Monday, October 30, 2006

A Visible Translator – Robert Fagles

A major issue in translation in recent years has been the in/visibility of the translator. Previously, the general attitude was that translators should be invisible; in other words, their names and backgrounds weren’t important, since they were just workers there to serve the text. This, of course, is related to the supposed desire for an invisible translation, which means that it shouldn’t be obvious that a text is a translation; a translation should “flow” and should read just as if it were a document that had been written in the target language.

Both of these concepts – the invisible translation and the invisible translator – are debatable, and have been rightfully challenged, in a variety of ways. Some translators today insist on including forewords, afterwords, footnotes, or some other paratext in order to make themselves and their work visible to readers. Other translators insist that their names be printed on the title pages, or even on the covers, of any books they translate, to show that they are equal partners with an important role to play and that they deserve recognition. And still others write letters of complaint or explanation when reviews of their own or other translators’ work are published with only a brief mention of the fact that the book is a translation, or no mention of this at all.

So it seems clear that some progress is being made when the New York Times features an article all about a translator. Robert Fagles is the well known translator of, among other works, “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” and now “The Aeneid,” and both “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” became best-sellers, surprisingly in a country that generally eschews both translations and classics. Despite these facts, one might have expected just a review of his new translation, with perhaps a sentence or two with information about Mr. Fagles, so it is a nice change to see an article that focuses primarily on the translator and that even briefly looks at the challenges of translation (in this case, Mr. Fagles says, the distinct voices, and sustaining them, were the particular difficulties).

I’m hoping for more such articles that make translators and their work more visible.


Tina said...

Well, as a literary translator myself I do believe that translators should be more visible, not less. If they aren't credited, it gives the impression that the quality of the translation isn't important and, as we know, one poor translation can ruin an author for an entire generation of readers. I've heard of translators developing a following among their readers, who seek out their translations above all others, and I think that's a fantastic thing.

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment, Tina! What language/s do you translate?
And what do you think of the idea that translators should include a foreword/introduction and/or footnotes to explain their process and their translatorial strategies?

Best wishes,

Tina said...

Hi Brett,
I'm a French-to-English translator. I have a translation of Alexandre Dumas's GEORGES coming out in May, published by Random House/Modern Library. Anyway, I think the translator's foreword may be interesting in some cases, but the vast majority of readers won't pay any attention to it, frankly--the work should speak for itself, and if the translated book is an easy and enjoyable read while retaining accuracy, no further explanation is necessary (of course there are always exceptions). Just my opinion :).

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment, Tina!
So, I have to ask -- have you included a foreword in your forthcoming translation? Why or why not?

Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

Hello from Uruguay!

I've read most of Haruki Murakami's books translated into English and they flow exremely well. So well that they feel as if written in English in the first place. I liked this at first but then I started missing some degreee of foreigness; it just sounded too American. It kind of made it less exotic for me...

Now Murakami is a translator himself, specialized in American authors. I wonder how that influences his work and the way he likes his books translated.

Any thoughts about this?

btw, just discovered your blog. I love it. I do English/Spanish translations and subtitles. Recently tried my hand at poetry translation with a few poems by Raymond Carver. They came out decent, were published locally!