By MIKA ROSS-SOUTHALL
While on a trip to Japan in the early 1980s, the President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, made a pun. After a short hesitation his interpreter translated the witticism into Japanese. The Japanese audience burst into excessive laughter, which later prompted the President to ask the interpreter what exactly he had translated. Was his pun really that humorous? The interpreter admitted that, instead of attempting to translate the pun, he had simply said in Japanese: “the President of the United States has made a pun. Please laugh”.
Here lies a crucial problem in translation: how do you translate idiom and wordplay? Last night Sandra Smith (Irène Némirovsky's English-language translator) treated us to the anecdote at a Royal Society of Literature talk on translation, chaired by Adam Thirlwell (whose most recent book Multiples, reviewed in this week’s TLS, collates 12 stories, translated in and out of English and 17 other languages by 61 authors). Also in attendance were the writer and francophile, Julian Barnes, and the novelist, Ali Smith.
The discussion began with each providing a previously prepared translation (i.e. subjective interpretation) of Nicolas Chamfort’s aphorism, “Vivre est une maladie dont le sommeil nous soulage toutes les seize heures. C’est un palliatif; la mort est le remède”. Their translations differed markedly in voice and style. Some were freer than others; some focused on retaining the rhythm and balance of the sentences. (Thirlwell finally revealed Samuel Beckett’s translation: “sleep till death / healeth / come ease / this life disease” – as Barnes commented, Beckett had gone “quite biblical”.)
Apart from the more obvious challenges of translation (including whether a translation corrupts the original text), interesting ideas were raised about the dialogue between an author and translator. How much influence should an author have over their translation? “I’m just flattered they’re bothering to translate my work in the first place”, said Ali Smith. But all agreed that a good translator taps into a country’s culture, adapting the author’s style to allow the work to resonate in the new language.
Translations are part of a text's afterlife; just as a reader’s interpretation is an ongoing process, no particular translation can ever be ultimate and complete (texts ought to be translated at least every 50 years as readers and languages evolve, it was agreed). Ali Smith referred us to Muriel Spark’s poem, “Authors’ Ghosts” (2004), in which the speaker suggests that dead authors “creep back / Nightly to haunt the sleeping shelves / And find the books they wrote” and “put final, semi-final touches, / Sometimes whole paragraphs . . . How otherwise / Explain the fact that maybe after years / have passed, the reader / Picks up the book – But was it like that? / I don’t remember this”.
Thirlwell talked about the first time his novel Politics (2003) was translated into Swedish. The translator asked him about specific words, such as his use of “grandmother” – did he mean the character’s maternal or paternal grandmother? There are precise words for both in Swedish, but Thirlwell had no idea. He thought about it and gave an answer. And so his novel became more realized in its Swedish version.
The title of a book often poses the most difficult challenge for a translator. Ali Smith’s recent novel There but for the (2011) has proven especially hard. And so she allowed her translators to drift away from a too literal translation of her words. It seems there are no rigid rules for translation. After all, as Julian Barnes forcefully argued towards the end, you would never give Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary the title Mrs Bovary in its English incarnation.
A full audio of the event is available here.