Monday, 19 July 2010
Sometimes a question that seems to involve an ethical issue turns out to be pragmatic, sometimes vice versa. This evening I was chairing a discussion session at the British Centre for Literary Translation under the heading 'The Life of the Translator'. It was an impressive panel including Nicky Harman who translates from Chinese, Adriana Hunter who translates from French; Lyn Marven (from German), Anne McLean (from Spanish), Margaret Mitsutani (from Japanese), and Giuliana Schiavi (into Italian).
Some of the discussion was personal (how did you get into translation?), some practical (how do translations get published? how do you make a living? how competitive is it?), some technical (how do you go about it when, say, collaborating with someone else?). All good wise entertaining answers.
There was one that was slightly different but just as much to the point. When asked how she got into translating, Anne said it was partly through reading what seemed to her a bad translation of a marvellous book. She wanted to re-translate it.
So was she able to re-translate it? Can we have books re-translated? Is it right to do so?
The pragmatic answer is that it is always difficult to to get the copyright and persuade a new publisher to publish something that has already appeared in the language via another publisher relatively recently, in other words in the sales cycle of the book.
The less pragmatic answer has an ethical dimension that can cut both ways. It may, on the one hand, be morally desirable to replace bad work with good, but it may not, on the other hand, be morally desirable for a newcomer to push aside a firstcomer, especially when opinions about quality may vary.
Here's an example. Imre Kertész's Sorstalanság was first translated into English by a couple in America under the title Fateless, but when Kertész won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, a different publisher bought out the rights to all his work, and had the book retranslated as Fatelessness. The Nobel Prize was clearly an incentive, along with some readers' views that the original translation wasn't good enough (I didn't think it was bad myself, but the new one is certainly better.)
It may be that, in some ways, the practical question here undercuts the moral one. The reason another translation had been commissioned was that Kertész had received the Nobel (presumably primarily for the translation of his books - and above all, this book - into German) not because some faults had been detected in the first version but because a new version was necessary for business.
In the discussion there remained - or so I thought - a slight feeling that re-translation on the whole was ethically dubious, perhaps a form of trespass.
The issue affects fiction far more than it does poetry. In poetry it may be accepted (I accept it!) that there will be various translations of particular poems, and that multiple translation is to be welcomed. It is hermeneutically good in that it recognizes the possibility of different interpretations, but also ethically good because it forces us to recognise that good faith in translation is not a matter of substituting equivalents but of engaging in a dynamic, shifting activity that reflects the very nature of language. A good translation of a poem re-enacts the process of composition with constant reference to an original. It never becomes a copy of the original, but, with luck, it creates a process of both writing and reading that is comparable. The fact that it looks formally like the original is not an aspect of external imitation, but of undergoing a similar process.
Fiction however is property. It is contractually protected, and publishers of fiction certainly hope to make money from it. It also takes, in terms of length, more time to translate and might be represented in terms of office hours or piece work. The novel has literary value of course in that it engages the emotions, the intellect and so on - a great novel is a great novel, a great translation is a great translation irrespective of commercial success. Nevertheless there is hope of commercial success, and hope also of making a living by translating novels. In these terms, re-translating might be seen as depriving someone of an income.
I make part of a living by translating fiction. I would make no living at all translating only poetry. But I don't want to make an artificial virtue out of necessity. Poverty does not equal purity. It simply removes some of the pressures acting on fiction. So whatever virtue there is in the multiple translation of poetry is circumstantial in material terms. Circumstantial virtue is not fully virtue.
These ideas are not thought through. This is only a blog post in which I wanted to think about the slippery ghost of morality as it slips between forms and ideas.