Coetzee: Working with translators


Books of mine have been translated from the English in which they are written
into some twenty-Wve other languages, the majority of them European. Of the
twenty-Wve 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 Wnd 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-drivenworld 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.
If one were asked to epitomize the profession of authorship, ‘noble’ would
not be the Wrst word that came to mind. But ‘noble’ would not be an
inappropriate epithet for the translator whose guiding star is Fides and who
can hope for neither fame nor fortune.
As author I am gratiWed 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 diVerences in linguistic structure and cultural background between Turkish
and English, and between Japanese and English, I would have thought that
these two would Wnd my texts quite as troublesome as their European
confre`res do. But no, I would seem to be mistaken. Or perhaps it is out of
politeness that they do not contact me; perhaps they have other Englishlanguage
informants to fall back on.
Are my books easy or hard to translate? Sentence by sentence, my prose is
generally lucid, in the sense that within the sentence syntactic constructions are unambiguous and logical relations between components as clear as I can
make them. Where ambiguity occurs, there is usually a reason for it. On the
other hand, I sometimes use words with the full freight of their history behind
them, and historical freight is not easily carried across from one language to
another. As for social freight, my English is rarely embedded in any particular
sociolinguistic landscape, which relieves the translator of one potentially
vexatious burden. On the other hand, I do tend to be allusive, and not always
to signal the presence of allusion.
Dialogue comes with its own set of problems, particularly when it is very
informal and incorporates regional usages, contemporary catch-phrases and
allusions, or slang. My dialogue is rarely of this kind. For the most part its
character remains formal, even if its rhythms are somewhat more abrupt than
the rhythms of narrative prose. So hitting the right register is not diYcult for
the translator.
If my dialogue is on occasion aberrant, this tends to be where it comes from
the mouths of children or of characters to whom English is not a Wrst
language. In general, it is best for such speech to be translated not word for
word but by speech typical of children in the language translated into
(hereafter called the ‘target language’), or by the speech of a foreigner making
typical foreign slips.
Taking all these factors into consideration, on a scale of diYculty running
from a low of one to a high of ten I would say that the prose of my Wction
would rate a score of about seven: it is not prose one can translate while
listening to the radio, and now and again one has to rack one’s brains a bit,
but the challenges it proposes are rarely insuperable.
My novel Waiting for the Barbarians presents an unusual problem for the
translator. It is set in an unspeciWed space at an unspeciWed time in history. It
would be hard to maintain that this milieu isWestern, yet despite allusions to
‘barbarians’, to an imperial palace, and to such items as lacquered armour, it is
as hard to Wt the action snugly into the Far East. The language of the novel is
more or less bare of allusion to the past of the English language and indeed to
the history of Western thought. Furthermore, within it there are passages of
what may be conceived of as translation from a hypothetical ‘barbarian’
language into the language of the narrator and thence into English (such
passages are marked by a simpliWed syntax and lexicon). As for dialogue, this
can be conceived of as translated by an invisible hand from an unspeciWed
foreign tongue into English.
The principal character in the novel, and its narrator, is called simply ‘the
Magistrate’ and is addressed as ‘Magistrate’. His principal duty is to oYciate
over the system of justice along this part of the frontier, but in the absence of a bureaucracy he seems also to oversee the day-to-day operation of the
neglected frontier town where he has lived for years.
Since there is no term in English for someone who is in eVect judge and
mayor and town clerk, since a Magistrate in this book would not be a
Magistrate in any other book, does it matter what title the translator gives
this man in the target language? Perhaps not; but there are good approximations
and bad approximations. If Magistrate is the authorial approximation in
English, what would be a good approximation in German, for instance?
The question was raised in correspondence by my German translator—
speciWcally, by my second German translator, since two diVerent translations
of Waiting for the Barbarians have appeared in German. In modern German,
der Magistrat denotes the magistracy, not a single individual. The standard
translation of English ‘magistrate’ is Friedensrichter. But Friedensrichter translates
back into English as ‘Justice of the Peace’, which—in America at least—is
the title of a quite lowly oYce. Hence the translator’s decision to resurrect der
Magistrat in its old sense, a sense still alive in Switzerland, where Magistrat is a
title as well as an oYce.
Phrasings planted in Waiting for the Barbarians for their generic Far
Eastern associations naturally aroused the interest of my Chinese translator.
