30 November 2010

Why bother?

I've just clicked, excitedly, on a link on the Observer website to an article from Sunday that promised:
Writers pick their favourite translations...
Novelists and translators on the translated books that have impressed them most

What a let-down! Six writers have a paragraph each, and three of them don't in any way mention the quality of the translation - including Tim Parks, who is himself a translator. Here's the most useless contribution (in whole), from Xiaolu Guo, author of A Concise Chinese‑English Dictionary for Lovers.
Some of the most poetic and imaginative sentences I've ever read are from Italo Calvino's novels, especially Invisible Cities, as well as Death in Venice by Thomas Mann. I think those works have reshaped and enriched our vision of history and reality.

A total waste of space. Once again, a reason to be glad I don't get the Observer.

(Apologies for this post, which might itself be considered a waste of space. But the Observer isn't taking online comments on the article, so I can't vent there.)

EDIT. Since writing this post, I've discovered that Jo Nesbo, one of the writers, is Norwegian, and his choice, Knut Hamsun's Hunger, is Norwegian. So he presumably didn't read it in translation (unless he's really perverse.) Pfft. Why didn't they just call the feature "favourite books in forrin"?

23 November 2010


Inspired by Elif Batuman, I impulse-bought a collection of stories by Chekhov, translated by Constance Garnett. Publishers love the Garnett translations because they're out of copyright. Scholars seem less fond. This led me to a fascinating New Yorker article by David Remnick about "translation wars", where among other things I learned that Garnett was working at high speed and so didn't polish the translations, or indeed take time over difficulties. So, maybe, reading her translations is a fairly accurate re-creation of the experience of reading the originals with a limited skill in reading Russian: the experience that most readers, even Russian readers, will have.

In the first two pages of the story I've just started reading, "Peasants" (itself possibly a near-enough translation that really requires a footnote), we find these phrases:
 What lots of flies!
... huge stones jutted out bare here and there through the clay.
"It's lovely here in your parts!" said Olga [...] "What space, oh Lord!"
I could "improve" all of those, without any knowledge of Russian, without damaging the sense. But I'd be making them more regular, more English. The awkwardness is a reminder that we're reading a foreign text about foreign experiences, and I'm glad it's there.

01 November 2010

Elif Batuman

While waiting for the post let's make some big what ifs.

If I had been younger, female, Turkish-american, I like to think I'd have been Elif Batuman.For evidence I refer you to this article, which manages to deal lightly, humorously yet reverently with Derridean concepts, to show how theory can have real effects on writing, as well as reading. One particular example is the use of proper names, and the contrast between Chekhov, where, for example, the Lady's Lapdog doesn't have a name at all, and modern American short stories, in which everyone is given a name, largely from laziness.

I also refer you to this piece in the Guardian a few weeks ago, a really funny account of the temptations of downloading books while drunk. It first alerted me to her work, and I found out she's a serious academic with a brilliant sense of humour. That's quite unusual.

Anyway, the post has been now, and it hasn't brought what I was hoping for. It has however brought me the latest Lakeland catalogue, which is almost as exciting. At my age, photos of glossy cooking appliances have the same effect as the women's underwear pages in my mum's Marshall Ward catalogue used to have.

Oh, since you ask, here's what I was hoping for. It's not published in UK, so I've ordered a used copy from some American dealer via Amazon. It was shipped (by which they mean "sent") on 21 October at "standard shipping speed". I have no idea what that means, but right now I'm otherwise concerned. PHwoar, look at that silicone muffin tray!