Tuesday, March 9, 2010

No Comprendo

I am a bit of a purist/perfectionist when it comes to experiencing literature. For example: I won't read Zadie Smith's On Beauty until I've read E.M. Forster's Howard's End because I know Smith's work is intimately tied to the novel. By large, I simply consider this good, albeit frustrating, practice. There's no sense reading a work if you don't have the proper tools for comprehension.

This isn't to say I'm fanatical. If I were, Side Effects by Woody Allen would have required countless philosophical perquisites; Gentlemen of The Road by Michael Chabon mounds of adventure fiction. However, I'm now reading French writer Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian. I consider myself fortunate that the English translation of Hadrian was written in conjunction with the author, otherwise I'd probably be waiting until I learned French.

Translations, for me, pose a particularly challenging problem. There is, of course, no perfect translation. Literarial meaning, brevity, tone, and prose quality all battle against one another in translation. This being the case, I have it in my head that I should wait until I know German to read Thomas Mann; Spanish to read Gabrial Garcia Marquez; French to read Gustave Flaubert; Russian to read Dostoevsky. And while I hope to learn some of these languages in the future, it's inane to think I can learn all of them.

While I am aware of this consciously, my mind continues to work in absolutes: What I have read, and what I have not read. I regard each translation as one should: as a separate individual work. After all, how can you say you've read these authors when the words you're reading weren't strung together by them? The author's conceits and the translator's aesthetics. Perhaps most frustrating, a translation is also corrupted by a translator's interpretation.

I've read and own three different translations of Henrik Iben's A Doll's House. Sure they're the similar, but you'd be crazy to say they're all the same. One offers great heightened dialog, another exquisite subtext. If it's not the original, there is always a sacrifice. Every time Hadrian translator Grace Frick incorporates the phrase "Pell-mell" I know it comes at the expense of a much more apt French word or phrase. And all of this ignores the great trouble of actually choosing a translation.

I don't have a conclusion. Simply, it's all very problematic for me, and I don't understand why it has to be.

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