Lost in translation
February 2, 2006 2:13 AM   Subscribe

What's the Korean for thanatophany or the Icelandic for snoek? J M Coetzee writes about the problems and delights of translation. [via languagehat]
posted by johnny novak (15 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

For the ultimate tome on translation, read Le Ton Beau de Marot by Douglas Hofstadter (better known as the author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid).
posted by girlhacker at 3:00 AM on February 2, 2006

geb. dopest book evarr!!
posted by phaedon at 3:20 AM on February 2, 2006

GEB is one of those books which I keep buying as I tend to give it to people.
posted by chrid at 3:44 AM on February 2, 2006

An excerpt from Coetzee's fascinating essay, in the hopes people will start talking about it instead of Hofstadter, who is a fun writer but in no way an expert on translation (and besides, completely irrelevant to this post):
Phrasings planted in Waiting for the Barbarians for their generic Far Eastern associations naturally aroused the interest of my Chinese translator. The crucial passage in the book was the following, spoken by the Magistrate:

I ... am no less infected with [the vision of Empire] than the faithful Colonel Joll as he tracks the enemies of Empire through the boundless desert, sword unsheathed to cut down barbarian after barbarian until at last he finds and slays the one whose destiny it should be (or if not he then his son or unborn grandson) to climb the bronze gateway to the Summer Palace and topple the globe surmounted by the tiger rampant that symbolised eternal domination.

"It would be highly appreciated," wrote my translator, "if you could help clarify what Summer Palace and globe surmounted by the tiger rampant ... refer to. I wonder if [they] refer to the Old Summer Palace in Beijing that was destroyed by British and French allied force in 1848." The question may seem simple, but it holds surprising depths. It may mean: Are the words Summer Palace intended to refer to the historical Summer Palace? It may also mean: Do the words refer to the historical Summer Palace?

I, as sole author, am the only person able to answer the first question, and my answer must be that I did not consciously intend to refer to the palace in Beijing, and certainly did not intend to evoke the historical sack of that palace, with its attendant national humiliations.

At the same time, I did intend that enough of an association with imperial China should be evoked to balance and complicate, for instance, the association with imperial Russia evoked elsewhere in the book by the phrase Third Bureau, the arm of the security forces for which Colonel Joll works.

As for whether the words in question do refer to the palace in Beijing, as author I am powerless to say. The words are written; I cannot control the associations they awaken.

But my translator is not so powerless: a nudge here, a nuance there, and the reader may be either directed towards or headed off from the Beijing of 1848.
posted by languagehat at 5:33 AM on February 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

When I speak English to Germans I must constantly remind myself to avoid being sardonic, making puns, any sort of sarcasm, double entendre, colloquialisms, idioms, etc, etc, etc. This makes speaking much more of a direct statement-based act of communication rather than the casual, silly, and fun-filled communication/exposition that I'm used to.
posted by beerbajay at 5:55 AM on February 2, 2006

Thanks for this, it just goes to show that I should never not visit languagehat on a daily basis, as I had missed it.

This is an excellent essay, and so revealing on so many levels. Not least the sheer volume of exchanges with his translators that an author of Coetzee's stature must engage in. In the interstial interview (which is excellent) that holds together the various sections of the book of essays Doubling the Point (which is excellent), Coetzee makes it clear that he finds it difficult to speak with authority about the writing that he has already done. I don't have the book in front of me, but he essentially says, "I can't really comment on exactly what I was thinking, as one only thinks like that when one is actually writing. That is when the thought is alive, after it is published it becomes reified in a way that makes it as inaccessible (in important ways) for the author as it is for the reader." I love that section of the interview because it not only tracks with my own experience of reading my written work after some time has passed, but it also seems refreshingly honest. It would be hard to recommend Doubling the Point highly enough, it's well worth the price simply for the essay on time in Kafka's story The Burrow. Which I think makes any subsequent reading of The Life and Times of Michael K much richer than it might otherwise be.

The transcriptions of correspondence are excellent, and I really liked the hunt for a minor English author comparable to Corelli (I especially like that Christie is the chosen author).

