Teju Cole on Literature and Translation.

NYRDaily recently ran an essay by Teju Cole that has a lot to say; I’ll excerpt the section about his reaction to translations of his own work:

I trust my translators utterly. Their task is to take my work to a new cohort of my true readers, the same way translation makes me a true reader of Wisława Szymborska, even though I know no Polish, and of Svetlana Alexievich, even though I know no Russian.

Gioia Guerzoni, who has translated four of my books into Italian so far, has worked hard to bring my prose into a polished but idiomatic Italian. Recently, she was translating an essay of mine, “On the Blackness of the Panther,” which ranged on various matters, from race, the color black, and colonialism, to panthers, the history of zoos, and Rainer Maria Rilke. It wasn’t an easy text to translate. In particular, the word “blackness” in my title was a challenge. To translate that word, Gioia considered nerezza or negritudine, both of which suggest “negritude.” But neither quite evoked the layered effect that “blackness” had in my original title. She needed a word that was about race but also about the color black. The word she was looking for couldn’t be oscurità (“darkness”), which went too far in the optical direction, omitting racial connotations. So she invented a word: nerità. Thus, the title became: “La nerità della pantera.” It worked. The word was taken up in reviews, and even adopted by a dictionary. It was a word Italian needed, and it was a word the Italian language—the Italian of Dante and Morante and Ferrante—received through my translator.

Translation, after all, is literary analysis mixed with sympathy, a matter for the brain as well as the heart. My German translator, Christine Richter-Nilsson, and I discussed the epigraph to my novel Open City, the very first line in the book. It reads, in English, “Death is a perfection of the eye.” The literal translation, the one Google Translate might serve up, would be something like “Tod ist eine Perfektion des Auges.” But Christine sensed that this rendering would equate “death” with “perfection of the eye,” rather than understanding that death was being proposed as the route to a kind of visionary fullness. So she first thought of “Vollendung,” which describes a finished state of fullness; then she thought further, and landed on “Vervollkommnung.” Vervollkommnung is a noun that embeds the verb “kommen,” and with that verb, the idea that something is changing and coming into a state of perfection. That was the word she needed.

Christine also knew that what I was calling the eye in my epigraph was not a physical organ (“das Auge”), it was the faculty of vision itself. But I didn’t write “seeing,” so “des Sehens” would not quite have worked. In conversation with my German editor, she decided on something that evoked both the organ and its ability: der Blick. So, after careful consideration, her translation of “Death is a perfection of the eye” was “Der Tod ist eine Vervollkommnung des Blickes.” And that was just the first sentence.


  1. Stu Clayton says

    “Der Tod ist eine Vervollkommnung des Blickes.”

    Good, and how they got there instructive.

  2. I was hoping you would weigh in on the German; I, of course, cannot judge.

  3. Stu Clayton says

    I could write reams, but I doubt if anyone would be the wiser for it. Just a bunch of stuff one thinks about, but it sounds like carping or spoil-sporting when I say it. Holding forth syndrome. Analogy: explaining a joke in a foreign language makes it appear to be a lame joke. Silence is golden.

  4. You can carp all you like! Just try not to flounder.

  5. Stu Clayton says

    Carp daily !

  6. Which reminds me of Grass’s Butt in this post.

  7. And of course the carp in this post.

  8. Jen Sincero’s self-help world bestseller “You Are a Badass” was translated into Russian as “NI SY”.

    Absolute perfection, I think

  9. I presume that’s a phonetic respelling of Не ссы ‘Don’t be afraid’?

  10. Yeah. It literally means something like “don’t be so fucking scared that you pee in your pants”

  11. I see the book is also translated as «НЕ НОЙ», but «НИ СЫ» is definitely more fun.

  12. Polish edition: “Jesteś kozak!”

    Damn fine choice too…

  13. Chinese version is delightful as always.

    你骨子里是个牛人 (Nǐ gǔzilǐ shìgè niúrén ) “you are a cow in your bones”?

  14. German: “Du bist der Hammer!” (you are awesome!)

    Not much imagination here – Hammer is one of the most versatile German colloquialisms, of course it can be used to translate any possible English slang word.

  15. Spanish edition uses Mexican slang: “¡Eres un chingón!”

    (Mexico, colloquial) Someone who is very smart, intelligent and can do things quickly.
    (Mexico, colloquial, vulgar) A tough, uncompromising, or intimidating person.
    (Mexico, colloquial) Someone or something that is cool, awesome and very good.

    from verb chingar:
    (Mexico, vulgar) to bother, to fuck with, to engage in sexual intercourse, to fuck
    (Mexico, vulgar) to be wrong; to screw up, to fuck up
    (Mexico, vulgar) to steal, to swipe
    (Mexico, vulgar) to break
    (Mexico, vulgar) to work hard; to bust one’s ass

  16. John Cowan says

    “¡Viva Mexico, hijos de la chingada!” ‘the children of the raped/fucked-over woman’.

  17. Stu Clayton says

    Briefly and context-free, hijos de la chingada means whoresons / bastards. Do check out John’s link to an essay by Octavio Paz.

  18. John Cowan says

    True. However, as Paz says, la chingada is not a whore; she is an innocent victim.

  19. David Marjanović says

    Vervollkommnung is a noun that embeds the verb “kommen,” and with that verb, the idea that something is changing and coming into a state of perfection.

    I’m not actually aware of the (obvious) etymology when I encounter the word (or the basic vollkommen, “perfect”). However, with its affixes, Vervollkommnung is definitely a process, while Perfektion is an unchanging state. So, yes, I like this. And Blick too.

    “you are a cow in your bones”

    “In your bones there is a bull-man”? German courage used to be in the bones, too, not in the gut or the balls as in English.

  20. Cow doesn’t mean bull-man. It’s short for cow cunt. Your should go back to your Victor Mair.

  21. David Marjanović says

    That’s not surprising, but why is it followed by 人? Have I misparsed the whole thing?

  22. Bathrobe says

    Both 牛逼 niúbī and 牛 niú are adjectives. A single syllable adjective doesn’t need a 的 when modifying a noun.

  23. David Marjanović says

    are adjectives


  24. Bathrobe says

    Victor Mair has posted this:

    Another term related to “jīwá 鸡娃” (“chicken child”) is “niúwá 牛娃” (“bull child”), which derives from the vulgar term “niúbī 牛逼” (adjective, usually euphemistically translated as “awesome”). A “niúwá 牛娃” (“bull child”) is one who performs excellently and wins out in the “pīnwá dàsài 拼娃大赛” (“grand competition of children pitted against each other”).

    I note that he translates it as “bull child”…

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