Tue
Jan 26 2010 3:35pm

Found in Translation

Consider the famous Italian adage “traduttore, traditore”—literally, translator, traitor. Maybe this untranslatability angst is one of the things that best defines the work of the translator. More often than not, translators are worried about failure, about things getting lost in translation.

A corollary to the saying above is that the true measure of a translation is its degree of invisibility: it is good as long as it is not perceived. The translated narrative must be as perfectly readable and enjoyable as if that were the original language. If the reader notices something is wrong in the text, she will most likely blame the translator rather than the author.

In 2003, I was invited by a Brazilian publishing house to do a new translation of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. This classic novel had already been translated to Brazilian Portuguese in the early 1970s, and it was a prime quality job, done by an award-winning translator, Nelson Dantas. But, after thirty years, even the finest translations can become outdated. They are still good and readable, but they lose their edge, their élan, their vitality.

In A Clockwork Orange’s case, the earlier translation was fruit of the zeitgeist of the seventies: the slang was different then, the phrasal constructions and the kind of neologisms of one’s choice. (Agglutinations were all the rage then—portmanteau words sound wonderful in Portuguese.) Now, however, a second reading of that translation proved a weird experience to me—weird in a bad way.

While reading the original remains an strong, powerful experience because the cognitive estrangement, to use Darko Suvin’s expression, is all there, we still find that near-future, ultraviolent, russified Britain strange. We are compelled to believe it anyway, the imagery of those words being much too strong for us to do otherwise, but reading the translation just didn’t make me feel the same. I got entangled in a jungle of old words, words seldom used anymore (the agglutinations now doesn’t seem so fresh and catchy as before), and I simply couldn’t immerse myself in the story any longer. The estrangement was gone.

Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange after, among many other things, a visit to the USSR, where he witnessed the most weird thing: gang fights in the streets, something he thought was more commonplace in the UK. He filtered that through his experience and created his world. When we translate a story, we strive to recreate said story (or to transcreate it, a concept proposed by late Brazilian poet and semioticist Haroldo de Campos, a notion that I find very elegant), give some of us and our culture to receive something in exchange for it.

This is not the same thing as proposing we act as tradittori and change the text as we wish, not at all: the trick (if trick it is) is to do a little thing of what Jorge Luis Borges taught in his wonderful short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”, about the behavior of the man who dared to rewrite Don Quixote in the early 20th Century, word by word: “Know Spanish well, recover the Catholic faith, fight against the Moors or the Turk, forget the history of Europe between the years 1602 and 1918, be Miguel de Cervantes.”

For the nine months that the task of translating that novel took me, I followed the Menard method. I tried to be Anthony Burgess. And, more important than that, I tried to act as if Burgess was born in Brazil and had decided to write A Clockwork Orange in Portuguese. Because that’s what it is in the end: every translation is in itself a piece of Alternate History. Every translated novel is the novel that it could have been if its original writer had been born in the country of the translator.

As Nelson Dantas had done before me (and, no question about that, as another Brazilian translator will do after me in the future), I translated A Clockwork Orange to the best of my abilities. And, in the process, I wrote another book: the possible Clockwork Orange. For a translator of a novel will always write another novel, and yet it is the same—it is a novel its original author would be able to recognize. A story found in translation, never lost.


Fabio Fernandes is a writer and translator living in São Paulo, Brazil. He translated for the Brazilian Portuguese approximately 70 novels of several genres, among them A Clockwork Orange, Neuromancer, Snow Crash, and The Man in the High Castle. He is currently translating Cory Doctorow's Little Brother and the Vertigo/DC Comics series Hellblazer.

14 comments
Tudza White
1. tudzax1
Odd, I thought the point of Borges story was to reconcile how a modern author could produce the same text as Cervantes. That is, Pierre Menard did not have to become Cervantes, rather he had to find in himself reason to produce the same ideas in exactly the same way as someone from several hundred years before him and in another country. The wikipedia article seems to say the same.
Dominic Wellington
2. riotnrrd
My French teacher (a woman) told me that translations are like women: ugly and faithful, or beautiful and unfaithful.

I have to admit that I hate translations, but if I want to read a book and I don't read the language the original was written in, I prefer to read an English translation. The English versions seem to scan better. Certainly Italian and French translations are subject to the exact same phenomenon you describe with the Portuguese translation of Burgess. Perhaps there is a shared characteristic of Romance languages that causes this? My German is not really good enough to read even German originals for pleasure, so I'm not going to try translations into German at this point.
Agnes Kormendi
3. tapsi
I translate books (did around 40 so far) so I found this article very interesting.

Translating literature can be very draining and intense, but I've never tried to become the person who wrote the book, in most cases I would have written a very, very different book.

Every translated novel is the novel that it could have been if its original writer had been born in the country of the translator.

This one is a very brave and grand statement but I don't think it actually works.

The are historical and cultural differences that make a complete "translation" of a novel impossible, even if, at the same time, it is completely possible to understand and enjoy a novel originally written in a different language, in a different country.

