Sounds like English

Yesterday I went to hear translator extraordinaire Edith Grossman speak at BU. It was a lecture arranged by the Spanish department at BU, but open to the public, and since I’m interviewing her next week for Reading the World I figured it would be a good way to get over the jitters at going to talk with one of the most prolific and important translators currently working. And she was amazing. Instead of reading from her book Why Translation Matters, she had a well-organized six-point talk on translation, peppered with anecdotes and stories from her own life.

There’s always that sense when you encounter someone who is a legend in your field of voyeuristic curiosity. I want to know what her working day is like, because somewhere deep down I think that if I emulate it I’ll have similar professional success. Of course, rationally I know that’s not true.

Towards the end of the talk she got into what it is that translators translate when they are translating literature. It is not words, she said, and certainly not syntax. It is tone and intent. Those were her words, tone and intent. And she talked about her own revision process which relies on reading it out loud. The eye is forgiving, she said, the ear is not. This struck me as very true, and I always read my translations out loud during the revision process.

This morning, I saw an article in the Guardian Books: “Translators must read with their ears”. Translation does not depend on ‘linguistic equivalence’ the author and translator writes, but on recreating a voice. It’s wonderful to see a major publication giving space to this idea, against which literalness, faithfulness and accuracy must inevitably crash.

But this seems linked to a strange assertion, that both Grossman and Helen Stevenson (author of the Guardian article) make.

“It has to sound as though it were written in English…”

Grossman said roughly the same thing, allowing that there are lots and lots of Englishes, and selecting the one or several to use is an important part of the translator’s artistic choices. Grossman also added that one of the joys of translation is that it stretches the language (the verb is hers, though I’m paraphrasing). Translation leaves a mark on the new language, introducing new words, rhythms, images, metaphors, etc. But “it doesn’t sound like English” is one of the most common criticisms of translation to be bandied about by critics and readers.

In fact, there’s a story (possibly apocryphal, but still) that someone in the process of publishing Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being objected to the title because it ‘didn’t sound like English’ and would drive potential readers away. The translator had to fight for the title, and in doing so created a phrase that not only loosely echoes Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Ernest” to my ear, but altered the rhythms of language and has been imitated over and over again since. So I’m wary of this demand, that it must “sound like English.” Because what does that really mean, and who decides?

Stevenson’s full sentence reads “It has to sound as though it were written in English – though with enough of the accent of the original to remind you constantly, in reading, of the text’s beginnings.” This is interesting – translating into accented English. I haven’t read the book she’s discussing, though it sounds interesting: “Broken Glass – a novel with no full stops, no sentences, in which a variety of characters relate their stories to a scribe in a downtown bar…” Still, I’m willing to bet it doesn’t sound like accented English in the way, say, that a native French speaker would speak English. Or even the way a native French speaker with proficiency but not fluency in English would write in English. This, were someone to do that, would be criticized as “not sounding like English.”

I’m not necessarily advocating for translating that way, at least not all the time. I do think it’s important to push those normative definitions of ‘good’ writing and ‘good’ translation though.

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