Can an Author Relinquish Control?

Being translated is frightening. Imagine this: You spend months if not years writing a literary work, agonizing over each word choice, perfecting turns of phrase that convey your own particular vision and sensibility. Then you hand over the finished product to a stranger in another country who does something mysterious with it, resulting in a work in a language you quite possibly don’t read a word of, a work you may never truly be in a position to evaluate, and then he publishes it under your name. It’s no wonder authors get nervous when they think about all their foreign-language simulacra. Pretty much every author I ever talked to about this is eager to be assured that her translator is “faithful” to the original work. But what does that mean?

It’s been understood for centuries that no one-to-one correspondence between languages exists; each language offers different modes of expression; and relying on cognates or even direct semantic equivalents can often lead one into the territory of hideously bad writing. This tends to make foreign authors bad judges of translations of their work. Their desperate quests for equivalence can make them lobby for what are in fact bad translations, in the misguided belief that parallel structures in different languages will have parallel effects. In my personal experience, even authors who don’t read a lick of English sometimes try to get in the game. I once had a novelist who specialized in particularly long sentences “check” my translation by counting the number of periods to make sure I hadn’t chopped up his darlings. I hadn’t; the number of full stops checked out; he was pleased.

Once the wonderful writer Andrew Holleran (“the air is soft as talcum powder, so soft you can’t imagine people dying here“) made me giggle for weeks by insisting that it was surely child’s play to translate the title of his seminal novel The Dancer from the Dance, since after all it was a Yeats quote. I tried to explain that the fact it was a Yeats quote was precisely what made it so difficult, but I’m not sure he believed me. I wish every writer would try translating something — anything — once, even a tiny little poem; it wouldn’t take much to help her grasp the nature of the beast.

Günter Grass grasps it, which is why he convenes elaborate international translation seminars each time he publishes a novel, inviting all his translators from around the world to come together to discuss all the trickiest bits from the book with each other and with him. Brilliant. He doesn’t make it his business to impose on his translators words in their own native languages, which after all they master far better than he does, but instead he makes sure they have as perfect as possible an understanding of the original text. This is a wise and helpful approach and assuredly has contributed to the quality of Grass’s translations around the world.

Trusting one’s translators to be masters of their craft and do their jobs well is pretty much the best an author can do to help assure the quality of his translations. If he wants, he can ask native informants in a translator’s language to evaluate the quality of the translator’s work, but beyond that, attempting to exercise control can only lead to chaos. Some authors find this hard to accept. It seems that Edward Albee is one of them. Today’s edition of the Barcelona-based online magazine Núvol contains an open letter to Albee by Joan Sellent, a highly respected translator into Catalan of works by Salman Rushdie, Paul Auster, Henry James, and Charles Dickens. Sellent bitterly complains that Albee’s agent recently forced Sellent to

submit to you [Albee], as the author of the original text, an exhaustive five-column grid with the detailed specification of — I quote literally from the e-mail sent by your agent — “any deviation from the exact English words and the explanation why this couldn’t be directly translated into Spanish [sic], and why the words that were chosen were used.”

To any translator, the futility and humiliating time-consumingness of this piece of busywork will be instantly clear. If you’d like to see a detailed account of what is wrong with the request, I refer you to Sellent’s clear and cogent explanation, which he provides in both Catalan and English (scroll down for the latter). In a nutshell, he concludes:

The grids you compel your translators to fill in do not guarantee in the least the quality of a translation. Do you honestly think it possible that anyone who has done a bad translation will be able to detect his own translation mistakes and be as reckless as to enumerate them explicitly?

Nope, probably not. And somehow I can’t even imagine that having a file folder stuffed full of grids filled out by pissed-off translators from around the world is going to make Edward Albee feel any better about surrendering control over the language of his plays. I feel his pain, but there’s no remedy for it. Sorry, Ed; and sorry, Joan.

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