THE TRANSLATOR'S VOICE:AN INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD HOWARD
By Paul Mann
In the past twenty-five years, Richard Howard has published translations of more than 150 French books, works of fiction, drama, history, biography, and literary theory and criticism.The list includes many of the most important writers and works of the twentieth century:André Breton's Nadja, several novels by Alain Robbe-Grillet, André Gide's The Immoralist, plays by Jean Giraudoux, Gilles Deleuze's Proust and Signs, Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization, works by Roland Barthes and E. M. Cioran, and General De Gaulle's memoirs, to name only a few.This spring, David Godine will publish Richard Howard's first extended poetry translation, the complete Fleurs du mal by Baudelaire.
Richard Howard is also one of our most accomplished poets, with seven volumes to his credit one of which--Untitled Subjects-- was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.He is a distinguished critic of American poetry; many of his essays on post-war American poets are collected in his book, Alone with America, which was recently reissued in a revised, expanded form.He is a past president of PEN and an active member of the PEN Translation Committee; he has been poetry editor of Shenandoah and a founder of the Braziller Poetry Series.In addition to his Pulitzer Prize, Richard Howard has also been awarded the PEN Translation Prize and Award of Merit of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and has been made a Chevalier de l'Ordre National du Mérite by the French government.His contribution to American and international letters is, clearly, enormous.
The following conversation took place in July 1981 at Santa Cruz, California, where Richard Howard was on the faculty of the University of California at Santa Cruz Summer Translation Institute.
How did you begin translating?
I first translated for myself and friends--as Gertrude Stein says she wrote for herself and strangers.I had read some books I knew I loved, and I wanted to share them with my friends who couldn't read French.My friends would come over and I would make them dinner and after dinner I would read aloud.The pleasure in translating these books was equaled, I thought, by the pleasure in communicating them.My friends may have been doing it all for the sake of my blanquette de veau but I thought it was for the sake of the Giraudoux that came after.Years later I sold those translations to publishers and they came out as books.
At what point did translating become a profession?
One of those friends was an editor, and when several French books came his way he felt I would be the right person.I translated those for him, and then the De Gaulle memoirs appeared, and my friend asked me to undertake their translation.It was not exactly a literary assignment but it was a professional one of some importance; for one's career--at that time I didn't have a career--it was a valuable thing to have done.At the same moment there was a historical accident:Grove Press was founded.I became, as it were, the house translator for Grove Press, initially with the Robbe-Grillet novels, for which I was one of several people to compete; samples were submitted, and mine was selected.
They solicited samples from several people?
Is that a common practice?
No, but it was felt in t his case that the work was a matter of some intricacy and they wanted to make sure they had a translator who understood it.I think they were correct to do so; Robbe-Grillet poses special problems and there's no use having to re-work everything because a translator doesn't understand the text.Becoming the house translator for Grove Press meant about fifteen books over the next few years, so that I became an engaged translator--readily, easily.
Was there any thought at the beginning of the kind of advice Pound gave, that translating is good practice for a writer?
No.They were separate activities.I knew that I enjoyed being a writer and a translator at the same time, though the two activities were not continuously practiced together.I found it impossible to be much of a writer when I was much of a translator.But they didn't seem to get in each other's way if they could replace or dissociate themselves from one another in time.I didn't feel, as Auden said, that a literary career is best practiced if you aren't doing something intellectual.I liked doing literary translation and I think it was valuable for me to do it.I don't think it ever got in the way.Certainly what I did feel as that my nine-to-five job as a lexicographer did get in the way of being a writer.I found that my energies were pretty much skimmed off the top of writing into lexicography in a way that didn't happen with translation.It wasn't always stimulating, but I don't think it was exhausting in the same way as a nine-to-five job.
Were there any positive effects from having worked as a lexicographer?
Surely.The language passed through my hands word by word twice (I was a definer).What I learned from reading was now being confirmed and corrected in terms of vocabulary and usage.One learned a great deal of quaint and curious lore.One also went through a lot of drudgery--to the point of dentistry, but I am grateful to lexicography, insofar as I practiced it, for inculcating or at least suggesting habits of precision and concern with the quality of language on a level that is very important for both poetry and translation, an exacting feeling for the physical shape and size and movement of words as well as for their sense.