In the following passage the Magistrate speaks:
I . . . amno less infected with [the vision of Empire] than the faithful Colonel Joll as he
tracks the enemies of Empire through the boundless desert, sword unsheathed to cut
down barbarian after barbarian until at last he Wnds and slays the one whose destiny it
should be (or if not he then his son or unborn grandson) to climb the bronze gateway
to the Summer Palace and topple the globe surmounted by the tiger rampant that
symbolized eternal domination.
‘It would be highly appreciated’, wrote my translator in an e-mail, ‘if you
could help clarify what Summer Palace and globe surmounted by the tiger
rampant . . . refer to. I wonder if [they] refer to the Old Summer Palace in
Beijing that was destroyed by British and French allied force in 1848.’
The question may seem simple, but it holds surprising depths. It may mean:
Are the words ‘Summer Palace . . .’ intended to refer to the historical Summer
Palace? It may also mean: Do the words refer to the historical Summer Palace?
I, as author, am the sole person able to answer the Wrst question, and my
answer must be that as far as my recollection goes I did not (consciously)
intend to refer to the palace in Beijing; I certainly did not intend to evoke the
historical sack of that palace, with its attendant national humiliations. At
the same time, however, I did intend that enough of an association with
imperial China should be evoked to balance and complicate, for instance, the association with imperial Russia evoked elsewhere in the book by the phrase
‘Third Bureau’, the arm of the security forces for which Colonel Joll works.
As for whether the words in question do refer to the palace in Beijing, I as
author am powerless to say. The words are written; I cannot control the
associations they awaken. But my translator is not so powerless: a nudge
here, a nuance there, and the reader may be either directed towards or headed
oV from the Beijing of 1848.
The necessary imperfection of translation—brought about in the Wrst place by
the incapacity of any given target language to supply for each single word in
the source language a corresponding single word that would cover, precisely
and without overlap, the denotation of the original and its major connotations
to boot—is so widely accepted that the translator becomes accustomed
to aiming for the best possible translation rather than a hypothetical perfect
But there are occasions where less than perfect translation of a key word can
have serious consequences. My novel Foe, if it is about any single subject, is
about authorship: about what it means to be an author not only in the
professional sense (the profession of author was just beginning to have a
concrete meaning in Daniel Defoe’s day) but also in a sense that verges if not
on the divine then at least on the demiurgic: sole author, sole creator.
Here is an exchange between my Serbian translator and myself, from the
time when she was working on Foe.
a.b.: Autor, alas, is not a profession in Serbian. In some places I simply have to say
writer (denotes strictly a literatus) . . . [She goes on to caution against too many
Latin-sounding words in a Serbian text.]
j.m.c.: The notion that one can be an author as one can be a baker is fairly fundamental
to my conception of Foe. ‘Writer’ would suYce only if the distinction
between writer and scribe/scrivener were quite marked.
a.b.: You write: ‘The notion that one can be an author as one can be a baker is fairly
fundamental to my conception of Foe.’ That is precisely the reason it worries me.
The baker bakes, the author authors, yet our verb [in Serbian] is makes/creates. The
English senses are better covered by tvorac (maker/creator/founder) [than by
autor]. Defoe is properly the tvorac of Robinson Crusoe . . .
You also write: ‘ ‘‘Writer’’ would suYce only if the distinction between writer and
scribe/scrivener were quite marked.’ It is, but the word lacks the symbolical quality
of the English author. I think I will try to use the maker/creator word, toning it
down with writer only when absolutely necessary.
j.m.c.: That sounds the best solution. Makir (maker) is the word routinely used for
poet in Scottish poetry of the fourteenth–Wfteenth centuries.
a.b.: Good to know about makir—such a resonant word.
410 The Politics of Translation Practice Two further exchanges with A.B. The Wrst illustrates the sometimes inconvenient
demands that the grammar of the target language can make, in this
case a demand for the insertion of a verbal element that is not present in the
source text. The passage in question is from the lecture ‘His Man and He’
(2003): ‘A visitation by illness may be Wgured as a visitation by the devil, or by
a dog Wguring the devil, and vice versa, the visitation Wgured as an illness.’
a.b.: In the third visitation (Wgured as illness) I have to say by whom/what? . . . ‘Visitation’
[in Serbian] requires a distinct verbal phrase for each and every agent, God,
Devil, illness, etc. (A devilish sentence, though, I hate to spoil it.)
j.m.c.: Might there not be a way of avoiding the question by recasting the sentence?
a.b.: I recast the sentence many times. No neat solution.
j.m.c.: Have you tried paraphrasing the troublesome passage without the use of the
passive, and then translating the paraphrase?
a.b.: I ended up with a less than perfect sentence, too long, no rhythm. But whoever
does the Wguring is no longer accountable.
