18 fevereiro 2006

J.M. Coetzee on Translation

BOOKS of mine have been translated from the English in which they are written into some 25 other languages, the majority of them European. Of the 25 I can read two or three moderately well. Of many of the rest I know not a word; I have to trust my translators to render fairly what I have written.

Whether that trust is well placed I find out only rarely, when a bilingual reader who has compared translation with original happens to report back to me.

Some such reports come as a jolt. In Russia, I discover, The Master of Petersburg has been renamed Autumn in Petersburg; in the Italian version of Dusklands, a man opens a wooden crate with the help of a bird (what I wrote was that he used a crow, that is, a crowbar).

Most reports, however, are reassuring. Even in the money-driven world of modern publishing, shoddy translations seem to be rare. In the translation of literary works in particular, the urge to give of one's best even when it may not be noticed still seems to reign.

As author I find it gratifying when a translator contacts me for advice. Among those who regularly confer with me are my French, German, Swedish, Dutch, Serbian and Korean translators.

On the other hand, there are some who have never been in touch, among them my Turkish and Japanese translators. Given the differences of linguistic structure and cultural background between Turkish and English, and between Japanese and English, I would have thought that these two would find my texts more troublesome than their European confreres do. Or perhaps it is out of politeness that they do not contact me.


In A House in Spain, the house in question lies in a Catalan village off the highway. But in the new Europe supervised from Brussels, my Dutch translator informs me, there is a strict and exhaustive hierarchy of road types, with associated maximum speeds. This hierarchy does not include cognates of highway.


This leads to my final question: Is there a high road (a highway) to excellence in translation, and might that high road be provided by a theory of translation? Would mastery of the theory of translation make one a better translator? There is a legitimate branch of aesthetics called the theory of literature. But I doubt very much that there is or can be such a thing as a theory of translation - not one, at any rate - from which practitioners of translation will have much to learn.

Translation seems to me a craft in a way that cabinet-making is a craft. There is no substantial theory of cabinet-making, and no philosophy of cabinet-making except the ideal of being a good cabinet-maker, plus a handful of precepts relating to tools and to types of wood.

For the rest, what there is to be learned must be learned by observation and practice. The only book on cabinet-making I can imagine that might be of use to the practitioner would be a humble handbook.

Fascinating... Read all, from The Australian

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