Could you describe your techniques of translating?Do you have set procedures?
They are not set, but they are generalized.I read the work through first.There has always been one complete reading of the work; not a scholarly reading--it doesn't mean I have already looked up all the references--that usually happens as you're proceeding through it.But I think you don't translate a work until you know what the last word of it is.While you're reading it--which is really the first translation, in your mind's eye, or your mind's ear--you're thinking, how would this sound in English, how would I do that?And you make some notes, maybe, some cybernetic set of the kind of prose you're looking for.I'm talking about most of the texts that a professional translator is asked to work on, prose discourse of one kind or another, imaginative or discursive.I'm not talking about poetry.In all of these cases, the reading of the work is the initial draft.As you are going through it, you get certain notions of what you want, what you don't want, other translated or original works in English that you have read and that remind you of this one.If you happen to be reading Faulkner and someone says to you, we want you to translate Claude Simon, then you're in luck, because you've found your great exemplar.Especially for the early Claude Simon; for the later Simon it would be more important to have read Proust.And Proust does not have a great English avatar, so that wouldn't be helpful.But if you wanted to translate The Wind, Faulkner would have been an essential acquisition.I was lucky enough to have been reading Absalom, Absolom when The Wind came my way.One doesn't always find a one-to-one correspondence like that; it happened that Simon had read Faulker, had assimilated him....There are other writers for whom you want to find a great model, but it doesn't always happen.You sometimes have to invent your own model.Sometimes there are masterly books of prose whose quality in English you have never quite located, and you have to invent it, or propose it, without ever knowing what it is that you're trying to approximate.That is a very difficult kind of translation.It's better if it fulfills some pre-existing idea of literature, some notion of what kind of writing this is.
Did you have any help in this manner on the Baudelaire?
No, it was mostly negative; I knew very well what I didn't want to sound like.I didn't want the Naughty 'Nineties Satanism of Arthur Symons, and I didn't want to sound like Edna Millay or Roy Campbell.It was much more a matter of what to avoid.I knew I wanted to avoid the kind of tweaking rhymes Baudelaire has so far called forth in English.Terrible illustrations of what Pope said--and he ought to have known:We hang a jingling padlock on the mind.I didn't want to catch Baudelaire up in those distorted notions of rhyme.So I have done an unrhymed translation of Baudelaire in which I hope that the qualities of rhyme that inhere in the French are transferred to rhythm, interval, and assonance, devices that will substitute and in some way compensate for the missing chime.
Do you check your translations with other readers, other informants?
Yes, constantly.For instance there is my friend David Alexander, who not knowing French reads all the translations through merely as texts in English, to see if they sound "funny," if there's something that's not getting through--and there often is.You can hypnotize yourself so readily, because you know the French, into thinking you have rendered some aspect of it which is there in your own mind but not there in your own English.That's the first reading:by someone who knows no French and who reads the completed translation as a text in English.His suggestions are braided back into the text and accommodated pretty thoroughly.I don't feel justified, in most cases, in discarding his objections.I feel they are the objections of a disinterested reader.Then the text is read by Sarah Saint-Onge,my editor at Godine, who knows French very well, and Baudelaire especially.Her questions are almost always based on my departures from the French:Haven't you gone too far here, aren't you forgetting your great original, isn't this perhaps too much of a liberty?And I try to get back to the French--back inside it.Sometimes it's rather a scramble.But she is very helpful and I try to accommodate all her criticisms as well.The third reader is a divided reader:it's the community of poets and prose writers who are my friends, who have some familiarity with Baudelaire but who are mostly readers of modern literature.The book will be read by James Merrill, by Sanford Friedman, by Howard Moss, by John Hollander, and by two or three others.They will read the whole manuscript and all of their notes will come to me as a kind of general response to the entire piece as a poet's translation of a poet read by other poets and writers.Here I feel freer to--not ignore--but to override objections.Of course every time you show a manuscript of one hundred and seventy-five poems to somebody, there will be yet more questioning.Even here at Santa Cruz, as we worked on certain poems in class, I felt that I wanted to go back and change my translations, that there were things wrong with them, and that I'd like to accommodate insights the students proposed.And I will do that to some extent.But it's a nerve-wracking job, this constant suspension of finitude--the notion that the text is never really finished, only, as Valéry says, abandoned.There obviously comes a point when you have to make some kind of concession to publishers' necessities as well as to your own patience, a point when you stop, when you can do no more.But for the moment I am very much in a liquid consistence, where nothing is set, nothing is form, and I can still make changes in every poem.It's a jumpy time.
