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The Making of a Translator: An Interview with Helen R. Lane

Helen Lane

By Ronald Christ

If, as Alfred Knopf has dubbed him, Gregory Rabassa is the Pope of Translators, then Helen R. Lane is the Empress--not Holy Roman, of course, but with a domain undiminished by any challenge such as arose from that earlier, dissimilar Pope Gregory (or from any modern Pope Joan, for that matter). To read Helen Lane's collected works--more than 60, translated from four languages--is to read a library of varying and important books, ranging from the widely-known The Three Marias, for which she received the Bulbenkian Translation Prize in 1979, and Octavio Paz's Alternating Current, for which she received the National Book Award in 1973, to the current When Memory Comes by Saul Friedlander and A History of Gastronomy by Jean-François Revel, which is now in press. Not to mention sub-titles for such brilliant films as Godard's Weekend or her very first fork, The Alchemists, which was published in 1961 by Grove Press as Part of its Profile Series.In the best sense, then, Helen Lane is a woman of letters, and as such she speaks with authority, grace and literary distinction about the works whose life she has made the work of her life.

If the history of opera has been, in a way, the contest between words and music for supremacy, then translation has had a history marked by periods of "fidelity" to the text and periods of "invention" on the text. Where do you situate yourself?

I'd begin by arguing with you that the history--and the theory--of translation has been marked by three, not two, concepts of what the translator ought to be up to: first, strict word-for-word literalism, of the interlinear crib variety; second, as faithful a restatement as possible in the translator's own tongue that can stand on its own in that tongue; and third, imitations, recreations, variations, versions, inventions, etc. I think my own principal focus is on the great middle ground of the second, on what Dryden termed "paraphrase" or translation with latitude. But this "situating" myself between your two poles of strict literalness and free-swinging invention makes me somehow very uncomfortable. I'm thinking about the debt I owe to Goethe's brilliant 1819 essay, "West-Östicher Divan"--to me the most complete statement of the function of translation in culture and the role of the translator ever written. Among its treasures are both a far-ranging explanation of why translation has oscillated, as you say, between literalness and freedom, and a fully-developed exposition of what the perfect translation accomplishes. I'd like to think that my own practice, focused on Dryden's "great middle ground," also reflects something of the spirit of the perfect translation as outlined in that essay by Goethe. I suppose what I ultimately aim at--as an ideal--and stated in far too few words--is a translation that would give the English-speaking reader a good idea of what the original would have "been like" if it had been written in English, yet at the same time retain enough of a flavor of the original tongue and work to give the reader a hint of an area that writers in his own language had not yet explored. This unexplored area might be linguistic, stylistic, prosodic, thematic, cultural--depending on the work being translated.

Yet isn't the criterion for contemporary translation precisely "fidelity" to the text? A criterion that implies, as Belitt suggests in his collection of essays, Adam's Dream, a single correct translation for each work, a monogamous relationship to use his metaphor) between original work and translated work, rather than the plurality that Belitt himself argues for?

As for fidelity as the contemporary criterion of translation, the question immediately arises; fidelity to what?

And as for the notion that a single, correct, monogamous relationship exists between an original text and its translation, that is of course absurd. To begin with, both works, original and translation, exist in time, tied to a particular "moment" of both the source language and the target language, and their relationship is therefore necessarily relative."Single," "correct," "monogamous" all imply that meaning itself is something absolute and static, surely a naive view after what structural linguistics has taught us as a basic principle: all living languages, and hence meanings (not to mention the meaning of meaning), are in constant evolution.

Going back to criteria in general: Belitt says somewhere else that translation is "an art in search of criteria." Is it not, rather, as George Steiner calls it, "a model of the entire potential of statement? " Any "search," therefore, would seem to be to lie in the direction of a study of what "tactics of mediation" between letter and spirit, connotation and denotation, are available to the translator as he juggles with what I agree is a central problem of his craft: the question of fidelity.

And isn't it through the loophole of this criterion that the academic translators gain their stranglehold and that the writers who are also translators find their work criticized?

