Read the first part of this essay here.
My answer to this question—an emphatic yes—is undoubtedly colored by my own experiences translating unstable originals. The first book-length translation I ever published was of an 800-page quasi-autobiographical novel called Glafkos Thrassakis by the Greek writer Vassilis Vassilikos (most famous for his political novel Z, which formed the basis for the 1973 film of the same name directed by Costa-Gavras). The novel had appeared in three totally different editions or versions, put out by three separate Greek publishing houses, over the course of twenty years. The U.S. publisher, meanwhile, wanted a translation that would be about half the length of the last Greek incarnation—though I had also signed a contract stipulating that my translation would “neither omit anything from the original text nor add anything to it.” In my first meeting with Vassilikos to discuss how we might circumvent this rather tricky obstacle, he took my copy of the 1988 edition, which he said he preferred to the most recent one, and tore out one entire section of the book, a 200-page chunk. What I proceeded to translate was thus a mangled copy of an out-of-print edition (issued, I should mention, by a publisher other than the one from whom the U.S. publisher had presumably acquired the translation rights)—and since it was still far longer than what my publisher wanted, many more cuts were made, all of them with the author’s knowledge and permission. In fact, Vassilikos was pleased enough with the final product to publish a fourth edition of the book a few years later, with cuts to the “original” made on the basis of my English translation.
This may sound like an extreme case, and it is. But extreme is not the same as exceptional. Textual instability is in fact the rule, not the exception, and almost every translator is likely to have a repertoire of stories that make this clear. In addition to Vassilikos’s shape-shifting novel, I have translated poems and works of prose that exist in multiple published versions, as well as oral poems for which there is, properly speaking, no fixed text. I published a book of short stories by Ersi Sotiropoulos with Greek texts taken from two different collections; one story hadn’t yet been published in Greek, and thus appeared first in my English translation. For several years I’ve been working with Greek novelist and short story writer Amanda Michalopoulou. When we first met, she was partway through writing a book of interlinked short stories. I translated a number of the stories before the book as such even existed, for various literary festivals and readings Amanda was doing in Berlin, where she was then living as a DAAD fellow. A few years later, when Dalkey Archive decided to publish I’d Like in English, I found myself editing my translations not only to accord with the structure and flow of the book as a whole, but to register the quite significant changes Amanda had made to individual stories as the book took shape.
Amanda is a fearless writer who pushes herself and her writing with every new project, experimenting not just with new narratives and themes, but with new structures and devices: interlinked stories, shifts in narrative perspective, books within books, found textual material, even photographs. This openness to new forms may be part of what makes Amanda so generous at sharing authority with her translators. Over the years, Amanda has invited me into her writing process not just as a translator of finished texts, but as a reader of works that are still in the process of becoming. In other words, through my capacity as translator I’ve also taken on the role of informal editor, the same way I edit text for friends and colleagues writing in English—a role that has perhaps made me feel an uncommon latitude in treating even Amanda’s published works as not quite finished. After all, if a work of literature is about to have a new life in a new language, why not use that opportunity to think about how it could be even better than it already is—not necessarily better suited to its new context (the dreaded “domestication”), but better in ways that can perhaps only be seen via this shuffling between languages and literary traditions?
Such a suggestion may strike horror into the hearts of some readers. It does into mine, actually, as much as I would like for it not to. And it’s hard to tell how much of my discomfort stems from a valid fear of a potential abuse of power, and how much simply reflects a perverse internalization of a view which I regard as simplistic at best: that a translation that “changes” the original is unfaithful, duplicitous, failing in its mission, essentially unethical. After all, translations rarely actually “change” originals. What people mean when they make such a claim is, I think, something quite different: the original is assumed to stay intact, in its place, and simply be misrepresented by a particular translation. Moments when a translator actually does provoke a change in an original—my translation of Vassilikos’s novel, or moments when, in translating Amanda’s stories, I question certain inconsistencies or infelicities in the Greek, prompting Amanda to rewrite these passages on the basis of my (mis?)translations—rarely become public knowledge. And even if they did, such changes seem benign enough. After all, the author retains authority, makes the final decision; the translator is merely having her say, in her capacity as well-intentioned reader and friend.
And yet one could also argue that a translator who translates from a so-called “minor” to a so-called “major” language or literature is never just a well-intentioned reader or friend. Marilyn Booth has written eloquently and illuminatingly about her own experience of having her “foreignizing” translation of Raja’ al-Sani’s (or Rajaa Alsanea’s) Girls of Riyadh subsequently “domesticated” by the author and the U.S. publisher of the book; Booth argues that the flow of power is by no means unidirectional in today’s world of international corporate publishing. By the same token, for all their status as long-suffering underdogs of the literary world, translators do sometimes hold remarkable power, including the power to produce what will in many cases become the only interpretation of a work of literature available in a given language.
That power can, at times, make a translator rather uncomfortable. My most recent translation of Amanda Michalopoulou’s work is of her 2004 novel Why I Killed My Best Friend, due out in my English translation from Open Letter next winter. Amanda and I were fortunate enough to spend a week together at a “translation lab” at the Writers Omi residency this past fall, where five author-translator pairs were given the rare opportunity to work together, face to face, on translations in progress. Given the close working relationship she and I have developed over the past several years, Amanda was willing, even eager, to use the occasion of an English translation as an opportunity to rethink certain aspects of a novel she had written nearly a decade earlier. The changes we made ranged both in extent and in kind, and might upset a reader hoping (impossibly, as we know) for unmediated access to the text as Greek-language readers first encountered it in 2004. Some of these changes may seem innocuous enough by any standards: we corrected one scene, for instance, because the description of a certain car trip didn’t correspond with the actual geography of downtown Athens. But what about the two-page passage I suggested Amanda excise for purely aesthetic reasons, simply because it seemed somewhat weak? Or perhaps most problematically, the toning-down of certain language for an American audience whose sensitivities to racial issues are likely to be more pronounced than those of the book’s Greek readership? If these are things I’d be taken to task for doing on my own, does Amanda’s knowledge and collaboration clear me of responsibility? If so, why, and is that reason a good one? When is it OK for a translator also to be an editor, and when it is not? Is a translator perhaps always an editor, no matter what we would prefer to believe?
These kinds of questions guide me in my work as a translator, as a teacher of translation and translation studies, and as a teacher of literature, too. I say questions rather than answers, since in the end, what is most important is probably the asking itself. After all, our answers to such questions tend simply to reflect back at us—as images for further examination, objects of further questioning—our own assumptions or provisional ideas about what translators do, and about what writers do, too; about what translation is, what writing is, and how those activities differ. The text of a particular translation does of necessity offer a series of solutions to the problems presented by a particular work: Stephen Mitchell will give us one Gilgamesh, one set of solutions, while Andrew George will give us another. Each will be based on profoundly different assumptions about what that work is and the mode of its meaning—and the divergence between the interpretations these two translations offer gestures to some of the fundamental lessons translation can teach us, as a category, about how texts come to be, about the force of rewritings, about the makeshift nature of interpretive work. These lessons can be as general or as specific as we want them to be; sometimes they may feel like genuine, final answers, like books being closed. But the strongest ethical claim for translation both as an activity and as a teaching tool is, to my mind, that it demands of us a willingness to inhabit an open book, to maintain a sense and an attitude of uncertainty, and to welcome the endless provisionality of our answering.