One of the books that I've got high on my list of books to read is A Posthumous Confession by Macellus Emants, which in the Quartet Encounters edition has JM Coetzee listed as the translator. I'm surprised that he didn't mention his work on it in the article. Perhaps he would prefer to forget it. (None of the QE translations is of the highest quality.) Anyway, I finally have a great excuse to read the book as I'm going to the Netherlands next week.
posted by OmieWise at 6:26 AM on February 2, 2006

Reading this gives me renewed respect for Michael Kandel, who was a translator for Stanislaw Lem (among others). In reading Love and Tensor Algebra, you can get the first merest speculation of an inkling of how challenging it is to not only get meaning, but nuance and rhythm as well.
posted by plinth at 6:27 AM on February 2, 2006

Wow, that guy is really full of himself. Not that that's always bad (or, aping his torpid style I'd say I'd invoke the sinefeldian "not that "there's anything wrong with that").

Anyway it's very apparent from his writing. Is humility a necessary for good writing? A novelist must love words, so is it necessary to be in love with your own words?

posted by delmoi at 7:14 AM on February 2, 2006

What? While I don't see humility (because it doesn't seem called for), I also don't see egotism. What are you seeing (aside from writing you apparently don't like) which leads you to say he's full of himself?

If you read to the end it appears to have been written for a volume of essays on translation, almost certainly it was commissioned. Regardless, I'm not sure what part of the article, which is, after all, written by a Nobel Laureate in literature, seems egotistical.
posted by OmieWise at 7:44 AM on February 2, 2006

.... you can get the first merest speculation of an inkling of how challenging it is to not only get meaning, but nuance and rhythm as well.

Sometimes it's impossible. I remember watching Robert Townsend's "The Hollywood Shuffle" in Germany or Sweden some years ago. The movie is all about Townsend's character - an eloquent and talented actor - being cast as a drug dealer or crack head or some other stereotypical "black" role. One of the best scenes is where the white director is trying to get him to "talk black." Townsend's character is supposed to say something like "I ain't be gots no gun" and he just can't do it. Brilliant scene.

The subtitles translated this as "I don't have a gun."
posted by three blind mice at 8:02 AM on February 2, 2006

(ahem) UP AND ATOM!
posted by blue_beetle at 9:20 AM on February 2, 2006

It's really good to read the article and it's certainly thought-provoking - thanks for the post.

I'm enjoying reading Ismail Kadare's recent novel "The Successor" and was interested to see that it had been translated into English from the French translation of the original Albanian. I wonder quite how the nuances been have changed, and what has been lost (or indeed gained) in creating the atmosphere of communist Albania during the two translations.

As for Coetzee's final comments about the theory of translation, there's no shortage of faculties out there trying to provide a theoretical framework - not least the department at Warwick which produced what's supposed to be one of the better 'cabinet maker's handbooks'.
posted by patricio at 9:55 AM on February 2, 2006

The Literary Saloon at The Complete Review is dedicated to tracking and lamenting the lack of literary translation into English. They particularly like to keep track of the translation from a translation phenomenon.
posted by OmieWise at 10:27 AM on February 2, 2006

"In a perfect world he would sleep only with perfect women, women of perfect femininity yet with a certain darkness at their core that will respond to his own darker self."
We had to settle for sombre and abandon the allusiveness of the original:
Femmes qui auraient au fond d'elles-memes quelque chose de sombre qui repondait a ce qu'il y a en lui de sombre.
I'd have used noir instead of sombre, for sure. Il y a un beaucoup des choses en moi de noir.

Also, I agree somewhat with delmoi -- he might not be actually full of himself, but his writing style certainly isn't what I'm used to. I mean, just that line I quoted above about perfect femininity and darker self and whatnot, it's a fairly cliché idea, and on top of that, it's in a sentence that makes me think I'm reading a sleepy classic novel. It does not make me go "oh, what interesting writing!"

But, yeah, translation's hard.
posted by blacklite at 11:31 AM on February 2, 2006

« Older What's in a name?   |   Value of Culture? Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments