicz could probably have a conversation in English without much trouble, but he has deficits in non-written-Elizabethan aspects of the language (say, the common French one of a terrible memory for where word stress is placed) such that he doesn’t want to claim competence at it. That he’s someone acutely aware of his known unknowns.

  38. That said, a terrible memory for word stress would tend to conflict with a native-speaker command of Russian!

  39. That doesn’t strike me as plausible right off the bat, Aidan. In Russian, word-stress is all over the place, just as it is in English. I don’t know whether a specifically linguistic “ability to remember word stresses”, but independent of specific languages, actually exists. If it does, it must be very uncommon, since false stress is one of the most familiar failings in people speaking a language they were not brought up in. I could imagine a percussionist being able to remember stress patterns in languages, but that would not be a specifically linguistic ability.

  40. I could cease and desist as a birthday present, would you like that ?
    God forbid Grumbly should cease grumbling! No, no, I was just swatting the ball across the net.

  41. whoops, came in late on this one, but – isn’t this odd?
    “This illustrates a major difference between French tradition, which expects translations to read like French literature, and the Anglo-American tradition, which welcomes variety of style, including the kind of “low” register that is resisted in France.”
    What? Isn’t it sort of well-known that Garnett simplified Dostoevsky’s polyphony and rendered his crazies less crazy (or at least less crazy-sounding)? And she’s a major part of the Anglo-American translating tradition, I’d say…

  42. The point is that in the A-A tradition, you get all kinds of translations, whereas in the French that was all there was until Markowicz.

  43. Oh. This is something I’d be interested to read more about… after all, Garnett was the only Dostoevsky in English (or at least, the only widely-known one) for a while, so there was at least a period of time there where the A-A tradition didn’t get all kinds of translations (as far as Dostoevsky was concerned… can’t make any claims about anyone else!). Why did the A-A tradition change but the Francophone one did not (or changed much later)? Or maybe I should be asking how much the case of translations of Dostoevsky can be assumed to be representative of an entire culture’s/language’s translation traditions…

  44. Nigel Spencer says:

    The “sullied” question is old-hat. In the accent Shakespeare almost certainly used (cf. Newfoundland, Cape Breton or Quebec’s English-speaking North Shore), the two sound very similar. Shakespeare does this sort of thing all the time, and his audience, literate or not, would have been very attuned to it.

  45. Nigel Spencer says:

    There is in fact a clear distinction between French- and English-speaking traditions in language overall, not just in translation. Foreign names in French are often translated as though they were French names, whereas in English, they tend to be transcribed and left “foreign-sounding”, hence more authentic. Similarly, the primacy of usage (bottom-up language evolution) in English is in direct contrast with the prescriptive and proscriptive approach of the Académie française (top-down), which has never been particularly fruitful for a living language.

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