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.