You can’t get it right, so the only thing you can do is make it better.

January 28, 2013, 9:00 pm
The Treachery of Translators

The fact is, there were always going to be a lot of fish in “Vingt mille lieues sous les mers.” When a publishing house commissioned me to produce a new translation of Jules Verne’s 19th-century underwater epic, I was confident of bringing a degree of joyous panache to the story of Captain Nemo, his submarine, the Nautilus and that giant killer squid. But I had forgotten about its systematic taxonomy of all the inhabitants of the seven seas.

Somewhere around page 3 of “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” I got this feeling that I was starting to drown in fish. There are an awful lot of fish down there, and there were possibly even more in the middle of the 19th century. Whereas my ichthyological vocabulary, whether in French or English or indeed any other language, was severely limited. The fish (and assorted oceanic mammals), in other words, far outnumbered my linguistic resources. I now know I should just have boned up on fish, the way any decent, respectable translator would have done.

(Note to the decent, respectable translator: I teach a college class on translation but I accept your critique that I am long on theory and short on practice.)

Instead I started counting how many pages there were and calculating how much I was getting paid per fish. It didn’t add up. I realize now that I should have switched to “Around the World in Eighty Days” – there are far fewer fish in that one.

My brilliant translating career hit another high when a French publisher invited me to translate Brigitte Bardot’s memoirs, “Initiales BB.” I had written a memoir about my childhood obsession with Bardot, so I said O.K. and suggested some modest revisions. It would have to be completely re-written from top to bottom and I would definitely take out all those exclamation marks. And I would put back in that affair with the English guy after she married Gunter Sachs – she should never have left that out! They took that as a “non.” Tant pis. All translators rewrite and rectify. Some even feel that they can do a better job of writing Bardot’s life than Bardot.

The law of karma is as unforgiving in the realm of translation as in any other and I was overdue for a taste of my own punishment. I had written a book about surfing in Hawaii called “Walking on Water,” which was eventually translated into Dutch. I had nothing to do with the translation and was simply presented with a fait accompli. My command of Dutch is negligible, but I thought I would test out “Lopen over water” by reference to a metaphor that was, if not my greatest contribution to literature, at least distinctively my own. There was a passage where I was drowning, but not feeling too put out about it, and I had written: “Death was warm and embracing like porridge.” I zeroed in on the sentence, but I couldn’t find anything even closely related to porridge. So I checked with a Dutch-speaking friend – could she tell me how the translator had done it?

“You’d better sit down,” she said.

The translator had not given my immortal metaphor the time of day. He had the same kind of hang-up about porridge that I had about fish. He took a shortcut right round it, passing seamlessly from the previous sentence to the one following. The porridge had not been lost in translation; it had been quite deliberately eradicated.

My first thought was to get on the next plane to Amsterdam and go and knock on his door. Maybe I could find some porridge and fling it in his face. My own transgressions, over the years, have taught me to be more tolerant and understanding. On the other hand, Herman, if you would like to put on gloves and shorts, we can resolve this matter in the ring, anytime.

It may have been this experience that caused me to write an article for a British newspaper titled, “Translation Is Impossible.” I was supposed to be reviewing a bunch of English-French dictionaries, but I happened to cite the classic Groucho Marx joke, which goes (in one of its variants), “You’re only as old as the woman you feel,” as an instance of the untranslatable. At least as far as French is concerned. You need a verb, “feel,” that functions both transitively and intransitively, and means something like “caress” and “my current emotional status” all at once. It doesn’t (so far as I know) exist in French. A couple of months later – inevitably – some friend in Paris sent me “La Traduction Est Impossible,” the French translation of my original article, which had been published in a Paris magazine.

Naturally the first thing I looked for was the translation of the Marxian pun. I was genuinely interested – I really wanted to know how the translator had pulled it off. And to think I had claimed it was impossible – I was about to be proved wrong! But translation is always an interpretation. In this case, the translator had written something like this, updating New York ’50s sexist humor into ’90s Parisian political correctness: “Here is an example of a sentence that is manifestly impossible to translate: ‘A man is only as old as the woman he can feel inside of him trying to express herself.'” So, in some sense, I felt vindicated, but also – as usual – betrayed by a graduate from the school of translation.

In my opinion, you don’t have to be mad to translate, but it probably helps. Take, for instance, the case of the late, great Gilbert Adair. He was translating into English the brilliant novel by Georges Perec, “La Disparition” – a lipogram written entirely without the letter “e.” (I had had a tentative go at eliminating the most frequently occurring letter in both English and French and failed utterly.) Adair even succeeded, for a while, in deleting “e” from his vocabulary. I met him for tea in London, while he was in the midst of it, at the Savoy hotel (it had to be the Savoy, not Claridge’s or the Grosvenor, obviously). When a waitress came around and asked if he would like “tea or coffee,” he frowned, gritted his teeth, and replied, “Lapsang souchong.”

Even his title is genius: “A Void” (think about it: He not only avoided the “e’s” in “The Disappearance,” but he also slipped in a dash of metaphysical angst and a cool play on words). The lesson I learned from Adair, a really serious translator, is this: You can’t get it right, so the only thing you can do is make it better.

Andy Martin is the author of “The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre vs Camus.” He teaches at Cambridge University.