Dirda on Books
Wednesday, September 17, 2008; 2:00 PM
Prize-winning critic Michael Dirda took your questions and comments concerning literature, books and the joys of reading.
Each week Michael Dirda's name appears -- in attractively large type -- in The Post's Book World section, where he writes about new novels, neglected classics, fat biographies, European literature, fantasy, science fiction, thrillers, poetry, works of scholarship, the occasional children's book, almost anything under the rubric of "arts and letters." Although he earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Cornell, Dirda has somehow managed to retain, well into middle age, a myopic 12-year-old's exuberant passion for reading.
As he has for the past 40 years, Dirda says he still spends inordinate amounts of time mourning his lost youth, listening to music (classical, jazz, oldies, country and western), and daydreaming ("my only real hobby"). He claims that the happiest hours of his week are spent sitting in front of a computer, writing. His most recent books include "Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments" (Indiana hardcover, 2000; Norton paperback, 2003), his self-portrait of the reader as a young man, "An Open Book" (Norton, 2003) and a collection of his essays and reviews titled "Bound to Please" (Norton, 2005) In 2006 he brought out "Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life" (Henry Holt), and in 2007 Harcourt published "Classics for Pleasure."
Dirda joined The Post in 1978, having grown up in the working-class steel town of Lorain, Ohio and graduated with highest honors in English from Oberlin College. His favorite writers are Stendhal, Chekhov, Jane Austen, Montaigne, Evelyn Waugh, T.S. Eliot, Nabokov, John Dickson Carr, Joseph Mitchell, P.G. Wodehouse and Jack Vance. He thinks the greatest novel of all time is either Murasaki Shikubu's "The Tale of Genji" or Proust's "A la recherche du temps perdu." In a just world he would own Watteau's painting "The Embarkation for Cythera." Dirda is a member of several literary associations, including the Baker Street Irregulars and The Ghost Story Society. Despite a penchant for quiet and solitude, he enjoys giving talks, teaching, and traveling. People tell him that he can be pretty funny for a guy who usually has his nose in a book.
(He also thinks he can be pretty funny at times...)
An archive of his reviews is available
An archive of his discussions is available
Dirda was online Wednesday, September 17.
A transcript follows.
Welcome to Dirda on Books! It's a bright, coolish day here in Washington, and the street crews are out in front of my house digging up around the various water mains, preparing for repaving. So every so often, there will be an enormous clatter of what sounds like machine gun fire. I keep expecting to hear a Cockney voice cry out: "Come on, lads, we're going over the top. And don't ask me again how you spell Paschendaele."
All right, now it's time for the Shocking News. As some of you know from discussion and protest and petitions that have been circulating online at various bookish forums (e.g. All-Hallows, fictionmags), Dirda on Books will run until the end of this month, and then -- barring the unexpected -- close up shop in its live online format. I'm sorry about this, but happily The Post has offered me the chance to continue our conversations as a part of The Washington Post Discussion Group. Over the next two weeks I'll be learning more about how this operates and will then pass on the relevant information and links to everyone here. I hope you will all stop by, say hello, and send in comments and reactions to my forthcoming bookish musings. Again, more information about all this as I learn it.
Before we finish with this serious stuff, let me underscore how much I've enjoyed doing this book program over the past nine years or so. We have grown into a community, of sorts, and I feel very grateful to have had the chance to learn from all of you. These Wednesday hours and usually somewhat more than just an hour have come to be one of the highlights of my week. So thank you all for having made it possible and for having made it so much fun.
And by all, I want to be sure to offer a special thanks to my producers over the years, including Liz Kelly, Kim O'Donnel, Rocci Fisch, Paul Williams and, most recently, the invaluable Elizabeth Terry. Without them, the programs wouldn't exist at all.
Okay. That's that. Let's not have too much gnashing of teeth over this.
This week, as I recall, we were going to talk about translations a bit. But, of course, the discussion is, as always, wide open. So let's look at this week's questions.
Lenexa, Kan.: Translating Poetry: Frost's chestnut: "What's lost in translating poetry is the poetry," seems a perfect illumination of Frost. As in "Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net," Frost had a way of stating the obvious but doing it so much better than the rest. While he didn't have Eliot's erudition, I think he was as profound as any of our native American poets.
Brendan Gill wrote in "Here at the New Yorker" that "Frost was an exceedingly handsome man. At the time of my interview, I was eager to get behind the skilled actor and come to grips with the cutthroat competitor of whom I had heard...I had wrung a considerable measure of truth out of Frank Lloyd Wright under similar circumstances, but Frost was too wily for me. In the end, I obtained two telltale sentences. 'At the top of the steeple,' he said, making a steeple out of his freckled old hands, 'there's room for only one person at a time.' Then he looked at me hard. 'I always meant that person to be me.'"
In my mind, only Whitman and Eliot outrank Frost in the achievements of native American poets--even above greats like Dickinson, Stevens, Williams, and Hughes. Any thoughts on the matter? Thanks as always.
Michael Dirda: My guess is that many critics--and most readers, too--would rank Frost as high as you do. I myself, to borrow a phrase from Coleridge, can usually see but not feel how beautiful his poems are. I do love "Provide, Provide," "Design," "Home-Burial," and a handful of other poems, but on the whole Frost is too plain for me. I know it's a sophisticated plainness, and his is one of those examples of ars celare artem (art that disguises its artistry). But, truth be told, my favorite American poets are Eliot and Stevens, closely followed by Whitman and Dickinson. Frost is about equal to Williams in my book. I suspect this is partly because I'm only a pseudo-American--my heart is really in England and Europe, and I like a flavor of cosmopolitanism and wit to my poetry. Stevens, too, makes me laugh and just feel happy at his wordplay--his poetry is a marriage of philosophy and nonsense verse.
