Anna Moschovakis on the Allure of the Adjective

Friday night’s Bridge was a particularly rich one, with challenging, in-depth exchanges between writer/translators Lydia Davis and Anna Moschovakis on questions of style, tone, revision, voice, and even teaching (both said, in effect, that when you teach students to translate, what you’re basically doing is helping them hone their skills as writers – which is also how I see it). Davis spoke in detail about her revision process, which sometimes continues even after a book sees print if her editors allow her to make changes for subsequent editions, as happened with her most recent book, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. In particular, she toned down her use of “would” to render Flaubert’s characteristic use of the verb form imparfait/imperfect (as in: “In the morning, she would do this, and then she would do that”); in the most recent edition, Davis uses the “would” forms only once or twice to set the context, and then shifts to the less obtrusive simple past form (“then she did that”). Davis finds – and in this I agree with her – that it’s easier to experience a book when it’s in print, as opposed to in manuscript form; I too invariably wind up making changes to all my translations at the page proof stage, for the same reason.

I was eager to write about this Bridge, but when I sat down to do so, I saw I had an e-mail from Anna Moschovakis, who’d been thinking more about the discussions meanwhile, and voila: a beautiful guest blog. Here’s what Anna had to say:

Last night, I told a lie from a panel stage, and I’m here to set it right.

That’s not exactly true, either. Here’s what actually happened:

It was at the Bridge translation reading series, and I was paired with Lydia Davis for the evening, which caused a certain amount of intimidation even though I’ve known Lydia for over a decade and she is not the sort to set out to intimidate.

I read from my translation of Albert Cossery’s The Jokers, and then Lydia read from—and eloquently spoke about—her translation of Madame Bovary. At the Q&A, the first question posed to me was about Cossery’s ample, exaggerated use of adjectives and adverbs, and whether I felt the need to tone it down for the English version.

I should have been expecting this question, since it is the one specifically translation-related issue brought up in reviews of Cossery’s work and in James Buchan’s introduction to The Jokers, in which he writes: “[Cossery’s] style depends for its effect on precise and outlandish adjectives, as in the description here of the terrace of the Globe Café. That is not the very best style in English, which likes verbs and nouns, and presents a challenge to his translator.”

So I should have been expecting the question, but I had nothing prepared to say. I stumbled a bit, and then I recalled that my book editor and I went through several drafts of the manuscript, during which it reduced itself in word-count by something like 10%. This was true. Then I found and read an example of one of Cossery’s sentences that included a small pile-up of “outlandish” adjectives and adverbs, and suggested that during the revision process I had reduced them in number in order to achieve the desired effect in English, explaining the choice with the idea that the translation needed to walk the same fine line between exaggerated ebullience and straight-up farce as did the original. But my explanation misrepresented what I’d actually done, and I’ll get to why in a minute.

The Q&A continued, and I only wish I could have peppered Lydia with questions myself; here was the country’s foremost translator of French—also my former teacher and the closest thing I have had to a translation mentor, although we hardly talked about translation when I studied writing with her for three summers at Bard—and I had a flood of questions that I didn’t have time to ask. But the audience asked good ones: about the influence of translation on writing and vice versa, about whether and when we consult prior translations of the text we’re working on, about how we handle any temptation to “correct” grammatical or other mistakes or perceived weaknesses in the original. Lydia shared specific examples from Madame Bovary to speak to many of these questions, and her responses were enlightening.

One audience member mentioned the forthcoming edition of Murakami’s complete works in English and the fact that the two volumes will be translated by two different hands, which she found disturbing. Lydia then got to talk about the recent edition of Proust, in which each of the seven volumes was given to a different translator, and she agreed that this may not be ideal, admitting that she’d heard from some sensitive readers that they found the subtle shifts in voice to be disturbing. I tend to support reading multiple translations of any one author, to triangulate as it were, and to be reminded that the translation is not identical to the original or its replacement, so I had found the idea of the multiply translated Proust to be brilliant. But that said, I have only read Lydia’s first volume, so my sensitivities as a reader have not had the chance to be affected by the transitions.

This question related to an earlier question, in which we were both asked whether we recognized our “voice” in our translations, and how we felt about that. Lydia and I seemed to agree that were we to recognize our own writer’s voice in a translation, we’d find it disturbing, but the idea that each translator brings his or her vocabulary to a translation, which can give it a certain relationship to the writer’s own work, seemed more accurate. I made a note to myself to be more vigilant about knowing my own vocabulary and how it affects my translations.

And that brings me back to Cossery’s adjectives.

Here is the short section I picked out on the fly as an example (I’ve bolded the adjectives and adverbs):

“Karim gave himself up to a feeling of delicious languor, while enjoying the voluptuous vision of his mistress from the night before getting dressed in the middle of the room. From the patronizing smile that played on his lips you would have thought he was observing a procession of dancers, lasciviously swaying their hips for his pleasure alone, instead of a poor creature (picked up on the street) whose modest charms no longer held a single secret for him. Karim’s languorous pose was meant to suggest an atmosphere of luxury and decadence, but in fact it hid the state of nervous tension that had been racking him since he woke up.”

I suggested that I had removed four or five additional “languorous”- type adjectives from this scene, in order to bring it down to a proportionally purple prose in English. What I was trying to address, I think, was the importance for me of getting the tone right in a translation, of making it sound right. What I probably should have said was that I didn’t particularly think about adjectives while I was translating—I just tried to get the translation right, nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions, and all. I didn’t approach the challenge of translating Cossery as a challenge about adjectives, but a challenge about tone.

