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Works That Work, No.1, Winter 2013

Translation Is a Human Interchange

by Peter Biľak (4009 words)

Peter Biľak talks with Linda Asher, former fiction editor at The New Yorker and translator of Milan Kundera’s French works, about her work, good translation and good translators.

Peter Biľak: What do you read? And is your reading affected by your profession?

Linda Asher: I read constantly and widely in literary fiction and non-fiction, books and journalism, some science and history. My regular reading includes The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, and The Nation, as well as other magazines and newspapers. The regimen keeps me well fed personally and informed professionally.

For a translator, all reading is of course nourishing and essential for a working lexicon of dictions, experience and information. When I am engaged in a particular book project, I often read around it widely and intensively—for the period, for the world it comes from, or perhaps to broaden my sense of the author’s own range of reference and culture. And of course that’s a wonderful feature of, a bonus in, the profession of translator—you are regularly obliged to enter into a fresh world and learn to put it into words. Translating Milan Kundera’s work led me to read or reread a good deal in Eastern and Central European literature: Musil, Broch, more Kafka, Gombrowicz, Škvorecký. For Memoirs of a Breton Peasant it was useful to read about Breton history and sociology and 19th-century French military campaigns.

Besides translating, you worked at The New Yorker magazine.

In 18 years as a fiction editor at The New Yorker, too, special reading habits took hold: one was always on the lookout for interesting work, new voices, fresh experience and outlook. I would not only read the reams of fiction which publishers proposed for publication in the magazine, but I also spent long hours in libraries and bookstores reading or scanning dozens of works a month. This became a habit, and even now I often have a half-dozen books from the lending library on my worktable. It is a constant adventure, keeping an eye out for fresh work, now for my own interest and pleasure. I also sit on a translation award jury for the French-American Foundation; for that project we look at some hundred recent translations from current and classic French writing each year.

How did your work at The New Yorker combine with your translation interests?

At the magazine I had a special interest in work in translation, and was able to publish a good deal of it. That meant not only reading widely to scout for it, but then working closely with translators to edit and polish a text with the final English reader in mind. Even working from languages one doesn’t understand, an editor can be helpful through sensitive reading. Texts by Haruki Murakami (Japanese), Georg Konrad (Hungarian), Danilo Kiš (Serbo-Croatian) and Primo Levi (Italian) among others are interesting examples. Good translations have an authority with the text that one tends to trust, of course. But occasionally I as an editor may wonder whether a passage is precisely what the author intended, and may ask the translator to take another look at the original to see if what it says is what I have understood, perhaps to get to a more precise translation. That is, I might feel a paragraph is a little unclear and ask for a reworking; I might sense from the context that a word is inexact and ask, ‘Is that word only “dark”, or could it be “black” or “shadowed, murky”?’ Or a paragraph might seem to aim at a dramatic tension but then lapse, and I’d ask, ‘Does the original do that?’ As a translator myself, I know there’s often something more, and I have frequently often found that a translator is interested in that sort of close reading and collaborative spirit. (I myself appreciate it, when I am the translator.) But that sort of intervention is fairly rare. Raising questions must be done delicately. I could be wrong, and in the end the writer or translator must decide the question. But in any case, the discussion is usually rich. There were many times where the dance with the translator was very close. And it is possible that I was granted a little more leeway to question because they knew that as a translator myself I’d struggled with some of these issues.

Occasionally I as an editor may wonder whether a passage is precisely what the author intended, and may ask the translator to take another look at the original to see if what it says is what I have understood.

When one reads a translation there’s always an implicit trust that the author’s voice is coming across, but the reader can seldom evaluate whether the translation does it justice. As an editor reading something in translation, do you think you could distinguish the original voice from the voice of the translator by the consistency of the language?

I might not know whether I was getting the voice of the original writer, but I could say whether, within the piece, the effect seems to be what the author intends. A few years ago Penguin used a different translator for each volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which turned out an uneven but interesting sequence of tonalities, genuine but individual engagements.