San Salvador: Greetings from the tropics, Dr. Dirda. On the subject of reading works in translation, it is mandatory for me when reading English poetry, be it conceptual, imagery-rich, modernist, etc. (after years of wandering by the republic of letters I found an exception in Louise Gluck!). It does not happen to me in French, being a Romance language. Is it a lost cause? I would appreciate a comment, before posters press with novels (certainly a faint consolation to my inability to read poetry in English). Thank you.
Michael Dirda: To appreciate poetry in a foreign language is always truly hard. Even when I was at the top of my game in French, I had trouble trying to follow Mallarme or Valery. Or even the lyrics in Georges Brassens songs.
I suspect that the only way to read poetry in another language, at least one that one at least vaguely knows, is with patience and a dictonary--and sometimes with a prose translation for help. I can make my way through Dante and Horace this way, but would be lost if suddenly confronted with nothing but the Italian or Latin.
Frederick, Maryland: I have spent the summer reading a delightful trilogy: J.G. Farrell's British empire series THE SIEGE OF KRISHNAPUR, TROUBLES, and THE SINGAPORE GRIP. Well written novels, characterization and sense of place are wonderful. What a tragedy that Farrell was drowned while fishing on the rocks of Bantry Bay at the age of 45. Are you familliar with the stories? They are a part of the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS series. The Review and The New Yorker I cannot do without.
Michael Dirda: I own handsome first American editions of Krishnapur and Grip, and have the NYRB paperback of Troubles, but haven't, alas, read any of them. I've long meant to read the first because I've heard that's also funny, at least in places.
Yes, it's a pity when writers die young. Take this week, with the shocking news about the suicide of David Foster Wallace. I gather that he had discontinued his anti-depressants and this may have been a partial cause of his stupid decision to hang himself. In my view, good writers--no matter how depressed they may feel--owe it to their readers to go on living and writing. I can understand suicide if one is very old and debilitated, or in unsupportable physical agony, but in this day and age there are enough resources for people, even the most depressed, to get help. Sigh. It just makes me angry.
That said, it's astonishing to think how young many of our greatest artists were when they died. Mozart and Raphael and Byron and Watteau in their mid thirties. Baudelaire and D.H. Lawrence in their mid forties. And of course those meteors Keats and Rimbaud in their twenties.
Moab UT: Here is a nice article that talks about the perils and expectations of a novelist's early success, e.g. Ralph Ellison and Harper Lee.
I also found in a used book store an amusing blurb on the back of a poetry book published by Vantage Press in '72.
"Phil Beret is the pseudonym of a man born in Pittson, PA in 1951. A non-conformist to his school's 'dress code,' he became a drop-out. Harassed by the police for a suspected drug abuse, he took a long long look at his surroundings - as his book testifies. Now, six months married, he concedes he has calmed down 'a little.' "
Michael Dirda: Oh, I love that blurb. So much better than "This is the most brilliant collection of verse I have ever had the good fortune to read."
Arlington, VA: On the topic of translations, has anyone ever taken a book written in English and translated into a second language, had a second translator, who has never read the original text, translate the book from the second language back to English, and then compared the texts of the two English versions? This, I feel, would be an interesting experiment.
Michael Dirda: Hmmm. I'm not sure. Certainly Nabokov and Beckett translated their own books back and forth from English and French to Russian and English. But then back again.
I do recall a similar exercise as one that I used to practice as a boy. I had happened to read Ben Franklin's autobiography where he devotes a few pages to how he learned to write. He would study a page of Addison's prose till he knew the gist of the argument, then try to reproduce the prose in his own words, and finally compare his version with the original. I did some of this myself, back in the days when I was putting pebbles in my mouth and reciting Demosthenes speeches in my bathroom in an attempt to become a better speaker.
I also remember how, one summer when working on a farm, I would amuse myself by "translating" various phrases into gobbledygook. I remember "I want to perform sexual interdigitation with you." The original is the title of a famous Beatles song.
Pittsburgh: Mr. Dirda, last week you suggested that chatters might like to discuss literature in English translation. As a translator, I'd appreciate knowing what you and other readers value most in selecting a translation: accuracy, clarity, fidelity to the author's tone, completeness? I know, I know, ideally all of the above. But more to the point, what about when these traits are on a collision course, so it's necessary to make trade-offs?
For example, in translating poetry (the hardest genre, in my experience), a big decision in handling a poem with rhyme and/or meter is to decide whether to jettison these qualities in the name of precise meaning and appropriate wording, or to sacrifice accuracy in order to evoke the sound and rhythm of the original work. To make this conundrum more concrete, think of foreign song lyrics you know and how their English versions vary from the original.
Re cutting sections of a work, I know of a case where an entire chapter of a foreign novel was deleted from a (non-English) translation because it was deemed potentially too hard to get the work published in that country if the chapter remained in, because it was thought that the mainstream of the nation's culture (or at least the businessmen making the publishing decisions) would be offended certain sexual explicitness. The English translation of the novel, however, is complete and unexpurgated (I boasted!). I know for a fact that the decision to allow the chapter in question to be deleted was painful for the novelist, but it was a matter of publishing an abridged translation of the novel in that third language or no publication of the translation at all in the foreseeable future.
Other thoughts and advice from your chatters? Thanks.
