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The Treachery of Translators

1 February 2013

From the New York Times Opinionator blog:

The fact is, there were always going to be a lot of fish in “Vingt mille lieues sous les mers.” When a publishing house commissioned me to produce a new translation of Jules Verne’s 19th-century underwater epic, I was confident of bringing a degree of joyous panache to the story of Captain Nemo, his submarine, the Nautilus and that giant killer squid. But I had forgotten about its systematic taxonomy of all the inhabitants of the seven seas.

Somewhere around page 3 of “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” I got this feeling that I was starting to drown in fish. There are an awful lot of fish down there, and there were possibly even more in the middle of the 19th century. Whereas my ichthyological vocabulary, whether in French or English or indeed any other language, was severely limited. The fish (and assorted oceanic mammals), in other words, far outnumbered my linguistic resources. I now know I should just have boned up on fish, the way any decent, respectable translator would have done.

. . . .

Instead I started counting how many pages there were and calculating how much I was getting paid per fish. It didn’t add up. I realize now that I should have switched to “Around the World in Eighty Days” – there are far fewer fish in that one.

. . . .

In my opinion, you don’t have to be mad to translate, but it probably helps. Take, for instance, the case of the late, great Gilbert Adair. He was translating into English the brilliant novel by Georges Perec, “La Disparition” – a lipogram written entirely without the letter “e.” (I had had a tentative go at eliminating the most frequently occurring letter in both English and French and failed utterly.) Adair even succeeded, for a while, in deleting “e” from his vocabulary. I met him for tea in London, while he was in the midst of it, at the Savoy hotel (it had to be the Savoy, not Claridge’s or the Grosvenor, obviously). When a waitress came around and asked if he would like “tea or coffee,” he frowned, gritted his teeth, and replied, “Lapsang souchong.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Tina for the tip.

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3 Comments to “The Treachery of Translators”

  1. This is interesting (and alittle amusing, as per the writer’s intent). I never really thought about the dangerous waters of translation – nor how underpaid they are likely to be for the effort.

    • I did a few amateur translations, and YES, it’s a hard work, which deserves (contrary to some people’s opinion) great compensation.

      In France, (and except as specifically provided by contract as work-for-hire), the resulting work is considered a derivative work, on which the translator gets copyright protection/royalties much like the original author.

      • SF – giving the translator copyright protection makes alot of sense. The quality of translation varies, and those who put in alot of excellent and hard work should have ownership!

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