Fidelity in the sense of literal correctness does indeed become the rod by which translations are most often measured--and chastised. And the arm that wields it has so often done nothing before striking save to take a dictionary from a shelf to verify, with a flush of triumph, that the sine of mistranslation has occurred. An example from my won work. I am quite aware that the Spanish campanula is the English campanula or Canterbury bells, and that my translation of its as convolvulus in Mario Satz's Sun would have been "wrong" by dictionary standards. In context, however, this translation seemed oddly right to me, for the passage was one about dawn, and it struck me that the proper flower for the passage, in English at least, was the convolvulus, whose commoner name is, of course, "morning glory." My quite deliberate mistranslation turned out to be the "right" one after all, for Satz confirmed that the real association he had had in mind was that between flower and petals opening to the first rays of the sun, influenced by his poetic appreciation of the richness of imagery of English "morning glory." to have slavishly followed the text and rendered the Spanish campanula by its usual dictionary translation would have resulted in nothing but reproducing an inadvertent taxonomical error of Satz's. By being unfaithful to the printed text, I was faithful to the intended trope. This will perhaps illustrate what I meant when I said that "fidelity" as a supposed criterion of the art of translation automatically raises the further, more knotty question: fidelity to what?

Do you think that the first requirement for a translator is that he or she be a good writer in his or her own language?

No. It is patently, a requirement, but certainly not the "first requirement." I frequently find that translators who are widely-praised writers in English soar so high and so far on their own elan as "makers" that they forget that when one is a translator one is constantly trying one's best to "bring over" meanings from one language to another. The primary activity of translation thus takes place somewhere between the source language and the target language. Your "first requirement" places too much emphasis, it seems to me, on the translator's skill in the target language only. Translating involves, as many writers on the subject have pointed out, a sort of transmission of messages between cultures, and the translator's craft therefore depends upon a two-printed skill: the ability to decode properly the message in the source language and the ability to recode that message adequately in his own language. Good writers in English are, granted, apt to have more subtle and more sophisticated resources as recoders than poor ones. But I dins so often that their knowledge of the source language in which the message was cast is so scanty that they have missed the import of the original message altogether. Poets seem to suffer most from such lopsided skills on the part of their translators, and I have the sneaking suspicion that this will continue to remain true so long as those trying their hand at "versions" or "imitations" automatically take themselves for Pounds or Lowells.

Walter Benjamin suggests that as long as translation is directed at conveying information (i.e. directed at an audience who merely lack the data of the original language) that translation is not an art. When, for you, does translation cease to be a craft and become an art?

On the surface of it, Benjamin's suggestion, as you state it, seems to hint that in any text there is, on the one hand, some sort of conveyable "information" requiring only "craft" to get across, and on the other, a certain "something else" that requires "art" to convey. To me, language itself cannot be thus dichotomized: a text is not kernels of "information" enveloped in some sort of stylistic husk whose special quality only the translator who is an "artist" can render. I'm not familiar with the Benjamin passage, so will merely say that I don't think that contemporary discussions of the esthetics of translation will get very far by repeating the hoary notion of a "content" and a "form" that are separable, with the former somehow the locus for "craft" and the latter for "art." The entire trend of contemporary thought--in fields as various as literary criticism, semantics and semiotics, and even the philosophy of science--seems to me to be a moving-away from this particular dualism. Perhaps we would do better to abandon the kern-el-husk metaphor as central to discussions of the esthetics of translation.Might we not find some interesting implications if we explored translation in terms of the metaphor of tangents being more or less carefully drawn to a circumference that, because of the nature of language itself, can never be totally circumscribed by any one translator or any one translation, no matter how careful the craft, no matter how consummate the art?

What this entire dialogue we've been having round and about the central question of fidelity in translation has somehow missed, I find, is the poignancy that is built into the very question itself, and that I have tried to come back to several times by bringing up the further question of fidelity to what? Every serious translator realizes, I think, that despite his sincerest efforts, his translation as a whole has somehow fallen short, been unfaithful to something, despite what I might call "local successes." Might it be that what in the end often distinguishes the translator-as-artist from the translator-as-craftsman is his Don-Quijotesque stubbornness in pursing ever farther a goal that he knows is by its very nature impossible of realization: the ABSOLUTELY FAITHFUL TRANSLATION?

