Rendered Fig Leaves: trans(literate)(lation)

versation (noun): the act or action of turning something over

Arguments language junkies have: the implication of mistranslating the first sentence of The Stranger.

In a 2012 New Yorker article that’s making the rounds on the social media feeds of folks whose interests trend that direction (Camus, translation, and — God help me — the New Yorker ) Ryan Bloom makes the case that changing the syntax of “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.” to “Mother died today.” instead of “Today, Mother died.” changes the reader’s relationship with Meursault, Camus’ protagonist. He also points out, rightly so, that “maman” is a problem because as a term it is somewhere between the endearingly infantile “mommy” and the austere “mother” but even that doesn’t quite cover the nuance of the original French. Some translators, in what is probably exasperation as much as respect for the language, leave in “maman” in some more contemporary translations.

I appreciate this. I don’t get to work on translations as much as I’d like (not at all these days) but I enjoy and loathe the task. It’s daunting. And while it seems a straightforward enough proposition, it’s really not. There are philosophies of translation which impact everything from syntax to sentence, line, form, and word choice. Some translators imbue the process with something like a séance quality. Others ignore any facts about the original author at all.

Borges, once of my favorite Latin American writers, once said that translation is essentially a rewriting and the translation is ultimately the work of the translator, regardless of other variables. And I’ve found this to be true.

Straight transliterations are problematic and clunky. Yes, they’re more honest but can make for some damn terrible reading. Context and nuance do not always translate so it then falls to the translator to make something of it… in essence, recreating the text in a different language.

Translating into English is especially problematic because English can be so damned artless. Anything beyond a laconic delivery is dismissed as propaganda or jargon. Legalese is the exception to this, but that’s a whole other linguistic gutter. Prescriptive grammar, universally loathed, is almost always the fig leaf “straight talkers” hide behind unless they’re trying to be some hyper-reality version of John Wayne or Donald Trump … at which case they’re perfectly fine with language butchery. Those who make art out of it are generally both complimented and ignored as “poetic” and since most think poetry is complicated, this cuts off any need to try and understand.

So we dive into the murky Ouija-like sensation of figuring out authorial intention — which is a losing game since there is no greater liar than a writer talking about their own intentions. Most of the time they don’t know themselves and are making it up as they go.

What we’re left with then, is the language. In the beginning was the Word, and that’s what we have in end when it comes to translation. No doubt Camus meant for the “Today” to be an important today. Why wouldn’t it be? And in this case, shouldn’t that be enough? Language can handle all kinds of abuse. Let’s not contribute to misunderstanding by trying to play “what the author is really saying is…”




Writer. Raconteur. Too many interests to list, so just keep reading.

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Ey Mick

Ey Mick

Writer. Raconteur. Too many interests to list, so just keep reading.

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