Michael Dirda: Much to think about here. There are, as you know, all sorts of theories of translation. My own sense of how tranlation should work is highly subjective. First, one must be a sensitive and knowledgeable and widely read reader, second, you must know the original's language well, third, one should have read deeply in the author's work, not just the poem or novel to be translated, fourth, one must allow the original to percolate a while in one's unconscious, and five, one must then try to capture its flavor, tone, spirit, artistry as well as you are able in English. The idea, here, is to re-create a French or Spanish poem as an English poem.
Anyway, that's the way I think it should be done ideally. Nabokov would say that the most important aspect of translating is to be faithful to the language of the original, and that trots or cribs are best, regardless of their lack of beauty. Anything else is a falsification of the original's art. I see the merit of this argument, provided one knows a little of the original language and wants to work with the original and the crib. But most of us just want a poem or story to capture the essence of the original and provide an esthetically pleasing experience.
But these are only my thoughts. Most of my own translations have been of book reviews by people who wrote in French (Elie Wiesel, for instance), and in these instances I went back and forth a bit with the authors to arrive at a suitable English equivalent of what they wanted to say. Wiesel, for instance, tended to write a rather grand, rhetorical French, which sounds wonderful in French but corny and overblown in English. Things had to be tamped down a bit.
Lansdale, PA: I asked last week about scenes in books where a specific musical accompaniment is described. After posting, I recalled my favorite example, in Portrait of a Romantic by Steven Millhauser. Millhauser describes two boys listening to Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The beginning of the recording, including the opening phonographic hiss, is described so precisely that even though the composition itself or its composer is never directly named it is obvious what the piece is. On translations, I must admit that I read very few. I prefer authors whose language has its own music, even in nonfiction. I love the Gallic inflected English Alistair Horne uses when writing about France. My knowledge of German gives me some idea of what I am missing when reading E T A Hoffmann in English. I feel like I am seeing through a glass darkly with the translator mediating my experience of the author. I experience this feeling much less when seeing foreign films with subtitles or listening to operas, having there some direct experience of the language, though still deaf to many of its subtleties.
Michael Dirda: Ah, Millhauser--a genius at such descirptions.
And what an intelligent comment. Many thanks.
Albuquerque, NM: I'm a big fan of the kind of travel writing that Patrick Leigh Fermor, Rebecca West and Robert Kaplan specialize in -- the kind that blends anecdote, reportage, philosophical musings, historical & linguistic background. Any suggestions for other works in this tradition?
Michael Dirda: Hmmm. John McPhee (Coming into the Country--about Alaska). Robert Byron, The Road to Oxiana. Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands. Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad and LIfe on the Mississippi. ANthony Trollope, North America. Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans. Jonathan Raban, Old Glory. Eric Newby, Slowly Down the Ganges. William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain.
Michigan City, IN: A question for the group... Has anyone read Saramago in Portuguese? Just wondering how the translator did in the English versions I've (unfortunately) had to settle for.
Also I've heard that Dostoyevsky actually reads better in translation than in the original Russian. Anyone know the truth of that one either?
Michael Dirda: Saramago, anyone?
Dostoevesky, according to his recent translators Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear, tended to be smoothed out in English, and was a rougher cruder writer in Russian. Of course P and V claim to have captured that slightly rebarbative original tone far better than their competitors.
Fairfax, VA: Mr Dirda,
Do you have any info about when Sean Connery's book will be published in the US?
Michael Dirda: Nope.
New Lenox, Ill.: Question: I have two different editions of Montaigne's "Essays," one is translated by John Florio, and the other is by Donald M. Frame. Which one do you recommend I read?
I read "The Life of Henry Brulard" by Stendhal, translated by John Sturrock, which I own in NYRB paperback. In it he recounts his enthusiasm for such things as "Don Quixote," Shakespeare, the "Memoirs of Saint-Simon," spinach, mathematics (I laughed at his: "What then when I realized that no one could explain to me how it is that a minus times a minus equals a plus"). Here he is on seeing someone guillotined: "I was so close that after the execution I could see the drops of blood forming along the blade before falling. That horrified me and for I don't know how many days afterwards I couldn't eat bouilli (beef)." On being a seducer of women: "My idee fixe on arrival in Paris...was that a pretty woman, a woman of Paris...would overturn in my presence or fall into some great danger from which I would save her, and go on from there to become her lover. My reasoning was that of the hunter: 'So rapturously should I love her that I have to find her.'" I then enjoyed rereading your essay on this book on Barnes & Noble online.
Question: Do you have any opinions on this particular translation of Stendhal as compared to others? Any comments on the book itself? Thank you very much.
Michael Dirda: The Florio Montaigne is a classic, but a classic of Renaissance English. Frame was the great American scholar of Montaigne, and his translation is accurate and contemporary. Both, obviously, have their merits. There are still others: Trechtmann, J.M. Cohen, Michael Screech. The last is probably the leading Montaigne scholar of his generation.
But don't fuss too much: Just read around in the essays. Don't miss the last one "On Experience."
I love La Vie de Henry Brulard--indeed, I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on the book ("On Beyle's Strand: A Study in Autobiography"--those who know their Yeats will see the pun in my title). I think it's a marvelous and frank autobiography, and I do say a little about its enchantments in that piece you allude to at B and N Review. There, I also talk about Stendhal's other famous work of nonfiction, De L'Amour--On Love. I am in fact more a Beyliste than a Stendhalien, preferring the nonfiction. His life of Rossini is a ramshackle biography but a wonderful book about music and Italy.
