October 27, 2014

Translators and the Nobel Prize


Mark Polizzotti and Patrick Modiano. Images via ndbooks.com and ecuadortimes.net.

Mark Polizzotti and Patrick Modiano. Images via ndbooks.com and ecuadortimes.net.

There’s a new development that has crept into coverage of the Nobel Prize for Literature in recent years: after the announcement and then the round of explainers has come interviews and essays by the translators of the winners.

Whether this comes out of greater visibility for translators in general, or journalists’ frantic search for an informed source, or just a fresh angle on prize news, it’s hard to say. But it’s been good to see, and fascinating to read.

The latest installment is an essay by Mark Polizzotti, translator of Patrick Modiano, on the Yale University Press blog.  (Yale will be publishing a collection of three novellas, Suspended Sentences, by Modiano in November. Timing!) Polizzotti , who has also translated Jean Echenoz, Marguerite Duras, Raymond Roussel, and Flaubert, among others, talks about the trickiness of bringing Modiano’s spare prose into English:

What makes his books so affecting is their ability to blend a spare, apparently effortless delivery with an emotional depth and resonance that belie the surface plainness. Often the most seemingly straightforward sentence will require long reflection and numerous passes before the English starts yielding the same level of evocation.

That isn’t the only challenge. As he describes it, there’s an inconsistency and unreliability built into Modiano’s books that had to be understood, respected, and conveyed in the English: “one has the frequent impression… that the narrator’s memory is faulty, subject to lapses and short-circuits, suggesting that the facts being related are not as reliable as we’d wish, that certain crucial elements have been left out.”

Sometimes there are multiple translations out in the stores, and the different approaches themselves become the subject of public debate, like when the translations of the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer by Robin Fulton and Robin Robertson went head-to-head in the letters pages of the Times Literary Supplement in the weeks just before the 2011 Nobel announcement, with Fulton accusing Robertson of borrowing lines from Fulton’s translations and presenting his (Robertson’s) versions as accurate translations instead of interpretations—Robertson, who is a poet himself, doesn’t speak Swedish and worked from a crib provided by a native speaker.

The dust-up revealed a lot about differing attitudes towards this type of translation (yes, even though it has been done for hundreds of years, it can be extra-extra-problematic), but also it lead to close reading of the two translations side-by-side in major publications like the New York Times, which almost never happens, so that was an unexpected boon.

And sometimes, of course, the winner is a translator him- or herself, since writers in any other language but English (and especially European writers) tend to translate as well. That was the case with Herta Müller, in 2009. Born a member of Romania’s German-speaking minority, Müller worked as a translator at an engineering company in the ‘70s, an experience that she recounted in her Nobel  lecture. When she refused to inform for the Securitate, she was barred from her office and had to sit the stairwell of the building, where she continued to translate. The work, and the connections of words to bodies and objects, gave her a purchase in an unbearably difficult time:

I rested my thick dictionaries on my knee and translated the descriptions of hydraulic machines…. During the time that I was a staircase wit, I looked up the word STAIR in the dictionary: the first step is the STARTING STEP or CURTAIL STEP that can also be a BULLNOSE. HAND is the direction a stair takes at the first riser. The edge of a tread that projects past the face of the riser is called the NOSING. I already knew a number of beautiful words having to do with lubricated hydraulic machine parts: DOVETAIL, GOOSENECK, ACORN NUTS and EYEBOLTS. Now I was equally amazed at the poetic names of the stair parts, the beauty of the technical language. NOSING and HAND—so the stair has a body.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.