Friday, February 5, 2016

Translation and its discontents (and malcontents)

The talented and prolific author and translator Tim Parks has written an important article on The New York Review of Books about translating from Italian to English. Unfortunately, the prolific part of Parks sometimes outruns the talented part.

The piece aims to show the difficulties of translating, using the translations of Primo Levi's The Truce by Stuart Woolf and Ann Goldstein, and comparing them to what Parks would have written and why. There are many good points here; specifically, getting register right. The use of "ankylosed" in the translation is a mistake: (almost) everyone in Italy understands anchilosato, whereas almost no one understands "ankylosed" in English. The same goes for "quintal"- Italians will often say "pesa un quintale" for something or someone really hefty, but no one will say it in English. It's been said before, but apparently it bears repeating: translate the meaning, not the words. Again, the excessive use of Latinate words in English translations from Romance languages is something that should be avoided.

But as if to unintentionally demonstrate the difficult nature of translation, Parks himself makes mistakes or questionable statements. Levi did not invent the word pococurante (which is also found in English)- it presumably derives from Voltaire's Candide, after a world-weary Venetian senator. Di fronte can mean "in front of" in a certain (common sense): il bar di fronte a casa mia, il palazzo di fronte al municipio (although these are likely to be translated as "across from" or "opposite.") The word "hurricane" inappropriate for an English-speaking audience? Apart from the fact that there are plenty of English speakers familiar with hurricanes, even the English use it, from Shakespeare to the Beatles. Lear: "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!/You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout... Rock and roll music: I must admit they had a rockin' band/Man they were playin' like a hurricane.

A few years ago I was curious to assess Parks as a translator, so I scanned The Prince. I went to the famous passage where Machiavelli tells us that it is better to be feared than loved. For the phrase per essere li [sic] uomini tristi he gave "sad" for tristi, confusing triste (sad) for tristo (bad), because both have the same plural. This is an enormous mistake, in a world-famous text, already translated numerous times. It completely subverts the meaning and makes no damn sense.

Sometimes traduttori are traditori. Of each other.

But the final call he makes for more translation editing is absolutely right (as he has shown). But not likely to happen anytime soon due to the low profitability of translations.