Rachel Cooke writes (for The Observer) about the importance of the right translation; she begins:
Last year, I decided to treat myself to a new copy of Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, a novel I have loved ever since I first read it as a teenager, and whose dreamy opening line in its original translation from the French by Irene Ash – “A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness” – I know by heart. But which one to get? In the end, I decided to go for something entirely new and ritzy, which is how I came to buy the Penguin Modern Classics edition, translated by Heather Lloyd.
Some days later, in bed, I began reading it. The shock was tremendous, disorienting. “This strange new feeling of mine, obsessing me by its sweet languor, is such that I am reluctant to dignify it with the fine, solemn name of ‘sadness’,” went the first sentence, which sounded to my ears a little as though a robot had written it. For a while I pressed on, telling myself it was stupid to cling to only one version, as if it were a sacred thing, and that perhaps I would soon fall in love with this no doubt very clever and more accurate new translation. Pretty soon, though, I gave up. However syntactically correct it might be, the prose had for me lost all of its magic. It was as if I’d gone out to buy a silk party dress and come home with a set of nylon overalls.
Last week, I mentioned this experience to Ann Goldstein, the acclaimed translator of the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. She laughed. “I know what you mean,” she said, down the line from New York. “My feeling about Proust is that he’s Scott-Moncrieff [C K Scott-Moncrieff, who published his English translation of A La recherche du temps perdu as Remembrance of Things Past in the 1920s]. I haven’t read the newer translations – but I don’t want to. I’m very attached to his, even though people always say ‘he did this’ or ‘he did that’.”
I feel the same way about Scott Moncrieff (n.b. and tsk: no hyphen), and I enjoyed both Cooke’s essay and the reminiscences by translators that follow it: Deborah Smith (translator of the Korean writer Han Kang), Ann Goldstein, Edith Grossman (translator of works by Mario Vargas Llosa, Alvaro Mutis, Cervantes, and Gabriel García Márquez, among others), George Szirtes (translator of Hungarian writers including Imre Madách, Sándor Márai, and László Krasznahorkai), Don Bartlett (translator of Danish and Norwegian authors including Jo Nesbø, Lars Saabye Christensen, Roy Jacobsen, and Karl Ove Knausgaard), and Melanie Mauthner (best known for translating the works of Rwandan novelist Scholastique Mukasonga). I liked them all, but perhaps especially Mauthner, who has this fetching description:
When I was translating Our Lady of the Nile there were many unfamiliar terms I needed to find out about, for example, “un wax africain”. Walking through the alleys of Brixton market, I stepped into a fabric shop, where I discovered what the term means: the process of tie-dyeing cloth with wax, cloth that is then used to fashion women’s dresses and men’s robes. As I was reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s fiction at the time, I realised that the best translation would be “wrapper”.
Here is how I translate: I read the whole book first, as well as other books by the author so that I have the sound and feel of their prose in my head. The challenge is to find a similar voice in English. Would Scholastique Mukasonga sound like Jamaica Kincaid, Toni Morrison or Bernardine Evaristo? Walking around Brixton was helpful. It was in Brixton library that I first stumbled on this Rwandan author’s short stories. In south London you can hear so many “Englishes”: African, African Caribbean and Latin American. Mukasonga writes in a classical, lyrical French. Think Chinua Achebe or Nadine Gordimer. I needed to find a warm, tender, lively and smooth neutral English. I knew I would keep all the Kinyarwanda words that describe plants, fabric, food and spiritual rituals.