Silver Spring, MD: Music is described in detail in many places in Richard Powers' Time of Our Singing. He's a genius at it. Describes a classical vocal group performance in terms that make you understand how music seems to the performer.
It's an amazing, if long, book, that is in part about being a Black classical musician and in part about Marian Anderson's performance at the Lincoln Memorial, among other things.
Michael Dirda: Many thanks.
Richmond Hill, GA: I've found that translation quality can vary wildly, especially if the translation is not of a classic like Beowulf or War and Peace, but a modern novel or whodunnit that is of good quality but not first rank. When I lived in Switzerland about twenty years ago, I thought to improve my German vocabulary and knowledge of idioms by reading a book by Elizabeth Peters that I had already read in English. What a mistake! The translator, for whatever reason, had truncated the book by a third, eliminating all the comedy, and made other significant changes. I gave it up after 15 pages. On the other hand, the French translation of one of Donald Westlake's Dortmunder books was excellent. So you take a chance with any translation. The only real solution I can see is something like the old Loeb Library of Greek and Latin classical authors, with the original language on the left and the English translation on the right, but that would be prohibitively expensive for most books. Also, I will really miss these chats when they end. I have followed them in DC, MD, Atlanta, and now near Savannah. I've enjoyed books I would never have heard of except that you or some other chatter recommended them. I hope they can be continued, but if not, can the archive at least be kept online, so that I and others can go back to it for reading suggestions?
Michael Dirda: Many thanks for the comment. When I was trying to learn Italian, I bought children's versions of the Bible, as well as editions of Hamlet and Alice in Wonderland, these last two books I know nearly by heart.
I don't know if the archives of the chats will stay readily available. Perhaps Elizabeth does?
PA: On translations: I often wonder what I'm missing when I read a work in translation. I read an early edition of Sartre's "The Words" a few months ago and felt the voice rang true and natural, so I'm assuming Sartre had some control over who did the translation. I also got the same sense of an author's authentic voice in the recent Penguin Great Journeys edition of Chekhov's travel writing. On the flip side, the singer/songwriter Jackson Browne tells a story on his acoustic live album about collecting translations of the song "Take It Easy." Very funny. Terry Gross once interviewed a translator who creates subtitles for the French versions of American films. He said the idioms could be real "gotchas."
Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I wonder if Sartre had anything to do with the translation of Les Mots. A wonderful book, by the way--about reading and language and childhood.
Pittsburgh: Arlington asked, "On the topic of translations, has anyone ever taken a book written in English and translated into a second language, had a second translator, who has never read the original text, translate the book from the second language back to English, and then compared the texts of the two English versions?"
Funny you should ask!
A collaborator and I were translating into English a work which contained a translation of a poem by Ezra Pound (title not given, however). My colleague gamely tried his hand at translating the poem into English, and... well, ah, it's not as though I could've done as well, but still.
So I came up with Plan B, going to our Carnegie Library, where their resident expert on poetry (how lucky are we in Pittsburgh?!?) did not recognize the poem, so pulled down a fairly complete massive volume of Pound's poetry off the shelf and I leafed through till I found what was clearly the original poem in English (only about 100 pages in, so thank goodness I didn't start from the back). As luck would have it, the poem was sufficiently old that by then it was already in the public domain (i.e., no copyright issues), so I just typed the original poem into the translation, and emailed my collaborator with the good news.
Michael Dirda: Many thanks. Actually, now that I think about this, something similar is happening with a book of my own. Book by Book is based on my commonplace book, and is full of quotations--many of them translated from foreign languages. Well Book by Book is being translated into Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese, so, unless the translators go look for the Japanese versions of, say, the French quotes, they will be translating the English translations of French originals into Japanese. I guess what we'd ideall want here is for the book to come out in France and see how the Fench quotes were treated in that case.
Philadelphia: If I may bring down the quality of the discussion slightly... "Arlington, VA: On the topic of translations, has anyone ever taken a book written in English and translated into a second language, had a second translator, who has never read the original text, translate the book from the second language back to English, and then compared the texts of the two English versions? This, I feel, would be an interesting experiment."
This actually was the scenario for a very amusing episode of News Radio, a sitcom that aired toward the end of the 1990s. The autobiography of one of the characters sold very poorly in the U.S. but was a bestseller in Japan, so he had the Japanese version translated into English to sell in the U.S. Of course, when he went to do a book reading he realized that may have been a mistake, and then much fun was had playing with corporate-speak translated in and out of Japanese.
And now, for a question: can you recommend a good source for figuring out what book someone is looking for? There are two books from my childhood that I'm trying to track down - I remember where in the library they were shelved (so I remember the initial letters of the authors' last names), and their plots, and the characters names, and their setting, but not the authors' names or the books' titles. I've even contacted the library in question to see if they could help, but they destroy all records after a month for privacy reasons and have moved to a new building since then (I also no longer live near there to search through the books one at a time). Thanks!
washingtonpost.com: If Googling what you have doesn't help, check this out: Loganberry Books' Stump the Bookseller- Elizabeth
Michael Dirda: Note Elizabeth's suggestion. I would imagine that if you knew the genre of book you were trying to remember, you could track down the forum that focuses on that and ask its collective wisdom. For instance, people are always writing into the All-Hallows forum--devoted to classic ghost stories and supernatural fiction--and mentioning authors or plots they can't recall, and invariably some one will recognize what they're after.
The translator, for whatever reason, had truncated the book by a third, eliminating all the comedy, and made other significant changes: Why would a publisher even publish such a work? Is there really that much money to be made in such a poor version?
