EIBF 2013: MORE THAN AN APPENDIX – Translation Duels in French and Spanish

This is one of a number of pieces covering events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs from 10th – 26th August 2013 at Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh. 

by Rebecca DeWald

The idea is simple and straightforward: rather than talking about translation in the abstract, two versions of the same source text are compared and discussed with the translators and the author. The result are two of the probably geekiest events of the EIBF 2013, with discussions about words, syllables, commas and the difference between “Hmm” and “hmmm.” They are also the only sold-out events I went to, so I am happy to report that the world is full of grammar and translation geeks like me.

The first Duel is in French, the task to translate a text by the Haitian author Dany Lafferière into English accepted by Adriana Hunter and Ros Schwartz. Hunter has translated more than 50 French novels and frequently contributes to Words Without Borders; Schwartz, in addition to having translated an equal amount, is the current chair of English PEN’s Writers in Translation Programme. Daniel Hahn, the chair of both session and translator of Portuguese and French, introduces Lafferière but makes no big introduction since the event is not meant to be about the author who is rather “like an appendix to the conversation.”

As promised, the two English versions are compared almost sentence by sentence – which also means we don’t get further than the first paragraph in the 60-minute debate. Some parts receive further and deeper discussion, like translating the word maman as “mum” or “mother,” others only a side remark, such as title case in Hunter’s translation and no capitalisation in Schwartz’s who says “I didn’t lose sleep over that.” Throughout we get a glimpse of the translators’ thought process at work, which words they actively pondered, reconsidered, changed over and over again in order to find the right word – which often ends up being a different word from translator to translator. Such is the case for the description of the young boy in Lafferière’s text, described as “hopelessly shy” and “horribly shy” since Hunter says she wanted to capture what is horrible about the word “affreux,” but might prefer Schwartz’s version, “hopelessly,” also implying the young boy’s pain. Lafferière sums up the pain of his text and the process when he says “je prefère toujours le mot que je n’ai pas écrit; j’ai choisi un mot et après je le regrète” (“I always prefer the word I didn’t write; I choose a word and regret it straight after”). The translator’s dilemma in a single sentence (in translation).

The most entertaining and most revealing discussion of the evening is about how to translation the French word sexe when the protagonist affectionately talks about his penis. Hunter went for the uncompromising “My groin talked to me” whereas Schwartz’s shocks with “It was my dick talking” in her generally more poetic rendering. In addition to making the audience laugh or giggle, the example gives insight into the research translators do, as Schwartz recounts:

“I ran it past my friends: ‘What do you reckon: dick, cock, penis?’ Then I ran it past my family at the dinner table, and my family said ‘dick’ and then I watched a program on the subject on TV about guys and their dicks, so I was writing down: ‘cock: 1; penis: 4; dick: 2’ and it seemed that ‘dick’ was the word guys used when they affectionately talked about their sexe.”

The translators give insight into many questions which arise in theorising translation as well and trying to understand the nitty-gritty of the craft, many of which are asked by the audience: Do you improve the author’s text? Who are you faithful to, the text, the reader or the author? What happens to the author’s intent?

Schwartz says her loyalty lies with the author and prefers working with living authors she can consult, as does Hunter, who, however, feels more responsibility towards the reader, “the English reader, which sometimes means not saying the exact same thing in the target language.” Schwartz also picks up on a question about whether there is an “official translation” of the text in question, and says: “people tend to think because it is published it is set in stone; there is no such thing as an “official translation” there is only one person’s version” – which has become more than obvious thanks to this entertaining and insightful event.

The second Translation Duel Hahn chairs is in Spanish, with Rosalind Harvey and Frank Wynne translating a text by the Argentine Patricio Pron, who was reading from his novel earlier the same day [see here]. Harvey recently published her first solo translation, Juan Villalobos’ Down the Rabbit Hole, which was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award 2011 and the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize 2012, and Frank Wynne, also a translator from French, has won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2005 – for his translation of Fréderic Beigbeder’s Windows on the World – among many other achievements as literary translator.

Wynne begins by introducing us to a few translator tricks. “When there is a bit of information that you think is crucial to the sentence but you can’t fit it in, you take it and stick it somewhere else.” He then offers a rather negative justification for it: “’Who checks?’ And the answer is: ‘Nobody.’” This might be true: few enthusiasts compare a translation word for word with the original, like in these Translation Duels, yet many critical reviews make claims as if the writer had undergone this tedious process. At the same time, the quality of a translation should not depend on its more or less “faithful” – whatever this word might mean – relationship with its source text but on the quality of the work itself. In order to achieve this, translators like Harvey make small alterations to the text, such as switching around the word order – “artists and bohemians” instead of “bohemians and artists” – for the sake of the rhythm only.

The question about the author’s intent, asked in the first Duel, finds an interesting response in the second, when Pron responds to the question about the location and nature of the protagonist’s job (in order to solve the problem whether the character is working “from home” or “at home”):

“This is the right question for a translator that I cannot answer. What makes working with translators so interesting is that you have a totally different approach to the work than authors who are running away from their work all the time. I wasn‘t really aware of the meaning of what I was writing, it happened.”

To an extent, the same unawareness can be attributed to the translator, who more often than not, as in both Harvey’s and Wynne’s case, produce a first, “instinctive” version and then redraft and “rationalise” it. Translators know they will always be asked about the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of their choices.

For the same reasons, Wynne has also adopted the habit of introducing notes for his editor, which are usually deleted in the further editing process. These particularly excite Pron, who gets right to the point when he exclaims: “I love translator’s notes in every possible language because they remind us that most of the time when we are reading we are not reading the author but his or her translations but the footnotes make us aware of that and make visible an activity that is usually invisible.”

Events like these make the work of the translator not only more visible, but also more comprehensible and approachable. They make obvious that translators are used to analysing and interpreting texts in great detail but also to having to explain their work, their individual word choice, their sentence structure, up to punctuation marks and to producing a convincing argument for each case – much more so than authors are ever asked to do. Events like these demystify what both translators and authors do in that they show how labour-intensive and thought-provoking the process of producing a book in translation is for all actors involved, and that all actors bring to it their own thoughts, opinions and styles. By providing this insight in an accessible way, events like these hopefully make comments such as David Baddiel’s in a recent BBC4 Front Row feature – “I just don’t believe the French translator is as good a writer as John Updike. He or she won’t be, so therefore you are getting 77 % of the experience.”- a thing of the past. Rather, an understanding of the difficulties involved should lead to more appreciation, as Pron says on his blog:

“El duelo permite al espectador tener una visión íntima de la forma en que trabaja un traductor, de las decisiones que toma y de cómo esas decisiones son negociadas con el autor del texto y con el editor, a menudo de forma insatisfactoria para todas las partes, y resulta por ello una reivindicación honesta (y singularmente divertida) de lo que la traducción tiene de acto creativo así como una revelación de cuáles son las dificultades con la que (pese a todo) es llevada a cabo.”

“The duel allows the spectator to get an intimate view of the way in which a translator works, of their decisions and of how these decisions have to be negotiated with the author and the editor, at times with unsatisfactory results for all parties involved, and how this leads to the sincere (and very entertaining) claim that translation is like a creative act, and reveal the difficulties which have to be overcome (no matter what) in order to come up with a result.”

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