In the Wnal exchange I quote, an unexpected diYculty is created by
transliteration into the Cyrillic alphabet. Elizabeth Costello, the central
Wgure in the book by the same title, looks forward to seeing her writings on
the library shelves among such great Cs as Chaucer, Coleridge, and Conrad.
Then with dismay she realizes that her nearest neighbour is likely to be Marie
The Wrst headache for the translator is of course that in Serbian ‘Chaucer’,
unlike ‘Coleridge’, ‘Corelli’, and ‘Costello’, is not spelled with an initial K.
a.b.: Should I drop Chaucer, or replace him with, say, Keats? . . . Corelli is a K, but the
allusion would be lost on Serbian readers. May I insert an adjective like ‘sentimental’
or ‘very minor’?
j.m.c.: Drop Chaucer. Then I suggest you consult a Serbian-language encyclopedia
and pick out a minor English-language writer near to Kostelo.
a.b.: Minor writers: only the popular ones get into foreign encyclopedias. Agatha
Christie, James Fenimore Cooper, A. J. Cronin?
j.m.c.: Agatha Christie, I think.
Here are two communications from my French translator at the time when
she was working on Youth. The Wrst illustrates a situation familiar to translators,
where a phrase that the writer, in his innocence, regards as perfectly
clear is revealed by the test of translation to be ambiguous.
c. du p.: You write: ‘London is full of beautiful girls. They come from all over the
world: as au pairs, as language students, simply as tourists.’ I tend to understand
that these girls are in London to learn English, rather than doing tertiary studies in
languages. I would say: des Wlles venues des quatre coins du monde pour apprendre
l’anglais (rather than e´tudiantes en langues). The second communication illustrates the reverse: a word that has complex
connotations in the source language, connotations that cannot dependably be
evoked in the target. The text runs: ‘In a perfect world he would sleep only
with perfect women, women of perfect femininity yet with a certain darkness
at their core that will respond to his own darker self.’
j.m.c.: Dark here is the dark of dark secrets, dark history, etc. I don’t have enough of a
feel for the connotations of sombre in French, but English somber has connotations
of sad or saddening that we don’t want.
c. du p.: This not an easy one. The connotations of dark secrets would be rendered by
the French noir . . . as in magie noire, messe noire, roman noir . . . I am not sure noir
will work in this passage.
j.m.c.: Dark, as used here, is a very Lawrentian word. Is there a standard D. H.
Lawrence translation in France? If so, you should use the word that routinely
translates ‘dark’ there. The Wrst book to check would be The Plumed Serpent,
where it occurs all over the place.
c. du p.: In the entries [on Lawrence] in Le Dictionnaire des oeuvres, on Le serpent a`
plumes, there is a quote referring to Cipriano Viedma: Il posse´dait un pouvoir
magne´tique que son e´ducation n’avait pas entame´. Cette e´ducation s’e´tendait
comme un le´ger voile sur le lac sombre de son aˆme rude. In the commentary, phrases
like sa nature intime (for Kate) keep cropping up (for core?)—monde primitif also
occurs. We could think of secret, of te´ne´breux: Ma jeunesse ne fut qu’un te´ne´breux
orage—Baudelaire; Le labyrinthe des consciences les plus te´ne´breuses—Balzac—both
anachronic, I know.
We had to settle for sombre and abandon the allusiveness of the original:
Femmes . . . qui auraient au fond d’elles-meˆmes quelque chose de sombre qui
re´pondait a` ce qu’il y a en lui de sombre.
The heroine of Age of Iron is a classics professor dying of cancer. The novel
follows the movement of her thoughts, and this creates certain problems for
the Korean translator. When Professor Curren’s mind wanders to the West’s
classical past, should he treat these moments as allusions and footnote them?