Bear in mind that there is sometimes interest in retaining some scent of the original context of a work, rather than achieving an utterly fluent-seeming English translation. For myself, as a reader, I am often pleased to be reminded by the text—by the language, an idiom, a local expression for instance—that I am reading something that has come over from another language, another world. It is not a bad idea, either, for American readers to be reminded from time to time that not everything worthwhile originated in English.

What do you appreciate in a good translation?

As I said, I do read, or at least scan, some hundred French books every year in the course of judging English translations of fiction and non-fiction for awards from the French-American Foundation. And my own recreational reading includes translations from other languages too. What I appreciate in a good translation is competence in both languages; attention to the argument or plot so that a reader’s experience is not disrupted by missteps or a tin ear; a sense that the song of the original has been brought across by a translator who can sing it… We all are pleased to read a significant work even when it has some faults, but there is a special pleasure when you can feel the matching of rhythms, of tones, between author and translator. And I think that can probably be sensed even in work from an unfamiliar tongue—a verve, a sureness.

What I appreciate in a good translation is competence in both languages […] a sense that the song of the original has been brought across by a translator who can sing it.

What do you strive to do in your work as a translator?

Well, exactly that—what I have just described. When I first read a text for translation, it is to learn its nature: whether the text is gloomy or lilting, sharp-tongued or exuberant. I look for the meaning, the sound of the text, the song, which is to say the style, and my goal would be to find the English to answer in kind.

I ask the question: do I have the voice to meet this? That’s very much my criterion. As I read anything, I read to see what the character of it is—what is its spirit, what is its kind of vocabulary or diction, the social and historical sound, whether it’s playful with language, whether its signal quality is profundity and therefore precision of argument… And in that moment, while I’m doing that reading, I’m also trying to assess whether I have an answering style to represent it in English.

Translation is a kind of impersonation, I think. As a translator and as a self, I am keen to observe the world consciously, and to notice dialogue, notice dialect, notice personal styles of speech, notice tics. If you have a large enough library of this kind of experience, and if you have made yourself specifically aware of it, you’ve got many pages of experience to riffle through and decide whether you have the appropriate English available for the book at hand. It is important to have a very broad English, access to all sorts of English, to get the character of a text. So reading and being out in the world are very important for any writer, but maybe especially for a translator. I think that an encased and enclosed life probably doesn’t give you the chance to do this well.

Translation is a kind of impersonation, I think. As a translator […] I am keen to observe the world consciously, and to notice dialogue, notice dialect, notice personal styles of speech, notice tics.

Linda Asher in her Manhattan apartment. She is the former fiction editor of The New Yorker, and has been translating books by Milan Kundera since 1986. (Photo by Bryan Schutmaat)

Is the choice of which-translator-works-on-which-author made solely by the publisher? Are you selective in what you’d translate or not?

I am not a specialist in a particular writer or period deeply known to me, practised by me. I ‘work for hire’, responding to publishers’ requests. So I must play a variety of different voices and scenarios, and I enjoy that wide range of activity. I take on what comes down the road, but only if I like it, enjoy and respect it, and if I think I can do it well, give it a worthy presence in its new world.

Once in a while I turn down a proposed work as perhaps too expert, or requiring a language that would take a lot of work to acquire, or as uncongenial to me in one way or another: I don’t think I’d do the best job on it and might find it tiresome to try. But that is much more theoretical than actual, because so few books are bought here for translation anyhow, and specialised works are most often translated by specialists. I tend to be offered projects that in one way or another do suit me, or that a publisher feels will benefit from my particular skills or my personality. I am known to people, after all, both as a person and as a translator, so they are unlikely to invite me to do a book that requires arguing a thesis in physics or philosophy.

But if they asked you, you might?

