A few thoughts about language and reading in translation

I am presently reading Herbert, the Seagull edition of the Bengali cult classic by Nabarun Bhattacharya. I just finished reading in the New Directions American edition, published as Harbart. I will write a review after this second reading, not as point of comparison because both are publishers I greatly admire and strongly support. However, it is impossible to read both and not wonder what, if any, small changes are made in making a text more, shall we say palatable, for a particular English language audience. Don’t worry, the ribald, piercing vibrancy of Sunandini Banerjee’s translation shines through in both editions celebrating a work that is gritty, funny and tragic in equal measure. That’s not the issue, but so often when one sees a critical assessment of a translation by someone familiar with the original, the translator is the larger and obvious target of an attack, one often illustrated with specific examples that are seen as muting or distorting the original. Invisible in the equation is editorial input. Translations, like any literary work, are subject to editing before they are published.

The differences here are, so far as I can tell, primarily language choices—what do you leave in a vernacular, what do you edit for the ease of an American or a British audience (as relevant)? This is a frustration I have long had with translation, something that  bothered me, for example, with South African books edited for audiences outside South Africa, especially translations from Afrikaans. With my favourite writers I have tried to obtain the original South African translation if possible. One that hasn’t been sanitized for an “average” English language reader (whatever the editor  feels “average” is).

Why is so hard to imagine a readership unable to guess at the meaning of a word from context? For the purist there is always Google, but that is ultimately as fallible as trusting any one editor’s word preference. Even in our native languages we often encounter words whose meaning we are at best vague, if not entirely off course with as to the exact definition. With learning a second language this disorientation is increased, but it should not necessarily be a barrier, students are encouraged to try to fill in the gaps from what they do know about vocabulary and grammar as their fluency improves. Is it an extension of some skewed political correctness that we should never meet a word we don’t recognize?

This is why I love Michel Leiris. I am currently working on a critical essay about his work. He loved language, delighted in meanings. And misunderstandings. In the way an assumed meaning is sometimes more magical than the actual one. Or how a door is opened when we take it upon ourselves to become enlightened as to the nuances of a word or expression’s meaning. Or it’s relation to root forms or variations in other languages.

In a translation there is a place for a glossary, but it ought to be a carefully mediated tool. Broader political references or identification of figures of importance mentioned in the text are one thing, especially in a novel as socially and politically charged as Bhattacharya’s. However, deciding  which idiosyncratic word or expression must be defined or replaced is a question of balance. Less is more, I’d argue. If you read literature from foreign cultures, don’t you want your equilibrium challenged a little along the way? I suppose it is, in the end, a question of what kind of traveller one is—of how one wants to experience the world. You can pop in, hire a car and see the main tourist attractions then fly off to the next stop. Or you can find a path or two and navigate it until it feels, even for a few days, familiar. I am of the latter sort.

My first few days in Calcutta in February of 2018—my very first days in India ever—were ones of complete and total culture shock. I was aware of nothing but the mangy dogs, the tired poor, the crumbling footpaths, the incessant noise. It took a few days of making my way through the city on foot to begin to see it. To begin to open my heart to it. I spent a full two weeks there and didn’t go anywhere else. I took the Metro, rode ferries and yellow cabs. Met up with friends, sat in restaurants, coffee shops and parks.

I returned to the city again this year fresh from my first encounters with a wider range of Indian cities—Bangalore, Bombay and Kochi—and saw Calcutta from a new angle once again. Everything is relative. The traffic that had horrified me on my first visit now seemed remarkably—or almost—orderly (albeit still incredibly loud).

Granted, I read books from many countries I have never visited, translated from languages I have not even a passing acquaintances with, so I rely on the wisdom of translators and their editors. It’s a tricky thing, I know. I was once faced with editing an excerpt from the translation of an Arabic novel, a situation in which I respected both the original author and the translator very much. But I was afraid to question anything, for fear of showing my ignorance. Surely the process leading to a final published book would ideally be one that engages the editor, translator, and if possible, the author (or those who knew him or her well). Should I be tasked with taking on that entire manuscript—one of the most startling and discomforting I have ever read—I would have to overcome that fear.

Herbert or Harbart is a very special little book, one that is inextricably bound to the city in which it was birthed; its power is not lost in either edition for the very minor differences. It is also a book that benefits from a re-read, beginning as it does with the end of the story some of the magical elements can be lost on a first encounter.

Why read both editions? Why not?

