Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, wrote an absolutely wonderful article on the Op-Ed page of this past Sunday's New York Times. It's all about the business of translation, of text and of the idea for a book into the book itself.
Although the words “Call me Ishmael” have force and confidence, force and confidence alone aren’t enough. “Idiot, read this” has force and confidence too, but is less likely to produce the desired effect. What else do Melville’s words possess that “Idiot, read this” lack?
They have music. Here’s where the job of translation gets more difficult. Language in fiction is made up of equal parts meaning and music. The sentences should have rhythm and cadence, they should engage and delight the inner ear. Ideally, a sentence read aloud, in a foreign language, should still sound like something, even if the listener has no idea what it is he or she is being told.
A translator is also translating a work in progress, one that has a beginning, middle and end but is not exactly finished, even though it’s being published. A novel, any novel, if it’s any good, is not only a slightly disappointing translation of the novelist’s grandest intentions, it is also the most finished draft he could come up with before he collapsed from exhaustion. It’s all I can do not to go from bookstore to bookstore with a pen, grabbing my books from the shelves, crossing out certain lines I’ve come to regret and inserting better ones. For many of us, there is not what you could call a “definitive text.”
And still. We, as a species, are always looking for cathedrals made of fire, and part of the thrill of reading a great book is the promise of another yet to come, a book that may move us even more deeply, raise us even higher. One of the consolations of writing books is the seemingly unquenchable conviction that the next book will be better, will be bigger and bolder and more comprehensive and truer to the lives we live. We exist in a condition of hope, we love the beauty and truth that come to us, and we do our best to tamp down our doubts and disappointments. [/more...]