How do you choose texts to translate?
Ideally, love.There are other answers.After all, once you've translated a lot of books you are known to have translated them, and you are asked to translate others.Fortunately I'm now in a position where I pretty much choose among the things that are proposed to me.In fact, more is proposed to me now than I can do; it used to be the other way around.And chickens I hatched many years ago have now come home to roost.Books that I longed to translate, and that have remained untranslated all these years--largely I think because other people were too unconcerned to undertake them--have lately been proposed to me, and in some cases I will be able to translate them.But they constitute problems that should have faced me when I was a younger man.I'm appalled to find I must now come to grips with enterprises that seemed an awfully good idea when I was thirty-five, but no longer quite. . . .
I'm going to be translating a great book, called Les Rivages des Syrtes, by Julien Gracq.A book that won the Prix Goncourt (which Monsieur Gracq turned down--something that had never been done in the history of French prize-giving).It's a great European novel in the grand tradition--something Stendhalian about it, something Wagnerian about its mythical setting in seventeenth-century Italy and about its preoccupations with political corruption and erotic invasion.It's a beauty.I often proposed this book, but never with any success, back in the 'Sixties, after I'd translated a book called A Balcony in the Forest.I believe it is Gracq's great achievement.The prose is very high, very elaborate.A new publisher has come along and wants to do it.And we will.But I'm quite surprised that I'm suddenly faced with translating this book at a time when I no longer expected to be taking on a brand-new, bit affair like this.I thought I would go on with the few writers I still translate--Barthes, Cioran--and would let the rest go hang except for the sort of obsessive literary project that I might want to do, like the Baudelaire or the Racine.
What is the Racine project?
The Racine project is very close to my heart, hugged close there for many, many years of reading Racine, attending performances of Racine, and being aware that Racine in English is like an offer of the last straw.But I have, like everyone else, a theory, and if you will smile at such a notion, at least I have the comfort of knowing that I smile with you.My theory is that, although it is possible to translate Racine into "English verse--even, as Richard Wilbur is doing, into rhymed English verse--no such version in performance will proc\duce an effect equivalent to what we get from performances of Racine in French.We lose all notions of intensity, speed and movement, which are so characteristic, so powerful when we see those plays in French.An extended English verse translation produces little but, I believe, longueurs. Even Richard Wilbur's translation of Andromache, which constitutes so fine a reading experience--especially when he reads it aloud; but in the mouths of American actors, I dread the consequence.Now as for my theory:I have a notion that Racine can be put on the stage in such a way as to be intense, rapid and, as the French say, mouvementé.So I'm trying it.I'm making an experiment.Brittanicus will be performed at SUNY Purchase next winter, in the version I've concocted; as you have guessed, it is in prose.A kind of cadenced prose, with its own elegance and I hope its own "classicism."In any case, I believe it will take about an hour and forty-five minutes to perform, as opposed to a translation of the work into Alexandrines or even into iambic pentameter.
Why would a translator and poet of your accomplishments have translated so little poetry?Why do you work almost exclusively in prose?
I haven't wanted to translate poetry because I write it.Because I write it and have worked on French translations of my own poems, I have felt the impatience and indeed the mounting impossibility of the task, and didn't wish to indenture myself to such a fruitless procedure.However, there have been, along the way, compensations, hesitations, and I have translated a few poems here and there, even some poems by Baudelaire for somebody's textbook.In the case of St.-John Perse, not only some individual poems, which he saw and liked, but then a whole book, his last book, Song for an Equinox.That was poetry bit, I might point out, not poetry in verse.Perse is prose.
Could you speak more about the impossibility of translating poetry?
