Translation and Intimacy

After the Robert Walser event on Christmas Day, I wound up having a conversation with poet Dara Wier about translating and reading. People are always talking about how translating is a form of reading, and I suppose that’s true, but its actual relationship to reading is more complicated than the simple assertion of the relationship implies. Everyone reads a bit differently than everyone else. We all have our own private histories and associations and reading and listening backgrounds, so certain words (all words?) will resonate differently for each of us than they do for other people. In any case, any given word can have a range of meanings, and usually when you translate you are selecting one (or if you’re lucky, two) and excluding all the others. This means that any given translation provides a permanent record of the way the translator read the original text. “But reading is such a private thing,” Dara said, “and you’re letting everyone see you doing it.” Which raises the question: Are translators exhibitionists, constantly reading, and constantly showing off the fact that we’ve been reading and what we saw? It’s certainly the case that reading a translation puts you at the mercy of the translator’s subjectivity. As a translator, I’ll pretend to be showing you the text as objectively as I can—and in fact that’s just what I’m trying to do—but nonetheless you have no choice but to read as I read the original when you read my translation. How you read the translation itself, however, is entirely up to you.

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  1. schultzie says:

    I don’t think I ever understood the idea of close reading until I had a go at translation.

    merry xmas etc

  2. Donald Brown says:

    “nonetheless you have no choice but to read as I read the original when you read my translation”

    well said, and it’s this realization (being at the mercy, “no choice” and all) of the translator that made me want to learn to read French and German (at least). In some cases, I like seeing the “mark” a translator makes on a text, but usually I’m simply willing to accept the translator’s reading because I can’t be bothered to do the hard reading in the original. Every so often I wonder about trying to read the original into English myself (i.e., translating) particularly when I’m unhappy with what the translator did to the text. Maybe someday.

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