It is a very old Italian pun. It means “translator, traitor.” I use it as the title of this entry in honor of Roberto Fantechi who in his comment on the last entry posted from Tuscany so perfectly anticipated this entry with his question, “So what?” In fact you may simply ask yourself “so what?” and thereby avoid reading the rest of this if you wish and not miss a thing. Roberto is now featured in Blogroll for the time being because we think alike, although his thinking is considerably faster than mine.
One can interpret the message of “translator, traitor” in different ways. One way, which I do not think was the original intent, is as a description of the feeling of the translator herself when she has translated a work that she cares about deeply and intensely and is dissatisfied with the result, as she inevitably must be.
I will write of my own experience as a reader with one small, specific problem in translation of a kind not discussed in the delightful Wikipedia article about Untranslatability and the strategies that translators use when they encounter an untranslatable word, phrase, or sentence. This has nothing do with any of those strategies.
During the first half of 2010, I was swept away—isn’t that what we always say? swept away?—by the novel 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, the Chilean poet. Let me pursue that metaphor. You will recall that when we encounter a riptide while swimming in the ocean and feel ourselves being swept away, we are not to attempt to swim against that current directly toward the shore. Rather, we are to swim perpendicular to the current until we escape it and then swim the five or six miles then necessary to return to the shore–or tread water and wait for the helicopter. In the case of 2666, I have escaped the riptide, but I am still swimming toward the shore.
That requires that I digress a moment. You know my rule. I never recommend anything to anyone. I am not breaking my rule when I say what I am going to say to you because it is not a recommendation. I am simply telling you. Do not attempt to read this book. You will detest it. Nevertheless and if you wish, you can read my review of 2666 here.
Back to business. I read 2666 in an English translation done by Natasha Wimmer, a translator who, I think, was herself swept away by her author. The big difference, however, was that La Mexicana read the book at the same time in the original Spanish. Therefore, when I encountered a difficult passage, I could study that passage in Spanish and discuss it with her.
One of those passages, in my view, was as important as any single, little passage can be in a novel 898 pages long. It related to an artist who had cut off his right hand and made it a part of one of his own mixed media art works:
That night I thought about Edwin Johns, I thought about his hand, now doubtless on display in his retrospective, the hand that the sanatorium orderly couldn’t grasp to prevent his fall, although this was too obvious, a false representation, having nothing to do with what Johns had actually been.
I had the strong feeling that something was not right with this. I studied it in the original Spanish, discussed it with La Mexicana, and soon focused in on the two words “false representation.” (I am not telling you this story to illustrate what a helluva guy I am. I am only telling you this story.)
The phrase in Spanish that Natasha Wimmer had translated as “false representation” was “fábula tramposa.” La Mexicana and I concluded that “fábula tramposa” ought perhaps—perhaps–to have been translated as “deceptive fable.” I liked “deceptive fable” ever so much more, given the overall context, an overall context that you do not have here–an overall context that you will never have, by the way, because I have faith in you. You will take to heart my injuction never to read this novel.
Still, Natasha Wimmer could have gone either way. No question about that. Then I put myself in her shoes and considered the dilemma she faced. She could not simply pick up the telephone, call Roberto Bolaño, lay out the problem for him, and ask for his guidance. Roberto Bolaño had died shortly after completing this novel in a race against his own death to do so. May God rest his troubled soul. Natasha Wimmer was forced to make a choice entirely based upon her own judgment, as she undoubtedly had to do many times in translating this novel. She was probably right more often than she was wrong if there are such things as right and wrong in her business. But again, how the fuck would I know?
I dearly hope that upon completing her translation, Natasha Wimmer was not so dissatisfied with it that she felt herself a traitor to Roberto Bolaño. Because I owe an immense debt of gratitude to her.
Which brings me to my current state of mind with regard to all this. You recall that in the previous entry I referred to “the frustration that I used to feel.” I have made my peace with this issue as I have with so many others. For the reasons that I explained in the previous entry, I really know nothing at all about that novel 2666 written in Spanish by Roberto Bolaño. Moreover, I do not care. I have read this book lying here beside my notebook computer twice, this book also entitled 2666 put together in English by Natasha Wimmer. I will read this book again if I live long enough. This book lying here is a great novel.
And so, I echo Roberto Fantechi, who could have been responding to that old Italian pun, traduttore, traditore. I say, “So what?”