As a poet, a reader of poetry, I'm interested in what the line does, in its quality.And since it's almost impossible to translate the line in most poetry, one is not translating poetry at all, one is translating what the poetry says, which is a very different thing.One is translating the myth of the poem.I have found, however, in working on Baudelaire, that a great deal could be done.This was because it was all formal verse, and one could at least invent a formal verse of one's own that was providing some sort of disciplined movement; some kind of order was replacing an order that was surrendered--in this case, the order of rhymed verse.I don't think I would be very happy translating any other poetry, and I doubt if I'll be doing it.
What do you think of the classic argument between strict "literalness" and, say, Lowell's Imitations?
I'm not happy about either argument in its extremity, but I suppose if compelled to choose I'd tend toward the literal.I don't like imitations.I don't like the tendency toward versions, toward collaborative translations--that effort which has bequeathed the language that distressing noun, "literal"....The notion that you get this archaeologist to do a literal of Naujatl or Navajo or something, and then you come along with your up-to-date expensive poetical equipment and you versify and fix up and you smooth out or shellac or in some way lubricate this crummy thing, this literal, and turn it into a poem.Great things have been done with it, as in Merwin's case, but maybe he's the only one.Other poets do it, and I'm distressed by the results...I feel like Willard Trask at that translator's conference.A certain poet was telling us how he had stayed among the Navajos for four months, learning all their wonderful poetical devices, glottal clicks and certain inflections for making a list or talking about events in a certain tense.This poet had extracted these structures from the Navajo language and was using them in the construction and performance of his own English poetry.After he had finished his very impressive and rather eloquent exposition, Willard Trask--probably the dean of American translators at that time--stood up at the back of the room and said, "You lived among the Navajos for four months?"And the poet said, "Yes, yes I did.""And you found all these features in their idiom?""Yes, I did, and I'm very grateful.""Well why didn't you learn their fucking language?"I feel that way about imitations, versions, literals.Dubious measures.They sometimes accomplish fine things, and that's why I'm not resolved about this matter.But I feel that they are ways out of translation rather than ways into it.I'm much more interested in the kid of translation that is done by one man facing a text, determining its quality in the language in which it was written, and producing out of his artistic instinct a response to it which is his own.
Have you worked in languages other than French?
Yes.I read three other languages and feel comfortable enough about them to attempt translations.I did a dozen Borges poems with a native speaker at my elbow; his name appears on the translations with mine, though I think he was merely there in an advisory capacity.I loved translating those Borges poems but I would not have felt easy about translating them if there had not been someone there to remind me of certain responsibilities which, as a Spanish reader, I do not acquit myself of easily.I've done a little translating from German and Italian, but I'm not comfortable in these languages, even though I read them fairly well.I think you have to be inventive on the speaking level.
Do you find translation theory of any use?
Any translator's notes on his work help a great deal:Arrowsmith on translating Petronius or--superbly--Euripides; Lattimore on the Iliad, Fagles on Aeschylus; those really sustain me.I would rather read the work of the man who has done translation than any amount of translation theory.Even Benjamin, even Nabokov.Gide remarks that while he was translating Hamlet--an obsessive and not very successful task--he wished he had kept a journal of the undertaking, as he did a journal of writing The Counterfeiters.He as sure that his journal of translating Hamlet would have been just as interesting and as much a part of his translation of Hamlet as his journal of The Counterfeiters is a part of that work.The notion of process which accompanies product is a very important modern one, and I suppose we all feel rather convinced by it.I would like to know what Mr. Kilmartin's thoughts were on revising the Scott-Moncrieff translation of Proust; I'm sure that would be very helpful, at least to me, as a translator.Maybe not to a reader.I don't think that discussion of translation is very interesting outside the community of translators, if that phrase isn't a contradiction in terms.I don't much like to talk shop with people who are not in that community.I think most people read books without even being aware that they are translated.When I go to someone's house and there are books, I like to moon along the shelves--and usually there are five or ten books that I've translated, and I'll pull them out and say, "Oh yes, you have these, I enjoyed translating them."And they'll say, "Oh, I never noticed"--friends, people who know me--"I never realized you translated that."Most people read books without realizing that the translator is part of the process, and I think that's a compliment.You can be content not to be regarded as an obstacle, when your name has not been mentioned or noticed.