So that is where I am at the moment. I’ll be back to write more about this wonderful book soon.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

19 thoughts on “A few thoughts about language and reading in translation”

  1. I’ve read some very strong opinions deriding the whole concept of translation, the argument reduced to its essence by Nabokov (was it?) who basically said that translations are so imperfect one should either learn the language or not read it at all. And maybe he was influential in the American distaste for translations, which has been so influential in the English speaking world. One of the US publishers of translated fiction is called 3% because that is the percentage of works that are translated there….
    The Brits, OTOH, have been translating French Lit since Vizetelly translated Zola, and my education included reading Tolstoy as it did for my parents’. Their bookshelves held books by all the well-known Russians. A British education even in secondary school also meant reading translations from Latin and Ancient Greek, and at higher levels, from Renaissance Italian (e.g. Ovid). Whether the current generation reads them too I do not know. So although maybe the Brits didn’t translate widely from around the globe (I wouldn’t know) they did accede to the concept of translations per se, being worthwhile reading, and more than that, part of the armoury of a well-educated mind.
    My attitude is a simple one. Stu at Winston’s Dad reviews a book which sounds interesting. It turns out to be translated from Spanish or Lithuanian or whatever. What matters is that the book is interesting and if that doesn’t suit purists, too bad, I think we miss out on great storytelling from all over the globe if we ignore translations, and we benefit by learning about places we’ve never been to or are unlikely to visit by reading their literature. And if we do get to travel to the places we’ve read about, having read their Lit enhances the experience tremendously.
    Of course it’s true that some translations are woeful. I certainly learned that when I read Zola’s Rougon-Maquet series!

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    1. My point here is with the editing of foreign literature to Americanize the language. UK publishers can be equally guilty. It impacts not only commissioned translation but translations for another English market. Even English language literature from countries with too much slang. Australia maybe? That’s an editing matter. I know myself that I have inadvertently corrected UK usage out of pieces I was editing. I’d suggest a professional editor needs to be sensitive to this. It’s complicated.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, yes, I read some American translations of French titles and couldn’t believe how bad they were. But… perhaps I shouldn’t say that because while I find Americanisms grating, Americans, presumably, like them.
        I think readers just have to cut a translator some slack when dealing with slang… as long as the text remains readable and coherent.
        BTW Tom I may indeed have misrepresented Nabokov, see http://dialogos.ca/2013/06/two-opposing-views-of-literary-translation-nabakov-vs-borges/

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  2. How I wish Nabokov had been that influential! But he was not, and anyway, that can’t be him. He was a a translator himself. He taught novels in translation all the time. He began his translation of Eugene Onegin because he thought the translations available for his classroom all stank.

    At one point he became an ideologue about literalism, but that is a separate issue. I mean, he could not have thought that translation was inherently imperfect – he thought his own were awfully good.

    Nabokov is not responsible for American insularity, which had a long history before him.

    How exciting, an essay on Michel Leiris! I look forward to it. The trumpet-drum and so on.

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    1. Thanks for your input Tom. Translation is part of a much broader literary and socio-poiltical discussion—one I find endlessly fascinating. All the same, it is vital. There are so many texts reaching back into ancient times that we would not have without it that it’s absurd to argue, as some do, that it has no merit.

      The Leiris is my second major effort on him (the first was a close reading of Phantom Africa for 3:AM). This time it’s a new release, a translation The Ribbon at Olympia’s Throat, his coda of sorts to Rules of the Game that sparked my interest. It’s the first critical essay I’ve tackled in some time and I’m just delighted to be spending time surrounded by all my precious Leiris texts!


  3. Such a good post Joe and such an interesting and often fraught topic. On a simple level I abandoned one translation of War and Peace because Andrei had been rendered as Andrew. I want my Russians to be named as Russians, thank you very much. The linguistic differences of the new language can be problematic too – I’m reading a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks at the moment and I confess I wince at Americanisms (“gotten”) as of course Serge was not American. I guess I should just be grateful I have a version I can read, but I do often compare translations and sometimes read more than one!

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    1. I think I am less concerned with Americanisms (or Britishisms) that appear in US or UK translations as I am by the complete removal of idiosyncratic language or slang—the spice that gives a work its flavour—even if that means including a glossary. It is a balancing act at the best of times—readability versus maintaining the energy and tone of the original. Again, the versions of the book that inspired this post (the same translation, different publishers and edits) are both excellent, but you can feel a different flavour or, shall we say, level of spice.


  4. I have been puzzled by the exact argument Joe is making and now I am baffled. Serge was not American. Nor was he English. The translators of Serge’s notebooks are American. Well, the one is kind of complicated. Anyway, he is not British. They can only do translations into American English. What else are they supposed to do? From whence comes the wincing?

    On Twitter recently, an English literary agent argued that UK editors should remove the words “freshman” and “sophomore” from UK-published American books because she did not know what they meant and looking them up would interrupt the novel’s “flow,” whatever that is. Joe, you arguing against this, yes?


    1. I am referring to the editorial decision making process. The translator’s nationality is typically not an issue—not only do many American translators live in Germany or France or in whatever country where the language they translate from is spoken, the manuscript they submit will be subject to editing and copy editing. (This is distinct from other questions about translations which are complicated.) Serge is an interesting case. The publisher is American and I had a chance to talk to the editor of NYRB Classics at length in Calcutta this year and know that Serge is one of his passions. They want to see all his work made available and these are originally commissioned translations. It stands to reason that Americanisms slip into the edit. Theoretically a UK publisher could buy the international rights if they were not held by NYRB and edit those Americanisms out (wouldn’t happen in this case but very often the UK and US releases of the same translation are separated by years—sometimes here in Canada we get both depending on how rights are negotiated).

