Translator’s notes are a great way to see into the mind and strategy of the translator. They’re usually positioned either at the start or the end of the translated work. Unfortunately, they’re not all that common these days, and there are signs that they are becoming even less common, just like putting the translator’s name on the cover of the book. The general modus operandi of the Anglophone literary sphere seems to be: translate as few works as possible, and pretend that they’re not translations in translation. Hide the translator’s name, reduce them to 8-point type on an inner page and don’t include any paratext from the translator. The reader does not want to be reminded that they are not reading the original. One of my most recent purchases, the Beggar and the Hare by Tuomas Kyrö and translated by David McDuff, includes a whole interview with the author at the end without mentioning which language it was recorded in or whether it was even translated. Sadly, it took a bit of clicking around to even find the translator’s name to write here: It’s not on the cover, it’s not anywhere on the Waterstones site including the available reading sample, it’s not on its Amazon page, either.
So, I’ve been burrowing around my bookshelf to find examples of translator’s notes from a small variety of books, languages and styles, to find out what the translators are writing about their own translations.
Timur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch
This is the most recent novel featured in this article, first published in Great Britain in 2014. I’ve read it in both the German and English, and I absolutely loved it. The premise is shocking yet simple: what if Hitler woke up in Berlin in 2012?
Unsurprisingly, this novel contains a wealth of specific historical and cultural references, mainly to big names in the German military or Nazi politics during the Third Reich and Second World War. Knowing what I know now about the tentativeness of British publishers to specifically ‘foreign’ books with lots of foreignness, I am surprised it even got translated. Jamie Bulloch attempts to address the British reader’s lack of knowledge in his translator’s note. He doesn’t say anything about his technique or style, or anything about the specific difficulties of translating a modern Hitler satire, but instead attempts to explain the various unknown figures and references in the book, from historical to modern, and from political figures to modern-day German stand-up comics given a dressing-down in the novel.
He also attempts to explain the multitude of acronyms used in the book. Germans LOVE acronyms for anything and everything they can use them for, so it was humorous to see my own observations reflected here by Bulloch. from NSDAP to CDU, the German acronym fixation has not lessened over the decades.
Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest, translated from the German by Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers
Fontane’s slow-moving classic is Marmite to the German student, if Germans had Marmite. I absolutely adored this book, and got one of the highest-marking essays ever received from our most mercurial lecturer. Other students and teachers I have spoken to hate the book with a fiery passion, calling it slow, obtuse and boring. I guess we’re all right in the end.
Interestingly enough, both translators are treated to a short biography on the inside front page. I couldn’t imagine this happening with a modern work of translated fiction. This makes me wonder: did we used to celebrate translators more? Has something changed since 1995? I can’t answer this question definitively, but it would certainly make for a good research project.
Of all four notes examined here, this translator’s note is the most ‘classic’ in form and style. In a translator’s note, the student expects to read a list of the difficulties experienced during the translation process, and the solutions the translator or translators arrived at. You would also expect an explanation of the differences between the source language and target language histories and cultures, which is also covered here. Chambers doesn’t hold back in her praise of the book, calling it ‘the greatest realist novel in German literature’, and doesn’t hold back in her criticisms of previous translations either, which ‘failed to render vital aspects’.
Chambers asserts that she has modernised the text and dialogue slightly to keep the ‘natural feel of the conversation’. She justifies this by pointing out that the effect of Fontane’s novel on German contemporaries would have been ‘anything but old-fashioned’. I suppose this means the translators were aiming for an equal effect on the modern English audience as the contemporary German audience when the book was first published, which is certainly a noble effort, but not an achievable one. However, I do think there is a case for updating the language of books as long as the reader is not lead to forget their historical setting. As with anything else, it’s a balancing act.
The translators also bemoan what I often bemoan with German: the vastly different sentence structures and word orders mean there is an unavoidable destruction of rhythm in the target text:
The difficulties in translating, or not translating, titles and forms of address is also covered. I like how they left specific proper nouns such as Landrat well alone, otherwise there would have been a house-of-cards situation where, in replacing one specifically German institution with an English equivalent (such as District Council for Landrat), the translators soon would have had to have replaced them all.
The same exultation of loyalty to the text can be seen in almost any translator’s note, with Chambers stating that they have fulfilled the requirements of the reader ‘who seeks a reliable rendering of the original’. Translators are usually careful not to admit if they have taken a freer approach, as the English reader will then assume that more must be ‘wrong’, as if it’s a sliding scale. In translation as in any marriage, fidelity is prized above freedom.
Chambers also covers the untranslatability of humour, stating that ‘the puns in Chapters 17 and 23 were untranslatable’. Very strong wording, but humour is fiendishly difficult to try to carry across in any meaningful sense of the word.
They finish on a testament to how the translation process helped them to gain ‘new insights into the fine detail of how the text works’, which I think no translator can refute.