Since such allusions are often glancing and casual, how can he be sure he has
picked them all up? Is a passing reference to a photograph of Sophie Schliemann
worth a long footnote on Troy, Homer’s Iliad, and the excavation of
what he thought was Agamemnon’s tomb by Heinrich Schliemann? The
phrase amor matris crosses the professor’s mind. For the beneWt of a reader
without Latin, the famous ambiguity of the phrase can be explained in a quick
footnote; but how does one evoke the atmosphere of rote learning in classrooms
going back six centuries in the West?
In English, the etymological connection between nursing of the health-care
type and sustenance (nourishment) is present though somewhat hidden by the drift of sound-change. The connection is clearer in French nourrice. How,
without becoming pedantic, does one explain to the Korean reader why it is
the French rather than the English word that Xits through the consciousness
of the heroine?
In Boyhood, the young hero is obsessed with cricket. The ball-throwing
machine that he constructs to give himself batting practice in the back yard is
easy enough to picture as long as one has an idea of the relation of batsman to
bowler in cricket. For the Korean (or indeed the Serbian or French) reader, is
cricket worth a long elucidatory note, or should the machine be left unexplained
as a cultural puzzle?
The English word ‘portly’ is in transition from an older sense of ‘stately’,
where port is the same element as in ‘deportment’, to a newer sense of ‘stout’.
This instability has certain consequences: a person one calls ‘portly’ is a Wgure
of fun in a way that a person one calls ‘fat’ is not—he or she bears his or her
weight with a gravity that is comical.
How does one translate ‘portly Paul Kruger’ (in Youth) into Dutch? Dutch
oVers statig for the older sense, dik for the newer. There is no word that carries
both senses. Dik (English thick, solid, plump, stout) and gezet (settled, solid,
stout) are not complimentary but lack the euphemistic shading.
In Elizabeth Costello, Elizabeth’s sister gives a speech at a graduation
ceremony. Her speech ends as follows: ‘studia humanitatis . . . are truly
on their deathbed. [Their death] has been brought about by the monster
enthroned by those very studies as Wrst and animating principle of the
universe: the monster of reason, mechanical reason. But that is another
story for another day.’ The text continues: ‘That is the end of it, the end of
Blanche’s oration . . .’ In Dutch, unfortunately, the standard word for ‘reason’
is rede. Rede is also the standard word for ‘oration’ or ‘speech’. This double
function makes etymological sense—it parallels the development of Latin
ratio from an arithmetic account, a reckoning, to accounting or computation
in the abstract, to scheme or system, to systematic thought—but to use the
word twice here would sow confusion. The best solution my Dutch translator
and I could come to was to resurrect the Latin word: het monster van de ratio,
de mechanische rede.
The English word highway is rich in connotation. Via highwayman it carries
eighteenth-century associations with risk and danger: compared with a mere
‘road’, a ‘highway’ is positively glamorous (this is, of course, not true in the
United States, where the word ‘highway’ is in everyday use). In my story
‘A House in Spain’, the house in question lies in a Catalan village oV 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’. For my Dutch translator, the critical question was whether the
village is located near an autosnelweg (express motorway), a snelweg (expressway),
or a lowly provinciale weg (provincial road). If we take the author’s
intentions into reckoning and try to match referent with referent, the likeliest
answer would be the last; but if we had no author to interrogate, how would
we know?
There are two quite diVerent considerations at work here. One has to do
with real-life road types and their congruence or lack of congruence with the
author’s intentions. The other has to do with the range of historical, social,
and literary associations called forth by the idea of a village not far from
the highway, and the range called forth by the idea of a dorpje not far from the
provinciale weg.
No matter how competent a translator might be in both languages, and how
Wnely attuned to nuance, there are texts for which he or she will simply feel no
sympathy. In an ideal world, the best course for the translator would be to
decline to work on such texts; but in the real world such rectitude may not
always be practicable.
Waiting for the Barbarians was Wrst translated into German in 1984. By
common consent this translation was not a success, and the book has since
been retranslated.Why was the Wrst translation a failure? The translator could
read my English perfectly competently, word by word and sentence by sentence,
and turn it into adequate German prose. Yet as I read the text she
produced I felt more and more disquieted: the world that her pages evoked
was, in subtle and not so subtle respects, not the world I had imagined; the
narrator whose voice I was hearing was not the narrator I had conceived.
