Since 1981, The National Endowment for the Arts has awarded fellowships to support the translation of literary works into English, which have often resulted in the first English translation of outstanding works of international literature. The act of translation itself remains intriguing. What makes for a good translation? By what alchemy does literature move from one language into another? Is translation an art or a science? Is something lost in translation? Is something gained? To help think through these and other questions about translation, I turned to Chad Post. Chad is the publisher of Open Letter, the University of Rochester’s literary publishing house, which is dedicated solely to publishing books in translation. I began my conversation with Chad with the obvious question.
Jo Reed: What do you look for in a translation? And I don’t mean what books do you look to get translated, but when you’re looking at a book that has been translated, what is it that you’re looking for?
Chad Post: This gets at one of the main debates that goes on in the world of literary translation, where, there’s kind of two camps, one that wants to retain the foreignness of a particular book and keep it unusual and strange in the way the original book was sort of unusual and strange. And then there’s also this competing side of trying to make everything smooth for the American reader, for the target audience. Typically, translators tend to be closer toward the foreign and towards the original book, and publishers got the bad reputation of always trying to smooth things over to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible. The way that I see that, actually, is that when you read a full translation of a book that’s completely done already, is that it has to work on its own terms. So I don’t think there’s one side or the other I think that sometimes there are things in the middle where you retain something unusual about the way food is described or place names or whatever, and then other times you kind of shift that and make it smooth so that an American audience will understand. But the main point is that it has to work as a whole. There’s a book called “Sunflowers,” by a Hungarian writer that was published by the New York Review Books a few years ago. And it’s got some really strange, interesting word choice in there that some other publisher might have tried to, in a sense, dumb down, but NYRB left it like that and it works perfectly because the book as a whole holds together as an aesthetic object.
Jo Reed: Well then, how does one balance the writer’s voice with the translator’s voice?
Chad: Which is very tricky, because there’s a part in Edith Grossman’s new book, “Why Translation Matters,” in which she talks about teaching a class in which they’re reading “One Hundred Years of Solitude” in translation and someone asked if they were reading Rabassa’s words or Garcia Marquez’s. And her immediate response is, “Oh, it’s Rabassa’s.” And then she said, “Well, and also Garcia Marquez’s voice.” And with that book I believe that Garcia Marques said that it’s much better in English than it was in Spanish, and that Rabassa sort of improved it in the translation. Part of that is the translator’s voice, so their kind of influence on it. I think it’s something, we trust in our translators a lot in the sense that we hope that they’re not leaving things out or eliminating chapters or adding stuff, and you can sometimes pick up where their ticks are in writing or what their way of expressing things is. But I think it’s a delicate balance; in some ways one of the best metaphors that have come up recently for the process of translation is talking about it as a performance, in the way that a pianist would have the score and then perform it, but they could perform it differently. In translation, there is an original text and then each translator could do it differently addressing different aspects. So, the translator does function like that. It’s hard to say; a really good translator is sort of both invisible and genius, all at once.
Jo Reed: Is translating dialogue different from translating expository text?
Chad: I think it is, because there are a lot of questions that come up in terms of colloquialisms, slang that you’re using, like how fast dialogue can get dated, it seems to be dating much quicker than expository prose. Or like anything that’s descriptive, the way that you describe green is always going to be green, but different slang words that a character uses are not going to be used fifteen, twenty years down the road. So I think that’s complicated and its condensed, you’re expressing a lot more and you done have as much space to unfrill a sentence if you need to. We had a person up here, a translator of drama, who came and spoke at a panel last year here at the University of Rochester. She was talking about it and she said that it’s more complicated but in a way, once you’re doing that you do figure it out and see things in that light, like where you are using people’s voices and capturing their voices rather than relying upon the idea that you can add a sentence if you need to or make a short sentence much longer to be able to capture what was in the original. You can’t really do that with dialogue.
Jo Reed: I guess this piggybacks on this, but what about those problematic words or sentences or expressions for which there doesn’t really seem to be a translation?
Chad: <laughs> There’s always like the idea that there will be a book where someone will say, “Oh, this is completely untranslatable.” And then, of course, someone will come along and figure out how to translate that. I’m not sure that anything is untranslatable, there are ways around that people just come up with interesting ideas or ways of doing it. One of the famous stories, I used to think it was kind of a secret, but I don’t think it’s really a secret, is that Barbara Wright, who is a French translator who died a few years ago, she translated a lot of existential and a lot more Surrealist writers. And one of the books she did was this book called “Exercises and Style” by Raymond Queneau, and “Exercises and Style is like all, I forget how many but like forty-nine retellings of the same basic story in which a guy gets on a bus and like his button is missing, and someone mentions that he’s missing a button from his jacket. And it’s told like as a sonnet, or as like a police investigation, or as like just pure expository prose, or just in dialogue, and all these different forms, and all these different stylistic ways of doing it. And when she was translating it into English, there were probably like a dozen that she said were just, you couldn’t do it. Like, it wouldn’t work. Like, the joke would be lost and it just didn’t make any sense. So she invented them; she invented a bunch of them. And after the book came out, she told Queneau about it and he read them, because he knew English well enough, and he said that if he wrote English, that’s exactly how he would have done it. So I feel like the translator, when something is untranslatable, essentially they just need to make themselves—if the author spoke English, the author would have done this. And they find ways, they’re smart people.
Jo Reed: So, is that a way of pointing out how creativity comes into play with literary translation?
Chad: Oh, absolutely, yeah. Creativity is key. Like, it is a very creative enterprise, I don’t think that people respect that enough or acknowledge that enough. It’s not like you just take a text and wrote, translate it over and it’s just something that you do without really thinking. Every part of that is a creative act, like capturing the voice, figuring out how you’re going to emphasize different things, the whole thing. It is much more like creative writing; that’s why there is no machine translation of literature, especially.
Jo Reed: Ok, so my final question is how is literary translation both an art and a science?
Chad: <laughs> Well, in some sense it’s kind of a science because there’s the language part of it that you learn that particular language and that’s sort of scientific. There’s some system that you know and certain ways--- one of the best people that I’ve ever heard talk about the process of teaching someone how to translate is Michael Henry Heim, who is a translator himself from, I don’t even know how many languages; I know he speaks like thirteen, I think he’s translated from like nine of those, and he teaches at UCLA. He’s devised over time a list of rules that translators commonly make—or like problems that they run into or things that they do wrong. And he’s created not necessarily a science of it, but at least these guide posts, like here’s how these things usually happen. But then there’s always the creative part where you have to capture the right tone or find a new way to say something that’s just as punchy and spot-on as it is in the original. There’s no science to that, that’s pure—the ability to write and the ability to be creative and to think things through and bring them from one language into another.
Jo Reed: Chad Post, thank you very much.
Chad: Thank you for having me.
That Was Chad Post, publisher of Open Letter, which is dedicated solely to publishing books in translation. I’m Josephine Reed, thanks for listening.