Sometimes, if it seems within reach. Yes. Indeed; I have done translations of science, history, and of course essays. Much of Milan Kundera’s work in French has been non-fiction, essays, which I have translated, beginning with The Art of the Novel, and lately Encounter and Testaments Betrayed. For some books—for instance an extraordinary photo book on vertebrate evolutionary development through time, Evolution, by J.-B. de Panafieu—I read the background science heavily to acquire not only the terminology and the argument, but the sound of the discourse, the way scientists talk.

How many authors do you work with? Are there some authors that you always translate, or is it a mix?

I have done much of Milan Kundera’s English translation since around 1986, when he started writing and publishing in French rather than Czech, which is to say a dozen books, essays, articles and speeches. Otherwise, over some thirty or forty translations, I have not worked much with any single author.

Since language is constantly developing, do you think some books should be re-translated for a contemporary readership?

Translators and publishers often argue that every generation could use a fresh translation. And of course that gives everyone the pleasure of intimate relation to a great, much-translated writer. Different generations read differently, and translators are always capable of pulling fresh stuff, newly viewed, different characteristics, out of texts over time and even in the same period.

I’m working on some Balzac stories just now; a pleasure. When I first read him as an adolescent I found the work thick, rebarbative, not for me. Now I see it as exactly the kind of busybody, exuberant, face-into-everything writing I love. If I’d been trying to translate him when I was 20, I would probably have been trudging through it. Now I feel a bright, delighted response to him; I have more experience of the world to bring to his observations and attitudes.

Do you think there could be a text which is inherently impossible to translate because of a combination of a particular style and period?

I can’t imagine that would be so. If there’s a reader for it, and if the reader is somebody who relishes pulling up language to meet it, then even the abstruse stuff or the most insane or knotty writer should be susceptible of translation. I can’t imagine that a priori one would say about anything that it cannot be translated, because translation is a human interchange. A book is not only a text, and I don’t see translation as an exclusively literary activity, but as a human exchange. It’s a social act, an act of transporting something valuable from one mind to another: I’m trying to tell one person what another person has said.

A book is not only a text, and I don’t see translation as an exclusively literary activity, but as a human exchange.

You work closely with Milan Kundera, who is known for being very rigorous about translation. What is your collaboration like?

Rich. His comments are fastidious, demanding, and laced with humour! He enjoys seeing what English can do that reflects or extends the French. He likes hearing suggestions for alternative formulations that seem closer than easy cognates, for instance, and is interested in wordplay and different resonances.

My husband, the late Aaron Asher, was his American editor (and sometimes translator) for years. I came to know Kundera, and as a friend I occasionally translated short French texts, articles and speeches for him. His first books after leaving Czechoslovakia were still written in Czech, though not published there. But afterwards he began to write and publish in French, and in 1985, after some experience together, he asked me to undertake the translation of his first major French work, The Art of the Novel, and I’ve done several more since then.

I mention Aaron Asher because he was exactly that same kind of editor: enormously meticulous, demanding, funny. Both men were famous for their scrupulous attention to detail. And I responded happily to their combined tough requirements. They hardened my own standards.

How is Kundera’s English? Does he read your translations?

He does read very well, and as I have said, he monitors the English carefully, asking questions and helping with my adjustments. I don’t believe he reads English regularly as recreation, in his leisure time, but he knows his own English vocabulary and arguments and humour very well. He oversees the translations into Italian, Spanish and German, maybe Polish as well. And of course the books are translated into Japanese and Hindi and other completely foreign languages—even scripts—where a writer must trust that his discussions with the translator ensure probable accuracy. But his own antennae are extremely sensitive; he knows how a nuance can go wrong.

The first time that I started thinking about translation was when I was reading his Life Is Elsewhere in English, which was written originally in Czech, but was never officially published in Czech [1]. Reading it, I was thinking that there was something not quite right with the language, but I couldn’t tell what it was. Then I read a different Kundera text in English, and it was a completely different experience. I looked into it, and realised that there had been a change of translator.

Peter Kussi translated Life Is Elsewhere.

Right. But translators usually translate from a foreign language into their native language. Is the other direction ever a good idea?

