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NWR Issue 103

Dead Interviews

New Welsh Review at the London Book Fair 2014. Julia Forster reports on the hugely popular Dead Interviews event at the Literary Translation Centre on Wednesday 9 April. Daniel Hahn interviewed Oliver Ready and Patrick McGuinness on what it means to translate modern classics. They were also joined on the panel by John Siciliano of Penguin Classics UK and Alexandra Koch, Editor-in-Chief of Schwob.

More Information via Wales Literature Exchange

Publisher at Penguin in the USA, John Siciliano is the gatekeeper of the Classics list with a job description that includes deciding which classic texts to either retranslate or bring into the English language for the first time. This imprint both illuminates work by neglected geniuses and reinvigorates the work of an author, dead or alive. On the theme of reinvigorating, Siciliano cited Il Piacere by Gabrielie D’Annunzio; the previous translation in the Victorian era was identified as having shortcomings due to prudish sensibilities. The Penguin Classics version ‘put the sex back into pleasure’ where it had existed in the Italian original and had been somewhat skated over in the Victorian version.

Oliver Ready, whose translation of Crime and Punishment came out in February 2014, said his decision to work on this epic novel was one he would describe as ‘brave and foolish’. He was largely ignorant of the work of his predecessors, so as a first step Ready studied very closely the initial six pages of the novel in various translations, one known to be formidably difficult, and from this he found his position on the text. The translation took over five years and in this process Ready felt he was acting as a ‘detective,’ a role of which he hopes Dostoyevsky would have approved, the Russian author having himself first entered the Russian literary establishment as a translator of the French writer Honoré de Balzac.

Patrick McGuinness spoke elegantly on how ‘classics’ can be an encumbrance that ‘clog up the system’ but McGuinness held that, as a translator, his job is to look for work on the margins – those books which haven’t appeared before. However, to know what sits on the margins, he explained that this judgement must be orientated by classic texts. As such, classics act as a departure point from which to make a literary voyage of discovery.

There was some discussion around the ground rules within which translators work. To a lay person, these sounded particularly interesting: for example, a translator must decide at the outset whether to limit the translation to the words which were only extant in the era in which the original work was first written. Adam Thorpe chose this route in his translation of Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. John Siciliano then spoke briefly about the commissioning process, one which is decided on the basis of a translator’s previous work or after having commissioned a sample. Once the ground rules and tone of the translation have been agreed between translator and publisher, the process is one largely governed by trust.

Here, a meaty discussion evolved around how the ‘host culture’ can end up owning the text where the ‘source’ culture doesn’t have so much of a hold. Two examples here were given by Patrick McGuinness, one historical and one contemporary: Mallarmé once translated Edgar Allan Poe from English into French, but into a ‘non-French French’ as, Mallarmé said, Poe doesn’t write ‘in English’. Patrick McGuinness once invented a Romanian poet Liviu Campanu, gave him both a full biography (a poet and university lecturer) and then proceeded to translate the poet’s work into English. This conceit, McGuinness said, allowed him ‘new ways of being myself.’

One lovely image that will haunt is that of translations having the same effect as photocopying a sheet of text: in a translated work you get the literary ‘flecks of dust’ through a perpetual series of degradations, a process which takes the shine off the original. These are the translators’ fingerprints, to mix metaphors somewhat. Where the translator is perhaps less au fait with the ‘culture language’ (Don Paterson’s German in his translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets To Orpheus was cited here), the intimate lack of knowledge of the host language is betrayed through its unnatural sheen, according to our panel of experts.

Perhaps Margaret Atwood had it best: writers negotiate with the dead. A translator, then, negotiates not only with the dead but also with the living text, resuscitating it for each new generation.

Julia Forster is a contributor to New Welsh Review in print and online.


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