#Translation and Heartbreak

I review a lot of translated literature on this here blog thing. I also advocate for translating German literature. I love translation (I may be of two minds about poetry translation) as I love literature. I also think that ethically, translation is an extremely difficult business. I don’t, at this point, want to wade in further in the issue, but this post is just to reflect my sadness and heartbreak about the recent news about Han Kang’s English translator.

Personally, I stay away from German translation because it is *as a rule* either sloppy or rather distanced from the text. There are whole generations of translators who are taught to “improve” the text. I heard that at university when i studied Romance languages in Bonn. Germans have no issues translating a Japanese text from the English translation. It’s bizarre and offensive. So I try to read English and French translations. And with some languages, particularly Romance languages, you can guess. When I read the Villalobos I reviewed yesterday, I double checked a few things in my Spanish dictionary and I think I can make an educated guess at some of the translation’s flaws (this is not in the review; I didn’t want to be a sourpuss). But with, say, Korean, I am out on a raft on the empty sea. I don’t speak any Asian language to my great shame and embarrassment and so my guesses, well, let me quote from my review of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian:

The translation fits the text perfectly and contributes to the unsettling effect that this novel-in-stories provides.


The ultimate test of a translation, the accuracy, is one I cannot perform, but from my limited angle this is a fine effort, and Han Kang is fortunate to be translated by Deborah Smith, almost as fortunate as we all have to have such a good novel around.

As I found out this week, I was severely off-base. I recommend you read this essay by Charse Yung with some urgency if you haven’t yet. I share none of its positive attitude and spin to the facts it lays out. I read (and reread) this with a profound sense of heartbreak. Sure, the numerical parts are questionable (how do you quantify how much has been added since no good translation is a 1-to-1 interlinear equivalent) without reading the paper mentioned (but not cited) within. But even with some allowance for that, the rest of the autopsy here is absolutely atrocious. I am heartbroken. As someone as profoundly and shamefully limited as me with languages, translation is a trust excercise. Egregious cases like this one feel like a betrayal to me. I know I may take literature too seriously, people tell me that, but this is a stunning case. Let me repeat: you want to read this article. And I don’t see how you (or anyone) can ever read another Smith-translated book again.

Questions of translation

DSC_0295Below is the beginning of the postscript of Hans Mayer‘s translation of Sartre’s Les Mots into German. I’ve read it first many years ago, before I was fluent in French, and through all that time, that postscript has been a kind of touchstone in some ways to my thinking about literary translation and my own translations. The bit below is an explanation of why Mayer chose “Die Wörter” and not “Die Worte” as a translation of <les mots>. There’s a distinct possibility that this is only of interest to me, so I’m sorry about that.

Als die Übersetzungsarbeit bereits abgeschlossen war, blieb immer noch der Zweifel, wie es mit der Eindeutschung des Titels zu halten sei. “Les Mots” – das übersetzt jeder natürlich mit “Die Worte”. Beim ersten Lesen von Sartres Bericht über seine Kindheitsentwicklung und die Ursprünge seiner Lebensentscheidung für die Schriftstellerei mußte jedoch angemerkt werden, daß diese für Sartres gesamtes Leben so bedeutungsvolle Grundsituation gar nicht durch Worte im Zusammenhang erzeugt worden war, also durch Worte, die sich zu Texten – für Sartre: zu geheiligten Texten – koordiniert hatten, sondern durch etwas anderes. Was? Offensichtlich durch die für den kleinen Poulou so zehrende und verzaubernde Magie einzelner Wörter, die es vermocht hatten, dem Kind sich aufzuzwingen. […] Für den kleinen Poulou […] hatten die Wörter eine fremdartige Körperlichkeit angenommen. […] Sie waren verdinglicht und standen für die Welt. Sein Weg führte zur Wirklichkeit führte über zahllose Begegnungen mit Wortgebilden. Im Anfang waren die Wörter, das ist hier “wörtlich” zu nehmen. Es war nicht das Wort im Sinne des Logos, was für Sartre am Anfang stand. Sein Weg führte von den Wörtern zu den Worten, dann von den Worten zu den Sachen. So wird man die Geschichte, die Sartre, der bald Sechzigjährige, niederschrieb, wohl verstehen müssen. Im Deutschen hatte also der Titel zu lauten “Die Wörter”.

