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not dumbing down The Second Sex, not glossing over rich culture: translation

December 2, 2011

If the simple goal of translation is to communicate the message of a text or a speech, then much will be sacrificed. And much will be sacrificed unnecessarily. Such is the case with the New Century Version, the version of the Bible that Theophrastus mentions here. The publisher has touted it as “the easiest-to-understand translation,” because of the translators’ goal to “make the language clear enough for all people to read the Bible and understand it for themselves.” Never mind the logical fallacy here, the begging-the-question presumptions that reading depends on clear language in the first place, that clear language causes understanding, that the intended audiences for all of the Bible is “all people,” and that all other Bible translations must be less clear and therefore less easy to understand.

I’d like to give three other, non-biblical examples of translation to support the idea that more gets understood by readers and listeners when the translator’s goal is not merely the simple transmission of a message. First, there’s the newest English translation of Le Deuxième Sexe by Simone de Beauvoir; second, there’s the Hollander and Hollander translation of Dante’s Inferno; third, there’s Vicente Fox’s English translation of his own Spanish this week. Notice how the translators, in each case, regard the critical and difficult issues of the original and how readers and listeners get more then.

First, listen to what Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, the translators of the second English translation of The Second Sex, say in an interview with Louise Maher that she shared online yesterday. Here’s my transcription (in part) with my emphasis:

What were the criticisms of the first translation [of Simone de Beauvoir’s mammouth, two-volume more-than-800-pages work, The Second Sex]?

Mind you, we did not base our translation on that first translation… There were errors in it. The main error was… it was… dumbed down….

Another failing is that [translator] H. M. Parshley, because of the pressures from the publisher, actually had to cut out 15 … to 25 percent of the book, including all of the stories of the history of women – women generals, women physicists, women mathematicians, poets, writers, and saints – they were just eliminated because probably he hadn’t heard of them. But we don’t like to complain about him. He was put in a difficult situation by the publisher.

So how did you start then? You went back to the original text?

Oh, yes. We translated directly from the original text, and the original text does have a very different kind of development, even the syntax, because she has a very philosophical way of approaching the question of women. She wasn’t writing as a feminist, you know. She was writing as a philosopher [in a rather intentional way, using intentional forms and language], taking a look at, observing, what it means to be “other” in society.

Does it make it harder for lay people to understand what she was trying to say?

No. On the contrary, it actually makes it easier [to understand with the difficult syntax and philosophical development] because you can follow the development now. Yes, remember that when it came out, shop workers and factory girls were reading it. Everybody was reading it. It was a best seller in French, so thinking that only philosophers and intellectuals can read it is really condescending to the ability of people to read something hard, difficult, demanding, but you can do it. And you should. And people tell us now that when you read it [as we’ve translated it, not making its language easier or even clearer than the original French], it does make more sense, because there’s nothing left out in the development of her ideas.

Second, read what Tim Parks challenges us to do. He cautions us to reconsider whether clarity and easy-access to literature may actually rob us of the richness of this literature. He says (my emphasis) that the “belief in World Literature [through easy-to-read translations] could actually create a situation where we become more parochial and bound in our own culture, bringing other work into it in a process of mere assimilation and deluding ourselves that, because it sounds attractive in our own language, we are close to the foreign experience.” At the end of his thought-provoking post, “Translating in the Dark,” Parks asks a question and then gives us an experiment by which to answer it:

So why is it imperative that we believe in World Literature? It seems we must imagine that no literary expression or experience is ultimately unavailable to us; the single individual is not so conditioned by his own language, culture and literature as not to be able to experience all other literatures; and the individual author likewise can be appreciated all over the globe. It is on this premise that all international literary prizes, of which there are now so many, depend. The zeitgeist demands that we [by easy-to-read, dumbing-down translation] gloss over everything that makes a local or national culture rich and deep, in order to believe in global transmission. There must be no limitation….

Try this experiment: …. dip into the 1939 prose translation [of Dante’s Inferno] by the scholar John Sinclair. There is immediately a homogeneity and fluency here, a lack of showiness and a semantic cohesion over scores of pages that give quite a different experience [than much easy reading in English might]. To wind up, look at Robert and Jean Hollander’s 2002 reworking of Sinclair. Robert Hollander is a Dante scholar and has cleared up Sinclair’s few errors. His wife Jean is a poet who, while respecting to a very large degree Sinclair’s phrasing, has made some adjustments, under her husband’s meticulous eye, allowing the translation to fit into unrhymed verse. It is still a long way from reading Dante in the original, but now we do feel that we have a very serious approximation and a fine read.

I think the point here is not whether to get hung up on whether some translations of Dante might be better than others but to question whether the drive for easy access to a message can be ultimately achieved when translators attempt to clarify the original for readers in translation.

Third, follow how what former President of Mexico, Vicente Fox, said. He was here on the campus where I work this week (and some colleagues of mine, our students, and I enjoyed the priviledge of eating lunch with him and former First Lady Fox). At lunch, he said some very difficult and challenging things in English to us. At a public address, our Provost introduced the President, reminding the audience that one of Mr. Fox’s campaign slogans had been “‘Hoy, Hoy, Hoy’ or ‘Today, Today, Today’ but that his talk to us would focus on tomorrow, on the leaders of tomorrow.” Fox began, then, by acknowledging the introduction and by saying in English, “‘Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.’ I don’t have to explain to you the difficulties of the Spanish word in Mexico, ‘Mañana, Mañana, Mañana‘. But I don’t want to procrastinate today. I want to speak with you about being tomorrow’s problem solvers.” Many in the audience, he knew, were high school and even junior high school students. He did not condescend to the young people, and he did not feel the need to make what he had said in Spanish easy to understand. During the Q&A, several students, some asking questions in English and others in Spanish, indicated they got the speaker’s message just fine (despite the fact, or probably more likely, because it was nuanced and different and difficult and culturally rich).

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 2, 2011 6:19 pm

    Another “out of the ballpark” post, Kurk!

    But someday, we must have the knock-down, drag-out fight about which English Divine Comedy is best.

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