In part this was a matter of word choice: given a choice between two valid
options, the translator seemed more often than not to choose the one I would
not have chosen. But in the main it was a matter of rhythm—rhythm of speech
but also rhythm of thought. The sensibility behind the German text, a sensibility
embodied in particular in the speech of the narrator, felt alien to me.
Here are a few sentences from near the beginning of the book, followed by
the translation in question. The Magistrate is alone among the ruins in the
desert that he has for years been desultorily excavating.
One evening I lingered among the ruins after the children had run home to their
suppers, into the violet of dusk and the Wrst stars, the hour when, according to lore,
ghosts awaken. I put my ear to the ground as the children had instructed me, to hear
what they hear: thumps and groans under the earth, the deep irregular beating of
drums. Against my cheek I felt the patter of sand driving from nowhere to nowhere
across the wastes. The last light faded, the ramparts grew dim against the sky and
dissolved into the darkness. For an hour I waited, wrapped in my cloak, with my back against the corner-post of a house in which people must once have talked and eaten
and played music. I sat watching the moon rise, opening my senses to the night,
waiting for a sign . . .
Eines Abends streifte ich, nachdem die Kinder zum Essen nach Hause gegangen
waren, zwischen den Ruinen herum, im Violett der Abendda¨mmerung, wenn die
erste Sterne auXeuchten, zu jener Stunde, wo der U¨ berlieferung gema¨ die Geister
erwachen. Ich legte ein Ohr an den Boden, wie die Kinder es mir geraten hatten, weil
ich ho¨ren wollte, was sie ho¨ren: dumpfe Schla¨ge und Sto¨hnen unter der Erde, tiefe,
unregelma¨ssige Trommelschla¨ge. Ich spu¨rte an meiner Wange den knirschenden
Sand, der von irgendwoher irgendwohin durchs o¨de Land treibt. Das letzte Licht
erlosch, die Wa¨lle verschwammen am Himmel und lo¨sten sich in der Dunkelheit auf.
In meinen Umhang gehu¨llt, wartete ich ein Stunde lang, an den Eckpfosten eines
Hauses gelehnt, in welchem wohl einmal Menschen gesprochen, gegessen und Musik
gemacht haben. Ich sa da und sah zu, wie der Mond aufging; meine Sinne o¨Vneten
sich der Nacht, und ich wartete auf ein Zeichen . . .
Consider Wrst the question of lingering. To linger after the children have run
home, as the original English has it, is to not do something, namely not return
home. The children, by contrast, do something, namely return home. The
Magistrate is thus left behind, not involuntarily, granted, but not by a decisive
act of the will either. His ambivalent position emerges from the connotations
of the verb linger, whose denotative meaning is to stretch out, to make longer.
Its closest German equivalent is verweilen, whose root—weil is cognate with
English while, as in while away the time.
Turn now to the German. After the children have run home, writes the
translator (hereafter called Translator I), theMagistrate roams around (streifte
herum) among the ruins. There is a hint of purposiveness here: he waits for
the children to be gone before he does his roaming; perhaps even, he waits
for the children to be gone in order to do his roaming. And when they are
gone he does not simply stay behind: he actively ambulates. Even the reordering
of the verbal elements of the original furthers the decisive thrust of
German sentence: One evening I roamed, after the children for their meal
had gone home, around among the ruins.
The version by Translator II starts: Eines Abends blieb ich in den Ruinen zuru¨ck,
nachdem die Kinder zum Abendbrot heimgelaufen waren . . .
Heimgelaufen is much neater than nach Hause gegangen waren; Abendbrot
may even improve on the original English supper, so homely is it. Zuru¨ckbleiben
is not quite the same as linger, but at least it is equally inactive; and the
rhythm of the sentence is appropriately unpurposive.
In the original, the Magistrate lingers into the hour when, ‘according to
lore’, ghosts awaken. Lore is cognate with English learn and German lehren. The word is no longer part of everyday English usage, and this, combined
with the fact that it usually occurs in the context of romantic or magical
stories about the past, gives the word a folkish feel, quite unlike the more
elevated tradition, though both words denote that which passes or is passed
on, u¨berliefert, from generation to generation. German does not have the
double inheritance, Germanic and Romance, of English, so ready-made low/
high pairs such as lore/tradition are not available, but it nevertheless has
perfectly adequate lexical resources to reXect high/low oppositions. Translator
I renders lore by die U¨ berlieferung, Translator II by der Volksglaube, popular
belief, which better reXects the humble status of the families of the settlement.