What in your education prepared you most or best for the quixotic career of translating?

I would single out, with little difficulty, three things: First: thorough old-fashioned grounding in the classics, the very basis of which is of course translation of texts. (In of all places, I might add, a public high school in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a depression-hit factory town, where courses through Terence and Plautus in Latin were offered regularly, and Greek was given to me as a precious gift by a devoted teacher after everyone else had gone home or off to Walgreen's drugstore.) Courses to the doctoral level, secondly, in Romance Languages and Romance Literatures, at UCLA--far too vast a territory to be mastered properly, but in those days (the fifties) the only degree in languages at UCLA requiring a candidate to cut across departmental lines, thank heaven.And the double emphasis on languages and literatures probably was better preparation for translation than a Comparative Literature department would have offered had one existed at the time. A training program, thirdly, for teaching in the French Department, offered the department's graduate teaching assistants as an experiment by Oreste Pucciani; a Socratic seminar, based on a conception of the function of langue and lagape far ahead of its time in the U.S. (1950).On-my-own wanderings into the anthropology department seminars, fourthly, of Harry Hoijer, one of the pioneer disseminators of Whorfian linguistics.Let me say, parenthetically, that a year's postgraduate Fulbright fellowship at the Sorbonne contributed virtually nothing new to my future career--while the year it afforded in France was invaluable to that career.

Looking back, then, on what you did and what has, in the long run, mattered, is there any advice you'd care to give a young person, quixotic or not, who is thinking about a career in translating?

Do anything possible to get into classes of foreign language and literature profs with the reputation for being tough and exciting, even if the class in question is just plain old French or German I. (In fact, probably a good rule whatever courses you take: like every other carer, translating means learning to know where the real action is!) Get abroad just as soon as you can, resolve to speak English as little as possible, and seek out places where you'll be forced to communicate every minute possible in a language, any language, not your own. See original-version films with English subtitles (or the other way around abroad) regularly and get good enough and quick enough to have a great laugh at all the mistakes. Really study good bilingual translations, especially of poetry, in the language you want to work in, try your hand at doing your version, and find someone capable of showing you, word for word, how you're doing. Submit what you think is your best work whenever you can for publication--never mind getting paid. Keep the most personal diary you can for at least a year in the foreign language you know best till you forget the foreignness" of it and can come close to writing what you're feeling without thinking a whole lot about it. Fall in love with a foreigner and really teach each other your two languages. Get into translation workshops; if none exists anywhere around you, get the sympathetic ear of someone with enough contacts to organize one, and see if you can't get one going. Whatever your major, whenever the choice of subject for a term paper or semester project is left up to you, get approval for doing one that will involve translation. In short, remember you're entering a career that is still barely recognized as being one; if you're not in a college or university with a translation program, you're necessarily going to have to invent yourself an education for that career. And be prepared to discover that you're probably going to have to invent most of the career too!

If you were the teacher of such inventive young persons, how would you go about teaching them to translate? What would you emphasize?

Texts, texts, texts, concrete problems. Emphasis on the very fact that every word of a text mirrors the whole in some way. comparison of solutions to problems: by various class members, by various published translations of a given text. Then, I'd invite as many visiting professionals as I could possibly corral into coming, prepared to use as their point of departure a specific text that the students too have had time to work on beforehand--this presumes, of course, that students and visitor have a foreign language in common. If such were not the case, I'd ask my visiting expert to choose some area of the theory of translation, or present his own theory of translation, along with a short bibliography of reading materials available in English that he feels pertinent, to be studied by the class members beforehand. (In lectures by visitors, in short, or discussion of their practice as translators, always some common ground for the meeting, through texts or readings thought about before the eventby the students; otherwise such a visitors' program risks being empty exoticism in most cases.)Discussions of successes and failures of my own, with copies of both original text and my translation before everyone: and the most concrete analysis possible of why I found them so in the final English version, in letter or in spirit. Really thorough study of carefully selected works or passages from outstanding (bilingual) editions of classic translations that have deserved that reputation, and analysis of why they have. A reading list with emphasis on works on translation that induce theory from concrete examples. Very few formal lectures on my part, and those few based on perennial problems and principles of translation. For very advanced students, study of various English translation of one text in different periods (a satire by Juvenal, say, or an ode of Horace's) to communicate the notion that all translation is time-bound, leading to thoughtful discussion of the best way to be truly contemporary without being dated, leading in turn to discussion of whether one can ever be the one without necessarily being the other. An introduction, thereby, to the entire problem of language, and therefore translation, as continually evolving, and the role of translation in this evolution itself. And, I hope, arousing in my students as a result of all of this a vast excitement concerning the central role that translators and translations play in the ever-ongoing creation of worldwide culture.

