Guy Gavriel Kay
Digression alert (moi?) but the below is interesting. It is why, I have been frequently informed, translations into ‘smaller’ languages (Hungarian, say) in earlier days were often so good. It was considered a literary duty on the part of major authors to do translating if they could, to bring to their compatriots important works from other tongues. In English this is less ‘normal’ and where great writers do engage in translation it is often (in poetry) in the subset of the form that involves creative (often brilliant) ‘play’ with the original works. I’m thinking of Pound and Lowell, of course, as Russell was. But this is really rare for prose and is not the only way to approach translation. The book to read, it is really very good, is Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos. Bellos effectively subverts a lot of what we think we know about translation (including ‘translation is treachery’ and ‘poetry is what is lost in translation’).
I don‘t think anyone would say Stephen Mitchell is as good a writer as Rilke, or that Gregory Rabassa is Marquez’s equal. But their work for those authors is exceptional.
Don’t know why this didn’t occur to me earlier: For “SF,” substitute “jazz.” Or “standup comedy.” Or “string quartet.”
Guy Gavriel Kay
If you insist.
Herbert’s Dune is quite possibly the finest string quartet of its decade. As stand-up comedy, however…
Yah–Herbert’s setups were terrific, but he kept muffing the punchline.
He really knew how to write for the viola, though I think his musette waltzes are his best work.
Not to sustain the digression, but this is also probably one of the reasons why early translations of Verne (hardly a non-Western writer) were subpar. Verne was so popular in his day that at a certain point English translations of his work were appearing virtually simultaneously with French language editions. Expedience, rather than accuracy, was crucial for that to happen–and you can bet they didn’t farm out serial installments of his novels for translation to gifted writers with an ear for mellifluous prose.
Likewise today, I am informed by Swedish readers, the English translations of Stieg Larsson’s books, all but universally regarded as awful (the translations, that is, not the books) do not in any sense do justice to Larsson’s prose. And the reason is commercial expedience — these are phenomenally popular books, and the publishers wanted quick results, not quality, so as to get them in the marketplace as quickly as possible.
Guy Gavriel Kay
Not sure that is true – about the timing/speed thing. The books were translated, as I understand it, fairly early. I know Penguin Canada bought them inexpensively (in English, obviously) and it was seen later as a major coup for them. The point offered may be true for other languages, though. And (I confess) I have heard the opposite about Larsson’s prose in Swedish. He, too, was apparently used to working fast.
I can’t swear to the truth of any of this — all second hand reports. One story I heard was that the English translation began as a movie treatment and was rushed to the market when it became clear the book might be a big hit. Can’t swear to that — it may well be just a good story someone told that garbled the truth somewhat.
As for Larsson’s Swedish prose, I have heard it described both ways — as pretty slapdash, and as pretty good. I’m clearly not competent to judge — all the Swedish I know comes from ignoring the subtitles in Bergman films or watching the Swedish chef. But I’ve heard from one Swedish person I trust, who knew Larsson personally (which to be sure might affect his evaluation), who states that Larsson was a fine writer of prose, and that the Swedish originals are far better than the English translations.
But as I say, none of this is first hand, so take it with a salt lick.
Karen Joy Fowler
To add yet another digression, I have wondered about the particular issues posed by humor. How well does it translate? Within my own community, there is already a wide variety of opinions about what is funny. Do those lines widen as you go into other cultures or are those the lines the lines — ie will there always be people in other cultures who think the same things are funny that I do, and always people who don’t. Someone on this list probably knows the answers to these questions.