A letter to the New York Times Book Review complained that Gerald Martin, the biographer of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, had not given due respect to Marquez’s translators. Martin raves about Marquez’s “gorgeous sentences,” but the letter writer complains that he “neglects to mention whether he read those sentences in Spanish or English.” I have often wondered as I am reading a translation how much I am indebted to the original author, how much to the translator.
I’ve heard that the Prendergast translation of Proust’s Remembrances of Things Past is better than the old Moncrieff version, the one I own. When I finally get around to reading the novel, would my experience be heightened if I bought the new one?
I don’t know any language well enough to translate, but I did have a glimmer of the practice when I studied Russian for four years. Professor Pastuhova told me that I spoke Russian with a Boston accent and hinted that the only reason I passed her courses was that I could translate the literature into good English. She had been the tutor of Tolstoi’s grandchildren – her passion was Russian literature. I had to go word by word, using my Russian-English dictionary, but I found that I was reading the work with wonderful concentration. I fancied that I got further into its soul.
I inherited my grandfather’s interlinear New Testament and was so enthralled with it that I bought myself an interlinear Old Testament. Reynolds Price, in his book of essays, A Palpable God, explained why, as a novelist, he decided to translate some parts of the Bible, knowing no Greek or Hebrew. He convinced me to do the same. Scholars have suggested that some of the psalms might have been written by a woman in King David’s court. I looked for one that seemed to be from a woman’s point of view, chose 139, and using my interlinear Old Testament and, aided by commentaries, I translated it. Even though I was faithful to the text, I could give it a spin, emphasizing what a woman thinks of her body. I better understood the rhythm, form and certainly the meaning of the psalm.
My friend Jo-Anne Elder has published a book of short stories as well as poetry and essays, but she is better known as a translator. Two of her translations of Acadian literature have been nominated for Governor General’s Awards. How do juries choose between translations of very different kinds of books? Do they look for those that are unusually faithful to the original or for those that read as though they were originally written in the new language?
Herménégilde Chiasson invented a brilliant poetic form in his Beatitudes, hundreds of lines beginning “those who;” the reader supplies the “blessed are.” Elder translates one as “those who sing at the top of their lungs during storms.” Is the rhythm of the line as good in French, presenting the same vivid picture?
Elder at first translated Acadian poetry in collaboration with the poet Fred Cogswell. Cogswell told me that translating was like doing a crossword puzzle, a good activity while he was watching a baseball game. I’m sure it’s not that easy.
For my The Writing on the Wall project at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Nela Rio’s Spanish poem was translated into French by Elder and poet Rose Després and into English by Hugh Hazelton. Elder wrote me, “I noticed (I think!) that Hugh took a couple of liberties, so I did, too, for the rhythm, which was so strong in the poem. I’ve tried to make it contemplative, because that’s how I heard it.”
The NotaBle Acts theatre festival of New Brunswick plays opened with On and Off the Shelf, an Acadian play by Marcel-Romain Thériault translated by Elder. Translating plays must present a different set of problems from translating poetry. The dialogue has to sound authentic and yet has to convey more meaning than real speech does. The original title is Disponibles en librairie – “available at bookstores.” Why the change? The question is often asked: “What got lost in translation?” Even if you’ve learned another language so well you can translate it into your mother language, can you ever know the nuances and the emotions associated with words and phrases that a child learns instinctively? I frequently weep in church when we sing a hymn that was part of my childhood but never weep when we sing those I’ve been singing at Wilmot United for 44 years.
When I read Marquez, I am getting plot and characterization but not his actual words. We say that Shakespeare is all about language, but his plays have always been revered in other tongues. I think it must be that languages other than our own, although incomprehensible to us when spoken, have an essence we recognize.
Nancy Bauer is an arts columnist who lives in Fredericton. She can be reached at email@example.com.