Wednesday, May 06, 2009

In Love With Sagan

Douglas Hofstadter's translation of Françoise Sagan's That Mad Ache is two books in one. Aside from the translation of the novel, it includes a translator's super-afterword -- at 100 pages almost half the length of the translation itself --, that stands on its own. To emphasize that, Hofstadter's piece, Translator, Trader, is printed upside-down and with its own cover.

What caught my attention - again and again - is the psychological relationship to text. La Chamade itself is not a classic, but Hofstadter had his own reasons for translating it:

"I found La Chamade beautiful and touching, and I yearned to re-experience as strongly as possible the emotions it had churned up in me. Merely re-reading the novel would not have allowed me that degree of emotional intensity and intimacy with its characters, but rewriting it in my native language did."

The reason this hit me on the nerve is that from my early twenties I have been doing that with non-fiction texts that made an impact on me. Now nearing my half-century, I came across a younger colleague who, finding me trawling pencil in hand through a book on linguistics, confessed she was doing the same during her university years, when she majored in English Literature.

I am not sure for me it was the "emotional intensity" as much as the need to own the text - what better way than to translate it? When I was in high school, part of English Language classes was a now-dead subject: precis. That too was about mastering the gist of what was said. I see translating as a similar tool. One needs very close readings to translate - you cannot just skim the text.

Further: "Not only how much liberty may a translator take, but how much liberty must a translator take, in order to do a good job." He sees himself as a "phrase-trader" - I don't like the tradesman connotation, and can't understand why he hasn't chosen "phrase-crafter" instead?? He notes that many translators aspire to invisibility, wanting to disappear behind the text; but not him. He feels translation gives him co-ownership, and he is determined to leave his imprint on it. Then he doubts his own approach:

"But do I, a mere translator, have the right to turn up the clarity and vividness knobs ? Well, the fact is that I'm naturally inclined to turn these knobs up high no matter what I'm writing, because clarity and vividness are, in some sense, my religion. I would be betraying myself if I didn't allow myself to be as clear and as vivid as possible when I translate. indeed, were I told that I had to adopt the principle of such rigid "faithfulness" to the author, then I would just give up translating, for it wouldn't allow me to use my own mind. "

Clarity and vividness. I am not a literary translator, but when I was working on non-fiction texts in philosophy or sociology, I often had to do that. These were teaching texts, and it would have benefited no one if the students could not understand what was said. But that implied to a degree that I was doing my own interpretation of how I understood the text.

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