Sunday, August 12, 2012

Translation Diary, Entry #14

My grand translation project is the English version of a popular work of history in my area of expertise. Thus, the poor, battered English text that will ultimately result will inevitably mediate not only the author’s relationship to the subject but mine, as well. It is, of course, my task not to interfere in the former relationship, but that is not as clear-cut a task as it seems. Does it make my responsibility to the text, to the author or to the subject? How do I interpret not just the text, but the mandate, charged to me by the author, not to take liberty with his text? Perhaps this is a lesson in humility, a reminder that there is no single interpretation; perhaps it is a reminder that even a disagreement over a point of fact can be between two valid points, when the audiences for that fact are divergent. It’s not about the text, the author or the subject. A translation, maybe even more than the original composition is for its audience, for the purpose of making the text available to a wider audience. The text is just the instrument, but it is also a sterling instrument that must make it through untarnished.

My first instinct with this project was to research. But ultimately, surprisingly, the instinct to research is one that I’ve tamped down and not given into because it gets in the way of the finest details of the text. A careless translator could allow research to flatten out the fine-grain details and run roughshod over the nuances of the text, hitting the reader over the head with the information at the cost of the lyricism of the writing and the subtlety of an argument built up detail by detail. This text I am translating, early on, makes reference to a short story by Borges that purports to quote from the work of the French Orientalist Ernst Renan. I know Borges and I know Renan, but I don’t know if this particular reference is one of the ones that Borges invented from whole cloth and stuffed into the mouths of his literary versions of flesh and blood men. I had thought I would look into it and perhaps tweak the translation a bit, while remaining faithful to the text, depending on whether this is a real quotation from the real Renan or a made-up one from Borges’ Renan. But the ambiguity of not knowing whether the author of the quotation was Renan’s Renan or Borges’ is apt because the reference comes in the course of a discussion about the relationship between novel-writing and history-writing, a discussion that holds that the two are not all that different. In the space of this work, it doesn’t matter if this is a historical memory of Renan or a fictional invention because the two men are no different. Research, here, would eliminate an ambiguity that is not unimportant to the text.

There are other things external to the text within it. Turning to them is, I suppose, research, though of a different sort. There are quotations from the Qur’ān and from Arabic poetry that I am looking up and retranslating straight from the Arabic. This research does serve the English-language audience, giving them the same experience of reading a quotation translated directly from an Arabic text, rather than one distorted through an intermediary, that the Spanish-language audience has; it brings the experience of reading the translation in line with the experience of reading the original. There are also allusions to all sorts of other texts. The author writes in very long sentences which are perfect and undetectable in length in Spanish but just seem long in English. It bothered me until I returned to the Faulkner that the author refers to. If he was reading Faulkner while writing this book and thinking about characters whose lives are one long sentence consecutive to the next, then the phrasing choices have a significance greater than the stylistic differences that constitute good writing in one language versus in the other. This modified sort of research bears out in the more explicit details, as well: I don't like the first version of a sentence I transposed into English in which Joe Christmas is mentioned. There are a few possible ways I could revise the sentence to make it more euphonic but keep it faithful to the original. But to do that, I must have a better understanding of the analogy the author is making to Joe Christmas' experience, so I’m reading Faulkner as part of my translation project.

The research that a translator needs or ought to do is much less what is required of a scholar; I thought that this would make me feel hamstrung, but in fact, it's liberating in the way it allows the focus to be all on the text and on rendering it, unvarnished, for the reader.

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