So when a few people came up to me after the panel to ask me how it felt to remove Cossery’s own adjectives from the book, I was surprised. Had I said that? Had I done that? First of all, on the translation-theory continuum between domestication (making the original sound more English) and foreignization (bringing a sense of foreignness to the English translation), I lean heavily toward the latter position. Second of all, I really didn’t remember if I’d removed a single adjective in The Jokers. I just remember that my second draft was shorter than my first; that my perspicuous editor suggested a leaner sentence on many occasions, and on many occasions I agreed; and that I struggled most of all to reproduce Cossery’s nimbly ironic tone.

So this morning, l’esprit de l’escalier sent me back to the original to see if, in fact, I had removed any adjectives from that passage I quoted. Here it is in the French:

“Tout en s’abandonnant à cette molle langueur, il semblait goûter un plaisir voluptueux à observer sa mâitresse d’une nuit, en train de s’habiller, debout au milieu de la chambre. Au sourire condescendant qui apparaissait par instants sur ses lèvres, on eût dit qu’une procession de bayadères, aux hanches ondoyantes et lascives, défilait devant ses yeux pour son délassement intime, et non une pauvre créature (ramassé la veille dans la rue) dont les charmes modestes n’avaient plus pour lui aucun secret. Cette ambiance de haut luxe, qu’il essayait de créer par son attitude alanguie et précieuse, cachait, à vrai dire, un état d’extrême tension, auquel il était soumis depuis son réveil.”

The French passage has 110 words; the English 111. So I actually added a word. I did drop some adjectives/adverbs (from 12 down to 8), but that was because I converted them to other parts of speech (“aux haunches ondoyantes et lascives” became “lasciviously swaying their hips”). And this discovery, more than a year after the book was published, finally made me understand what James Buchan and other commentators mean when they talk about Cossery’s adjectives. I’d been reading Buchan’s claim with the wrong emphasis: where I read “[Cossery’s] style depends for its effect on precise and outlandish adjectives,” I should have read “[Cossery’s] style depends for its effect on precise and outlandish adjectives.” The challenge he’s referring to isn’t about properly reproducing the effect of the outlandish adjectives. It’s about dealing with sentences in which so much of what happens is happening in that part of speech. My first draft left all the adjectives as adjectives, and what changed in the second draft, and with my editor’s notes, was that some of those adjectives were converted to nouns and verbs. Which, as Buchan points out, English likes. As my junior-high-school self might say: Duh.

And what of that reduction in word count from draft to draft? It’s actually something that happens with most translations I do from the French, but usually I work it out one or two drafts earlier than I did this time. And it’s not about adjectives, it’s about syntax: I often start by reproducing the French syntax while preserving the meaning in English, which adds words (and makes for some terrible English sentences). Then I go back and rewrite everything, and it takes as many drafts as it takes.

In hindsight, it’s tempting to wish I had retained just a few more of Cossery’s adjectival pile-ups, even at the expense of extra awkwardness in the English (I do like awkwardness), even if I’d had to find a way to defend them to those who favor “smooth” translations. And that brings me to the last point of the panel, the question of what advice we would give to students and beginning translators. What I’m doing here is what translators do, sometimes obsessively. It isn’t that I’ve turned on my own translation, or that I’m worried about having made mistakes or “wrong” choices. It’s just that translation is an endless process. It’s always best, if you can manage it, to build in a long waiting time between the first “final” draft and its publication, since the longer you sit with something, the more you’ll find to change (and in contrast to what can happen with one’s own work, these changes are often improvements). But once a translation is published, go back and look closely only at your own risk. Unless, of course, there’s going to be a second edition.

Thank you, Anna, for sharing these reflections!

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  1. Alex Z. says:

    This idea of “converting” adjectives to nouns and verbs . . . I often (need to?) do the same when translating from Czech, but with adverb/verb combinations, “converting” them to an English verb that does the work all by itself. I always thought this was because Czech’s word-stock is so much smaller than English’s. But the size of French’s vocabulary is comparable to ours, is it not?

  2. MBS says:

    I so wish I could have been at this event! One comment on the relative lengths of an original and its translation. An English translation will generally be 25-30% longer than its Russian original. This fairly regular expansion rate has many sources, one being Russian’s lack of articles, but there are others, too. I have heard that translations from Spanish have fewer words. These are regularities based on how different languages work–even aside from character-based languages. (It can also be a rough guide to misguided Russian-English translations, which expand at a frighening rate.) Another contributing factor to length may well be this choice to convert parts of speech, a method I have often found effective for accurately conveying the tone of the original, because different languages weight syntactical elements differently. The fact that Cossery uses adjectives to a given effect has a purely mechanical aspect to it; ultimately, it is his style one wants to realize in English. (Alex: I believe that English is marked by its outsize vocabulary, much larger than French, in particular, which had its Academie watchdog for so long.)

  3. earling says:

    “.. . it’s easier to experience a book when it’s in print, as opposed to in manuscript form;”

    Very true. Which is why I print out all my stuff in “book form” when I re-write. Single spaced, justified, small-ish font
    Also, related, there’s a built-in credibility with a book-shaped ms. A double-spaced typescript is a relatively tough sell to any reader, psychologically

  4. Mike Baugh says:

    I wonder if in languages like Czech and Russian where adjectives are so distinct in form from nouns and verbs, they seem to have their own elegance, as opposed to in English where they often come off as cheap substitutes for good verbs and nouns. Also in English they tend to pile up and clog a sentence, while in Czech they often help the sentence flow. It’s strange.

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