Friday, October 01, 2010

Lydia Davis on Translation's Economy

The quality and nature of a translation (let’s say from the French) depends on three things, the first fairly obvious and the second two not quite as obvious: 1) the translator’s knowledge of French language, history, and culture; 2) his or her conception of the task of the translator; and 3) his or her ability to write well in English. These three variables have infinite subsets that recombine infinitely to produce the many different kinds and qualities of translations that we have. Publishers selecting a translator seem to proceed on the assumption that the most important qualification is the first. “Let’s ask Prof. X, head of the French Department at Y!” Often they completely ignore the second factor—how will Professor X approach the task of translating?—and certainly the third—what is Professor X’s writing style like? All three factors are vital, but in many instances, if one has to rank them, the third—how well the translator writes—may be the most important qualification, followed closely or equaled by the second—how he or she approaches the task of translating—and it is the first that comes in last place, since minor lapses in a knowledge of the language, history, and culture may result in mistakes that are, in a beautifully written, generally faithful version, fairly easily corrected, whereas a misconception of the task of the translator and, worse, an inability to write well will doom the entire book through its every sentence.
The above is from Lydia Davis' most recent note at The Paris Review, on the art and task of translation. I'd like to say that her characterization of publishers is unfair; that editors consider and deliberate, weigh advantage and quality, before making a decision — but, I can only speak for one unique small house with a mind for such matters of sums of money. And also because, she has the goods on Norton's edition of Madame Bovary. Tisk, tisk, Norton.

[cross-posted from Daniel Pritchard's blog The Wooden Spoon]