The Art of Translating Foreign Fiction.

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.

Thanks, Eric!


  1. Bathrobe says

    Is wax africain the same as batik?

  2. I believe that wax refers to the resist-dyed fabric itself. It was introduced to Africa by the English, hence the word, and Dutch, who indeed got it from Indonesia. Narrowly, a wax africain probably contrasts with wax hollandais or, increasingly, wax chinois.

  3. There are two translations of The Lord of the Rings into Hebrew: the 1979 Livnit translation and the 1989 Lotem translation. One Yuval Kafir (the vowels may be wrong) wrote an essay attacking the former and defending the latter: my friend Mark Shoulson (who really should be here) has translated much of it into English (some points would require too much explanation to make clear in English) as “Alas! The Aged and Good Translation!”.

    Kafir’s thesis is that while Lotem’s version feels “wrong” in the same way as explained above to those who grew up on the “aged and good” version (i.e. “the good old version” as mangled by Livnit), it is actually much more “right” in the sense of having far fewer gross errors of translation. I have no Hebrew and no opinion on this, but I can well believe it. The ending of Yuval’s piece (in Mark’s translation) clearly separates the psychological from the factual:

    Someone will say, “Yes, but despite all that you’ve said here, the old edition is still preferable to me over the new one.”

    I have no problem with such an approach, truth be told—so long as it is not based on the reason “because the new edition is also wrong and distorted.” This reason simply does not apply, as I have shown in this article. One can come and claim that the old edition is more “fluent” or more “readable” or that you prefer to read about Izildur and Tseleborn, so long as you aren’t confronted with ʿeitzanim or gamdaʾim. A matter of taste, completely. Like Samwise said, the Lotem edition sticks in your craw, and the Livnit translation sticks in mine.

    I cannot, or I do not want, to argue with someone who claims that the old translation of the poetry sounds much better to him than the new long translation, or that Lotem’s choice of terms grates on his ears. There are many readers (including me) who prefer gamdaʾim and ʿalfim to g’madim, nanasim [another word for “dwarfs, midgets”], and b’nei-lilit, and to whom the style of the new edition is the beloved one. In any case, there is no doubt that Dr Lotem produced a Hebrew edition of LotR which is more correct and more faithful to the original than the aged and good translation, alas!

    Eitzanim, gamda’im, ʿalfim are neologisms for Ent, Dwarf, Elf; b’nei lilit, the older translation’s term for ‘Elf’, literally means ‘children of Lilith’ (i.e. not descended from Eve).

  4. Alas, the apparent link to Kfir’s (which I assume is the proper vocalization of his name) original Hebrew version doesn’t actually lead anywhere. I found it here, though I haven’t read it through. Shoulson’s title is awkward translationese; your “good old version” is much better. (ETA: Ah, I see this is an intentional choice, translating Kfir’s parody of the stilted style of the old translation.)

    Gamda’im is actually a neologism for dwarves: an irregular plural of the noun gamad, whose normal plural is gamadim.

    I first read The Fellowship of the Ring (though not the other volumes) in the Livnit translation, and when I later read the English original it inevitably felt inferior to me in some places: I remember feeling that “We cannot get out”, the last line of Balin’s Moria journal, was flat and mundanely unpoetic compared with the Hebrew version’s grander ein motsa (lit. “there is no escape”). Lotem is a distant relation by marriage, but I haven’t looked at his Tolkien translations.

  5. There seem to be at least three versions of the transmission of resist-dyed fabric (wax) to Africa, with rough agreement that the primary region of its Africanization was eastern West Africa:

    1.Its arrival predated European maritime trade – it may have come by land from the Middle East and/or South Asia, and was incorporated into existing (e.g. Yoruba) textile traditions.

    2. 19th-century British and Dutch textile manufacturers had planned to flood Java with cheap printed pseudo-batik, but were foiled either because the Javanese rejected the imperfectly printed fabrics or because Javanese batik producers concurrently started using wax stamps, enabling (relatively) cheap mass production; the British and Dutch companies therefore turned to the West African market.

    3. Javanese batik was taken to West Africa by African ex-soldiers, predominantly Ashanti, recruited into the Netherlands East Indies army between 1832 and 1872 (the Belanda hitam); West Africans so admired it that they were delighted to be sold the affordable European version.

    Some combination of 1 and 2 works best to my uninformed eye. The returning Ashanti soldiers make for a good story that would explain why the British and Dutch found a primed market in West Africa, but the story has some problems: Javanese batik in the mid-19th century was an enormously expensive elite item beyond the reach of poorly-paid colonial soldiers, and most of the Belanda hitam served in Sumatra, where the traditional elite fabrics like songket and ikat are woven, not resist-dyed. If anyone can improve on these suggestions, I’d be very interested.

  6. I dislike the rendering of Proust’s title as “In Search of Lost Time.” Lost time is what you have when you’re stuck in traffic, and you make it up by skipping a rest stop. It’s got nothing to do with temps perdu.