Michael Dirda: I do know that Lempriere's Dictionary, when published here, had much of its fantasy element eliminated. It made the book somewhat garbled, but I suspect the reason was that the publisher felt it would be slotted as a genre book rather than a major historical fiction with magic realist elements.
Venus: Michael, how sad that these chats will be no longer. The discussion group will be fine, no doubt, but there's no substitute for this live chatter.
Michael Dirda: Well, yes. I've been told that people who wish to express their disappointment can write directly to Jim Brady, who oversees these things: email@example.com
Albuquerque, NM: Here's a humorous anecdote about translation. I lived for a year in Greece in the 90s and I used to enjoy seeing how the titles of English movies would be rendered in Greek on the posters. For many movies, this is no problem. But if the English title contained an idiom, whoever was translating the title had to decide whether to render the idiom word for word in Greek, which would be confuing at best for the Greeks. I saw several examples of this.
But it was even more fun when they would decide their own title of the moive based on the movie's content and render that as the "translation" of the movie's title. My favorite all time example of this was for the movie "Reality Bites." The translation of this on the poster, in Greek, was "Young, Beautiful, Bored People."
Michael Dirda: Very nice. Gee, I'd like to be a Young, Beautiful Bored Person living in Greece. My reality bites by comparison.
Herndon, Va: Mr. D: Re translations - the late, and very great, James Thurber, when told by a gushing fan how much better his works were in French, replied "Yes, I lose a little something in the original."
Michael Dirda: Lovely.
Michigan City, IN: For Pittsburgh (translator): I can only speak from the viewpoint of a person who's read say, Homer, in translation - but many different translations. I personally am more appreciative of the versions that keep the sense of rhythm and meter than the ones that attempt to worry more about word meaning - at least it gives me the sense that I'm reading poetry that has lasted for centuries, not a poet that has just written his first book..
Michael Dirda: Yes. Though all Greek readers tell me that Homer is incomparable in Greek, and I believe them, I am struck by how powerfully he comes over into English, whether the prose of Samuel Butler or the verse of Robert Fagles. I think the simplicity and directness of his language must be the reason.
Wokingham UK: Does any contemporary translation of the Bible equal the King James version from a literary point of view, do you think?
Michael Dirda: Clearly not, but then modern translations are usually aiming for greater fidelity to the original, or greater accessibility for contemporary readers.
New Lenox, Ill.: What!!! No more Dirda on Books? I'm stunned. I had no idea whatsoever. Oh, this is a dismaying turn of events. It has been such a pleasure to read your replies. I've never belonged to any book clubs, and this is the only book forum that I participate in. Thank you very much for all of your time and effort, and the Washington Post for hosting it, and all the other posters, especially the regulars.
Michael Dirda: Many thanks. But, please do stop by the Discussion Group once it's launched.
Philadelphia: Thank you, Elizabeth, for the Loganberry Books link - I'll check that after this chat. And thank you, Michael (and all your wonderful producers), for the chats.
Michael Dirda: You're welcome.
Ashcroft, BC (BR): Over the last few years - largely as a result of reading your books and paying attention during these discussions - I've read a lot of books in translation; and exceedingly grateful I am for the hard work and dedication of the hard-working and talented translators who have made this possible. It must be a painstaking job to do it right: not only must the translator be fluent in, and knowledgeable of, the nuances of two languages, but he or she must know, or have an understanding of, the world of which the author writes, and have a feel for the style and tone and aims of the author, something that would be made more difficult the older the original work is (it must be one thing to translate a modern work set in the 21st century, something else altogether to translate a work written two or three or four centuries ago in a world that has vanished).
For me, the mark of a good translation is its invisiblity: I'm never aware that I'm doing anything other than reading the original author's own words. I've read the odd translation - usually of an older work - where the odd word strikes me as jarring or anachronistic, but for the most part the translators I've encountered have done a wonderful job. Javier Marias and Arturo Perez-Reverte have been well served by the brilliant Margaret Jull Costa; Archibald Colquhoun's translation of "The Leopard" was wonderful; and I've been impressed by, among others, the work of translators Carol Brown Janeway ("Embers" by Sandor Marai), Nancy Mitford ("The Princess of Cleves" by Madame de Lafayette), Cheryl Leah Morgan ("Cold Skin" by Alberto Sanchez Pinol), Jay Rubin ("After Dark" by Haruki Murakami), Philip Gabriel ("Kafka on the Shore" by Murakami), Paul and Veronia Britten-Austin ("Hercules Barefoot" by Carl-Johann Vollgren), William Weaver ("If On a Winter's Night a Traveller" by Italo Calvino), and George Bird ("Death and the Penguin" by Andrey Kurkov). Thanks so much to all these people.
And thanks so much to you, for the many happy hours this discussion group has provided to me and to many others over the years. Dirda on Books has been a haven for lovers of the written word, and it will be missed.
Michael Dirda: And thank you, Ashcroft, for your wonderful and detailed contributions over the years. That goes, of course, for everyone.
Laguna Beach, Ca.: lots of reasons for me to be depressed! but then I heard Tim Dorsey has a new book ready. LIFE IS GOOD!!
washingtonpost.com: Plus you are in Laguna Beach, that helps!
Michael Dirda: Well, there you go. Two looks on the bright side.
washingtonpost.com: As far as I know the archives will still be around. If I get any more information on that I'll let you all know in the next couple of weeks. - Elizabeth
Michael Dirda: Thanks, Elizabeth.
