Saturday, May 8, 2010

the translator is riding another beast

Starting a translated book last night I found myself reading an introduction by the Eeyore of all translators. "It is not recorded that Job worked on a translation, but I wouldn't doubt it," Robert Hullot-Kentor writes glumly-whimsically, thanking the friends who prevented him throwing the manuscript away or dropping it behind a bookshelf. Visited by earthquakes, unemployment, illness, and "lesser scourges," he finished years later than he meant to.

What is hard about translation is not -- as those who have never tried it imagine -- finding the right word. The right word is always there, it just can't be used: inevitably it starts with the same letter as the three words on either side of it and, in a translation, pulling four oranges says fake, not jackpot. Line by line, the wrong word is always, unbeatably, coming to the rescue. The sureness with which translation taps fate puts the I-Ching to shame: the word needed at any one point has somehow always just been used in the previous clause to cover for some other right word that would not fit. If translation were just pinning the tail on the donkey it would be easy, but the donkey is running and the translator is riding another beast, going in some other direction: each language, and each and every word, has its own momentary vector. So, for instance, even when the original wants to dictate the right word -- e.g. Programm -- directly into English, with only a slight shift of spelling, it turns out that the English equivalent now instinctually summons up computers -- not the self-understood political sense of the original -- with barely containable contextural implications …


  1. Translation always seems a huge challenge to me ... to get not just the words, but the rhythm, the irony, the humour, the metaphors that work in a different culture. I admire them immensely. This quote just confirms that.

  2. I'd been seeing a growing number of articles about translation in the wake of Edith Grossman's Why Translation Matters, so this part of the introduction jumped out at me. I thought, "I've seen translators talking about finding the right metaphor, and the right word, but I don't think I've seen one talk about the problem of alliteration before."