      The editorial decisions made to render a text more palatable or smooth for a target audience at the cost of vernacular or slang that is an intrinsic element of the original is my particular concern. (I am not saying that there is only one way to make these decisions either, just that US or UK publishers have been known to engage in this type of editing practice to ease the experience for their readership). I am, by the way, Canadian and I am an editor who edits across the English spectrum and I too have been guilty of balking at a UK usage I didn’t understand and “correcting” it unnecessarily. In the situation that inspired this post I reiterate that I am a huge fan of both publishers and they greatly respect one another, but reading both back to back highlights the editorial contrast. This is a situation where two publishers have split the rights to enable a new translation of the book in question—a cult classic that is steeped in slang and satire. The Calcutta based Seagull is an international publisher specializing in translations from German, French, Italian, etc. so they are fully aware of marketing to a broad English language market, however in this case the translator also happens to be the senior editor there, and the work, the author, the milieu of the original is very close to home. Their editorial decisions (including the Anglicization of the title character’s name) reflect this.

      Finally, I want to repeat that both US and UK publishers tend to suffer from this editorial insularity. At one level it is stylistic and basically benign, but when it comes to translating the experiences of others—survivors of violence, colonialism, refugees, etc—the implications of this tendency to neutralize the other has far greater implications. But that is another much larger topic.


    2. Well, I thought you were talking about editors, but Kaggsy and Lisa both seemed convinced you meant translators, so I was confused. Again, the Serge translators could not translate in any way except with an American idiom. American usage does not “slip into” during editing. It is inherent in their language.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It is still the editor that shapes the final text, so Americanisms might not slip in (in fact that might not even be noticed) by an American editor, but they could certainly be edited out by, say, a UK editor. The same is true of non-translated English texts (say Australian or South African) that can be neutralized for an American or UK market. I guess my point is that the editorial impact can be significant, for better or worse. Even with translations but with translations it is the translator who tends to be blamed if a work reads too “off.”


      2. Right. And I’m a purist, a historicist, so I find any tampering with the text appalling. Translators have to make hard choices, no way around it. But “fixing” a text in English! Ugh. Philistinism. An insult.

        I would love to know how often this happens. I would love to know which texts – heck, which publishers – to boycott.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Like Tom, I’m a bit confused about what you’re arguing for, Joe. Could you offer an example or two of what you mean? Moments when you think the spice has been eliminated, maybe?

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I don’t want to talk about the book that inspired this post—I will be reviewing that and I’ll bring along both copies when we meet up this summer. But my concern is about editorial decisions made to ease the reading experience for a US (or UK) readership when publishing a translation or a text from another English speaking culture. So, imagine you have been asked to edit a German translation and in it the translator refers to the Munchen Hauptbahnhof—not only is that what the station is called but perhaps the main character looks up at the sign, has strong associations with the location, the name, the sound of the words, and it’s central to the story—but you (or the publisher) decide that would make the readership uncomfortable. And now you have the Munich Railway station. If you have Anglicized the city names, changing the city name is warranted, but why not retain Hauptbahnhof? Surely with trains coming and going the meaning is clear. It may sound small, but surely there is an argument for retaining the character of a translated novel. If you translate every word into standard American or British English what is lost? There are no right answers, but it is a reality worth considering.

        As I mention, this came to my attention reading South African lit. South African English borrows widely from many of the other 11 official languages. Often an effort is made to remove much if not all of the idiosyncratic vernacular. The result is a universalizing of international literature that tends toward a bland, homogenized standard English. I know you’re a fan of detective fiction and I don’t know if you’ve read him, but the work of South African writer Deon Meyers great counterpoint. Translated from Afrikaans, his international editor does not hesitate to leave the slang-filled, idiomatic language of his characters intact. There is no doubt you are on the gritty streets of Cape Town when you read his novels. There is something I like about having a sense that the energy of the original is retained—at least to a point. Again, with the books that started my post, the edits are not egregious, but if you read both they are not invisible.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Ah, now I see. The argument is that in general you prefer the translation with more linguistic color. Me too! I would prefer that translations of novels were printed with the facing-page original, and that the annotations were approximately as long as the original text. That every translation were in a Norton Critical Edition, basically.

        At one point, the words “ricotta” and “samosa” were problems for a translator to solve. A note, italics, or turn them into “cottage cheese” and “fried dumpling”? Luckily, we poor Americans have made progress with these two words, at least. Professional literary translators have been considering this reality all along. Their editors, too.

        I met Deon Meyers in Lyon not so long ago. He was a lively and generous panel member.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m very surprised to learn that the Seagull and ND texts differ. I think the average reader (including myself) is probably very ignorant about what editing a translation actually entails.

    I know you’re trying to be sensitive here, but can you hint (or DM!) which version of Harbart/Herbert is “spicier” as you put it? Or will you cover this in your review? Either way, I look forward to reading!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. On a simple level I abandoned one translation of War and Peace because Andrei had been rendered as Andrew. I want my Russians to be named as Russians, thank you very much. The linguistic differences of the new language can be problematic too – I’m reading a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks at the moment and I confess I wince at Americanisms (“gotten”) as of course Serge was not American. I guess I should just be grateful I have a version I can read, but I do often compare translations and sometimes read more than one!

    Liked by 1 person

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