Many of the less quixotic translators seem to come out of foreign language programs when in fact they will be working in English. Doesn't that seem a bit lop-sided, to put it mildly?

I fear that here you may have brought out into the open a fundamental bias of mine that is probably already evident from other answers. Translation to me is first mastered as a transaction: the best possible bargain struck between source language and target language. You are right therefore:translators coming out of foreign language programs may be "overtrained" in that language and "undertrained" in English. But the converse is equally true, resulting in student-translators working in English departments who "render texts really quite well" in English, but have not really penetrated the source-language text at some level, varying from the elementary one of not even having mastered "false-friend" apparent cognates to the far more sophisticated one of not having appreciated, say, the fusion of personal and formal irony in Ronsard's famous "sonnet a Helene." The ideal goal of translation courses is easy enough to define: equal sensitivity to the resonances of the source language an the resources of the source language and the resources of the target language. How to achieve this is the real problem of making translation courses into a genuine curriculum.In general, however, doesn't one's sensitivity to a learned language lag quite a bit behind one's sensitivity to one's own native language? The lopsidedness, I respectfully suggest, is the other way around then.

To look at the edge, then, rather than either side of that coin, one could say that there's some "overtraining" in some English departments, where there's a built-in prejudice that ranges anywhere from the notion that one doesn't read translations in classes because they are not the authentic "text" (a left-over from the old New Criticism?) to the idea of "proficiency" in a foreign language being demonstrated in a strictly mechanical test to be gotten over--or around--as quickly as possible.

Since I've never taught in an English department, I have to take your word for what you say. My one pertinent experience, taking the "grad student German test" (in the form of a grammar-text and the translation of isolated sentences) does confirm your view that the usual university "language requirement" is (or surely was in the fifties) a pretty meaningless hurdle for all students, and probably almost totally meaningless as a test of the abilities of students in a translation program.Ideally, for the latter at least, the requirement would be a minimum of one text from a foreign language, adequately translated. But egad! I see--or rather hear--from across the Atlantic the brouhaha that this would cause: who would judge this adequacy, and by what standards would it be graded? But since subjectively graded essay-type tests are pretty standard practice, so such a text-translation could be argued for within English departments.

As for the prejudice against reading translations because they are not "the text," you amaze me.Is the dead hand of New Criticism really still that strong? I guess I might start asking a few questions in faculty meetings. Just where do texts begin and where do they end? When we speak of "Pindar," do we mean only that tiny handful of Greek fragments or also the centuries-long tradition, in many language, of Pindar translations? When we listen to Bach's transpositions of Vivaldi, where does the "real" text leave off and the "translation" begin? The prejudice, in short, ranks right in there with statements that begin "It says in the Bible..."

Hasn't the discipline of Comparative Literature--if it is a discipline--failed, at least in part, in its promise by not developing translation courses to strengthen the awareness that translation is the mode by which most people are able to do the "comparing?" To contemplate Goethe's notion of World Literature, for example, without considering translation is a little like contemplating the cart without the horse, the lock without the key.

I couldn't agree more with what you say.In every language whose history I have a certain familiarity with, theories of translation have played a crucial role. To take French, my "first language," Ronsard's "Defense et illustration de la Langue Française" is a key document both to what happened to the French language and to French literature. Teaching Comp Lit without taking translation into account, I quite agree, is like contemplating the cart not only without its horse but perhaps with several of its wheels missing. How many professors of the discipline have ever considered what "World Literature" would consist of without translation?