PIttsburgh: One more question, Mr. Dirda:
Do you think it's better for the translator to be a native speaker of the source or destination language? From personal experience (and being a native Anglophone), I favor the destination language, having encountered some truly cringe-worthy English especially online although also in books. To me the best of all possible worlds is, of course, when native speakers of each language collaborate (or at least the translator is brave enough to allow the manuscript to be raked over by a native speaker of the other language)!
Michael Dirda: Unquestionably, the translator's primary or better language needs to be English, or whatever the destination language is. But being bilingual or working with the author is certainly best of all.
Re: King James Bible: There is the New King James translation, which tries to maintain the good literary qualities of the KJV, but correct some of the errors and update the prose just a little.
Michael Dirda: This is true, too, of the original Revised Standard Version, which was basically KJV but with thou and thine turned into you and yours, and hath into has.
Wonderful book on translation: One of my favorite nonfiction books is Douglas Hofstadter's Le Ton Beau de Marot, which is specifically on the problems of translation but is great reading for anyone who loves words. The premise of the book is this: He takes a short poem in French (from several centuries ago, though I don't remember exactly which century) and sends it to his friends all over the world to translate into English. He collects their translations for years and ponders what each considered most important in translation, what each sacrificed, what each made paramount. Along the way he discusses all sorts of topics, including the sudden death of his wife. Great book.
Michael Dirda: Yes, I know: I reviewed it. The poem is by Clement Marot, 16th century, part of the Pleiade. The book's subtext, of course, is that it's an extended elegy to Hofstadter's wife, who died young and beautiful.
State College, PA: No more chat? I can't believe the Post is doing this. Bad newspaper, bad. However, I look forward to the new format, whatever form that takes.
Back in college, I translated a lot of Baudelaire (French into English, clearly). It's a lot harder than one might think. I struggled to keep his poetic voice and not make word choices I didn't think he'd make. Very difficult. It's almost like translating it twice: first into English and then again into poetry.
Michael Dirda: I like that: first into English, then into poetry. Neatly said.
I wanna hold your hand too!: One of our favorites growing up was:
Propel, propel, propel your craft Placidly down the liquid solution Ecstatically, ecstatically, ecstatically, ecstatically, Existence is but a delusion.
I particularly like the fourth line, which does not need to force the beat.
Michael Dirda: Wonderful. How about this: "While absorbing visual information from my kinescope, a gentleman appears and informs me in the art of how much more completely reflective my body's upper wearing apparel could conceivably appear"?
Lexington: Michael, I think an obvious question about translations is books seem to get a new translation after it's more than a generation old. Sometimes this is very useful as a more complete manuscript turns up. But what do you think of the necessity of bringing classics up to date with more contemporary ( and, the point is that that shifts with time ) translations? Is this done to make a classic seem more contemporary or more easily readable? And, will it gather more readers? Don Quixote is usually thought to be the "best novel ever" and look how many translations there are in print today!
Michael Dirda: I think that publishers in part hope that a new translation will draw a fresh generation of readers to an old classic. At other times, the hope is that someone will finally get the job done right. Madame Bovary has never been translated in a wholly satisfying way. Stendhal really has problems for English readers even now--his magic doesn't carry over very readily. Also, multiple translations allow us to see varying facets of the original and to better appreciate its richness.
Lenexa, Kan.: Maybe you meant Rimbaud died metaphorically in his twenties. I'm pretty sure he was in his mid-to-late thirties.
Michael Dirda: Yes, I wrote too fast. He stopped writing in his early twenties, died of gangrene in his early thirties.
Arlington, Va: A moment of silence please in memory of David Foster Wallace - I am grieving for the loss of everything else he might have written, and the knowledge that I'll never be able to hear him live at a reading. By all accounts he was a wonderful guy. So tragic that he couldn't stand it here anymore.
Michael Dirda: Yes, indeed. I spoke with him a few times on the phone, got him to review a novel by Clive Barker once, and we both contributed word essays as part of a nine person panel for the Oxford American Writers Thesaurus. Mine were good (he said modestly); his were brilliant (and incredibly long and convoluted). A pity. What's that line from Auden about the deaths of those who were doing us some good?
Divine Comedy: In your opinion, what is the best translation of the Divine Comedy?
Michael Dirda: A really hard call. My friend Walter Stephens, the Charles Singleton Professor of Italian at Johns Hopkins, uses the Hollander, I believe. Singleton's is the most scholarly; but Robert Fitzgerald swore by Laurence Binyon's old version and my own teacher, Andrew Bongiornia, used the Sinclair edition. There've been well received poetic versions of the Inferno by Robert Pinsky and the Purgatorio by, I think, W.S. Merwin. T.S. Eliot probably had the best idea: Get the little Temple editions, with facing page English and carry one of the three volumes in your pocket, read the Italian, read the English, and then try to appreciate the Italian again.
Still holding your hand: This is a line from the Rolling Stones' Satisfaction, no? Next actual lines would be (sorry, not enough time to "translate" them!) ..but he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke ... the same cigarettes as me. (I can't get no, a no no no!!)
Michael Dirda: Yes, it's part of Satisfaction: While watching my TV, a man comes on and tells me, how white my shirts could be.
Translations make a difference: One of the best meetings of my book group was the one where we read Wiszlawa Szymborska. We were able to compare the two available English translations of some of her best poems, with different members strongly holding different opinions.
Michael Dirda: Good idea for a book discussion.
