Friday, January 12, 2007

Translator Joachim Neugroschel

I happened to find an interview with translator Joachim Neugroschel, who has translated from French, German, Italian, Russian, and Yiddish, and also to German. I found some of his ideas about translation a little different from those of other literary translators. For example, he never reads a book before translating it, because he says he has “[n]o reason to.” How, then, does he decide what to translate and what to turn down? Apparently, money is the answer, as he says, “If the publisher pays me enough, I will do the translation.” Many translators say they need to feel they have something in common with the authors they translate, or at least some feeling of empathy and interest, but Mr. Neugroschel doesn’t feel it is necessary to even have much knowledge of the author’s work, because he can just “get the style” by reading a page.

Interestingly, he also claims that you can tell a bad translation just by reading it, which suggests that all you need it the target text and then you can judge the translation. Obviously, I disagree with that, and feel that you do need to know an author’s work and the source language to be able to truly judge the quality of a translation. Bad grammar could be part of the source text on purpose, so if it is in the target text, that doesn’t necessarily mean the translation is poor. Also, many other things could make a translation bad, such as if the translator has misunderstood the original document or has tried to improve it, or if the word choices don’t accurately represent it. And it is difficult for a monolingual reader to judge any of that.

As a side note, I wonder if Kafka really would find Mr. Neugroschel’s translation excellent. It isn’t that I doubt the latter’s abilities, but if Kafka didn’t even want his work published, what would he think about it being translated and made available to even larger audiences?

Here are some excerpts from the interview with Mr. Neugroschel.

Interview with Joachim Neugroschel

EG Do you read a whole work before translating? Do you translate the words literally?

JN I never read a book before translating it. No reason to. I do not translate the words literally. Only a bad translator would translate literally.

EG In order to not write a literal translation, don't you have to have a sense of an author and their work? How do you capture that uniqueness of an author and transfer it to another language?

JN You don't have to have a sense of the author's work to translate. I read a page and get the style. It is a question of music and rhythm. It is like being an actor. An actor can take on different roles. A translator takes on different roles.

EG Does anyone go over your translations before publication?

JN Yes, often a copy editor. One copy editor changed the words spiral crack to spinal crack. If you get hit in a certain way the crack is spiral.

EG How do you recognize a good translation?

JN Just read it. Grammatical blunders are a clue. Example: when it comes to adverbs, first you have place and then time.

“I went to school yesterday.” To school is an adverbial phrase of place. Yesterday is an adverb of time. This is correct usage. A phrase such as, “I'm going tomorrow to school,” is bad grammar. Poor grammar is obvious in bad translations.

EG You are taking a little of the mystery of translation away. I don't speak a foreign language; thinking about the art of translation is new to me.

JN If you don't know a foreign language, you can only judge a translation by its use of English. Think about this. Most of the books you've read are translations.

EG I never thought of that. When you think of it you are not getting the direct voice of the author. What if Kafka was around today and he knew English, what would he think of your translation of "Metamorphosis"?

JN He would find it excellent. I've captured the flavor and the quivering of his voice. He would be very grateful to me.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post, would like to read it sometime & compare with other Kafka translations. I've currently been working with Anthea Bell's translations of Sebald, she's quite good, I think.
best,
Jenny S.

Anonymous said...

Terribly stupid questions those are, why should he even have bothered answering?
Also, it doesn't seem to me that Europeans translate from half the amount of languages at a time some American translators do. My French is pretty decent, but I wouldn't dream translating from it, as I have never lived there, read enough of their literature or get a degree in it. No, I didn't learn it by myself. But maybe it's just that there are so few translators around, they just have to multitask :-).
Pontiggio also claims he never used to read the book before starting to translate. What can you call that but unprofessional?

L.

Brett Jocelyn Epstein said...

Thanks for your comment, Jenny. Yes, it would be interesting to compare various translations of the same work, but that isn't possible too often, for obvious reasons. There are sometimes various translators for the same author (though not necessarily various translations of the same exact work), and here I think of writers such as Pablo Neruda, Orhan Pamuk, and Milan Kundera. A reader's sense of the work varies a lot depending on the translator.

Best wishes,
Brett

Brett Jocelyn Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment, L.
Yes, the interviewer did mention that she didn't know much about translation, but one would like to think that she would have made the time to study up on it before interviewing a translator!
I can't imagine not reading a work before deciding whether to translate it, but I have actually heard of and met quite a number of translators who work that way. One English to Swedish literary translator I met, for example, just says yes to assignments, usually for monetary reasons, and often only looks at the text the week before the translation is due! He reads it as he translates, then reads his translation and edits it, and then is done. Amazing, but I wouldn't be able (or willing) to work that way myself.

Best wishes,
Brett

Anonymous said...

Funny, I just read the same interview. It's triumphantly arrogant. The man has obviously decided he's in a class of his own...The kind of decision it's better to leave to others. TP

Brett Jocelyn Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment, TP!
It would be interesting to see more interviews with translators and to compare how they discuss their work.

Best wishes,
Brett

ElenaB said...

I would like to write a paper for my Literary Translation class, found Maupassant's tranlsations done in 1909 and then , recently, I found a new one--almost new--Neugroshel's translation of Maupassant. After reading closely both translations of LE COLLIER, I saw that the 2000-translation is so much more 21-centurish, whereas the one done in 1909 was very much source-oriented and snobbish. When I found the interview with Neugroshel online, I was happy and sure to find the answer to my question: why translate Maupassant in 2000? What need in English was it supposed to fill? And I was struck--just like you, TP--by his arrogance and "I do translations for money." I am sure there is a need in the target language for a certain author to be translated...

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment, Elena! The function of a translation is, as we have seen from this interview and others, is not always the same as the translator's reasons for doing a translation!

Best wishes,
BJ

Anonymous said...

Well, regarding JN's supposed arrogance, maybe he felt insulted by someone who clearly doesn't know anything about translation and one might even say of literature itself. It's preposterous to state to a translator one is interviewing that one has never thought about the art of translation!!! What is more arrogant, JN's answers, or someone who presumes the right to interview someone and ask them to give of their time when one knows nothing whatsoever about their work??? To ask a translator how he or she learned a language is frankly stupid. It's not a question. "Explain pogroms" is another hopelessly ignorant thing for a literate person to ask. One could continue with such criticisms but it's senseless. I imagine JN didn't know he would be asked such questions . . .

Anonymous said...

And many translators work in the same way - not reading the book before they translate it. Charlotte Mandell, who is an exceptional translator, works the same way, as do many other translators. She has made the point that an author does not know what he or she will be writing when they write so that is one of the reasons why she works that way, to be as surprised as the writer. But that is only the first step of the translation.

B.J. Epstein said...

That's an interesting point. But I assume they then go back and revise further drafts based on the understanding they've gained by reading the entire book.

Best wishes,
BJ