Any complete curriculum in Comp Lit would have at minimum a course in the role of translation in stretching the potentialities of language (what would German be without Luther's translation of the Bible?) and its role in stretching the world-views that are the very life-blood of literature (W\what would the German concept of Volk be without the Romantics' translations from, say, Spanish?). In the various sciences, let me say parenthetically, the history of such "infusions" is studied meticulously as something central to the scientific method itself. Also parenthetically: other departments are often not doing their share in "feeding into" Comp Lit studies:how many English departments have a course on, say, the various English translations of just one classic text down through the centuries, even though such a course would be a luminous focus for many developments in our linguistic and literary history?

Part of your education as a translator came from your experience as an editor at Grove Press, didn't it?What exactly did you do there and how did it contribute--or detract from--your career in translation?

My duties as consulting (i.e., part-tie, working outside the house itself) foreign editor at Grove Press were to read and evaluate books and manuscripts in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian submitted to the house as possible publications; to correct, and often entirely to rewrite, finished manuscripts translated from those languages; and to "scout" works for possible publication through my own personal readings and my network of contacts with writers, agents, and editors I know abroad. I can think of no way in which this work detracted from my self-chosen principal occupation as translator. On the contrary: evaluating foreign-language books enhanced, I am certain, my critical judgment and my own writing abilities; whipping other translators' manuscripts into publishable shape sharpened by translating abilities; and my "scouting" kept me constantly in touch with where the action was in both Europe and Latin America.

Has that enhanced critical judgment ever led you to suggest or carry out editorial revisions on the work you're translating?

Certainly.Moreover, I don't think it is often realized that the relationship between author-editor-translator can be a very close one. The Doubleday-published Hemingway In Spain, by J.L. Castillo-Puche, edited by Kate Medina, for an instance from my own experience, is a much stronger portrait of Hemingway in the considerably revised American edition than in the original Spanish, thanks to a tightening process that all three of us contributed toward. I might add that in my experience as an editor, authors are far more willing to accept well-reasoned revisions of their work than translators are.

That lack of willingness brings up the touchy subject of the relationship between publisher and translator, a relationship that's often strained .How have you fared and what are your suggestions for improving the situation?

I feel that my own work as a translator has been relatively free of regrettable editorial meddling, perhaps because I have learned to insist in my contracts on a provision that all changes in my text must have my approval before publication. I think this should be as inviolable a right of the translator's as of the author's. I have had the great good fortune to work closely with such gifted editors as Kate Medina, Richard Seaver, and Aaron Asher; and in only one case in twenty years have I felt it necessary to demand that my credit as translator be withdrawn from a book because of disastrous editing. The bitter controversy in that case involved a fundamental disagreement between a young editor and me as to how French slang of the thirties an early forties was to be rendered in an American translation published in the seventies. I felt the editor's aggressively contemporary slang ("spaced-out," "hanging loose," "making the scene") totally effaced the period-piece quality of the original; she felt my deliberate effort to give the slang a slight but noticeably dated feeling made the book sound "like, well you know, the sort of book my mother would like." Since the work in question was a French best-selling biography of Edith Piaf, I concluded that this young editor was right and simply didn't know her own market. This was a rare case in which my own background as an editor with an eye to potential sales admittedly influenced the style I chose to render a very commercial book in.

I think any honest translator who will own up to having accepted, out of financial necessity, translation projects of works from the pens of other than first-rate writers will also own up to making "readability" by a wide audience (and the kudos of editors for so doing) one of the determinants of his style. And regardless of the literary merits of the original, in publishing today it is the rare editor who is not more interested in--and impressed by--this sort of readability than by a translator's attempt to be "faithful."

