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Jun 29, 2015
Tools for Editing Translations
by Canaan Morse. Translator.

One of the several reasons many American publishers don’t like working with translations is because their editors don’t know how to edit them. With multilingual editors still a significant minority in the industry, it still appears to be common practice for the editor of a translation to position herself either too far from the text or too close—to leave too much of the editing to the translator, possibly out of respect for the foreign source text, or to edit the translation as if it were written in English, without regard for its non-English origin.

I’d like to offer here three analytical tools in the form of questions for the editor of a translated text. These questions are, of course, founded on certain assumptions about the nature of literary meaning-making. The first is that all appraisals of quality are contextual: the editor decides what ‘works’ by comparing the text to itself and to other texts from his experience. The fact that the translation is related to another text that exists in a foreign linguistic environment makes the editor’s job harder, but not impossible. This leads into the second assumption, which is that the old saw about translation being impossible is at the most untrue, or at the least unimportant. After Derrida argued with great force that all utterances are self-contradictory, literary artists continued to practice their craft. Moreover, as our understanding of translation broadens, we begin to find elements of it embedded in seemingly more ‘original’ practices of creative writing and reading. As outdated understandings of the process are overturned, so too is the conception of the product as an inferior version of an ‘original’ text; we begin to see it as something more than a monolingual work of literature.

Question 1: Is it justifiable?

Good translators often represent phenomena from the source text that are considered inseparable from the source language (puns, cadences, assonances and rhyme schemes) by borrowing or creating analogous structures within the target language. Burton Watson imitated the perfect symmetry of five- and seven-character Tang poems (律詩) by regulating numbers of syllables per line. William Lyell translated peasant dialogue in his rendition of The Real Story of Ah Q (Lyell 1990) * into a blue-collar American dialect with a slightly Southern twang. In both cases, the translators’ inventions built new interpretive contexts in order to reproduce similar linguistic effects. Here is a more extreme example, excerpted from Brian Holton’s translation of Bai Hua’s poem ‘Mock Nursery Rhyme’**:

紅,是寂寞紅 red is Lady in Red
春,是玉堂春 spring is Might as Well Be Spring
秋,是漢宮秋 autumn is When Autumn Leaves Start to Fall
魚,是黃花魚 fish is Like a Sturgeon Touched For The Very First Time

味,是上海味 taste is the taste of Shanghai
玲,是張愛玲 clang is Eileen Chang

No literal translation of the classical drama types 《玉堂春》or 《漢宮秋》will replicate—or do anything but destroy—the ironic cadence of the original, which satirizes these hallowed names by associating them with single characters and seemingly trivial things like fish. Similarly, there is no translation of 玲 as a single character that will echo in Zhang Ailing’s (Eileen Chang’s) English name. The translator responds to extreme difficulty with extreme invention, employing playful satire in the construction of the first stanza, and a complex homophony (ling 玲 (delicate, ornate) – ling 鈴 (bell) –clang) in the last line. As Holton’s editor, I allowed these decisions because they were justifiable both within the English text (they established a recognizable interpretive context) and in comparison to the Chinese (they imitated crucial effects created by the source text).

2. Does it ‘wobble’?

I borrow this word from Ezra Pound, who suggested that good poetry would not ‘wobble’ when translated, but I use it quite differently. While divergence from a source text is not necessarily a problem (for reasons just discussed), bad translation often creates a kind of ambiguity that can be spotted immediately by an experienced editor. One such editor, reading my translation of He Qifang’s 何其芳 essay Autumn Begonia, left this comment by one sentence: ‘Interesting how I can tell where the translation veers off even before I look at the original.’ He was responding to a stylistic decision I had made in an action-heavy sentence which not only made that sentence stand out, but also created ambiguity where none existed. The text ‘wobbled’ in front of the reader. Good translation editors learn to spot wobbling text on their first read-through, and most of it can be fixed by working with the translator to find more fitting alternatives.

3. Does it work?

How much do you love the work you’re reading? Is the text awkward and unnatural—what we call ‘translationese’—or does it stay with you for days? There have been many cases in which bad translation has limited the artistic power of a work; there have also been cases in which a brilliant, inspired translator has created a text that is significantly different or better than the source. Ezra Pound’s translations of Li Bai 李白 in Cathay come immediately to mind, as do Robert Lowell’s translations of Sappho in Imitations. These are fairly far-out examples of translatorial license, but in any such instance, the editor will need to make an ethical decision about whether the translator’s additions have done more good than harm, as well as how she should understand the ownership of the text. If she believes that good art carries its own independent weight, and recognizes the translator as one creator of a hybrid text, then she should afford some leeway to the translator when it is justified (see Steven Bradbury’s translated version of Hsia Yü’s poetry collection Salsa for examples of co-creative translation).

That being said, the question ‘does it work?’ does not have the kind of authority over the previous two questions when its subject is a translated text as it might when the text is monolingual. Since translations exist in a balance with their respective source texts, the editor must balance his appeals to his own aesthetic sense with consideration for what he doesn’t know, which can be done by comparing his answer to the third question with his answers to the first two—and, of course, by working with a translator who can be trusted with veto power over any change made.

Translations are not summaries, copies, or references. They are independent works of literature that exist in a special relationship with other works, which makes them unique and different in a positive way from monolingual texts. The three questions I’ve presented above were formulated as tools for practical editing, to help translation editors make decisions that are both objectively defensible and artistically sensitive.


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*Lu Xun 魯迅, Diary of a Madman and Other Stories. Trans. William Lyell. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1990.
**Bai Hua 柏華, ‘Mock Nursery Rhyme’ 假兒歌. Trans. Brian Holton. Pathlight: New Chinese Writing, Issue 6, 2013.