Translated From The Italian

I’ve written (albeit briefly) about translation before, but it struck me that in discussing The Prague Cemetery last week I didn’t mention the name of Richard Dixon. Peter Conrad’s review of the English edition of the novel, which I bounced off sceptically in that post, is criticised in the comments for committing precisely the same omission, and I duly hang my head in shame – not least because, of course, Eco has written himself about the problems of translation.

In a piece from a twenty-year-old edition of the Guardian Weekly, Eco (mediated, of course, through a translation) discussed the relative merits of the source- and target-oriented method of rendering a text from one language to another. It feels to me that Eco supports the target-oriented approach: though he defends the retention, for instance, of repetition in Homer, he advocates the retention of effect over sense in Tolstoy. Similarly, he provides a lovely example of a moment in Foucault’s Pendulum strictly mis-translated in English in order to retain the passage’s instantly recognisable allusiveness. Eco is not being entirely consistent: The Iliad, he argues, is culturally separate enough from us that we should respect what we might today perceive as its formal limitations; yet a modern Chinese reader must not be expected to know Russian aristocrats of the Napoleonic era spoke French, and instead have the first chapter of War & Peace translated anew into some fittingly familiar-but-alien script.

Nevertheless, this is a position held, too, by Julian Barnes in my previous post about translation. He found Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary too close to the original French – a shame, then, that he didn’t subsequently review Adam Thorpe’s translation, which followed hot on Davis’s heels and sought not to ape the French so much as mirror the disruptive, radical effect it might have had in 1856, but – ahem – did so by sticking to period language (“A good translation holds faith with the original’s aura,” wrote Thorpe in the Guardian, orienting around a target).

I recently reviewed Lemistry, a celebration of the famously under-translated Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, for Foundation Vector. One of my favourite bits of what is a rather neat little book is, fittingly, the translator’s note:

“The relationship with a book seems straightforward, when you reside in your favourite location, be it a chair, a train, a bed or up a tree, you and the author seem to have an intimacy, a direct relationship which allows the alchemy of conjuring a static fiction into something that swims in the mind. However we are also there, in fact the words and the language of your homeland are ours. We are part of the futurological entropy of Lem’s ideas, as is his dissemination into other forms and materials. [...] We are the entities that have taken those ideas structured as words, from their native language to that of yours, we have made them into films, we have constructed new worlds from them using the everyday that surrounds our own.”

All of which is simply by way of apologising to Richard Dixon, of whose orientation, whether focused on source or target, I am entirely ignorant. Given how embedded The Prague Cemetery seems to be in particularly Italian notions of the nineteenth-century, one might imagine Dixon attempted to spark the English-speaking Victorian imagination; but, equally, The Prague Cemetery is a forbidding novel which does not find much space for Anglophone culture. If Dixon has made remarks somewhere, I’ve missed them and would appreciate a link or a reference.

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6 comments
  1. Martin said:

    I recently reviewed Lemistry, a celebration of the famously under-translated Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, for Foundation.

    No you didn’t! You reviewed it for Vector.

    • danhartland said:

      Oh, bum! Well, there’s a brain fart and a half …

  2. Richard Dixon said:

    I read your posting with great interest. I have never been very sure about the debate between source- and target-oriented methods of translation. Come to think of it, when it comes to translation, I’m not sure about any “methods”. While working on The Prague Cemetery I tried to listen to the text and imagine how Eco would have written it if he himself had been working in English. In that respect it’s an enormous help being able to get to know the author and to hear his voice.
    Eco is a great communicator. He wants to touch his audience. But that doesn’t mean he expects them to understand every word he writes. There are moments when his prose is beautifully clear and simple. There are times when he enjoys flashes of intellectual fireworks. So there is also an element of judging how the text is received by the Italian reader and transposing it accordingly into English.
    Here, as you say, there is not much space for Anglophone culture. Simonini is writing his diary in Paris in the latter years of the 19th century. Eco’s choice of language reflects this. I tried to do the same, avoiding words that would not have been in Simonini’s vocabulary. But otherwise , the process has to be as natural as possible. In this respect, translation requires a good ear more than anything else.

    • danhartland said:

      Richard, many thanks for your comment. In particular, your thoughts on the non-methodical method are interesting: I wonder what implications it has for translations of works by authors long deceased? Judging the reception the text might receive from an Italian and attempting to have that effect on an English reader, of course, sounds target-oriented in a way; bhut I’m more interested by the interpolation of the period Parisian vocabulary. Simonini is a European polyglot in many ways, isn’t he? How that works through the text must, as you say, add extra layers of translation. Fireworks indeed!

      Your phrase ‘a good ear’ puts me in mind of a guitarist looking for the right inversion of a chord – sure, an open ‘G’ might have the right notes, convey the right harmony, but it wouldn’t have the same voicing as a barre chord. Fascinating, and thanks again.

      • Richard Dixon said:

        So far as dead authors, you’re right, the task of translation is much more target orientated. A couple of years ago I worked with a team of translators on the first translation of Giacomo Leopardi’s vast “Zibaldone di pensieri” (due to be published next year). There, of course, our only idea of what he sounded like was through his writings, and our main concern (apart from accuracy) was making sure it was understandable to the modernday reader.
        Returning to The Prague Cemetery and ‘period Parisian vocabulary’, most of that was suggested by the original Italian text, but there were occasions where the most natural way of translating an Italian word was with a French one – e.g. ‘gaffe’ became ‘faux pas’. Other words came through research – e.g. details of the Dreyfus Affair. It is certainly one of those books where the translator has to do a lot of research so that he knows that world almost as well as the author.

        • danhartland said:

          Making a translation understandable to the modern day reader sounds like it might risk a rewriting – for instance, I might choose to make Charles Dickens more understandable in that way, native language or no. That, of course, would adulterate the text – so I don’t envy you that balancing act! I’ll look forward to the results, though, since I would say that your translation of the Eco certainly communicated just that impression of inhabiting the period. Mission accomplished, I’d say.

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