‘Into the violet of dusk and the Wrst stars, the hour when . . . ghosts awaken’.
There is obviously some elision here: if one were required to restore all elided
elements, one would have to write something like: ‘into the violet of dusk and
of the Wrst stars, that is, into the hour when ghosts awaken’. But the elisions
have a function. By creating ambiguities, they reXect or mime what I would
call a sliding in the narrating sensibility that reinforces the will-less lingered.
Should the elided elements be restored in translation? Here we touch on a
question of a general nature in the practice of translation. If the original text is
in some respect—for instance, in respect of clarity—imperfect, should the
translator aspire to remedy that imperfection and thus, in a sense, produce a
translation that is better than the original? Simultaneous interpreters routinely
‘clarify’ the original in this way. Thus, for instance, it would require
superhuman ingenuity for an interpreter at the United Nations to reproduce
impromptu every one of the obfuscations and prevarications with which
diplomats routinely sow their utterances. But where literature is concerned,
should the translator aim to improve the original or to reproduce it, faults
and all, even in cases where reproducing the faults may be more diYcult than
Wxing up the original?
Ich streifte herum, writes Translator I, im Violett der Abendda¨mmerung, wenn
die erste Sterne auXeuchten, zu jener Stunde, wo der U¨ berlieferung gema¨ die
Geister erwachen. I roamed around into the violet of dusk, when the Wrst stars
begin to glow, until (or towards) the hour when, according to tradition, the
spirits/ghosts awake.
Ich blieb zuru¨ck, writes Translator II, durch die violette Da¨mmerung unter
den ersten Sternen—nach dem Volksglauben die Stunde, in der Geister erwachen.
I stayed behind through the violet dusk under the Wrst stars—according
to popular belief the hour when spirits/ghosts awake.
Both translations are clearer—that is to say, more unambiguous—than the
original, and therefore neither is exactly faithful to it. The same could be said
for the French translation: Je me suis attarde´ . . . a` l’heure violette du cre´puscule et des premie`res e´toiles—l’heure, disent les le´gendes, ou` les fantoˆmes s’e´veillent.
The Dutch translation is able to follow the English more closely, elisions and
all: Op een avond draalde ik nog wat . . . in het violet van de schemering en de
eerste sterren, het uur waarop, volgens de overleveringen, de geesten ontwaken.
(Here de overleveringen, traditional beliefs, is more formal than the alternative
het volksgeloof, popular belief.)
A second passage from Waiting for the Barbarians illustrates some of the
diYculties created for the English-to-German translator by the present participle
form of the verb, which in German is narrower in its range of use than
in English.
If I lived in the magistrate’s villa on the quietest street in town, holding sittings in the
court on Mondays and Thursdays, going hunting every morning, occupying the
evenings in the classics, closing my ears to the activities of this upstart policeman
[Colonel Joll], if I resolved to ride out the bad times, keeping my own counsel, I might
cease to feel like a man who . . .
Here is the Wrst translator’s version:
Wenn ich in der Richtervilla in der ruhigsten Strae der Stadt wohnen wu¨rde, wenn
ich montags und donnerstags im Gericht Sitzungen anberaumen, jeden Morgen auf
die Jagd gehen, meine Abende mit der Lektu¨re klassischer Schriftsteller ausfu¨llen,
meine Ohren verschlieen wu¨rde vor dem Treiben dieses arroganten Polizeihengstes,
wenn ich den Entschlu fassen wu¨rde, diese schlechten Zeiten heil zu u¨berstehen und
den Mund zu halten, wu¨rde dieses Gefu¨hl vielleicht nachlassen, ich sei ein Mensch,
der . . .
There are several reasons to be dissatisWed with this translation. Occupying
one’s evenings with der Lektu¨re klassischer Schriftsteller is not the same as
occupying them with the classics; or rather, the man who would occupy his
evenings with der Lektu¨re klassischer Schriftsteller is not the same man as the
man who occupies his evenings with the classics: the former sounds like a
pedant who does not look to the classic texts for solace, and certainly does not
seek in the classical authors friends and companions. The man who in
German dismisses Colonel Joll as ein arrogante Polizeihengste, an arrogant
jackass policeman, is ruled by a diVerent set of prejudices from the man who
in English dismisses him as an ‘upstart policeman’ (in the latter case, or so it
seems to me, it is hard to tell whether ‘upstart’ or ‘policeman’ is meant to be
more insulting to this specialist in state security).
