Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Why Stop With a Barnacle?"

At the Believer, Sarah Manguso interviews Lydia Davis (link courtesy of Maud):
BLVR: Is it better to use the word prosaic because it’s the literal translation of prosaique, or to use the word dull because it occupies the same context in contemporary English as prosaique did in Proust’s French? You chose the former, [C. K.] Scott-Moncrieff chose the latter.

LD: I can’t re-create now what led to my choice of prosaic—but as I was translating Swann’s Way I did of course check and double-check every tricky choice to make sure the translation came as close as I could make it to conveying in English in these times what Proust conveyed in French in those times. In your example, I think I liked the closeness in sound of prosaic to the French: it has the same three syllables and the pr opening. It is historically, and rhythmically, entirely different from dull—which is a wonderful word in itself, of course, and one I would be much more likely to use in my own writing than prosaic.

BLVR: In similar situations, would you always choose the cognate?

LD: Whenever I could, I would use the cognate, but often enough that was for reasons of sound, rhythm.

BLVR: In his biography of Beckett, James Knowlson says that Beckett chose to write in French because in French it was easier for him to write “without style.” You’ve said similar things about translating—that it’s an exercise in not imposing one’s own style on the writing. It sounds like the least postmodern position one can possibly take—that there’s some essential truth that style only cloaks.

LD: No, I wouldn’t say there’s some essential truth that is cloaked by style—if I’ve understood your question. I’d say that if I were to translate into my own style rather than preserving, insofar as I could, the style of the original, I would change the nature of the work in an essential way.

I tried, once, for fun, translating Laurence Sterne into more contemporary English. It worked to some extent—some of the narrative content was preserved, some of the humor, quirkiness, etc.—but it was painful. Each time I abandoned some phrasing of his in favor of an “updated” version, an essential, delightful peculiarity of the work was lost.


  1. I would like to know the contemporary translation of Hobbyhorse.
    Also Inkshed!