June 19, 2012

Edward Albee: How to piss off a translator


Edward Albee’s Catalan translator Joan Sellent has published a revealing open letter to the playwright. You can read it here (scroll down for the English).

On Sellent’s completion of the translation of A Delicate Balance, it seems that Albee’s agent sent the translator a five-column grid, which was to be filled in with “any deviation from the exact English words and the explanation why this couldn’t be directly translated into Spanish, and why the words that were chosen were used.” Never mind that Sellent was in fact translating into Catalan, and not Spanish: this is a mind-bogglingly pointless and weird request. How can Albee, a man who has made his living from words, have failed to understand that languages do not translate directly? The clumsiness of the language used — ‘any deviation from the exact English words’ — reveals a basic misunderstanding of the task of translation, as Sellent points out:

As for the first part of the above statement —“any deviation from the exact English words”— I can assure you that, with the exception of the characters’ names and the odd place name or cultural reference, the rest of my translation is an absolute deviation from the exact English words, simply because it is written in another language.

Sellent ultimately complied with the request, out of friendship with the producers of the play: had he not done so, they would not have been allowed to stage the translation. But he’s rightly insulted both by the demand and by the manner in which it was made. One of the weirdest things here is that Albee’s demand characterises translators not as competent or incompetent — a judgment that would have been made before the offer of work was extended — but as manipulative, eager to skew the meanings of texts to suit their own ends. As Sellent again points out:

The grids you compel your translators to fill in do not guarantee in the least the quality of a translation. Do you honestly think it possible that anyone who has done a bad translation will be able to detect his own translation mistakes and be as reckless as to enumerate them explicitly?

Bad translations exist, but this is decidedly not the way to detect one — nor to treat a professional who’s done nothing but their job.


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.