When Done Right, Little Gets Lost In Translation So what if the author died 400 years ago? Translators can develop a very special kinship with the writers whose classics they render. NPR's Lynn Neary talks with the translators of Don Quixote and Madame Bovary about the challenge, the pressure and the fun of bringing a story to life in a new language.

When Done Right, Little Gets Lost In Translation

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


In this first part, NPR's Lynn Neary reports on the art of translation and the special relationship a translator develops with an author, an author whose work was created a long time ago.

LYNN NEARY: When you translate a book, says Edith Grossman, you begin to feel close to the person who created it.

M: The more talented the writer, the more open the door is into his or her mind.

NEARY: Grossman should know. She's perhaps best known for her translation of Cervantes' "Don Quixote." Not only did Cervantes invent the modern novel, says Grossman, he was a cutting-edge writer 400 years ago. When Grossman talks about the author, it's almost as if he's still alive.

M: I dearly love him. I would love to have a meal with him. I'd love to have a couple of drinks with him. I'd like to sit and chat and talk about literature and all of the other things you talk about with someone you're really very fond of.

NEARY: But such affection and admiration can also be daunting. Grossman says she had a lot of fear when she began translating "Don Quixote." She spent two weeks on the first sentence because she felt everything else would fall into place if she could only do justice to a sentence that is so well-known among Spanish speakers.

CORNISH: (Reading) Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.

NEARY: The key to unlocking what the author intended, says Grossman, can always be found in the text itself.

M: The text brings you in. I think one of the things that happens when you read carefully is that you feel as if you're looking at the world through the eyes of someone else.

NEARY: Like Grossman, Lydia Davis also says the text is paramount.

M: It's usually been a partnership between me and the text, rather than me and the original author.

NEARY: Davis, whose translation of Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" was published in the fall, is also known for her own writing. But Davis doesn't think a translator should ever impose his or her own style on the translation.

M: I think that's a tremendous betrayal of the author. And, so I'm very used to keeping myself well in the background and speaking in the voice and in the manner, as much as I can, of the original author.

NEARY: To better understand what was going on in Flaubert's mind, Davis read the letters he wrote to his lover each day after he finished working on the book.

M: So I had a very immediate sense of the difficulties of the work he'd been doing that day. He did a lot of complaining, a lot of agonizing, but I would also get a sense of what he felt about the characters. He seemed very affectionate when he talked about the pharmacist Homais, for example. So it was immensely helpful.

NEARY: After finishing her first draft, Davis also takes a look at the work of other translators. She develops a kind of partnership with them, as well.

M: I would begin to feel that we were a group sitting in the room together wrestling with the same problems.

NEARY: She talks about one phrase in "Madame Bovary" in particular.

M: (Speaking foreign language).

NEARY: And the many ways it has been translated.

CORNISH: Waves of nausea.

CORNISH: Waves of nauseous disgust.

CORNISH: Fumes of nausea.

CORNISH: Whiffs of sickliness.

CORNISH: Gusts of revulsion.

CORNISH: Flavorless, sickening gusts.

CORNISH: A kind of rancid staleness.

CORNISH: Stagnant dreariness.

CORNISH: Stale gusts of dreariness.

NEARY: Davis says reading these variations on one small phrase gives her an even better understanding of how complex the process of translation is.

M: I guess I sense how hard we've all worked. It's not easy. Even a not-so-good translation is not easy to produce. And somehow I think we maybe should have been all together doing it together and somehow achieved the final, definitive, wonderful translation.

NEARY: On this point, Davis and Grossman part company. Grossman never looks at other translations. The translation is hers alone, she says, but it's impossible to separate her work from the author's.

M: Clearly the translation is mine. Clearly the book I translated was not mine. I really don't believe in sublimating much and certainly not my sense of what works in English and what doesn't work in English. So I think there is the partnership that we've shared. In the translation, there's a shared authorship.

NEARY: Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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