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  • Philip Hensher speaking at the 2014 Translation Prizes.

    Our March blog is a transcript of a speech made by Philip Hensher at our 2014 Translation Prizes.

    A longer blog than usual, but we hope you agree it's worth the read!

    I suppose the act of reading starts with an act of translation. Before it’s possible to make sense of words on a page, if we’re lucky, mummy will read to us. If it’s a long book, she’ll probably make a bit of an adaptation, shortening some bits, making the odd comment and perhaps even an expansion if there’s a bit she’s enjoying.

    She might leave out some things that need too much explanation, turning us later into textual critics as we puzzle over what was omitted. And even if she reads it word for word for us tucked up in bed and listening, there’s a familiar voice interposed between us and the voice of the book, the voice that would be the same anywhere.

    It seems to me that literature always comes to us through multiple acts of translation, even when mummy’s voice is no longer necessary to us as readers. I’ve come to think of the act of writing itself as an act of translation, the writer translating the physical or immaterial facts of the world into a series of words that will render those facts in our minds’ eye.

    When William Carlos Williams writes a poem that contains nothing more than the verbal equivalent of a red wheelbarrow and some white chickens, he has translated some wood, some paint, some birds from a sensuous experience into a verbal one. We receive the verbal experience, and look out into the middle distance, seeing a red wheelbarrow, three, perhaps four chickens, and the act of translation is complete.

    All along the line of translators, readers, writers, retellers, the individual has a choice. Is he or she going to be translucent or opaque?

    There is an idea out there that some, if not all of the people in the line should be invisible to the reader. Between the subject, or the experience, and the life when it takes root in the reader’s mind, there should be as little texture as possible. We should not be troubled by thoughts of the writer’s decision, and certainly if there is a translator involved, taking the words from the writer’s language into words in a possible reader’s, then they should tactfully retreat in all circumstances. We should ideally be left in a world where no intermediary intervenes between us and those white chickens.

    I don’t know about this. It seems to me that the intermediaries can come in different forms, in transparent and modest ways or in opaque and insistent manners, and neither is necessarily better than the other.

    Writers, after all, can be joyously noisy, asking us to enjoy their choices of words like Shakespeare or Dickens or P.G. Wodehouse or Joyce, or they can be chaste and withdrawn, wanting us to see the thing beyond in its most easily ignorable verbal dress, like Katherine Mansfield or George Eliot or Trollope.

    There was one teacher at school who liked acting stuff out and putting on voices; there were others who got through the afternoon book without all of that. Some kids liked the one, some kids liked the other one. It wasn’t a question of one being more difficult or better behaved than the other. We sometimes like one sort of writer rather than another, a plain one rather than one who likes the words thwack and boojum and hurly-burly; an author who says “Ice formed on the butler’s upper slopes” and one who says “The marchioness went out at five o’clock”.

    Translators proper are always supposed to be invisible, I know, but I don’t know why this should be. I was always a keen reader of fiction in translation, and when I think about the translations I love, often there’s a sense of the translator’s own noise coming in somewhere and, often, inspiring me to think about the world and the ways in which it’s been described.

    There are two Italian novels that have meant a lot to me in different ways, and I think it’s because of the different approaches made by the English translators. Both of them have influenced my work a good deal. The first is a collection of novellas by Leonardo Sciascia, Sicilian Uncles, which I first read in a translation by N.S. Thompson.

    They are about Sicilian history. In the first, set at the end of the Second World War in a Sicilian village, a small boy corners the market in cigarettes as far as his uncle is concerned, extracting them from the German occupying soldiers and selling them at an inflated rate. The Germans disappear: the rate rises sharply. There are rumours of Americans, but not the actuality. And one day the Americans appear, and the boy comes home to find his uncle luxuriously smoking American cigarettes that he’d been given for nothing. The days of plenty are over: “How much would you have made me pay for these, then?” the uncle asks, and the boy bursts into tears. Thompson is plain, invisible, tactful: the Sicilian flavour of Sciascia’s prose is barely hinted at, even in dialogue. 

    And then there is Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Sayings, her memoir/novel. It’s a book I’ve often thought about in the thirty years since I first read it. The recurrent stories families tell each other crop up here, and their famous sayings; the worst tragedies are barely touched on, including the way Ginzburg’s husband was tortured to death in prison, but we hear a lot about her furious father and energetic brothers. I first read it in D.M. Low’s translation, and it’s his turn of phrase that means so much to me: the aunt who was famous for muttering “Something every day, something every day. Now Drusilla’s bust her specs” or the conductor who was famous for saying “We did not come to Bergamo for a picnic, but to perform Carmen, the masterpiece of Bizet”.

    There’s no question that one translator has tried to remove himself: the other comfortably to enjoy his own turn of phrase. There’s a place for each of them.