Alice im Wunderland, Translated from the English by Christian Enzensberger
This translation isn’t all that fresh either, first published in 1980. He includes a fairly long afterword at the end, but which surprisingly doesn’t mention much about the translation process itself. His only nod to the difficulties of translating satirical Victorian nonsense literature come at the end, in the ‘Humour’ section. Enzensberger acknowledges that much of the humour in the text comes from its satirical mirroring of Victorian British society, with its strict rules and hierarchies. Only when the reader understands what it being mirrored do they understand that it is humorous when everything is suddenly turned upside down. I found this incredibly insightful and it made me want to re-read the text in German to figure out how he’d gotten around all of this. There’s not much mention of his problem-solving here, other than to state that the precision with which Lewis Carroll achieves this mirroring becomes the ‘desperation of every translator’ (zur Verzweifelung jedes Übersetzers werden muß).
Enzensberger refers to some of the changes he made to make the text more understandable to the German reader. He changes William the Conqueror, an unknown figure in Germany, to Napoleon, and the Menai Bridge to the Eiffel Tower. Personally, even as an English woman, I had to Google the Menai Bridge before I discovered that it’s in Wales. He admits that, at the time of publishing in 1865, the Eiffel Tower didn’t even exist yet (it wasn’t built until 1887-1889), but, he says, ‘who wants to look it up in the lexicon first and then laugh?’ (wer will zuerst im Lexikon nachschlagen und danach noch lachen?).
He ends with a note on how Carroll’s peculiarly English humour can also cause German readers to laugh at their own expense, hinting at universalities of the human condition.
Beowulf, translated by Howard D. Chickering, Jr.
This is the oldest translator’s note I found, as this translation was first published in 1977. The text is also unique in this list for many reasons. The authors or author of the original poem are not known. Therefore, it’s impossible to overshadow the translator here. This work is also ancient, around a thousand years old, although the story or parts of the story may have been told orally long before it was first written down. A name like Howard D. Chickering, Jr tells me we’re certainly dealing with an old school academic here, with an ego to suit. With most translated literature, there’s a distinct lack of translator’s paratexts, but this was not the case for Beowulf. There was almost too much to choose from here. There’s a preface, introduction, guide to reading aloud, a textual note, a background, a commentary, and an afterword. I skimmed around and discovered that the preface looks the most like a classic translator’s note.
The usual reason for translation is cited: making the text available for readers who do not know the source language, in this case Old English. He cites a huge number of translation problems in the preface, so I will list them here for brevity:
- The huge temporal distance between original and translation means that any rendering invariably sounds ‘quaint’ (Absolutely, the time is coming where we’ll have to decide whether or not to translate Shakespeare).
- Beowulf is so rich in meaning that no one Modern English version can capture them all.
- It was impossible to preserve the ‘clangor and magnificence’ of the original Anglo Saxon, ‘the very sound of its sense’.
- Beowulf was composed to be heard aloud, any translator has to take that into consideration. It has a highly sophisticated ‘sound texture’ and the translator should endeavour for the target text to also sound best when read aloud.
- The translation keeps pace with the original every five lines, resulting in an inevitable loss of nuances of meaning.
- He has reduced the instances of alliteration in the target text so as not to ‘stupefy the most ardent reader’. (Yes, devices such as alliteration are hard to preserve across languages because of the difference in word groups, but I hope he at least tried to keep some of the alliteration because of its importance when reading aloud).
- He has preserved the stress form of the original Old English lines with a caesura in the middle, resulting in some parataxis and which ‘give some inkling of the craggy sentence structure of the original’.
- He bemoans that he was unable to preserve the ‘flamboyant, highly connotative vocabulary of the Old English’. (I would raise a finger of dissent here, as any language has a wealth of vocabulary, the translator just has to come to terms with the fact that it sounds different and has a different rhythm or flavour across languages.)
- The epic nature of Beowulf means that it’s easy for a Modern English translation to sound overblown. Chickering has therefore attempted to capture the original’s restraint and brevity with words. (I would definitely agree here).
- The fact that the literal meaning of many Anglo Saxon words are doubted and debated did not make his life any easier. (Agreed. Nobody helpfully wrote an Anglo-Saxon dictionary in the 5th century, updated it regularly and preserved it in sand, so we’ll never know the ‘true’ meanings of some words, just as others can have multiple conflicting meanings which are still hotly debated by academics. Translating from ancient languages is not a walk in the park.)
- Much of the literary and cultural content, including connotations and references, have been lost to the Modern English reader, creating gaps in our knowledge which cannot easily be filled. Even scholars do not know every name and reference in the poem. In order to fill the biggest gaps, Chickering included a commentary after the poem. (I do really appreciate him for putting it at the end instead of filling the poem itself with footnotes like some academics).
- Re-reading is essential with a poem like Beowulf, both for readers and translators. (Agreed. We cannot pretend to know what was going on in Anglo-Saxon lore and the early medieval psyche on the first read).
There are the usual references to fidelity: ‘giving the plain sense of the original’, reflecting ideas about translation which were current at the time, and still plague translators in lay reviews to this day, but from which the field of translation studies has taken a decided step away since the 1990s. He does, however, acknowledge that sometimes a literal translation would have been unclear, and at these points he has rendered the ‘intended meaning as I see it’ in a nod to his subjectivity.
He acknowledges that a Modern English reader still may find Beowulf difficult, but that Anglo Saxon listeners probably also found the poem difficult to decipher at times. This does seem like a get-out-of-jail-free card, but what great work of literature made for light reading?