For example, no person born in Hungary could have written Donna Tartt's "The Secret History" simply because our history and institutions are so different - but we can relate to it, we understand most of it, because of the similarities in the roots of our culture and society. It would be impossible to make it a Hungarian book on at least two levels: one is that the story would always stay a little unfamiliar because the small details of life are different over here, and the other is that most Hungarian writers have a very different voice and would focus on different details in a story. (The reason I picked this example and not something like "American Gods" is that "The Secret History" does not have talking names and an entire network of linguistic clues that are a translator's nightmare, so it's in many ways an easier text to work with. For the record, I didn't translate either of them).

I would say that a good translation is one that makes a book feel and sound as organic as it was in the original, one where language doesn't add to the sense of unfamiliarity that a book written in a different culture will always retain.

But I think that going too deep into the cultural translation aspect of the work can be a mistake . Much of the culture that is inherently part of each novel is interwoven and cannot really take the entire structure apart and then re-build it in another culture, in another language, because that given structure might not be possible or might carry different connotations there.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
That's fascinating.

Have you read the bit of Burgess's autobiography, where he talks about Borges?

I never really thought about translation much, despite having read plenty of the things, until a book of mine was translated and I was getting queries and I had it brought home to me that someone was rewriting every word, and that their readers would be reading my book, but not in my words. That's a funny feeling too.
denise bottmann
5. denise bottmann
maravilhoso, fábio. vou procurar essa edição. e vc escreve muito bem, com muita verve!
denise bottmann
6. Teka Lynn
I'd love to read your translation sometime and see for myself what you did with the slang.

One of my favorite Brazilian translations of an English-language work I know well, is of The Chronicles of Narnia. Unfortunately, I can't remember the name of the translator and haven't been able to find it in my files yet, but he was a professional poet as well. What interested me was that I was reading the contemporary Brazilian Portuguese and finding it closer to my contemporary North American idiom, when I mentally translated the Portuguese text, than to Lewis's mid-twentieth century British idiom. The text felt "fresher" to me, somehow.

I'm not a professional writer and don't plan to be, but I had a fanwork translated into several languages by other fans, including Belarusian. I can't read or understand Belarusian, and have no idea if the project was even carried out, but I felt very proud that, in my small way, I was indirectly helping to keep a dwindling language alive.
Fabio Fernandes
7. fabiofernandes
riotnrrd @2 :

Indeed, Latin languages usually share many of the same traits when it comes to translation - but even so, every one is singular in its way. I haven't checked the Italian of French translations of A Clockwork Orange, but I know I would like to read the Russian translation - it must have been much more difficult to recreate a thing created from one's own language (after all, the nadsat slang borrows heavily from Russian).
Fabio Fernandes
8. fabiofernandes
tapsi @3:

To become the other is, naturally, a metaphor. It's not a sine qua non proposition, nor should a translator try do it each and every time.

I translated approximately 70 books, some of them non-fiction - how could I be an author of a self-help book, or a philosophy for dummies book? (it could be be interesting, but then again, no, thanks).

On the other hand, there are fiction novels that simply don't make the translator comfortable to "merge" with the author. I also translated Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain and, much as I like Crichton's story and find him a fine storyteller, there isn't much in that novel to make it more than a technical manual of sorts, and that's something, I guess, that can be easily translated to most Western languages and also to Japanese (the only non-Western modern language I ever dared to study).
Fabio Fernandes
9. fabiofernandes
Jo:

Yes I did. Burgess was very fond of Borges - he even called the Argentine writer his namesake (both names came from the word Burgos, after all, and he also used to say they both were bourgeois).

I didn't have this feeling yet, but I had the opportunity to translate my own story The Boulton-Watt-Frankenstein Company to publish it in a Brazilian anthology. I didn't like my own translation to Portuguese - it felt artificial.
Fabio Fernandes
10. fabiofernandes
Muito obrigado, Denise! Você muito me honra com nosso belo português aqui!
Fabio Fernandes
11. fabiofernandes
Teka @6 :

The Chronicles of Narnia were translated in Brazil in the 70s by Paulo Mendes Campos, a great poet and writer who died in the early 90s. However, as C.S.Lewis's language in this work is more conservative (and I mean this in a good way), without neologisms, and dialogues written almost in a Biblical register, the translation still stands. I'd bet you would still find this text fresh in a way.

I would like to know more about this fanwork of yours and how it came to be translated into so many languages. It must be a great experience.
Per Jorgensen
12. percj
fabiofernandes@7:

I haven't read a Russian translation of A Clockwork Orange either, but according to the Russian-language Wikipedia entry about Nadsat, there are (at least - Russian publishing history is rather chaotic) two. One put the Russian-derived slang in Latin characters (the other text of the translation being, of corse, in Cyrillic), in order to get an alienation effect. The other translation substituted words derived from English. According to the Wikipedia entry, one problem with the latter approach is that basic English words are less unknown for Russians than basic Russian words are for English-speakers (and some, such as "man", is even used in some existing phrases). But then, I haven't read these translations, so I can't really comment on their quality.
Fabio Fernandes
13. fabiofernandes
percj: wow, I'd really would like to read Russian. (a curiosity: back in the times of the USSR, the soviet consulate in Brazil offered free Russian courses - when I got interested in study Russian, the USSR ended, and the winds of change blew so hard that the embassy couldn't afford free courses anymore. Talk about bad timing!)
denise bottmann
14. Bruno Porto
... and I don't what I was thinking when I wrote 'whatever'... I meant "just for the helluva"!

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