Do You Like Your Translations Plain Or Vitamin-Rich?

At the Free Word Centre, translators Canan Marasligil and Nicky Harman debate what has to be one of the most difficult questions in literary translation: how much “apparatus”—footnotes, introductions, afterwords, etc—do you include in a translation? I find this question really interesting because it implicates a lot of your beliefs about what exactly a translation is and how you prefer to experience a book—for instance, if you take the view that the translation is its own creation, equal to the original text, then you will most likely be against footnotes or contextualizing introductions.

For what it’s worth, I completely agree with Marasligil when she cones out against having footnotes in a text. If we consider translation to be an “art,” then surely using a footnote is cheating, an inelegant solution to a problem that the text has posed to you. Marasligil also makes a fine point about how it is not necessary to know the exact definition of every single word we read:

The primary role of a translator should be to render voice, not vocabulary, customs or habits. I recently read a novel written in British English, set in the UK, in which the author used the verb “to blutack”. I am sure many non-native English speakers like myself, who read English at a pretty good level, would have never heard of such a verb, but this didn’t push the author to explain what blutack was and why it could be used as a verb. And it didn’t stop me from understanding it. Because I’m one of those curious and slow readers, I Googled it, and learned a new verb built on cultural knowledge. Does this mean that when translating this novel into another language we should use blutack and explain it in a footnote? Of course not: it’s unimportant. We will use the appropriate vocabulary that means “stick it to the wall” in all languages.

As to the question of introductions, Harman offers a good argument for including them (even if, as a publisher and as a reader, I find them bulky):

Let me illustrate with a further question: Why do teachers consider it necessary to explain the role of the fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear? Because the modern meaning of the word doesn’t communicate the dramatic and social importance of the role. Granted, the reader will get some idea by the time they’ve finished the play. But why expect them to run barefoot through King Lear when we could give them a pair of running shoes, by way of an introductory note? Fundamentally, I think that expecting the reader to appreciate a book without understanding the context in which the writer was writing and, even more importantly, what he or she was trying to do, is to do the writer an injustice. This is especially true when readers are unlikely to know much about a history and a culture far removed from their own experience. For example, in a collection of Hong Kong stories I translated recently, by the writer Dorothy Tse, I felt it was very important to explain her surrealism by quoting her own words: “Contrary to mainland literature that tried to borrow languages from the working class as well as the farmers in the 50s as a way to reach the public, Hong Kong’s literature has a tradition of resistance to the language of daily life. Its highly experimental language is a strategy to distinguish a literary work from an entertaining and commercial one. In Hong Kong, writing itself is an active rejection of utilitarian society and mundane everyday life.”

The crucial words here are “Contrary to mainland literature”. I hope that these words will pique the interest of the reader, flagging up the fact that Hong Kong literature is a world away from the heavily politicized tradition of contemporary mainland Chinese literature. They will also alert readers to aspects of Dorothy’s writing such as her resolute refusal to reference Hong Kong products and places, giving us instead fantastic, imagined names, which are nonetheless tantalizingly close to reality.

This is a good case, and I find it partially persuasive, but I don’t agree fully with Harman. I can’t imagine too many readers reading a introduction in a bookstore, and probably only those with a specific interest in Chinese literature will be piqued by the description of the language. Likewise, it’s nice to have the author’s use of invented product names foregrounded, but isn’t this something an attentive reader would pick up on? I would prefer to err on the side of less than more.

Interestingly, the question of forewords was one that Two Lines Press recently had to deal with for our forthcoming Fata Morgana Books by Jonathan Littell. In support of the publication of that book we received a French Voices grant from the French government (joining a list of very nice authors, translators, and publishers), but one of the conditions of the grant was that the book had to include an introduction by an American author.

This was something that Littell was resolutely against (he’s very much a purist and prefers his books to be released without any kind of apparatus at all). In this case we definitely agreed with Littell’s opinion—as the author of The Kindly Ones, a widely discussed debut novel that was released in English just a few years ago, Littell is an author whose name will be familiar to the American reader. He is really in no need of an introduction, and if readers want to know more about him there are plenty of articles available. (Plus, to go to the effort of tracking down an author and paying him/her to write an intro would have been a sizable expenditure of resources for a small press like ours.)

Moreover, the four novellas presented in The Fata Morgana Books are such strange, ethereal, sui generis works that I do not know exactly how much good an introduction could do. You could surely slate Littell into certain movements or compare him to certain authors, but those comparisons won’t do a huge amount of good when it comes to reading the texts. Nor can I think of a whole lot of historical/regional context that I would give a reader of these novellas. Essentially, there’s not much to do to “prepare” a reader to read The Fata Morgana Books—they just need to be experienced.

Fortunately, in the end the good people behind French Voices agreed to waive the introduction requirement, to our and Jonathan’s great relief. And we are pleased to say that in just over a month you too will be able to experience these texts and make what you will of them for yourself.

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