08 março 2006

It should have been the highlight of his year. It's not everyday that your work is quoted at length in The New Yorker.

But something got lost in the translation.

The incident began happily enough when Sverre Lyngstad opened the magazine's Dec. 26 issue and found a long article on the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun (1859-1952), the Nobel laureate whose reputation was damaged by his late-life support for the Nazis. Lyngstad has worked mightily to raise Hamsun's profile as a father of modernism. Since 1994, he has published a critical study of Hamsun's work and translated nine of his best works into English, including the novels "Hunger," "Pan," "Mysteries" and, most recently, "Victoria" (Penguin Classics, $13, paper).

Sure enough, The New Yorker quoted liberally from Lyngstad's translations. But it never credited his work. When Lyngstad contacted the magazine, he was told that editors feared that including his name would "clutter" the piece. After much back and forth, The New Yorker finally agreed to print a shortened version of his letter to the editor, in the Feb. 27 issue.

"The article left the impression that the translations had just dropped from the sky or that Hamsun had done them himself," Lyngstad told me in a telephone interview. "You always like to be recognized for your work. The absence of such recognition raises the whole issue of the translator's very function and status, in seeming to suggest that citations from a translated text can be made without any mention of the person who brought it into existence."

Few people would endorse the magazine's oversight. Yet we must also admit that it offered a little wish fulfillment to some readers. Translators play such a central role in our experience of foreign works that we have a natural urge to erase them from the picture.

Picking up "Madame Bovary" or "Crime and Punishment," we seek to surrender ourselves to the towering genius of Flaubert or Dostoevsky. We don't want to be reminded that our ignorance of French or Russian means we can never fully enjoy their works, but only versions of them created by gifted, but obscure, translators.

Almost all first-rate translators convey the story and spirit of the works at hand -- capturing Bovary's yearning or Raskolnikov's torment. But then we remember Flaubert, who famously labored to find le seul mot juste (the one right word). Even a cursory glance of competing translations displays thousands of differing word choices, many of which alter the rhythm, the syntax and, to varying degrees, the meaning of the work.

To take one telling example, here is Lyngstad's translation of the third sentence from Hamsun's novel, "Victoria": "When he grew up he wanted to be a maker of matches." Here's how an earlier translator, Oliver Stallybrass, rendered it: "When he grew up he would work in a match factory."

I cannot say which version is truer, but the differences are plain. Lyngstad gives us an ambitious boy determined to set the world on fire. Stallybrass introduces us to a child whose grim fate seems predetermined.

Translators are like priests who mediate our relationship with the literary gods. We depend on them even as we wish for direct contact.

Though translators often get the short shrift, they are more important than ever in this global age. Literature from foreign lands is one of the best ways to understand and experience distant cultures. Yet it represents only a tiny fraction of the books published in America.

Of the 195,000 new titles printed in English in 2004 (the most recent year for which numbers are available), only 891 were works of adult literature in translation, according to the RR Bowker company, which tracks publishing industry figures.

Nevertheless, thanks to translators' heroic and often poorly paid work, we will be able to enjoy many wonderful works this spring. They include "Suite Francaise," Irene Nemirovsky's novel of life in Nazi-occupied France (Knopf, April, translated from the French by Sandra Smith); "The Possibility of an Island," best-selling French author Michel Houllebecq's futuristic tale of the modern world (Knopf, May, translated by Gavin Bowd); and "Seeing," the latest novel from Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago, (Harcourt, April, translated by Margaret Jull Costa).

Translators also breathe new life into old works. The Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney resurrected "Beowulf" in 2000 through a version powerful enough to transform the bane of ninth-grade English into a national best seller. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's fresh translation of "Anna Karenina" led Oprah Winfrey to make Tolstoy's masterpiece one of her book club picks. And Anthony Briggs is generating new interest in another Tolstoy classic, "War and Peace" (Viking) through his new translation of that sprawling epic.

All of which reminds us of the central paradox of the relationship between readers and translators: We can't live with them, and we can't live without them.

[From the Newsobserver]

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