Washington, D.C.: Hi, Michael. Jon Yardley here. Let me enthusiastically second your reader's recommendation of the novels of J.G. Farrell. They were recommended to me a year ago by one of my readers, and I picked up the handsome New York Review Classics paperbacks. I have read "Troubles" and "Krishnapur" and think they're among the finest 20th-century novels I've read. I'm saving "Singapore" for later pleasure as I hate to let go of Farrell. I agree that his drowning was a dreadful loss.
Michael Dirda: Many thanks, Jon. I guess I should dig up my copy of Krishnapur. See, folks: Two Post book critics for the price of one!
Hey! You! Get off my cloud!: I once heard these unnecessarily complex synonymifications called "Spockisms," after the Vulcan science officer who tended toward the same kind of prolix and literal translations of "Earth idioms."
Michael Dirda: Spockisms--that sounds like fun. Or rather, they sound . . . logical.
Department of redundancy department:"Liquid solution"? I'll bet it was actually "liquid medium".
- Humbert Humbert as translated by Boutros Boutros Ghali
Michael Dirda: Many thanks.
Michigan City, IN: As a relative newcomer to this community (first from Oak Park, now from Michigan City) I would like to thank you for being there as I was trying to make the transition from an MFA program to a more demanding, and less enjoyable at times, pursuit - Getting this novel finished that I have to turn in as my thesis.
Sorry to see you go from this format.
Michael Dirda: Me too. Many thanks.
"While absorbing visual information from my kinescope, a gentleman appears and informs me in the art of how much more completely reflective my body's upper wearing apparel could conceivably appear"?:"Satisfaction"?
Michael Dirda: Again, yep.
Aiea, Hi: If you go to the National Book Festival, try to see Alexander McCall Smith. He spoke at the Univ of HI, and it was nonstop laughter. He is a very funny man.
washingtonpost.com: Whether or not you go to the National Book Festival, you can join him for an online chat this Friday at 11 a.m. ET right here at washingtonpost.com!
Michael Dirda: Many thanks for the heads up about Smith. The NB Festival is on Saturday, Sept. 25. I'll be there introducing Neil Gaiman and Francine Prose. I know that Jon Yardley, who just dropped by here, will be doing the same for Paul Theroux and Marie Arana will be chatting with Salman Rushdie. So it'll be another humdinger of a day. Just hope it doesn't rain.
Washington, DC: Michael,
Can you recommend a good book on Jazz? I am looking for a lively, memorable read that will give me some background on the stuff I've heard around the house since I was little. My parents would also like me to say that they read your chat religiously and are 70 and 74 respectively, and love being online!
Michael Dirda: Give my best to your folks. I think the best overall history of jazz is that by Ted Gioia. But there are doezens of jazz books out there--essays, biographies, what have you. The Ken Burns series has its detractors, I know, but it does cover the history fairly well.
Mesquite, Nevada: In line with your topic of translations mentioned last week, I really like Pevear and Volokhonsky for the Russian. (Nearly all of them). Fagles for the Greek, the new Don Quixote by Edith Grossman.
I'm currently working on the new Julie Rose Les Miserables and I understand there is a new Canterbury Tales coming out this fall.
I have the recent (last few years anyway) of Verne's Mysterious Island.
What do you recommend for Count of Monte Cristo (I've heard of some new ones) and also Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea?
Michael Dirda: The Verne is avialbable in a good revised translation by Miller, published by Annapolis Institute Press. I like Burton Raffel's Don Quixote even more than Grossman's. Raffel has done the new Chaucer, but here I am less welcoming: I think Chaucer's English should be enjoyed as it is--it's not that different from modern English and with a good glossary you can have fun.
Chapel Hill, NC (Audio Book Girl): Hi, Michael. Some non-fiction I've enjoyed recently: Speaking Frankly by the Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank -- though written 16 years ago, I found his arguments timely and cogent; The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson (audio) -- an interesting account of the cholera epidemic in London (1854); Larry McMurtry's Books: A Memoir -- I liked this more as the book progressed; he made me want to pay a visit to Archer City, TX... Re today's assignment: Translation is a sticky subject. I have a reading knowledge of French and Latin, but rely on translations for the most part. I guess my advice is what you yourself, Michael, have said often in this forum: try different translations and see if they speak to you. It comes down to what you want out of your reading experience. (This morning, I asked my husband, the Latin American Magical Realist Worshipper his thoughts on the subject. His reply: "Huh????" Sigh...)
Michael Dirda: I have heard that Garcia Marquez has said that he prefers Gregory Rabassa's English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude to his original Spanish. This is probably apocryphal. But I do know that G-M waited several years in order for Rabassa's schedule to free up so that he can take on the Solitude translation.
Chicago, IL: Mr. Dirda, last week you asked me to resubmit my question (Re: my dissatisfaction with translations of Anna Akhmatova). Here is a new version of it:
'Le Ton Beau de Marot' by Douglass Hofstadter is a remarkably comprehensive illustration of how difficult it is, if possible at all, to have a pair of largely equivalent short poems in two different languages. It's a story of a quest for translations of a lovely small French poem into English. The range of differences among the numerous English renditions featured in the book is remarkable indeed. I immensely enjoyed reading it.
I've read Richard Wilbur's translations of Moliere's 'Le Misanthrope' and 'Tartuffe', and thought them brilliant both technically and linguistically, Wilbur's 'Tartuffe' being superior to that by Donald M. Frame, which I found somewhat clumsy.
