This blog is basically about how good books are nice and bad books are the pits. And then I get grumpy.

Monday, December 1, 2008

On translation of texts

The translation of literary works is not an issue I've seen discussed too often in periodicals and sites about books. But reading The Journal of Helene Berr has made me think about it.

Do you translate the exact words that are on the page or do you translate the essence of what is being said? In other words, do you translate the letter of the language or the spirit of the language? Probably, you do both. If so, how do you strike the balance? I imagine you do it gingerly and with great sensitivity.

Translation does not get a lot of attention and translators don't get a lot of press, but when the last English version of War and Peace came out I think translators got a moment in the sun. I heard the translators interviewed on the radio (NPR, probably) and, if I remember correctly, they talked about that delicate process of conveying same nuances in the new language as exist in the original. Sounds like a job requiring a love of the intracies of language and the discussion of such.

I may not have thought too much about this whole issue of translation if I hadn't been struck particulary by one sentence in Helene Berr's book and generally by her impressive skill with language. On page 94 of the edition which was released in the United States this October, a sentence appears which if I am right may contain a misplaced modifier - the placement in a sentence of an adjective or other modifier which creates ambiguous meaning. This is the way the sentence reads in the translation:

"My sense is that the irrevocable is coming to pass; I don't know if I'll ever see any of the people who are leaving me again."

Here, my question is with the word 'again.' Does the sentence mean 'I don't know if I'll ever see any of the people again who are leaving me?' Or does it mean, 'I don't know if I'll ever see any of the people who are leaving me now as they have left me before?' No indications are given in the text to assume the second. The first is highly sensible and it is what I assume was meant. But it makes me ask, why would a skilled translator decide, in a sentence which expresses such a clear idea, to place a modifier in a spot which creates so obviously such ambiguity? My question is not a criticism of the translator, David Bellos, but a sincere example of curiosity. Was there something ambiguous in the original French that prompted this? And, if so, why was there no footnote to acknowledge this for the confused reader?

I think this question could prompt a lovely discussion on the translation of texts. If only one could find a translator with whom to discuss it!

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