You were speaking before about analogous voices.Do you encounter situations where the cultural set of France is so radically different from anything in America that there is no analogue?
Yes, frequently.Especially in modern literature.Then you really are forced back upon all kinds of impromptus and expediencies; and sometimes you have enough wit to come up with something and sometimes you don't.For instance, I have very little talent for lowlife--I would not be the right person to translate Céline, and I have never tried to do so, nor wished to do so.Ralph Manheim, on the other hand, really has the right sow by the ear.You feel, when you're reading North or From Castle to Castle--the latter, one of my favorites--that he really knows how the prose moves, how it works in English.I don't know whether Manheim found or needed an analogue, but at least his text has the quality of English that feels, as one reads it, at the ready.I couldn't do any such thing, and I know it.At least I can make sure that my translations have some kind of conviction to offer if I don't undertake books I don't feel I am comfortable with from the start.This is not entirely a copout.There are times when one knows that this is going to be a tremendous challenge and a difficulty and one still undertakes it, for the very reason that one wishes to be pushed, to reach a little bit, to get beyond.I've done a couple of books on such an assumption--not necessarily first-rate books, but knowing they would demand more of me than I had previously undertaken:a book by Claude Mauriac called The Marquisee Went Out at Five, and a book just published called Tricks, by Renaud Camus, which involved a kind of social pornography, soft-core pornography.I enjoyed translating Camus' book because it called upon me to do things I had never done before.I knew I could do them, but they were not easy for me.
Why is pornography particularly difficult to translate?
Some pornography is easier to translate because it's high pornography.I can do that.I can't do la basse pornographie.Almost all of our language that has to do with the body and its functions is problematic.The French language accommodates the corporal without judging it--it deals with the body quite readily.The French have a verb, se figer:Baudelaire talks about lesang qui se fige, and one has real difficulty deciding between drying, stiffening, clotting, caking, whatever blood does.In English we frequently miss the right word for what the body does, or the right descriptive word for the body and its organs, so that much pornography is lowered into the gutter or sidelined into the laboratory by our necessities in English.I mentioned this in an article twenty years ago and I still think it's the case.I wish there had been more work done on the matter, and I don't think what has been done has been very helpful.
Are there any untranslatable works?
I used to think so, but now I'm not at all certain.The minute you announce that something is untranslatable, it's always translated.Of course, some of these translations merely prove the point.
What have you found most difficult to translate?
Everything.All translation is impossible.In the case of every text, you come to feel, at some point or other, that you're just not good enough, that you can't do it; there are always insoluble problems.There are also moments of great fulfillment, moments of release when you feel you have moved inside language--when the language itself is doing the work.That's the reason to go on translating.I enjoy translating certain texts more than others, but I don't feel that certain texts have been harder than others, because they are all hard.
What have you most enjoyed translating?
I've been translating since 1955, when I first began those amateur translations for my friends, and I really think I've learned something, that I'm better than I was.Having translated a good deal, I'm in a better position to know how to do it now than I was twenty years ago.I'm happier with the works that I've translated recently, even though sometimes they are done more cynically.Sometimes they don't have the passionate commitment of the young man vehemently in love with literature.I've noticed that some students here this summer are not yet really professionally competent, but they have the taste and the passion to do something really impressive.There's no substitute for that.I may no longer have it in every case.But I think that I have the knowledge and the discernment to do something interesting in a different sense.I like the translations I've done in the last ten years better than the ones that I did twenty years ago, although my thirst for otherness may have declined, even as my accomplishments may have intensified.
Are there any projects that you're particularly anxious to take on?
If Brittanicus works, if this play performed on the stage attracts an audience, then I would like to do some more Racine plays.There are at least four out of the twelve that I would like to translate.But I don't want to go on translating much more.There was amoment there, ten years ago, when it seemed likely that an occasion to retranslate Proust would fall my way, but now I'm more or less grateful that it didn't.It would have meant ten years of doing nothing but that, at the very least.I'm sure I would have come to hate Proust; at least I've been spared that.
In your article, "A Professional Translator's Trade Alphabet," you stated that translations of French writing are made for people who do not read French, and should be judged from that perspective.The implication might be that translators of French literature are in some sense disqualified from reading other translations.
