Jeanine Herman is the translator of Kettly Mars’ French novel, Savage Seasons (Nebraska, 2015). This book and the French Voices series are currently being featured at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago.
I’d just read “The Translation Paradox” in The New York Review of Books when I got an email requesting a response to it. I’ve admired Tim Parks from afar as an elegant writer about translation, and I read and enjoyed his Fleur Jaeggy translation, Last Vanities.
I will leave aside the intricacies of Italian literary translation (I don’t mind close-to-the-text translations, which have their own literariness; I’m eager to read My Brilliant Friend, which all my brilliant friends have recommended) to focus on three neutral points.
1) All glory is borrowed glory.
And even borrowed glory is exceedingly rare.
For years the low symbolic capital accorded to the translator was even lower. I’m thinking of the late twentieth century. Translators were certainly not called “luminous” or “word-alchemists,” as they are today. Those things were reserved for poets and writers. The most a translator could hope for was a parenthetical mention, a “fine” or “serviceable” in parentheses—faint praise.
Things have gotten better. There is more symbolic capital—i.e., you are given credit, your name is put on the cover, etc.—in addition to actual capital instead of being paid solely in prestige, respect, or acknowledgment, or not being paid or acknowledged at all.
It is tempting to think about glory, like that accorded the Anna Karenina translators made famous by Oprah. As I was translating Savage Seasons, I imagined Gayle choosing it for CBS This Morning, Sean Penn acquiring the movie rights, and Halle Berry starring in it. Because this novel, set in Haiti, is very cinematic (harrowing, dark, dramatic, lush) but also because I imagined the glory that is so exceedingly rare.
I allowed my mind to go there.
2) Translators should know the language they are translating.
I find this to be the most basic requirement. Otherwise, you’re riffing, or winging it, or improvising, or spiraling off into fantasy. That is great in jazz or acting workshops or situations in which there is no script or score and you are encouraged to create your own. But when there are set words or notes, as in a piece of music that has been composed, or a film script, or a book that has been published (e.g., printed and bound, in paper or cloth, or published online), the text is pretty set—not set in stone but close. So I don’t feel this is the place for experimentation, i.e., not knowing a language and approximating a text.
3) You need a good editor.
“In any event, the moral of the tale is that what all we translators most need, aside from a thorough grounding in the language we are working from and a matching resourcefulness in the language we are working toward, is a damn good editor, someone who will go through our work meticulously, pointing out all interferences and awkwardness, inviting us to reconsider and reflect.”—Tim Parks
A good editor is always key to a good translation. That is essential. You can’t translate something, do multiple drafts, proofread, edit, copyedit, and make it flow all by yourself. You need help.
So much depends on an editor reading the translation and making it better and then getting other people to read it. A translator relies on the editor to bring the manuscript to the world.
If the editor leaves the company when the book comes out, the book is a kind of orphan. A book needs a champion, a guardian. Someone to get it reviewed, which is a whole other system of symbolic currency. I guess when you get lucky there is some magical alignment of author, work, translator, publishing house, editor, critic, and the public. Good timing and pixie dust and starred reviews in Publishers Weekly.
The good thing is: people have become more aware of the process of translation. I think Lost in Translation, the movie, really caused a shift in people’s awareness—it helped bring the notion to the general public. That something could be lost in translation also implied that something could be found, and that it might be valuable.
Generally, translators don’t have a big network of agents and publicists—we just work at our desks in relative obscurity. But we are trying (as Rilke once wrote) “to throw a handful of pale, tumbling pigeons into the Light.”
That is always worth trying. The editor helps you do that.