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Viva Translation!

In 2010 the acclaimed American writer Lydia Davis published a new English translation of Gustave Flaubert’s acclaimed novel Madame Bovary. The convergence of so much acclaim did not, of course, go unnoticed. In October of that year Jonathan Raban’s three-page review of the event came out in the New York Review of Books, and in November Julian Barnes devoted a whole bunch more pages to it in the London Review of Books, making full use of that praiseworthy and often thrilling length the literary press in the English-speaking world occasionally allows and that, here in Spain, some of us long for. Raban and Barnes both displayed expert knowledge of previous English translations of the novel—the former mentioned four, the latter, fifteen (and, just so we see the level we’re operating on here, in the December 16 issue of the LRB a reader took him to task for having forgotten one)—and both set out succulent and entertaining comparisons, furnishing examples and considering dilemmas.

Raban, when comparing the various translations he looked at, paid special attention to Flaubert’s use of the imparfait, a verb tense not always easy to resolve in English. In one seven-page passage, he laboriously counted twenty-one uses of the imperfect tense in one of the translations, twenty-five in another, thirty-four in a third, and, in Lydia Davis’s, 123, which led him to conclude that her version “may be unfaultable in its accuracy to the tense of Flaubert’s verbs, but it turns Emma’s precious Thursdays [in the Rouen hotel with her lover Léon] into something like the plight of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.” Both reviewers singled out phrases—“des fourmis le long du corps” for Raban; “Aussi poussa-t-il comme un chêne. Il acquit de fortes mains, de belles couleurs” for Barnes—which each presented in multiple versions, minutely examined and exposed to the excellent judgment of the reader. The two critics, almost above all, spoke extensively and pugnaciously of the general difficulties and enigmas of all translation: “Translation is clearly too important a task to be left to machines. But what sort of human should it be given to?” (Barnes); “Like surgery, translation requires judgment, precision, and experience” (Raban); Barnes reminds us that, whereas Lydia Davis needed three years to translate Madame Bovary, John Rutherford’s “magisterial version of Leopoldo Alas’s La Regenta—a kind of Spanish Bovary—cost him, according to his calculation, five times as many hours to translate as Alas had taken to write”; Raban emphasized that defenseless English readers are doomed, for “we know that we’ll never hear in our own ears the niceties of pitch, tone, inflection, and nuance in Flaubert’s infinitely supple narrative voice as we can hear them in, say, Jane Austen’s.”

Such engaging erudition and so much sensitivity to the dangers of a task that seems almost superhuman end up turning, as one might have foreseen, rather against poor Lydia Davis .  . .  because, clearly, faced with this job of exquisite surgery, not even she, so competent and acclaimed, emerged from the undertaking without some scars. For Barnes, in the end, the American writer’s translation was “a more than acceptable version” and, for Raban, with his characteristic fatalism, “like most of its forebears, it opens some fresh windows into the novel while leaving others shuttered.”

This level of thoroughness and appreciation of subtlety is not, however, exclusive to the two great reviewers mentioned. Any reader of the English-speaking world’s literary press is accustomed to such displays of knowledge and sensibility. In a review for the Times Literary Supplement (which, by the way, devoted a mere three paragraphs to Lydia Davis’s Bovary) of a new translation of Lenz by Georg Büchner, published by Brooklyn’s Archipelago Press, Ritchie Robertson states, after quoting from the text: “That last cadence, neatly matching the emphases of the original, illustrates [translator] Richard Sieburth’s verbal sensitivity.  […] Though this version does not surpass John Reddick’s excellent Penguin translation, it provides a worthy American counterpart. ” (TLS, Feb. 4, 2005).  In a review of Alexandre Dumas’s Captain Pamphile Lucy Dallas informs us that “Andrew Brown’s translation is clear, lively and unfazed by demands such as how to convey Provençal seafaring slang.” (TLS, Jan. 26, 2007). And, regarding a version of Xavier de Maistre’s A Journey Around my Room, we are grateful to learn (from David Coward) that “this new translation is exceptionally good, though Brown might have chosen to work from the texts published by Pierre Dumas in 1984 rather than those issued by Laffont in 1959” (TLS, July 5, 2013).