  7. How would you translate it? (No fair saying Remembrance of Things Past.)

  8. I feel the same as Bloix; something like “past / bygone time” would be better. The “in search” part doesn’t feel quite right either for “À la recherche”, which implies deliberately setting out to search for something, not just happening to be looking for it.

  9. So does “in search” (and I’m not sure what “just happening to be looking for it” might mean; you’re either looking for something or you’re not).

  10. I could well be wrong about the French — is the à directional, ~=”to”, or locative, ~=”at”? If the former, I think it foregrounds the act of setting out from one place (the present) to another (the past) in a way that “in search of” doesn’t. If the latter, of course, “in search of” is exactly right.

  11. marie-lucie says

    Bloix: I dislike the rendering of Proust’s title as “In Search of Lost Time.”

    So do I.

    Lost time is what you have when you’re stuck in traffic, and you make it up by skipping a rest stop. It’s got nothing to do with temps perdu.

    Actually, le temps perdu could be exactly what you describe. But the translation would be (a little) better with “Time lost” or “Time wasted” than “Lost time”. Perdre son temps means “to waste one’s time”.

    However, the connotation of Proust’s title has more to do with “vanished time, bygone years” than “lost time” waiting in line or at a traffic light – time during which one cannot do anything useful.

    TR: A la recherche de … does mean “in search of …”

    There are a number of phrases with à la</i (or au, aux) meaning something like “engaged in (some activity)”, like à la pêche ‘(engaged in) fishing’, aux champignons ‘(engaged in) mushroom picking’, and others.

  12. I am fond of the title Remembrance of Things Past, although I have read that Proust himself didn’t like it. One problem for me is that in English when we use the word time to refer to an era (as opposed to a quantity of time, as in do we have enough time or we’ve wasted too much time) we either use an article (what a time it was) or we use the plural, with or without an article (it’s a sign of the times, those were different times).

    So “In Search of Lost Times” would be better than “In Search of Lost Time” while still being dictionary-literal.

    But a second problem is that rechercher (unlike chercher) either means “research” or it has the poetic connotation of a quest, an endeavor (this is why Proust didn’t like remembrance, which he thought it was too passive).

    “A Quest for a Lost Time”? Ugh. “An Exploration of a Lost Era”? Horrible.

    Seek, like rechercher, is both more strenuous and more poetic than chercher/search, so perhaps “To Seek a Time Forgot,” but that’s too self-consciously archaic. “To Seek Forgotten Days,” maybe.

    Still worse than Remembrance of Things Past.

  13. The Hebrew WP entry for Livnit links to this analysis of the two translations (In Hebrew). The entry for Lord of the Rings says, discreetly, “The Hebrew version enjoyed two editions, both in the translation of Ruth Livnit. The second edition was edited by Imanuel Lotem and is considered a separate translation, because of the many changes incorporated in the editing. Among Hebrew-speaking Tolkien admirers, especially old-timers, there is a controversy as to which is the preferable Hebrew translation.”

    The only Tolkien I’ve ever read was The Hobbit, in its two Hebrew translations. The first I read was the 1977 one, credited to some ten Israeli Air Force soldiers at an Egyptian POW camp, who’d gotten the English book through the Red Cross. It was a labor of love, born of desperately needing something to do, and was inarguably amateurish and crude. During their captivity, unbeknownst to them, Moshe Hana’ami was working at the same time on a more sophisticated translation, which appeared in 1976. I still liked the 1977 version better.

    One of the translators, Rami Harpaz, at WP-he for The Hobbit: “We were a group of ten POWs, and there were some of us who couldn’t read English, so that so they too could experience this enjoyment we decided to translate The Hobbit for them. We wanted to get the idea across to them even though we’re not some kind of great translators (אנחנו לא מתרגמים מי יודע מה).”

    “We worked more or less in two pairs, one reading the English and reading it aloud in Hebrew—of course it came out as weird (לא לעניין) Hebrew—and the second one sitting by him wrote it in Hebrew that you can understand. Afterwards we took the Hebrew that had come out and turned it into Hebrew that made some kind of sense. I heard Imanuel Lotem speaking here about the problems in translating it. With us it was much more fun, we didn’t owe anything to anybody. We did the translation just for our own enjoyment, none of us had the slightest idea about translating, and we didn’t know that you had to owe something to someone and to build some kind of framework. We knew that there had to be an internal logic, but nothing more than that. And so whenever we ran into problems, we just crudely jammed our heads into them (תקענו בהן את הראש) and solved them however we felt like.”

  14. Ah, so it looks like I was wrong about à la recherche. Thanks, m-l!

  15. That’s an unusually linguistically savvy analysis of the two Hebrew LOTR translations. Looking at the paired examples I agree with the author — the old (Livnit) translation sounds better than the new one in practically every case.

  16. The Past is a Foreign Country

  17. They translate things differently there.

  18. I just glanced at the article, and didn’t read the paired examples. As I recall it said that the later version was much more accurate, but didn’t read as well.

  19. Mark is busily translating the analysis mentioned above into English. I’ll post a link when he has one.

  20. Is he done yet?

  21. I doubt it. He rather easily forgets about projects and takes up new ones.

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