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Writing Life

The Writing Life

By Howard Goldblatt Sunday, April 28, 2002;

How's this for an occupational testimonial: "There is no such thing as a good translator. The best translators make the worst mistakes. No matter how much I love them, all translators must be closely watched."

Or this: "O ye translators, do not sodonymize us!"

Or: "Traduttore-traditore." (Translator = traitor.)

Who are these people everyone loves to hate, and, if they're so bad, how do they get away with what they're doing?

Well, I confess: I'm one of them. I'm a translator.

And our accusers? The patronizing quote at the very top comes from Isaac Bashevis Singer. Later in his career (1978), thanks to a host of translators, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature and changed his tune: "Since every language contains its own unique truths," he admitted, "translation is the very spirit of civilization."

Next comes Milan Kundera, the reigning bête noire of our fraternity, who sheds translators the way snakes shed skin, and is said to devote almost as much time to overseeing foreign editions of his work as he does to writing (in the quote above, he is inveighing against a translator's decision to use a synonym from time to time).

Finally, we must thank the Italians for reminding us that every translation is a betrayal. Is this a great job, or what?

Oh, sure, Pushkin called us "carriers of the human spirit," and Goethe referred to literary translation as "one of the most important and dignified enterprises in the general commerce of the world." But theirs was a kinder, gentler age. More recently, Jorge Luis Borges, whose relationship with his English translator, Norman Thomas di Giovanni, resembled nothing so much as a Stephen King novel, wrote in a surprisingly positive vein: "The translator's work is more subtle, more civilized than that of the writer: the translator clearly comes after the writer. Translation is a more advanced stage of writing."

It's been my experience that most writers at least tolerate the men and women given the task of rewriting -- for that is surely the nature of translation -- their work into other languages. Sometimes, however rarely, a personal relationship between author and translator grows out of the project, whether as cordial as that between, say, Umberto Eco and William Weaver, or as destructive as that between Borges and Di Giovanni. In some cases, the writer has been known to marry his translator! To wit,

Writing Life

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