Alice Kaplan has a fascinating article in the latest issue of Mots Pluriels about the problems of translating and being translated; she discusses in detail the horrors of the failed French translation of her “autobiographical essay” French Lessons, a couple of French court cases involving translations of Wuthering Heights and of Kafka, and her own experience translating Roger Grenier, along the way describing the writer/translator relationships of Marguerite Yourcenar and her lover Grace Frick and of Louis-Ferdinand Céline and his drinking buddy John Marks. At the start she provides the following amazing Nabokov anecdote:

Vladimir Nabokov was famous for his vigilance concerning every word of his translations — and when this polyglot spotted an error, he could be unreasonable. His wife Véra, as vigilant as he, pored over the Swedish translations of his Pnin with the help of a dictionary and determined that entire passages were missing, and that the anti-communist slant of the original had been muted. She ordered the entire Swedish stock of both Pnin and Lolita destroyed. In July 1959, the Nabokovs’ lawyer served as witness to an enormous book burning on the outskirts of Stockholm. It’s a rare event in literary history when a writer burns his own books!

If you’re interested in translation, it’s well worth your time—as is the entire issue, which I have barely begun investigating; its theme is “translated lives,” and it includes essays (in French and English) on all manner of cross-cultural experiences (read the editors’ introduction). Many thanks to wood s lot for the link (and I urge everyone also to scroll down his page to yesterday’s excellent collection of links on the great filmmaker Stan Brakhage, who died Sunday).

Addendum. Also from the invaluable wood s lot comes a lively conversation between Jonathon Mays and Marek (of Gonzo Engaged), on Jonathon’s blog Stretching Thought, about translation (of Ferdydurke in particular) and how to deal with metaphors that don’t make sense in the target language. I particularly liked the following bit (which makes a fortuitous tie-in with the recent duct/duck-tape discussion here at Languagehat):

There are things in other languages that can’t be said in english… circumlocution becomes a duck tape of language.
Whenever I read some literature translated from Polish (or even original english books) I can’t help but to see miles and miles of duck tape applied to hold the structure of language together. Without circumlocution the whole thing falls apart. (most business books are like visiting garbage dumps for used duck tapes strips. No wonder most people who read a business book have no fucking clue what it was about. Cause it’s all duck tape and plastic sheeting)


  1. The Australian writer Patrick White was also a stickler with translations of his work, though one the biggest problems he had was with US editions of his work – that is, the translation from Australian to American English. One example I remember was where the US publisher proposed to change the the word “billabong” to “fjord”. It was caught by the vigilant Mr White in the galleys, fortunately.

  2. Hahahahaha!

    I don’t really understand why publishers are allowed to get away with that sort of “translating”; why would authors put up with their carefully chosen words being arbitrarily altered for alleged comprehensibility (eighth-grade reading levels, I suppose)? If you don’t know what a billabong is, look it up!

  3. The Kaplan article has a reference to my favorite translation theorist, Antoine Berman. Highly recommended (both the Kaplan and the Berman). Thank you Language Hat.

  4. I remember the nightmare of trying to translate into English a section of “C’ta ton tour Laura Cadieux” by Michel Tremblay for my literary translation course. In the end, I thought a “Huckleberry Finn” sort of style was appropriate and ran with it. I still only got a B-.

    I remember reading “Child of the Dark” as an undergrad shortly after the English translation came out and thinking that while the syntax sounded very credibly like someone that poor, the word choices didn’t. That must have been awful to translate – but at least for things that don’t have a real equivalent, the translator went for footnotes. I’ll take a good footnote over the wrong word any day.

  5. At the French lycée in Washington D.C., where I spent my formative years, we were forever saying things like “Est-ce que tu peux me donner un ride cet après-midi?” and “The surveillante confiscated my trousse.”

    Some things are indeed untranslatable. At least by schoolkids.

  6. ((blinkblink))

    A billabong is indeed not a fjord by any other name.

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