When I wrote that I hadn't read Walter Benjamin, who says just the opposite--that the translator works only for people who know what his problems are, who can read the French and therefore are considering the problems at every moment.I still think I'm right, commercially speaking, in regard to how books should be reviewed, but probably wrong in terms of the way literary texts are ultimately accommodated by the culture.
Do you value translators' criticism of your own work?
It's wonderful, if you can get past the vanity of the affair.It's wonderful to have certain errors and assumptions pointed out, charged to one's account.Often you can forget what you've been doing.You're so busy doing it that you really don't know.On a few occasions translators have reviewed things that I have done, pointed out both my mistakes and my assumptions, and once I got past licking the wounds it was very valuable.I learned a lot from it and I hope I was able to go on with renewed capacities.Now with the Baudelaire I really am going to feel quod scripsi scripsi; I hope to be not too much battered around for it.I feel that what I have done is valuable not so much for what it is as for what I am; I know other decisions could be made--there are other alternatives--but here is the whole text passed through one mind and sensibility and, as it were, one apparatus; that has to be taken as a given.There is one kind of criticism of such a text that can be made, a kind of criticism I will enjoy and value.But there is another kind that is quite simply irrelevant to the fact that certain decisions have been made, that a writer with a certain orientation, a certain amount of experience, a certain frappe, has decided to make this particular version of Baudelaire.I hope to be spared that second kind of criticism.
Do you enjoy reading translations from French?
I notice that other translators say they never read translations.I'm always astonished by that.I read them all the time, not so much from a wrist-slapping point of view as might be supposed, but because I admire what other people can do.It seems to me they can do things I cannot, and I'm very curious about it.I read as many translations from French as I can find, and of course I'm constantly reading translations from other languages, especially languages I don't know, like Japanese, Russian, Greek.
Can you think of any particularly successful translations from French?
Merwin's Song of Roland.Francis Steegmuller's Bovary.Manheim's Céline, as I said.Some of Gerard Hopkins' Mauriac. . . .
Is there such a thing as a definitive translation?
No.Translations always date and great works never do.Most works should be translated again every twenty-five years.The advantages of period style, which translations sometimes have, as in the case of the first translation of Proust, are usually outweighed by the increasing gap that exists between the translator's venture and the writer's, which are really two different things.Most successive translations of a work attempt to move closer and closer to the original.They can never do so; there's an asymptotic relationship between the translation and the original; the translation is doomed to be forever tangent.But most later translations are improvements.The translations we're reading of Tolstoy and Turgenev now are much better than the old translations.There's a great argument for Constance Garnett:she created a period style that made us feel we were really reading nineteenth-century Russian discourse, but it all sounds the same.She makes Dostoevsky sound like Tolstoy and Turgenev sound like Gogol.And we know that isn't the case; we know that those writers are vastly different from one another.The new translations of those writers are much more sensitive to the writer's individuality--an individuality we didn't used to think Russian literature possessed.It was just "the Russians" in 1900, and now as we approach 2000 I think we have learned to feel that there's as much distinction between Turgenev and Dostoevsky as there is between Voltaire and Rousseau.
Are there any exceptions?The classic example of a definitive translation is, of course, the King James Bible.
It's a good example and I'd like to enlarge on it a little bit.The King James Bible was produced at what Patrick Cruttwell calls "the Shakespearean moment," the period that lasts two men's lifetimes:from Marlowe to Marvell.It's not very long, but it is the moment when the language seems to have been able to accommodate both its most intimate and its most heroic stretch.The King James Bible is, of course, within that moment.It is on one hand the great example of translation by committee, and on the other of translation at a moment when the language itself seemed to be in a position to accommodate more possibilities than at any other time.Subsequent translations of the Bible are more accurate and give us much more information about what the Bible is saying, but they are not satisfactory as linguistic accomplishments compared to the King James.That is because of the historical moment at which the work was translated, when the state of the language affords us a certain intrinsic satisfaction.
Could you speak about your relationship with the work of Roland Barthes?
