On translation: Anna Moschovakis on the adjective

Hilary Plum
December 29, 2011
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The end of the year seems a time for note-making: what one had meant to do, what one definitely will do in the new year. In that spirit today I will gather here what is not yet a proper essay but a handful of thoughts on translation that have been shifting in my mind these last few weeks or months, perhaps ever since M. Lynx Qualey’s excellent “10 Rules for Translatorsseries.

Most of my professional editing work is the editing of literary translations, through which I encounter many of the issues of translation but at a strange degree of remove; I am almost never able to read the original text, and so my concern is with the English alone, and the issues of translation are specters that take form only through conversation with the translator and author or, even more elusively, through a sort of experience with this editing practice, so that one starts to see how the English might be formed by the pressure of another text, can begin to see the shape of that pressure, and even to grapple with it, though always blindly. It’s terrifying work in that one can so easily push in the wrong direction, too easily nudge a translation toward a more appealing English but perhaps away from some other distinct effect that it should be striving toward, even fighting for. Or: one can too easily domesticate what should remain to some degree foreign/foreignized, to put it in a way more conversant with the theoretical vocabulary.

A few weeks ago on Susan Bernofsky’s blog Translationista—Bernofsky is a translator extraordinaire, of Robert Walser, Jenny Erpenbeck, Yoko Tawada—I discovered this guest post by Anna Moschovakis, in which she discusses translating (the adjectives of) Albert Cossery. Moschovakis is a poet, the author most recently of the truly wonderful You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, as well as a translator and the editor of Ugly Duckling Presse’s Dossier Series. This post is an excellent musing on issues of translation, and made me think hard about my own editing work, and how adjectives often seem the most contested battleground in a translation (and here I think of Gertrude Stein’s Poetry and Grammar: “of course the first thing that anybody takes out of anybody’s writing are the adjectives. You see of yourself how true it is that which I have just said.”) Here is an excerpt of Moschavakis’s thoughts, in which she reflects on a recent reading and Q & A she participated in, and how she came to reflect anew on her translation of Cossery:

I read from my translation of Albert Cossery’s The Jokers, and then Lydia [Davis] read from—and eloquently spoke about—her translation of Madame Bovary. At the Q&A, the first question posed to me was about Cossery’s ample, exaggerated use of adjectives and adverbs, and whether I felt the need to tone it down for the English version.

I should have been expecting this question, since it is the one specifically translation-related issue brought up in reviews of Cossery’s work and in James Buchan’s introduction to The Jokers, in which he writes: “[Cossery's] style depends for its effect on precise and outlandish adjectives, as in the description here of the terrace of the Globe Café. That is not the very best style in English, which likes verbs and nouns, and presents a challenge to his translator.”

So I should have been expecting the question, but I had nothing prepared to say. I stumbled a bit, and then I recalled that my book editor and I went through several drafts of the manuscript, during which it reduced itself in word-count by something like 10%. This was true. Then I found and read an example of one of Cossery’s sentences that included a small pile-up of “outlandish” adjectives and adverbs, and suggested that during the revision process I had reduced them in number in order to achieve the desired effect in English, explaining the choice with the idea that the translation needed to walk the same fine line between exaggerated ebullience and straight-up farce as did the original. But my explanation misrepresented what I’d actually done, and I’ll get to why in a minute.

She goes on to discuss a specific passage, presenting the original French and then her English translation, and reflecting on what precisely happened as that word count dropped: what it might mean that she cut some adjectives in her translation, if that is in fact what she did. She says:

… I’d been reading Buchan’s claim with the wrong emphasis: where I read “[Cossery's] style depends for its effect on precise and outlandish adjectives,” I should have read “[Cossery's] style depends for its effect on precise and outlandish adjectives.” The challenge he’s referring to isn’t about properly reproducing the effect of the outlandish adjectives. It’s about dealing with sentences in which so much of what happens is happening in that part of speech. My first draft left all the adjectives as adjectives, and what changed in the second draft, and with my editor’s notes, was that some of those adjectives were converted to nouns and verbs. Which, as Buchan points out, English likes. As my junior-high-school self might say: Duh.

The full version of this fascinating discussion is here.

And along these lines I’ll also point to the Iowa Review‘s new(ish) in-depth online translation forum, which includes so far the essays “Towards a Translation Culture” by Lawrence Venuti, Tim Parks’ response, “Mysteries of the Meta-Task,” and Luise von Flotow’s response “Upgrading the Downgraded.” For those starting a list of goals for 2012: the forum is seeking comments and contributions.

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