Frank Smith: Guantanamo: UPDATE

You might or might not remember my review of Frank Smith’s extraordinary book Guantanamo. If you don’t, I urge you to read it. But then I would.

If you have not read my review, you might not know that Frank Smith, despite his anglosaxon name, is, in fact, writing in French. This has put books of his, especially the largely excellent Guantanamo out of reach for many of my friends. This sad circumstance has now, however, been amended.

The very talented Vanessa Place has just translated Guantanamo. It will be published by LES FIGUES PRESS in August 2014 with an introduction by Mark Sanders.


Beer is obvious

In response to this, the following wonderful paragraph was emailed me by M. Majistral of tabula rasa, the best non-professional literature blog I know (I publish it with his assent):

I guessed as much (and I had seen the slogan on your blog in the past) but it was too tempting to comment on content (especially since I know people who say that). I can’t read German but I do sort of understand the simple words (ie those with some similarities to English or Dutch words) and truth be told “Nein, nein, das ist nicht der Kapitalismus” is not the hardest thing to get. It picqued my interest so I had a closer look. Bier was obvious, sagen too, Köpfe I knew from the Dutch Kop, abends from God knows were and jetzt from a friend from the german-speaking part of Belgium who used to have a sticker with “Ich Bums Jetzt Jeden Tag !”. I then bablefished the whole thing to put the pieces together — which confirmed my hinch regarding Börsianer. So you see that was a long winded process that should lead you to one conclusion: more than one simple sentence, I can’t read.



Die deutsche Ausgabe allerdings basiert auf der englischen Übertragung und ist also das Resultat einer doppelten Übersetzung. Beide Male habe der Text etwas verloren, beim ersten Mal das “Düstere” und die “existenzielle Angst” des indischen Originals, beim zweiten Mal ein paar “kulturspezifische Nuancen”, die in der englischen Übertragung wohl noch mitschwangen. Wenner stört das alles nicht sehr, da sich die Übersetzung von Ursula Gräfe “wunderbarer” als die englische Grundlage lese, und die Rezensentin fühlt sich bei den geglätteten Sätzen und dem “gehobenen” Ton an Novalis und seinen Heinrich von Ofterdingen erinnert.

Kein Wunder, daß deutsche Übersetzungen so furchtbar sind, wenn das der Anspruch ist. Wort- und Kulturkannibalismus. Die Pest. Bah.


Traduttore Traditore (2)


You wouldn’t think you could get sued over a Bible translation, but one Bradley LaShawn Fowler has filed lawsuits against two publishers demanding a total of $70 million in damages. He claims that their versions of the Bible, which condemn homosexuality, violate his rights as a homosexual man.

"…said the repulsive old Jew"

Adam Roberts in the Guardian on old English translations of Jules Verne

But when I checked the 1877 translation against the original my heart sank. It was garbage. On almost every page the English translator, whoever he, or she, was (their name is not recorded), collapsed Verne’s actual dialogue into a condensed summary, missed out sentences or whole paragraphs. She or he messed up the technical aspects of the book. She or he was evidently much more anti-Semitic than Verne, and tended to translate what were in the original fairly neutral phrases such as “…said Isaac Hakkabut” with idioms such as “…said the repulsive old Jew.” And at one point in the novel she or he simply omitted an entire chapter (number 30) – quite a long one, too – presumably because she or he wasn’t interested in, or couldn’t be bothered to, turn it into English.

And here is a second article, same author, a few days later (for completists)