Translators, no less than writers, suffer twinges about yielding to this sort of editorial pressure toward readability, accessibility to a wide readership, and so on. They also feel the same prick of conscience about accepting deadlines that are patently impossible if a book is to be dealt with adequately. The only "solution" I see to the whole question of trying to avoid compromising oneself in such a way is for publishers to recognize the good translators, pay them better than hack ones, and thus allow the former enough financial security to be able to choose the books they do and be about their real business: the bridging of cultures through their best efforts to translate the best writings they know of in the language(s) they work from.I suppose I am still enough of a Marxist to feel that translation is far less in need of elegant discussions of ideal criteria for it as an art than of urgent reconsideration of its lamentable state as a miserably-paid profession.

One part of that miserably paid profession that the public seldom knows anything about is the preparation of reader's reports for publishers. How do these reports fit into the scheme of your work?

The reader's reports that I have written for publishing houses have been invaluable to my work as a translator. I try very hard to make each of them an essay that could be published, just to keep my own writing skills honed. And when I report that Author X's most recent book is different from his last for y and z reasons, I am already started on the response to style that is crucial to a translator—whether or not I am the one eventually called upon to translate the book on which I am reporting. The fact that I read continually for many houses and many editors also means that I am exposed to a vastly wider range of books flowing through my life than might be the case if I were not reading "professionally." The one disadvantage I found in the years when my life was about equally divided between reading in my four principal working languages and translating from them was that there was only a minimum of time left for broad reading in English in response to my own interests. What reading in English I had time left for went mostly for reading what everyone else was reading so as to "know the marketplace," an absolute requisite for any competent editorial reader.

The "market" is something that many translators, especially academic ones, know nothing about and they could use some help, such as the assistance that agents provide. Yet agents are usually reluctant to take on translators--even distinguished ones, like yourself. Have you ever used an agent?

I have never used an agent, largely because in the twelve years that I was with Grove Press I had more or less my choice of any Grove translation I wished to take on. And in recent years, I have usually had more offers of translations than I could possibly accept.After twenty years in the world of publishing, I think my close relations with editors gain me as favorable contract terms--and as interesting projects--as an agent could. The situation would be quite different for a beginning translator, I should imagine, and there I can see how such a collaboration as you mention might help open otherwise closed doors. I occasionally mildly wish I had an agent simply to save me time, but I feel myself that as I prefer to do all my own gardening, so I prefer being a personal part of the entire process of "nailing down a project. "Having an agent would undoubtedly be more efficient in the short run, but in the long run I question if it would be as rewarding as seeing editors personally and "talking about books."

Tending to your garden, in both senses, brings up the inevitable question of money. One hears, most often, that almost nobody can support himself translating, yet you do, and I wonder how you manage it.

For years I "managed" because we were a two-income household--that is to say two free-lancers, each of whose providential checks served to subsidize the work-in-progress of the other till the next providential check arrived. Having had to fall back in the last few years on my own earnings alone, my solution has been to move to a very rural corner of the Dordogne, in Southwest France. Until recently there was a substantial tax advantage for Americans working overseas (since last year replaced by a complex formula that favors the corporate executive with a family, but not the small income single self-employed person). Still, even with this gone, the monthly rent I pay for a superb sixteenth-century stone farmhouse is by American standards absolutely minimal, and I usually have (o hubris!) three vegetable gardens going; I "barter" lots and the surplus for other necessities, and buy most staples through an informal cooperative setup with friends. This "solution" had obvious advantages.I realize that I live what for many is an "ideal country life" in one of the most beautiful, unspoiled, and historically rich regions in all of Europe. The disadvantages of this "solution" are perhaps less striking to my envious visitors from the States: because of rollercoasting exchange rates, the constant insecurity of never knowing exactly how much I will receive in francs for projects paid in dollars; the roaring French inflation that has more than doubled my basic expenses in the seven years that I have been here, while my translation fees have risen in that time only some thirty percent, and the absolute necessity of eking out of a very small budget the expenses of a trip to new York at least once a year to turn up in person in the offices of New York editors to remind them that I still really and truly exist and reassure them that mail service to my corner of the world is probably at least as reliable as, say, deliveries within New York City these days.

