"An influential translator can be the midwife to a whole canon or, for that matter, a whole national literature"by Sam Leith / March 16, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Asterix at the Beat Club, one of the first german Asterix books ©Interfoto/Alamy Stock Photo I was having lunch the other day with the publisher Christopher MacLehose, and we fell to talking about translation. This is not wholly unexpected: as well as having been (I discovered) PG Wodehouse’s last editor, MacLehose is a man with a career-long interest in translated fiction. He discovered Steig Larsson, and the motto of his MacLehose Press is “read the world.” I’ve been curious about whether some language communities export better than others ever since I learnt they go stone bananas for Donna Tartt in the Netherlands. But MacLehose says that it’s often got more to do with the translator. Yet how seldom most readers even clock the names of these people on the dustjackets of their books. This is more than just an issue of giving credit where it is due: an influential translator can be the midwife to a whole canon or, for that matter, a whole national literature. MacLehose hit on the example of Constance Garnett—whose translations from Russian in the early-20th century introduced English-speaking readers to Chekhov, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Joseph Brodsky once complained: “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.” While ostensibly a criticism, this could hardly be a stronger compliment to her influence. We might add that were it not for Garnett we might not be reading Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky at all. You could point to others. Our senses of Spanish and Portuguese literature—not only the language but the canons themselves—substantially shaped by the pre-eminence of Margaret Jull Costa; of Italian by William Weaver; of German by Anthea Bell. In some cases an author acquires a translator-symbiote, so that it becomes near-impossible to read—or, to translate—Proust except through CK Scott-Moncrieff-shaped spectacles. Thanks to Scott-Moncrieff, for instance, Du côté de chez Swann is, pretty much indelibly, Swann’s Way in English (he nicked the usage from Beowulf) and Sodome et Gomorrhe is Cities of the Plain. To raise the tone a little, it’s impossible to imagine anyone re-translating Asterix into English: the aforementioned Bell and Derek Hockridge’s jokes (the Druid being “Getafix,” for instance) are now as firmly affixed to their objects as René Goscinny’s originals. And in some cases—as in both of those—there seems a high chance that, without the happy coming-together of the right author and translator, those books might never have travelled, let alone travelled the way they did. I asked Boyd Tonkin, who chaired the last Man Booker International Prize, about this subject and he offered a wry and cheering example of how a translator could be hugely influential but also not very good. Thomas Mann’s first translator, HT Lowe-Porter, got a whole lot wrong—and, Tonkin says, Mann himself knew she wasn’t the whole nine yards: but “she was doing them very fast so they would appear in English soon after being published in German: he wanted them out there.” Mann wasn’t the only one for whom publishing considerations enter in. That Haruki Murakami divides his work between two English translators—Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel—may testify to how prolific he is as much as to how even-handed. In a books market like the UK’s, where few publishers read more than one language fluently, translators are often key to what actually gets published: they know what’s out there. For the same reasons, publishers will tend to stick with a translator they know and trust—meaning that smaller languages might only have one or two go-to people (Antonia Lloyd-Jones is one of the best Polish translators, for example). Their literatures trickle into ours through these narrow bottlenecks. But what bottlenecks! The history of literature is the history of influence—and here are the brokers of that influence, internationally, at the very source. As the—justly peevish—hashtag has it: #namethetranslator!