Monday, October 17, 2011

On Translation

I can only read in the English language, despite living in a country with two official languages, French and English, and encountering the former on a daily basis.  While this certainly has a negative impact on several of my day to day encounters, I'm starting to feel that it doesn't have the same impact on my choice of reading that I had once thought.  Two recent books have caused me to question and ultimately modify my position: Milan Kundera's The Curtain and Roberto Bolano's In Parenthesis, which I read in close succession.

Bolano asks a pertinent question: how do we know if a work is a great work or not?  His answer: translate it.  If it finds admirers in translation it must possess something of that ineffable character that makes a work great.  Kundera isn't as direct but he traces the influence of writers of different nationalities on each other, with many of these works being encountered in translation.  In both cases they express no sense of loss by not reading in the original language.

This caused me to question something I had long felt true.  I had thought that I was missing something reading a work in translation.  This is despite the sheer impossibility of acquiring proficiency in all of the native languages I read in.  Through the rest of this post I'll use Rimbaud as an illustration because, more than any other writer I've encountered, I have owned and read no fewer than a dozen different translations of his works, with the single French copy of his collected works sitting lonely on the shelf.  Reading Rimbaud with my barely functional French was simply not an option.  To compensate for this I read numerous translations, trying to overcome my deficiency by reading him through as many different lenses as possible, hoping to thereby arrive at a closer vision of what he meant in the original.

What Bolano and Kundera brought forward was that I had been undermining my own subjective experience of the works I read in translation.  Was my experience lacking because I read Louise Varese's Rimbaud translation, or is it a sign of his "greatness" that this translation moved me, prompted countless re-readings, initiated my interest in Rimbaud's life, and ultimately fed my desire to read as much of him as possible, even though it is a limited literary output in different translations?  No matter how I try to separate it, my experience of Rimbaud will always be seen through the lenses of my first readings.  If I were to wake tomorrow with a full command of French my French reading of Rimbaud would inevitably have my previous experiences reflected in it.

Now this isn't to devalue the importance of competent, well meaning translators.  It is not to comment on their art, which I feel translation is.  It doesn't overcome obstacles to a scholarly approach to a work that only original sources would satisfy.  It does however reflect that a direct translation is rarely considered possible, and from the countless "translator introductions" I've read it's often considered a problematic approach.  The act of translation modifies the work, but to look at only what may be lost from the original without taking into account what a good translator brings to it is one sided.  In the end, it is the subjective experience of reading that matters. 

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