    Somewhere or other Derrida remarks that there are two hyperbolic phrases about translation: one that nothing is translatable, the other that everything is translatable.

    Somewhere between these two true but hyperbolic assertions, we have to live. And there is a similar tantalizing, more practical problem with translations that I’ve always struggled with. The best translations ought to be the first ones, the translations by the writers who lived in the same world as the originals.

    Sometimes this is true. I don’t think anyone has ever really surpassed Constance Garnett and the Maudes’ translations of Tolstoy, for instance – they just seem to live in a comparable world of speech, and that must come from them sharing an age. But in other cases, the translator has had to work in a world that hasn’t quite decided what the original is like.

    The interesting case here is H.T. Lowe-Porter, whose Thomas Mann translations I grew up with and used to think that that was what Mann sounded like. She’s got it slightly wrong, however, and even The Magic Mountain has a persistent sort of jocularity of tone that isn’t quite right, and is consistently not quite right. She’s from the right age; she might not be the right sort of person, and later translators have got it more nearly right.

    But then there are cases when translators, moving away in time from their original, no longer live within that world and don’t really understand the refinements of tone in the original. The successive translations of Proust into English have begun to lose the sense of that world: the newish Penguin translation corrects all sorts of blunders that the first translators made, but introduces all sorts of bizarre new ones, like saying “guy” for a young man, “broadcast” for gossip, or, at one point, calling M. d’Osmond “She” – his nickname is “Mama” and the translator thought a character was talking about his mother. I don’t think a sharper, more worldly translator in the 1920s would have made these sorts of mistakes.

    I suppose what I am arguing for is more investment by publishers in translations of our contemporaries, because we live in their world, and we will understand the right turns of phrase.

    A year or two back, I was sent a translation by Lydia Davis of Madame Bovary. It was excellent, but I discovered with some astonishment that the novel has now been translated into English at least 22 times now. I would really like to recommend to publishers that they start to invest not just in systematic translations of excellent contemporary novelists, and if that doesn’t seem to do the trick, turn to classics which have never been translated, like much of Adalbert Stifter or Jean Paul. The publishers who do exactly that, like MacLehose Press, do a sterling job: there ought to be more of them.

    It’s a favourite game of writers and readers, swapping the errors and blunders of translations. Swapping the great beauties of splendid translations takes much more effort, and is much less amusing in conversation. The profession of translator, as a result, is one that seems to be much blamed and hardly at all credited, even at its most brilliant. But the miracle of translation is that so much comes through, whatever the expertise or otherwise of the writer, who has hardly managed to make himself clear, or the translator, who might know a local or a currently fashionable idiom, or might mistake it for a poetic flourish.

    Pity the poor translator from English who first, some time in the 1980s, came across a character in a novel who sitting at a desk, put their hand on a mouse and clicked. Blunders happen, and beautiful rhapsodic sentences that seem exactly parallel to an original sentence, or a beautiful addition to it, or even a beautiful cure for its inadequacies, like Baudelaire’s translations of Edgar Allen Poe. The consequences of those beautiful additions may not be at all predictable. I want to tell you a rather awful story about a translation – I’m not really sure whose fault it was.

    Back in an earlier existence, I was occasionally donated by the House of Commons, my employer, to the Council of Europe for a week. I was constantly amazed by the skill and virtuosity of the translators over the headphones, but once one came rather badly unstuck. A nationalist politician was recommending a stronger border policy with reference to history, and spoke with admiration of

    ces châteaux qui ont été construits par la sagesse des Normands.

    It was a long afternoon, and the translator perhaps had his mind on something else. But what came over the relay was 'these castles which were built by Norman Wisdom'.

    I’m sure that nobody among those being honoured tonight has ever made such an awful blunder, and it’s a pleasure to bring them to centre stage, and recognize their high achievement.

    About Philip Hensher

    Philip Hensher was born in London in 1965. He was educated at Oxford and Cambridge, where he wrote a PhD on eighteenth-century English painting and satire. From 1990 to 1996 he was a House of Commons clerk.

    His books are Other Lulus (1994), Kitchen Venom (1996), which won the Somerset Maugham Award, Pleasured (1998), The Bedroom of the Mister’s Wife (1999), The Mulberry Empire (2002), The Fit (2005), The Northern Clemency (2008), which was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize, King of the Badgers (2011) and Scenes From Early Life (2012), which won the 2013 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize.

    He also wrote a libretto to Thomas Ades’ opera, Powder Her Face (1995), which has been performed across the world, recorded by EMI and filmed by Channel Four.

    He is a regular contributor to The Spectator, The Independent, and other English newspapers. Hensher was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1998, and is on their Council.

    His new novel, The Emperor Waltz, was published by Fourth Estate in July 2014. He is Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University and lives in London.

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