Here in Spain, translators often complain, with good reason, that their work is not sufficiently valued, and it is in fact very rare to find examples of such erudition and commitment in our literary press when it comes to evaluating the quality of translations. But this is the moment, I’m afraid, to present some statistics. In 2010, I contributed an article to the White Paper on Publishing Translations in Spain in which I quoted some data from CEATL (Conseil Européen des Associations de Traducteurs Littéraires) and from other organizations about literary translations in Spain and Europe. Of all books published in Spain between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of translations fluctuated between 22.9% and 27.2 %. From 2007 to 2008, specifically, Spain was more or less on a par with Italy and Slovenia, far below Denmark (60%), Sweden (45) or Greece (40) and quite a bit higher than France (14.4%) or Germany (7.2). The United Kingdom occupied the lowest position on the list with three percent. A more recent study by Literature across Frontiers (based at the University of Aberystwyth in Wales) replaced this figure in 2008 with one between 2.21% (of the total number of books published in the UK) and 4.59% (of the total number of books of fiction, drama, and poetry). In the United States, the University of Rochester’s Web site dedicated to “international literature” is called Three Percent as a reminder of the percentage of translations in that country.

These meager figures not only cast an interesting shadow over the expertise, scrupulousness, and depth (all in a good cause, no doubt) of the excellent articles by Raban and Barnes, but also go some way in explaining these characteristics. Well, maybe one feature of a cultural industry is not enough to explain a whole culture . . . but in any case it gives some clues. In a “world” in which practically nothing is translated, and translation is seen as an exceedingly strange phenomenon, alien to the normal order of things, it’s not unusual that, like a poltergeist, it should be received, more than with curiosity, almost with skepticism, and should be submitted to the most rigorous scrutiny. It is not only rationality and the course of nature that seem to be called into question. Unfamiliarity with translation also causes the response, as in primitive societies suspicious of strangers, of convoking a tribunal of scholars to analyze the aliens’ composition and warn of consequences. Once having passed the exam, a foreigner might be admitted, without, of course, ever losing his rare immigrant status, while at the same time allowing the society to gloat over allowing access only to the most select.

One might say, with the amount of garbage originally written in English that we other cultures swallow so abundantly (and with so little regret, incidentally), the English-speaking world could stretch a little bit and consume a bigger portion of ours. One good turn deserves another, after all. But clearly, minds that operate in English do not necessarily reason that way. An unmistakable feature of colonial thinking is to seem convinced of being the bearer of what is natural and universal (in short, of the true, and most select), which is precisely what secures their hegemony. They are the ones who “know” what is universal, who detect and dictate what is and what is not “a global event” (in modern jargon) and who, if by chance the “event” is expressed in another language, give it naturalization papers through that epic and spiritually privileged process called translation. They determine not only when it’s worth running the risk of admitting outsiders, but also which few goods miraculously produced beyond its linguistic borders are worthy of being naturalized and universalized, that is, translated.

In this panorama, the challenges of the imparfait, the “niceties of pitch,” or “Provençal seafaring slang,” and the frightening fact that a translator might have spent five times as many hours translating a novel than an author did writing it are certainly seen in another light. More than occupational hazards, they seem like ordeals; more than intellectual problems, mysteries of savages; more than inherent properties, wretched accidents; and, especially, more than celebrating and encouraging the work of those rash enough to undertake it, seem to dissuade them. With which, in some diabolical way, that stingy quota of three percent (or so) that English-language publishing grants to translations is also justified.

Translation is and should be a specialized occupation, but that doesn’t mean its natural audience should consist entirely of specialists. It’s obviously desirable—and an objective to pursue—that all translations should be very good; but that there might be OK and bad ones, although technically regrettable, can also be seen as a sign of a society’s mental health. It’s true that here in Spain editors and readers too often accept uncomplainingly the attempts of amateurs and impostors, and barely highlight the talent of conscientious and professional translators; it’s true that we often give the impression of not giving a hoot about the judgment of specialists: if we did we’d have more articles in our book pages like Raban’s and Barnes’s, which in and of themselves—I insist—despite that desert landscape of the three percent (or so), are magnificent, instructive, very entertaining and necessary. However, the fact that translations are destined not to be perfect (“Flaubert, Imperfect” is the title of Raban’s article) does not seem to be a cosmic misfortune even to specialists, as well as useful, is frankly laudable. We are familiar with imperfection—a true universal if ever there was one—and we don’t experience it traumatically. This allows us to know the world without the need to think that, in order to know it, we must dominate it. It allows us to carry on translating and doing things instead of cunningly forbidding them.

"¡Vivan las traducciones!" © 2014 by Luis Magrinyà. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Anne McLean. All rights reserved.

This essay prompted a response from translator Margaret Carson. We've posted her thoughts here and invite you to join the conversation in the comments.