In the second translator’s version, the two phrases in question are rendered—
exactly—as an sich mit den Klassikern bescha¨ftigen and diese Emporko
¨mmling von Polizisten. A more general and perhaps more interesting question to arise from this
passage is how a German translator should deal with a long sequence of
English-ing forms, such as we get here. The English seems to me to contain a
quite subtle ambiguity. One abbreviated paraphrase might read: ‘If I were to
live in the villa, if I were to hold sittings, if I were to go hunting, if I were
to occupy myself in the classics, if I were to close my ears, then I might cease to
feel like a man who . . .’ An alternative paraphrase might read: ‘If I were to live
in the villa, all the time I lived there holding sittings, going hunting, etc., then
I might cease to feel like a man who. . .’ The former implies a set of
decisions—whether to live in the villa, whether to hold sittings, whether to
go hunting, etc.—which, if taken, will (it is hoped) bring about a certain
result. The latter paraphrase implies a slip into an enclosed, iterative timeworld,
an escape from the diYcult and unpleasant historical time in which
Colonel Joll operates.
The Wrst translator’s version sets out a number of conditions, embodied in
conditional forms of the verb (wohnen wu¨rde, anberaumen [wu¨rde], . . . ),
which have a hypothetical consequence: wu¨rde dieses Gefu¨hl vielleicht nachlassen,
ich sei einMensch, der . . . The second version sets out the same conditions,
embodied in this case in hypothetical (subjunctive) forms of the verb (in der
Magistratsvilla wohnte, Gerichtsverhandlungen leitete, . . . ), leading to a comparable
hypothetical consequence: wu¨rde ich mich vielleicht nicht mehr wie ein
Mann fu¨hlen, der . . . In neither case is the implication hinted at in my second
paraphrase taken up. In fact, I cannot see a way in which it can be taken up in
German without considerable expansion of the passage.
French Wnds it easier to follow the syntax of the original: Si j’occupais la villa
du magistrat . . . en menant une vie jalonne´e par. . . la chasse tous les matins, les
soire´es consacre´es a` la lecture des classiques, en fermant mes oreilles . . . si je me
re´solvais a` attendre . . . je cesserais peut-eˆtre de me sentir comme un homme pris . . .
Being entirely ignorant of Korean, I have no idea of what translators from
English into Korean do about such rareWed phenomena as the atemporal
tendency of the present participle. My own Korean translator needs much
more down-to-earth advice. He wants to check on the meaning of specialized
English words such as ‘thanatophany’ and ‘oV-spin’, of unfamiliar English
idioms such as ‘hug the shadows’, of unrecognizable foreign phrases such as
dies irae and stoksielalleen; he wants puzzling references to ‘Esther Williams’,
‘the Isles of the Blest’, and ‘the charge of the Light Brigade’ to be explained.
My Icelandic translator copes perfectly well with European languages but
needs help with South African terms such as muti, snoek, KaVraria. My
Hebrew translator asks why the word ‘many’ is misspelled ‘menny’ in Disgrace (answer: because Thomas Hardy, to whom the passage refers, chose to
misspell it).
One of the ways in which a translator can grow in competence is by
expanding his or her lexicon. At a more general level, a translator also
grows in conWdence by conWrming that he or she can identify semantic
nuances in the source and Wnd ways of representing these, even at times
when the target language may prove resistant. Which leads to my Wnal
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
cabinetmaking is a craft. There is no substantial theory of cabinetmaking,
and no philosophy of cabinetmaking except the ideal of being a good cabinetmaker,
plus a body of lore relating to tools and to kinds of wood. For the
rest, what there is to be learned must be learned by observation and practice.
The only book on cabinetmaking I can imagine that might be of use to the
practitioner would be a humble handbook.
The observations I have made in this chapter are of a scattered and
empirical nature. The source texts to which I refer belong, of course, to the
common language, but they are also speciWcally in ‘my’ English, the English
I write. To the extent that the issues in translation on which I concentrate
emerge from features of ‘my’ English, they are of lesser interest to students of
translation in general. They have been identiWed in the course of exchanges
with professional translators from English; they are reproduced and discussed
here because they illustrate everyday diYculties of a practical nature that
translators encounter.
Working with Translators 419


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