A war, or at least a brushfire, has broken out in a corner of Blogovia over the issue of translation. It was started by the naughty folks at the complete review, who vented some spleen about the whole idea of translation. To put it in a nutshell, as they did: “We hate translation.” This (understandably) annoyed the translator Gail Armstrong (of Open Brackets), who responded in an entry called “Incomplete”:
In two critiques, one of Robert Wechsler’s book, Performing without a stage – The art of literary translation and the other of William Gass’s Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, we’re instructed in, well, very little aside from and the reviewers’ propensity for self-indulgence and cliché:
We still prefer strictly literal translations, trying to mirror the original, and we’ll take a footnote explaining an unclear meaning over a more suitable but not literal translation of a word or sentiment any time.
This has been said many times before but I still don’t buy it. While the stance has merit, and would give all inveterate pedants a chubby, a novel rife with footnotes is not conducive to pleasurable reading. Eyes flicking back and forth between text and footnotes is a chore, and destroys the flow of the narrative. (Footnotes are like subtitles: annoyingly irresistible.)
Chris (at Polyglut) vehemently agreed with her, and the complete reviewers posted a long response to her strictures, accepting a point or two but standing firmly by their rant. The whole discussion is extremely interesting, and I hope other translators (Merm?) and users of translations will weigh in.
Addendum. Gertrude Stein puts in her two cents:
As we took our places at the table—and certainly before we had been fortified by coffee and cognac—Gertrude turned on Bob and said, “Where have you been, Hutchins, and what have you been doing?” A little weary at the end of the day, Bob was taken aback by the abruptness and forcefulness of the attack (the energy Gertrude exuded in a small room hit one like Niagara Falls). Bob replied, as briefly and effortlessly as possible, “Miss Stein, Mr. Adler and I have been teaching the great books.” Gertrude pounced on him again and with even more vigor. “Don’t call me Miss Stein,” she said; “call me Gertrude Stein. What are the great books?” Bob tried to explain the basic educational idea in reading and discussing great books with college students, but he kept forgetting how she insisted upon being addressed, and so he was forever being interrupted by Gertrude’s peremptory injunction “Don’t call me Miss Stein; call me Getrude Stein.”
At one point I decided to come to Bob’s rescue by going downstairs to my briefcase and getting out the list of the great books. I showed it to her. She scanned the list quickly and just as quickly asked, “Do you read these books in their original languages or in English translations?” Hutchins explained that our freshman [University of Chicago] students did not have competence in Greek and Latin or Italian and French, and were finding it difficult enough to read the books in English. This infuriated Miss Stein, I mean Gertrude Stein. She laid it down as an unchallengeable axiom that great literature was essentially untranslatable. Hutchins and I then tried to argue with her, pointing out that we were concerned mainly with the ideas that were to be found in the great books. She might be right, we admitted; fine writing suffers in translation, but idea somehow transcend the particular language in which they are first expressed.
(From Mortimer Adler’s recollections, quoted at tenderbutton.com, of a 1930′s dinner party given by Robert Hutchins and his wife Maude for the great Gertrude.)
My take on it is contained in a comment on Chris’s blog, which I will reproduce here:
…I think both you and Gail are taking the good folks at the complete review way too seriously. They’re not advocating destruction of all translations, for heaven’s sake, they’re just making a point: translations, even the best, are pale reflections of an original and should never be taken as equivalent, or even adequate. There are plenty of places where you can get reasoned discussion of translation issues and evaluations of particular translations; surely there’s room in the world for one voice crying out in the wilderness that translation is per se an evil. Yes, of course, a necessary evil, what would we do without it, but everyone else hammers on the “necessary” and goes on from there; these guys are stuck on the “evil,” and I think that’s a valid bee to have in one’s bonnet. Again, they’re doing no harm, they’re just expressing their cranky opinion, and isn’t that what the internet is all about?
Oh, and I’m a big fan of footnotes in translations; the more the better. Chacun à son goût.*
*Everyone has the gout.