"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
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…