September 30, 2013
International Translation Day
by Sal Robinson
International Translation Day, which is today, is a relatively recent phenomenon, though its roots go far back. Founded in 1953 by International Federation of Translators, it is in fact the feast day of St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators. Jerome earned this role by undertaking the translation of the first translation of the Old Testament from the Hebrew; earlier Latin translations had used the Septuagint, a translation from the Hebrew into koiné Greek, thus putting those translations at two removes from the original. It was a mammoth task, and not one that other early Christians, like Augustine, thought was necessary or even desirable. Any translator who has tried to argue for a re-translation or a new translation based on the source text, rather a language that the original book was translated into (sometimes called a “pivot language) before making its way into a third language will feel Jerome’s pain.
It seems particularly appropriate that International Translation Day should be the result of this union between a 1st-century Slovenian saint who dedicated 20 years of his life to a translation that all his peers thought was irrelevant and the International Federation of Translators (FIT), a vaguely UN/UNESCO-ish body that represents translators, interpreters, and something they call “terminologists.” Translation does nothing if not create odd bedfellows between the dogged individual eccentric on a linguistic crusade and umbrella organizations with wildly broad mandates and bad clip art.
In honor of all such odd unions, I’d like to share some translations that I’m glad exist:
This is the ultimate book about taking preposterously long walks with your friends when you’re in your twenties, and talking your head off about all the things you’re going to set to rights. In Damion Searls’s translation, there are lines like “We were kids– but good kids. If I may say so myself. We’re much smarter now, so smart it’s pathetic. Except for Bavink, who went crazy.”
Michael Glenny’s translation of Bulgakov’s backstage novel is full of the biggest egos this side of L.A. Watch a young writer whose play has been picked up for production at the legendary Independent Theatre get tossed like a Nerf ball around between them. It’s funny, but only if you’ve never worked backstage. Then, it’s too too real. But somehow, still funny.
This is the first translation I picked up on my own back when I started in publishing, around 2004. And the first book where I thought “what the fuck is going on here? This narrator does not stop talking, he seems to be trying to confess to something, there are no paragraph breaks, and nothing I have read in 26 years of basically doing nothing else has prepared me for this.” Chris Andrews’s translation will knock you sideways.
A novel about a woman who, when her husband leaves her, loses her hold on her role as wife, mother, and woman, on daily life, and on how doors work. Honest, there’s a scene where she can no longer figure out how to open a door. To me, this seems terrifyingly plausible. Ann Goldstein has since gone on to translate other equally unnerving novels by Ferrante, lncluding most recently two books of a trilogy set in postwar Naples about a friendship between two women, following them from childhood onwards.
This wasn’t the first Saramago book I worked on at my old job (the first was “Seeing,” where I was somewhat arbitrarily put in charge of checking the punctuation on the proofs– another mind-blowing experience for a young person who’d never seen a sentence that long before), but it’s one of his tenderest, and Margaret Jull Costa’s translation follows every twist and turn with incredible translatorial sympathy and brilliance.
I’m reading this at the moment, in Humphrey Davies’s translation, and “sui generis” is a perfectly appropriate way to describe it, even if its author, Ahmad Faris Al-Shidyaq, 19th-century Lebanese translator, journalist, publisher, and literary Zelig of the Nahdah, describes it that way himself. (And also tells you to read no other books after it.) Some chapter titles: “Angering Women Who Dart Sideways Looks, and Claws Like Hooks,” “Unseemly Conversations and Crooked Contestations,” and “That Which is Long and Broad.”
The story of a marriage, told first from one perspective and then from another, Karapanou’s novel shifts the ground under you constantly, moving between ecstasy, poison, excess, and the state of Connecticut with equal confidence. Translated by Karen Emmerich, it begins “His eyes were purple, cold, the eyes of a fish. But he was so dazzlingly handsome that his beauty instantly obscured the sense I had of the horror that was to come.”
Nanni Balestrini’s research assistant Roberto Saviano gets all the attention, but this is the good stuff—Balestrini’s account of the effect of the Camorra on a small Southern Italian town centers on a narrator, a local who has gotten out and doesn’t intend to come back. The octopus-like stranglehold of the Camorra is conveyed in circling, doubling-back prose that has almost no punctuation, with voices and sentences that dovetail into each other without warning. Tony Shugaar translated this for Melville House in 2009 and it remains one of my favorite books on the list.
Most re-translations are of classics, books from the 19th century and further back, where the language may have bent and changed a bit, and literary taste has sifted out which books can make a re-translation financially viable. So it’s rare that a book like “The Tin Drum”, which was first published in English in 1962, in Ralph Manheim’s translation, receives a new treatment. But on the 50th anniversary of its original publication, Breon Mitchell took it on as part of a worldwide re-translation of the book, supported by Grass with one of his extraordinary “Übersetzertreffen” (translators’ meetings). The oddness of the novel at the time, and especially of Grass’s freewheeling, musical approach to syntax, sentence length, neologisms, had led to earlier translations that toned some of this down. When I was an assistant editor on the project, it was an education in editorial respect for the text and the reader to watch Mitchell’s translation emerge—a new raucous tin drum for the times.
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.