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)

Further addendum (Sept. 2022). I was all set to replace the dead Mots Pluriels links by Wayback Machine ones when I discovered the entire run is archived by the Australian National Library and is publicly available online! Way to go, everyone involved; let’s keep internet culture alive. (Sadly, the magazine only lasted for one more issue after the one I linked.)


  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.

  7. I just reread the original link and found the story of the Wuthering translations so interesting I thought I’d quote it here:

    In 1950, the Gibert Jeune Bookstore used the title Les Hauts du Hurle-Vent on a poster they hung over a table covered with sale copies of a translation of Wuthering Heights. Wuthering Heights, for mysterious reasons, has been translated and retranslated countless times into French, and there have been just as many French attempts to translate the title alone: Les Hauts des Quatre-Vents (1935); Le Domaine des tempêtes (1959); Les Hautes des tempêtes (1950); Haute Plainte (1937); Les Hauteurs battues des vents (1950); Les Hauteurs tourmentées (1949); Heurtebise (1947); La Maison des vents (1942); La Maison maudite (1948); Les orages du coeur (1950); Le Château des tempêtes (1951). A number of French translators have simply used the original title, Wuthering Heights: Louise Servicen in 1947; Henri Picard in 1948; Albert Glorget in 1949; Gaston Bacarra in 1950 (about whom more below); Jean Talva in 1955; Geneviève Mecker in 1959; Henriette Guex-Rolle in 1968; Catherine and Georges Vertut in 1969.

    The problem in the case that went to court was that the translation Gibert Jeune was selling was not Frédéric Delebecque’s 1925 Les Hauts du Hurle-Vent: it was Gaston Bacarra’s translation, which used the original English language title, Wuthering Heights. The bookstore was exploiting the fact that most French people had come to identify the Emily Brontë novel by the title Les Hauts du Hurle-Vent. With all the titles that existed in France for Emily Brontë’s novel, Les Hauts du Hurle-Vent had stuck.

    In deciding against the bookstore and in favor of the Editions Payot, who had published Frédéric Delebecque’s translation and owned the title Les Hauts du Hurle-Vent, the courts extended the protection of a translation to its very title. They recognized the fact that there is creativity in the translation of a single phrase, or a title — as well as in the translation of a whole work:

    Attendu que le titre Les Hauts de Hurlevent [sic] constitue une invention originale, et non une traduction littérale du titre anglais, le mot Wuthering n’ayant pas d’équivalent direct dans la langue française, et n’étant au surplus employé que très localement dans les pays de langue anglaise — qu’il ne s’agit pas en l’espèce d’une traduction, mais d’une interprétation nouvelle de Delebecque, qui peut s’en prévaloir comme d’une oeuvre personnelle et, dès lors, en revendiquer la propriété, d’ailleurs cédée par lui en exclusivité aux éditions Payot.

    Given that the title Les Hauts de Hurlevent [sic] constitutes an original invention and not a literal translation of the English title, the word ‘Wuthering’ having no direct equivalent in the French language, and besides, only being used locally in English-speaking countries — that this is not a case of a translation, but rather of a new interpretation on the part of Delebecque, which can be valued as a personal work and which, as such, has claims to literary property, granted exclusively by him to his publisher, the Editions Payot.

    Today, the annotated edition of the French legal code on intellectual property refers to this landmark case:

    Pour un glissement vers l’examen du mérite, v. à propos du titre “Les Hauts du Hurlevent,” traduction non littérale du titre du roman “Wuthering Heights” d’Emily Brontë, le constat que le titre était une trouvaille rendant de manière approchante, musicale et inquiétante, l’atmosphère angoissante du titre originale.

    For an emphasis on the investigation of merit, see, re the title “Les Hauts du Hurlevent,” non-literal translation of Emily Brontë’s novel “Wuthering Heights,” the decision that the title was an original discovery, rendering the harrowing nature of the original title in an intimate, musical, and disturbing fashion.

    This case is unusually satisfying from a translator’s point of view, for here the law is acknowledging, with admirable specificity, the difficulty and challenge of a single act of translation. Their judgment is a form of literary criticism — the evaluation of the leap of imagination involved in finding a French word for “Wuthering.” The court recognizes in Delebecque, the translator, much the same power that Virginia Woolf recognizes in Brontë herself in her famous assessment of Wuthering Heights: “by speaking of the moor, [she could] make the wind blow and the thunder roar.”

  8. In deciding against the bookstore and in favor of the Editions Payot, who had published Frédéric Delebecque’s translation and owned the title Les Hauts du Hurle-Vent, the courts extended the protection of a translation to its very title.

    Such may be the case in France, but in the U.S. and the U.K. at least, titles are not copyrightable whether they are translations or not. (In principle they may be trademarkable, but there are difficulties.) Anglophones, when you hear of a book called The Story of My Life, who do you think of first: Larry Bird, Clarence Darrow, Hank Greenberg, Helen Keller, or Shaheeb Shahab?

  9. A bad translation I call the translation which, generally under the guise of transmissibility, carries out a systematic negation of the strangeness of the foreign work.

    Clearly then the best way to translate the Laozi (say) into French without negating its strangeness is simply to leave it in Chinese.

  10. January First-of-May says

    Anglophones, when you hear of a book called The Story of My Life, who do you think of first: Larry Bird, Clarence Darrow, Hank Greenberg, Helen Keller, or Shaheeb Shahab?

    As a non-anglophone: Ted Chiang. Which conveniently illustrates the problems inherent in trademarking titles.

    Clearly then the best way to translate the Laozi (say) into French without negating its strangeness is simply to leave it in Chinese.

    Laozi’s writings probably look pretty strange to modern Chinese speakers as well. Maybe Boodberg had the right idea.

  11. Heh. (Boodberg here and here.)

  12. A shot in the dark: the mention of Boodberg brings to mind the work of

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alton_L._Becker ,

    and I wonder if anyone else sees the connection?

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