There are many translations of Alexander Pushkin's 'Eugene Onegin' (good info here: http:/
Let's consider Anna Akhmatova, for example, who wrote in Russian. Would it be proper for anyone with no command of the Russian language to claim that he actually read Akhmatova? Enjoyed Akhmatova?! Does reading the absolutely fantastic Edward Fitzgerald's 'Rubaiyatt of Omar Khayyam' make you knowledgeable of Omar Khayyam's work whatsoever? I've read the Russian translation of Khayyam's Rubai collection: it is unimpressive, has many more verses and in a different order (closer to the original, I presume). These two versions are so different that I was only able to easily match three quatrains -- less than 2 percent -- before giving up. Alas, I do not know any Persian.
I am always somewhat surprised to hear people say they just absolutely love Anton Chekhov, or Rabindranath Tagore, Czeslaw Milosz, Octavio Paz, etc.--all in English! These readers surely appreciate someone--why would they lie about it?--but... hmm...
Anyways, regardless of liking or disliking, good or bad: why is it often the case that the name of the author of the English text is routinely made incidental, a mere note often hidden somewhere inside the book, while the name of the foreign author--this book being ultimately but a shadow of his work--is paraded before a reader as that of the true author of what's inside? Is it fair to either of the three?
Michael Dirda: Many thanks for the long and intelligent comments. As I recall, Hofstadter is a big fan of the Falen translation of Eugene Onegin, and the Johnston is often viewed as the best of those done by a Brit. ARndt, I know, translated a bunch of other Pushkin material.
Translators have long had to live in the shadow of the books they make available for us. It's a pity, but it happens. A few do make it into the limelight: Arthur Waley, for instance, is revered for being the first to bring over so much Chinese and Japanese literature, and to do it in a profound, yet lyrical and personal way. Certainly Gregory Rabassa has received many plaudits for his work as have Donald Keene, William Weaver, and Richard Wilbur.
Of course, any translation is going to be something less than, or at least something different from, its original. But if we took your argument to heart, people would never read any foreign classics at all--and then where would we be?
Chekhov has been translated by many, many different people--and though there are differnces in the quality of the English versions they all, somehow, seem Chekhovian. So something does come through.
Annapolis, MD: I think translations are like performances of a piece of music. Each one is an interpretation, and each performer makes different choices that highlight different aspects or tones of the piece. We can compare them to each other, and even arrive at a preference. But the piece that they interpret is critical to our analysis of the performance.
I know people who adore Fagles' translation of Homer, who find it strong and moving and far superior to the odd-in-English hexameter and excessive lyricism of Lattimore's translation. And I know people who disdain Fagles as too colloquial and careless, and they prefer Lattimore's poetry for what it captures of Homer's original style. And I think both sides are right. You have to choose based on your needs and preferences.
I think the only truly poor translations are the ones that obscure the greatness of the original work. I wasn't thrilled with the first translation of Anna Karenina that I read, but even that one made it obvious that Tolstoy was a fine writer.
And a good translation can be a thing of beauty in its own right -- which calls the musical analogy to mind again. Sometimes, when we listen to a piece, we say, Wow, Ormandy was a great conductor, and sometimes we say, Wow, Bach was a great composer. In the same way, translations are a collaboration between the translator and the original writer; they must be judged as such -- and will be.
Michael Dirda: Lovely comment.
Houston, Texas: First off -- yes, I'm one of the very very lucky ones in Houston with power...
OK, my question. When I last visited the discussion I asked for recommendations for a big multi-volume book. I finally settled on Gibbon, and was enjoying it hugely when, after after the arrival of Sarah Palin on the scene etc., it occurred to me that reading Nixonland might be more...timely. (It is, and I'm enjoying this one as well.)
All of which leads to my question. How does one balance one's reading between the timely and the timeless? How does one find a balance between older books, new books, and, if there's only enough time, rereading favorite books?
Michael Dirda: A good question. Essentially, everyone finds his or her own balance. I think that when young we want to be part of our own generation, and so the emphasis tends to be on contemporary writers. As we age, we find ourselves drawn more to the classics--both because we want to read them while we still can and because a new generation has come along and ours is on the way out. This is also the time when we start to go back to the books we read when young that we particularly loved.
For me: my tendency is to go for older books every time, so I'm grateful that my job keeps me involved with contemporary writing.
Oakland, MD: I believe the George Stewart book you were trying to remember last week is Names On The Land. Also for the person seeking storm related books several weeks ago, I enjoyed Halsey's Typhoon. My father was on one of the ships mentioned in the book and I was surprised that not only had he not exaggerated, but if anything his stories were understated.
Michael Dirda: Thanks, and of course, there's always Conrad's Typhoon, as well.
Silver Spring, Md: We lost two true originals of American fiction last week - Gregory Mcdonald of "Fletch" fame and David Foster Wallace. What is your view of their work?
Michael Dirda: I won't comment any further on Wallace, but Mcdonald's Fletch and Flynn books--especially the first two or three of each--were quite wonderful light entertainments: terrific dialogue, fast moving plots, engaging and even endearing heroes. And yet, he gradually seemed to lose his magic. I remember reviewing once--almost 30 years ago-- a terrible book by GM called Love Among the Mashed Potatoes. Yes, that was really its title.
Washington, DC: With all the grim and angry news of the election, I'm looking for some good -light- fiction set in D.C. Any recommendations?
Michael Dirda: Yes, novels by Ross Thomas, such as The Cold-War Swap and Twilight at Mac's Place.
And folks, we're way beyond our time limits today. Sigh. Thanks for stopping by.
If anyone wants to write in about the program's cancellation, please address your email to Jim Brady at firstname.lastname@example.org
Until next Wednesday at 2, keep reading!
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