It's such a pleasure to talk about him, and such a regret.We were friends since 1956, when I met him . . . his second book, Mythologies, had just appeared.He brought it with him to America.He was teaching that summer in Middlebury, and couldn't speak any English, and was somewhat lost.So a mutual friend told him to look me up in New York, and the friendship began then, and lasted until he died in 1979.Translating the last book he saw through press, the book on photography was so painful.Sometimes there would be questions . . . I used to pick up the phone--it was expensive but worth it--and call Paris and ask what to do about this or that.I remember, there was a quote in one of his books from Hobbes, and I asked him where the hell it came from--so I wouldn't have to translate it from French.He didn't know; he had only read it in French, quoted in something else.He said, "Oh just make up something that sounds Hobbesian."We never could find the quote, splendid as it was, so we kept it in there, a made-up thing.And I remember, in the photography book episodes and places where I was simply bewildered, and I remember thinking:well, I'll just call Roland and ask him, and then I would remember that he was dead.This had been a dialogue that had gone on for over twenty years, and it was an astonishment to discover that it had ceased because of a laundry truck.Barthes is a writer who abandoned more and more of the legalistic and the systematic and the institutionalized, and committed himself more and more to his responsibilities as a writer and to his pleasures as a person.As a consequence I think the books become more and more attractive and valuable and, in a sense, wise, as well as humble.I'm very happy to have been associated with them.
Do you think it's particularly important to have an affinity with the work you're translating?
But you've done so many books, is it possible to have had an affinity with all of them?
Pretty much.I've made some mistakes.But I'm not going to specify.Enough to say that I know what they are.My sympathies are wide, especially with literature.I like different kinds of literature, and it hasn't been hard to be a translator of what I like.As Liza Doolittle said in another connection, it's been mother's milk to me.
Is it to a translator's advantage to work together with a living writer?
It's a mixed bag.If you can pick up the phone and ask a writer what the hell he meant, that helps a lot, sometimes.And sometimes I think it's better just to be involved with the text.D. H. Lawrence said never trust the teller.I think translators feel never trust the tale, never trust the teller--trust the telling.Ultimately I think you are left alone with the text and nothing else, not the writer, not what he meant, but what you think the words mean.Naturally, one is subject to correction.
does your friendship with Barthes or with any writer--your knowledge of his personal mannerisms, his vocal inflections, etc.--inform the voice you create for him?
Sometimes.But not so much as literary understanding and sympathy with the work, and having some discretionary power:being able to put it away, the way you say a tennis player "puts away" certain shots.I think that quality--a capacity to take an executive stance toward the language--is crucial.The French have a word which I've never found a translation for, the word frappe--when you mint a coin and it has a certain stamp on it, it has a frappe.You want to give the language a minted quality, a sense that it has passed through a certain process that has left a specific frappe upon it.Sometimes a translator who does not know the writer will be able to do that in a way that I, having heard the writer's voice in real life, might miss, because I'm too caught up in memory and nostalgic association, rather than "minting" the words on the page.The words are what the writer put there and wanted to be translated.That frappe.
You remarked in "Trade Alphabet" that translators tend to be extremely isolated from one another.Has this situation improved in the twenty years since you wrote that essay?
Yes.In the time that I've been involved with PEN, partly as its president and partly as a member of the translation committee, I have seen the growth of a community of translators.As first we were all very gingerly and suspicious of each other.But relationships among these twenty or thirty translators have developed from suspicion and mistrust to at least cheerful encounter and rather grateful sharing, not of trade secrets, of banausics, but of professional attitudes:dealing with publishers, dealing with writers, dealing with the public.All that has been very rewarding.We don't talk about how we deal with texts, but all the rest of it--the unimportant part--has been shared and enjoyed.I think such good cheer is new to the field, at least in New York, and good for the translators.
Any other comments on the professional situation?
Sometimes the beginner is made to feel that the field is full, that there's no room for the new translator, the next translator.This is not so.Anyone who has genuine gifts and a commitment to bringing a loved text into English is not only welcome but needed.
What advice would you give to such a new translator?
Proceed on the basis of your enthusiasm, your commitment to the text.Translate a sample.Get it around to publishers.If you have an authentic gift, I am certain you will get your work published.
Translation Review, Volume 9, 1982.