Really not, in my view. It is widely thought, and I feel this firmly, that translation is best done from the original into one’s native (or at least best) language. Perhaps in special cases, for example, when translating poetry: a poet without the original language will often work with a native speaker of that language, or a primary translator, and then secondarily, often beautifully, transform a more literal translation into poetry.

1 Although Milan Kundera’s early works up to 1990 were written in Czech, they were banned by the communist government, and were never published in Czechoslovakia. Today, more than 20 years after the change in regime, only four out of his nine novels have been published in Czech, despite the fact that some were originally written in that language. After settling permanently in France, Kundera spent two years rewriting his previous novels and supervising their French translations. Since 1987 all his books published by Gallimard contain the note: entièrement revue par l’auteur, a la même valeur d’authenticité que le texte tchèque (entirely reviewed by the author, having the same value of authenticity as the Czech text). The revisions were so dramatic that the French translations, not the Czech originals, are now the authorised texts approved by Kundera.

What are the similarities or differences between the work of an editor and the work of a translator? Both are trying to get to the essence of the text, bridging the relationship between the reader and writer.

As a translator, when you read a new text, you are reading for a whole gestalt. You want to know what the writer means, what he intends by writing this thing, you want to know how he’s saying it. You’re going to have to develop a new set of receptors to hear it. To undertake a translation is to read more deeply and more thoroughly and in more detail, with more receptors functioning than you would normally have to bring to a casual reading on the bus. And, of course, doing it six times—there’s probably no text that I’ve ever let out of the house without having done five or six revisions.

The editor’s task is somewhat similar to a translator’s, as you say, except that a translator must bring fresh words to bear, not merely correct what is there, and that is the crucial importance of gathering and nurturing an extensive vocabulary, of words and experience both, in your own language.

As readers and writers, we all know our own tongues unusually thoroughly; there are probably very few words in English that I haven’t at least heard at some time. But there are words that I haven’t been using lately. We only use a very small part of our working vocabulary at any time. And then we are reminded of a word or expression that we haven’t used in years, and it joins our working lexicon again, a fresh coin; we start using it every day. Just an exclamation for joy, or a term for physical behaviour, and we think, ‘Damn! I haven’t used that word in a long time!’ Well, a translator, even more than any other writer, needs to keep all that material consciously within reach. We sharpen our awareness and readiness for a particular language that suits the work we are translating. You do that too as an editor—but practically speaking, when you know that a thing isn’t quite right, you ask the author for the solution; you don’t have to supply it yourself. As a translator you’re both writing and editing yourself, finding the right word. It’s true that as an editor I also often had alternative words to propose, or alternative phrasings, because I had thought hard about the text.

Do you consider the act of translation to be a creative act?

In my view, translation is primarily performance, interpretation, more than it is ‘creation’, just as when Emanuel Ax plays Bach in a way that some other pianist doesn’t. One might say that interpretation does approach a creative imaginative act, that sensitive interpretation calls up almost new invention to embody it. But I’m not crazy about the word, the claim of ‘creativity’ for this activity. If all your pistons are functioning, translation is beautifully reactive.

Translation is primarily performance, interpretation, more than it is ‘creation’, just as when Emanuel Ax plays Bach in a way that some other pianist doesn’t.

Another thing: I’ve often thought that I manage to do this thing well because I’m perhaps less thoroughly nailed to the earth than some other people are. To say a thing as an author has said it, I must be able to float a bit away from what would be my own natural style of perception and expression. That’s how translators are like actors: I am not so exclusively and utterly committed to my own language that I don’t dare leave my earth. For myself, I play with the idea that the condition, the talent, is slightly schizoid. It’s somewhat nuts to be so easily able to abandon your own home language, your home set of perceptions, and inhabit someone else’s.

Thank you so much for your time.

Peter Biľak is the founding editor of Works That Work magazine. He also runs Typotheque type foundry and co-founded Dot Dot Dot magazine. Peter also teaches at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague.

This article comes from Works That Work magazine, No.1.
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