If I were to say to you, “Yes, I have read Love in the Time of Cholera and enjoyed it,” I would be employing a short hand expression for a different, more complicated set of facts than the two simple facts conveyed by that sentence. Actually, I would be saying this to you:
No, I have not read El amor en los tiempos de cólera by Gabriel García Márquez. However, I have read a different book that I am told is related to it in some way. Love in the Time of Cholera is a book put together by a woman named Edith Grossman, Gabriel García Márquez’s translator. She and others tell me that Love in the Time of Cholera is a fairly decent approximation in English of El amor en los tiempos de cólera. I have accepted their word for that. Gabriel García Márquez must agree with that. He chose her to translate his books and approved of the publication of this one that I read. But how would Gabriel García Márquez himself know how closely this book approximates his? I myself certainly have no idea whatsoever how closely the experience of reading the book that I read twice approximates the experience of reading El amor en los tiempos de cólera. All I can tell you is that I enjoyed reading the book that I did read, the one put together by Edith Grossman. I personally–of my own knowledge–really know nothing at all about the book called El amor en los tiempos de cólera.
With that I am trying to convey to you the frustration that I used to feel in reading English translations of what other people told me are great books. The frustration arose because I could not form my own opinion as to whether the originals really are great books because of the language barrier. All I could do was form an opinion as to whether the book in English that I had read was a great book. I had no idea whether the book that I read had anything to do with the original of the same title at all. I had to take another person’s word for that.
This is much more of a problem, I think, with some authors than with others. Take Proust. I have read something called Remembrance of Things Past, a book put together by two guys named C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. Michel, who grew up with the French language, assures me that I have not read Proust. I full well know that I have not read À la recherche du temps perdu.
I like to think that I have acquired some knowledge of the action that takes place in Á la recherche du temps perdu. But the action in the original book, if you can call it “action,” is not the point at all. The point of the original book, I am told, is the expression of what were formerly thought to be ineffable ideas and sensations in the most beautiful French imaginable. But I keep saying things like “I think” and “I am told” because how the fuck would I know? More importantly, why did I even waste my time reading Remembrance of Things Past?
Nor will I ever know, even if I were to take up the study of French again. I am convinced that with somebody like Proust, the reader would have had to grow up with the French language and have lived his entire life with the French language in order to most fully appreciate Proust’s accomplishment. That simply did not happen with me. Still, ya gotta take what you can get.
In the twentieth century the commonly accepted translator of Tolstoy was a woman named Constance Garnett. As a young man I read her translations of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Interesting but not moving would be the way I would describe that experience. Then relatively recently a married couple named Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky undertook the project of translating Tolstoy. Richard Pevear grew up with the English language and later acquired his facility in Russian. Larissa Volokhonsky grew up with Russian and later acquired her facility with English. They work as a team.
As I understand it, here is how they do their translation work. First, Richard Pevear does his translation of Tolstoy into English, and his English is literary quality stuff. Then Larissa Volokhonsky goes over his work to determine whether it is as true as possible to the Russian, her native language. Then they argue about their disagreements until they come up with something that satisfies both of them. Isn’t that cool? Doesn’t that make eminent sense as an effective way to tackle this impossible job?
So then, I read their translations of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. I shall give you one example of the difference between that experience and my earlier experience of those books. I do not have my copy of their translation of Anna Karenina. I gave it to one of my daughters. I will only be able to describe this to you without quoting anything.
There is a scene toward the middle of the book involving a horse race in which Vronsky will participate. Anna is in attendance awaiting the race. As I recall, at that point in the book their affair is not out in the open even though a helluva lot of people know about it. She begins thinking about Vronsky and then experiences the most intense, physical craving for him. So intense is that craving that I understood–without being explicitly told–that, to be blunt, she was getting a little damp in that feminine way right there at the race track.
I said to myself, “Whoa! Now I am getting this.”
I felt that I had come closer to what Tolstoy had written than before when I did not pick up on the intensity of the physical aspect of this relationship so graphically. But how do I know?
The way that Pevear and Volokhonsky go about their work held such appeal for me that I decided to try a little experiment. La Mexicana and I would work as a team in translating one tiny little Spanish poem into English. Just to try to see first hand how this works. Poetry is the worst of all translation projects for many reasons that I am sure I need not explain to you. I thought, therefore, that by translating a poem, we might also better understand the work involved in translating a long passage of prose.
We did it. Fun? Yes, because nothing was riding on the outcome. But it was a bitch of a job, too. Through that experience I understand why Vanessa Seijo in a comment on another page said that she does not like translation work. The more you care about what you are doing, the more difficult job it is and the less satisfied you are with the result.
It is that experience that leads me on to the next page, traduttore, traditore.