Monday, 19 July 2010

Ethical retranslation

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.


tariq14639 said...

whenever I encounter such a thing—I speak right up and tell them to speak english….that is what our tax dollars paid for with the English as a second Language crud…..I am not shy—they are in our country, in our businesses and unless they are in court and completely fail to understand what is happening should they be given an interpreter—-why make it so easy for these rude people….when they speak it around me I turn and say something to them in Choctaw Indian……they usually shut up right away, then in plain english I tell them that they are in MY country—

George S said...

Which thing are you rencountering, Tariq?

Yours is a fine comment on something other than I have written. Or is there a connection that hasn't become clear to me? I have my dense moments.

jamie mck said...

Hi George, I've never really seen this question of second-time translating as an ethical one, nor, though I see you're exploring it tentatively, as being any different for prose and poetry. If someone commissions another translation (prose now since it's almost unheard of for a poetry translation to be "commissioned") it's presumably because they see an inadequacy, or even a datedness, about the earlier one. Otherwise there would be no commercial opportunity to exploit. Given that most translators earn very little, if anything, beyond their advance, the earlier translator isn't likely to have anything taken from him or her in terms of livelihood. But I see that's not the only consideration.
I think the ethical issue arises where the latecomer has been using the earlier translation as an aid or prop, especially if in an unacknowledged way.
Still, just embarking on a potentially first translation of a poet at the moment, I'm beginning to feel far more possessive, so maybe I'll start getting more ethical in the near future...
The other issue that is troubling is when, as could well have happened, a later translation takes the place of, and edges out from the small niche it occupies, a superior one. This may be what you have in mind, and I'm not sure what can be done in such a circumstance apart from a passionate critical plea, which may go unheeded, to value the first
Best wishes,

George S said...

I'm not entirely sure where my own enquiry is going, Jamie, I just sensed there was a real fish there and felt the irresistible temptation to cast a line to see what might be on the end of it. Not sure much is. I still think there is life of some kind in there.

There have been points at which the question has arisen for me directly - not so much in poetry, as you say but in drama or fiction - and it has just arisen again, so I might be being as sensitive to my own position as to any that the discussion faintly seemed to suggest.

In principle I am for as many translation as happen along, all potential dimensions of the original, but in practice - and this is where I have cast my line, I suppose - there are contractual and other material obligations.

jamie mck said...

There may well be something lurking in these waters. The overriding ethical concern of the translator is not to betray the original, but I can see how competition with other translators of the same text might cause problems. The question about the Imre Kertecz's retranslation, however complicated by the pressure of the Nobel, is probably answered in the end by your saying it's "certainly better". If it were judged worse, and replaced the old one, as could well have been the case, then there would be a problem.
I'm curious about the present predicament...

George S said...

The predicament is that I have been asked by one major publishing house to provide a new translation of a book that was well translated about a dozen years ago. The big publishing house can't get the rights to that translation so it has asked me. I was reluctant - especially because I wanted first to consult the first translator who is a good man and whose translation is the one praised and read.

I don't think I'd do a worse job and would hope to do one at least as good, but it still bothers me a little in the way that retranslating, say, a poem by Montale wouldn't.

You see the fish? Funnily enough it wasn't the example that occurred to me in the discussion. Maybe I suppressed it in some way? But then I thought of the poetry case and wondered why I was being so bothered. It wasn't - I reasoned - that I was taking bread from the mouth of the first translator. His publishers were doing that, if it was they who were refusing to have the work republished under a different imprint.

Frankly, I am still uncertain.

jamie mck said...

The question occurred for me in retranslating Bassani - for whom two previous translations exist, both with considerable merits. Though here a much longer time span made me feel the attempt might be worthwhile. I'm hoping neither mind since - at least with The Garden of the Finzi-Continis - both remain in print, so it's not a replacement but an alternative. I guess the situation with prose 'classics' is closer to that of poems.

Anonymous said...

Re-translation is to beautifully create another anodyne version of the work to get the readership closer not only in meaning but more vitally in emotions and un-adulterated emotions.
Mohammed Al-Daqs