How do these days, economically speaking, differ for you from the old days

The situation has changed very slowly, but it has changed for the better. When I began translating in 1959, the standard fee per 1,000 words was $12.50 to $15. Today (thanks largely to my enhanced "market value" to publishers who advertise me as a prize-winner on the jacket of a book?), I ask for--and receive--$35 to $35 per thousand words, depending on the text. (For the occasional technical translations that I do for Renault and other European automobile companies, I receive regularly, no fuss, $60 to $70 per thousand words. Something of course terribly disproportionate there: a thousand words of Jean-Paul Sartre or Ernesto Sabato takes an exponentially greater amount of time, care, and above all the sort of knowledge that came much harder than my acquired-by-a-fluke technical expertise re suspension arms or sliding trunion gears.But such technical texts are needed by a company, whereas the need of a culture for a Sartre or Sabato text is far more subtle, complex, and problematical. In a technologically-oriented culture, the literary translator badly misses the allies who have come forward to speak for the need of that culture for other skilled artists and interpreters: why this silence about us? End of parenthesis.) As for rights, no one in publishing ever mentioned giving them to a translator twenty years ago, while today provisions for various subsidiary rights are an area that the translator can at least fight over. Thus far they are granted to me automatically by only one house, Doubleday, thanks to the pioneering in-house campaign for same wages by Paris Editor Beverly Gordey on behalf of "senior" translators.

Have you ever tried to figure out your hourly rate of income for translation? Or can you compare it with other fees you receive, for working in a publishing house, say?

Out of curiosity I have kept a work-log for a number of years now, precisely so that I may have a realistic idea of what my hourly rate of compensation has been on a given project. It varies enormously: from 65 cents per hour, for example, for rendering the new-frontiers style and content represented by Delueze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus to $8 per hour for a straightforward, deliberately "objective" text such as Jorge Semprún's Autobiografia de Federíco Sánchez.

This compares unfavorably with my hourly compensation for other sorts of work I do for publishers. I do many reader's reports for a variety of houses, and there my hourly fee for reading the book and reporting on it (which in most cases I have set by pointing to ten years of having to "know the market" at Grove Press) is never less than $12-$15 per hour, depending on the language of the original. Ditto for editing or rewriting other people's translations.

What few people discussing the "economics" of translation appear to take into account is the myriad unpaid "extras." To mention two frequent ones of mine:corresponding with editors in detail, after long reflection, abut the merits of prospective projects; and corresponding with a worldwide "network" of author-friends about worthwhile books from their countries that somehow have to find an American publisher, and can I please help? These two activities are of course a unique privilege and part of the excitement of a translator's life as an indispensable bridge between cultures, and to me indescribably rewarding. A lot of the rest of the unpaid things are simply onerous. Doing time-devouring research, for instance, on such things as the proper transliteration in English of an abstruse geographical place-name or the exact title that a foreign film ended up with when distributed in America--details that once upon a time a good copy=editor could be counted on to help check out.Seeing that a manuscript gets safely off to the publisher by registered mail or that previous books posted to me for my perusal get back to the sender properly. Correcting edited copy and/or galleys and/or page proofs. I try not to resent these tasks, but do dream of that future golden age when an established translator will be well enough rewarded financially to be able to afford at least part-time secretarial help.

Besides your dreams, do you have any notions of more equitable ways for translators to be paid?

I honestly don't see any way out of the economic straitjacket that translators accept being forced into, save to emulate two similar professions that were formerly undeservedly underpaid: nursing and librarianship. Translators must somehow be made to see the advantage of speaking with a collective professional voice.

The crux lies in getting the bottom-line point across to publishers that good translations, properly compensated for, in the long run are just plain cheaper than those that have to be drastically re-edited or even redone altogether before they publishable. And how badly we need a little help from our friends?: enlightened editors who will press this very point with the dollars-and-cents gnomes in their houses; authors who will take a lead in seeing that their translators (without whom they don't even have a product to market, so to speak, in another country in another language) get fairer contract terms; agents who will help argue for us all the way down the line.

