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— Stéphane Mallarmé


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Translations: a statement of purpose

I've been posting here and there lately (and for the past 7 years!) under the label Translation, without ever really defining very clearly what I am trying to do with that. So here is a little gesturing in that direction.

I really enjoy reading books in languages that I'm not fluent in -- not sure exactly what it is, but somehow the neural pathways that light up when I read a page of German or Spanish*, repeat the words under my breath, and transform them internally into words and concepts I understand, are pleasurable ones. And I frequently admire translations that I read, the best ones and the lesser as well, and enjoy picking them apart and seeing where and why they diverge from the original. So translation seemed like a pretty natural thing for me to try my hand at.

I'm certainly not going for any kind of authorative version in my translations -- sometimes I spend some time on refining them and getting them to sound good, other times I try and leave them raw; but generally what I'm trying to do is to get across my experience of reading the text -- this is after all a blog about reading -- and to intensify the act of reading. I remember seeing somewhere a statement that translation is a form of reading, and liking it.

I've been emboldened lately by Andrew Hurley's statement, in his Note on the Translation of Borges' Collected Fictions, that there is no such thing as a definitive translation of a text -- I'm familiar with this sentiment but it moved me to see it voiced by Hurley, whose translations seem to me some of the best I've ever read. Hurley cites Borges' "Versions of Homer" and "The Translators of the 1001 Nights" -- "The very idea of the (definitive) translation is misguided, Borges tells us; there are only drafts, approximations."

* (And I ought to start learning another language to be not-fluent in...)

posted evening of Tuesday, March 30th, 2010
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On my site I translate from at least four languages I don't know perfectly, and occasionally from languages where I'm faking it entirely. Considering that I'm not getting paid, I'm cool with that. A good principle to remember is "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke".

On the other side, both translations of Victor Hugo's "Toilers of the Sea" that I've looked at are defective. One is a little to literal and flat-footed, and one is too free and interpretive. I feel confident that (with some help from friends) I could do a better translation myself, though it would not come close to meeting contemporary translation standards.

Goethe gave high praise to Nerval's French translation of Faus, which is still in print, even though it's inaccurate in places.

posted morning of March 31st, 2010 by John Emerson

Cool blog, Jeremy. I like the translations project.

posted morning of March 31st, 2010 by Doug Millison

Thanks, Doug!

Agreed John, that is a good principle to remember -- OTOH it's also nice for me to understand what I am getting out of it/putting into it...

posted afternoon of March 31st, 2010 by Jeremy

Keep doing it Jeremy. I can say that regarding spanish ones, you are doing great works. Hats off to you!

posted evening of April third, 2010 by Oswaldo Aiffil

Thanks, Oswaldo! I think I am going to work on a translation of Monterroso.

posted evening of April 10th, 2010 by Jeremy

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