I love detailed comparisons of translations that also have things to say about what it means to evaluate a translation, and Brad Johnson (of the wonderfully named An und für sich) has a good one at The New Inquiry, “Too Foreign,” in which he discusses two translations of Clarice Lispector:

…Moser bristles at what he sees as English translators trying to tame Lispector’s strangely composed Portuguese, ironing out the wrinkles in her syntax and cleaning up what would be bad grammar if it weren’t intentional.
I cannot read Portuguese, and very likely would need at least two tries to identify it by ear, so it would seem that I am in no position to judge (or, therefore, doubt) Moser’s assessment of previous translations. Neither am I capable of assessing Idra Novey’s attempt at The Passion According to G.H., released this June by New Directions. How then do I review Clarice Lispector? Is it right for one so distanced from her language, and thus from her style, to stand in evaluative judgment of her work? To put it less abstractly: are we reading Lispector at all, or merely her translators? Are we capable of accessing her style when her language is foreign to us? …
Both of this book’s English translators, first Ronald Sousa and now Idra Novey, appeal to their struggles with her style—a struggle beautifully expressed by Novey in her afterword: “when to prioritize the music and when the meaning.” Lispector’s Portuguese is, we are told by both translators, a sonorous web of repetitions, intent more on establishing a cadence than insuring coherence. …
If Novey’s version is an improvement, it is not necessarily because she is more faithful to the original text or even because she better evokes its transmission of a “potential language chaos,” but because she does not seem to see the struggle as something that can be won or lost. Where Sousa beckons towards a confusion outside the grasp of his translation, Novey intends to highlight the dissonant chord that hers shares with the novel. It may not be the same strangeness of Lispector’s original, but how could it be?

There’s more discussion of the issues, as well as some very interesting side-by-side comparisons of selected passages. Well worth the read, and once again I find myself thinking I should get around to Lispector one of these days. (Via wood s lot.)


  1. Speaking of difficult books, do you have any opinions on which of the three English translations of “Москва — Петушки” are particularly successful or unsuccessful?

  2. side-by-side comparisons of selected passages
    The originals (I believe):

    Até agora achar-me era já ter uma idéia de pessoa e nela me engastar: nessa pessoa organizada eu me encarnava, e nem mesmo sentia o grande esforço de construção que era viver. (p. 10)

    Eu ia me defrontar em mim com um grau de vida tão primeiro que estava próximo do inanimado. (p. 17)

    Perder-se é um achar-se perigoso. (p. 66)

    O pecado renovadamente original é este: tenho que cumprir a minha lei que ignoro, e se eu não cumprir a minha ignorância, estarei pecando originalmente contra a vida. (p. 63)

    Neste instante, agora, uma dúvida me surpreende. Deus, ou o que És chamado: eu só peço agora uma ajuda: mas que agora me ajudes não obscuramente como me és, mas desta vez claramente e em campo aberto. (p. 85)

  3. Speaking of difficult books, do you have any opinions on which of the three English translations of “Москва — Петушки” are particularly successful or unsuccessful?
    Haven’t read ’em, so no.
    Thanks for the originals, MMcM!

  4. There’s always something lost in translation, always. If you want to get every last single detail and subtlety from a written work, you have to read the original version in the language it was originally written in, there’s no getting around it.
    Having read a couple of books recently for the purpose of learning Spanish I’ve really noticed this. What I do is get a book that has been published in both Spanish and English and then use the Spanish version to learn Spanish while using the English version as a contextual translation for reference if I can’t figure out exactly what something means just based on the dictionary definition of the words. I’ve been reading two books lately, both were originally written in English: The Bourne Identity and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It’s amazing how much is lost in translating it from English to Spanish, there’s simply a lot of things in English that just don’t really translate into Spanish, you do lose a lot of meaning. There are a lot of expressions, sayings, slang, and idioms in English that have close equivalents in Spanish, but that’s the problem: they’re somewhat close (and how close they are varies greatly from one to another), close but no cigar. They just don’t convey the same meaning.

  5. Speaking of translations, I found this a fascinating project: someone has translated Beaudelaire’s “Spleen” 31 times in 31 different styles. (Shades of Queneau’s “Exercises de Style.”)

  6. John, that’s a great link! Thanks!

  7. Wouldn’t comparing fundamentally different translations be a little unfair?
    If it could be said that translation is an art, not a technological process that should, when correctly set up, produce predictable results, then it would follow that there are as many ways to translate as there are translators. And there would also be the fundamentally unresolvable differences of taste involved in appreciation of their works.
    And, as with art, we would then be able say that there are different genres of translation, choices that the author makes early in his work, defining much of its subsequent form. This is precisely what seems to be compared here: a choice to translate into the target language (closer to the reader, further from the original), or a choice to translate from the original, carrying over some fresh impressions at the price of possibly alienating the reader. It seems to me one can’t have both, but then again, true art is ever surprising.

  8. narrowmargin says

    I’ve got 4 different translations of Anna Karenina. Since I know for sure that I’ll be re-reading that book in the future, I collected the various versions when I happened to find them for a buck apiece or less. I figure that after having read them all I’ll discover which translation I prefer, and have a fuller understanding of a book I’ll never be able to read in the original. I’ve done the same with Don Quixote, and a few of Dostoyevky’s books. This isn’t a habit I make with all non-English writers I love, but seems to be governed by whim or instinct. I have only 2 versions of War and Peace and will keep it that way.
    P.S. Anybody else having problems making text italic?

  9. Like this?

  10. No, that worked. You know you have to use html tags? You use &lti&gt to start italics and — if you’re better at this than me — %lt/i&gt to end it.

  11. As I said, if you’re better at this than me, &lt/i&gt to end it.

  12. narrowmargin says

    Yes, I tried that half a dozen times and it didn’t work. Some of the end-tags kept sliding to the end of the message. I just tried it again and one end-tag went to the end of this message and a second one was created next to it.
    If you did it successfully, the problem must be with my comp. Thanks for the help.

  13. narrowmargin says

    (No sarcasm intended.)

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