Wednesday, February 13, 2008

On Literary Translation

Literary translators are without a doubt among the most under-appreciated workers in the field of arts and letters. A faithful translation requires supreme effort, humility, and patience. Back in 1980, when I stumbled upon a reference to the novella La Fanfarlo in Enid Starkie's biography of French poet Charles Baudelaire, I thought it might be worth a look.  My library search took me to Baudelaire's Ouvres Complètes, where I began struggling through the French text. I found the prose difficult and began translating passages I didn't understand in a notebook as I read. By the time I'd finished reading La Fanfarlo, I'd become hooked on the process of rendering French into English. I started again at the beginning and began weaving my passages together into a complete translation. A couple weeks later, when I'd completed my rough translation, I decided to compare it to other English language versions. I wanted to see how well I'd done. Another, more careful library search revealed that no English version of the work existed in print. 

That was the beginning of a five year process of revision, as I struggled to render faithfully the rich language and complex irony of a French master into English. The process took me back to graduate school, where I worked on the project with one of my French professors. Later I had the good fortune to send the manuscript to a publisher whose expert reader happened to be a skillful translator of Baudelaire's poetry. On that reader's recommendation, the publisher rejected my translation. A week later, the same reader, Kendall Lappin, wrote to offer his help. A retired professor at the U.S. Navel Academy, Ken agreed to work with me on the translation "for the fun of it", expecting nothing in return for the countless hours he spent on the project over the next three years.  In the end we took the manuscript through another six drafts, arguing through the mail over the merits of nearly every word in the text. It was a wonderful and formative experience. 

Though I've translated other 19th century French literature, including short stories and poems by Petrus Borel, Gérard de Nerval, Théophile Gautier, and Victor Hugo, as well as a few poems by French surrealists, after La Fanfarlo, I never returned to literary translation as more than a hobby. I realized that to do it well requires more time and effort than I could spare. Compared to translating Baudelaire, writing my own stories and novels seems easy.

1 comment:

Amanda Ryan said...

That's pretty exciting. Now, I've had over six years of French teaching, but I highly doubt any level of determination on my part would persuade me to spend years translating a foreign text. I find it difficult enough to simply read in another language.