As for these contract terms, my greatest resentment is seeing excerpts or chapters from translations I have done reprinted in periodicals without my receiving any compensation at all. The publisher, the periodical, and in many cases the author have reaped a bit more from an already-harvested field, while the translator is left out entirely when this winnowing time comes unless he has specifically fought for this hard-won right. As for other drawbacks in standard contracts, there is the problem of "co-publications" of a translation in another English-speaking country, arranged after the translation contract is signed in many cases; here again the translator usually has no share in what is a new harvest for everyone else involved except him. As for subsidiary rights and the famous share-in-royalty provisions that a few well-known translators have painfully gained, more translators should fight for them on principle. I myself almost never translate the sort of commercial book that has a large sale or is even a candidate for paperback or book club reprint as a rule. Hence, despite some twenty contracts where I've made it a point to insist on such royalties and rights, I have never yet earned a single penny from same. I would thus far rather spend my time and energies militating for other contract provisions for myself and other translators: compensation for travel to consult with an author, or compensation for time spent in doing necessary research (e.g., providing proper American-type footnotes for translations of scholarly works into English).

There's a lot of self-effacement implicit in what you've just been saying, and that leads me to wonder if translating other people's work has left you very little time for your own writing. If you were free to write on your own, would you have the inclination? What would you write?

I have not only an "inclination" to write but an intimate need to do so, and almost as much of my time has been spent writing something (a vast correspondence with authors, publishers, editors; intermittent literary criticism:the reader's reports I have talked at length about) as it has been translating.I confess, however, to a deep-seated, genuine fear of writing for publication, while I don't think I feel that terror at all about translating for publication. I wonder if a similar apprehension is not the hidden "reason" you mention for a good many translators turning to "rewriting" other people's work, rather than the more usual explanation that they simply lack enough talent to write themselves. Someone else's text is such an excellent "cover" for the timid translator to hide all his or her creativity behind. In what?--nine cases out of ten?--the critic or reviewer isn't even going to notice that he is dealing with a translated work, and there you are--right there on the front page of the Sunday Times Book Review, perhaps, your name as big as the author's with you knowing secretly that your skills, your sensitivity contributed a whole lot to getting the book reviewed there. You pay a price, of course, for your safety, hiding there behind your author:you are just a name there at the top, not a recognized co-creator of the text the critic had before him.

I find myself becoming more and more restive and dissatisfied with this very anonymity, to the point where I'd like to try my hand at writing about my work, perhaps in the form of a series of close analyses of specific translations of major works that I have done, cast in the framework of problems presented and solutions adopted.In many cases my translations have involved close personal cooperation with the author, either in the form of work-sessions together or long correspondence, and I would also like to set down a few sketches tracing the "history" of how some of my translations came about, from beginning to end. The story of The Three Marias to begin with, involving two trips to Lisbon and sessions with three co-authors who at the time were not even speaking to each other.

I'll add that I have no urge to write fiction. The essay is my most natural medium, and at the moment the only "voice" I think I'd feel comfortable writing in is that of the translator and the critic. If ever I write in a more personal vein, it will surely be about some aspect of my life in France: I see, very dimly, the possibility of my writing about the utterly amazing, multileveled impact on my small Perigordian village of the establishment of one of the first Tibetan monasteries in the West--a veritable visitation from outer spiritual space, so to speak.

What about literary criticism? Do you think translators make good critics or reviewers of translation? And speaking of that, I'd like to know how you think you've been served by your critics.

I once wrote somewhere that translators reviewing other translators' work was liable to be like violinists judging other violinists concerts: lavish pro forma bravos, followed by deadly criticism of that unfortunate open-strings passage heard in the first measures of the fourth movement. (The equivalent I had in mind, I shall reveal, was a review of a formidably difficult co-translation I did of Breton's Manifestoes of Surrealism, judged worthy of a NBA nomination but found wanting in the critic's final analysis because of a mistranslated preposition on page 257.) As for my being "well-served" by critics, I find that in about ninety percent of cases, he or she feels the work has been done once one succinct adjective has been found to sum up the quality of my translation. (I guess the one I most treasure is "game.") Of my sixty-some published translations, the most balanced, most constructive, and most sensitive review I have garnered was of The Three Marias by Gregory Rabassa, discussing as only a translator probably could, all the myriad problems I had been faced with in bringing over into English not just one authorial "voice" but three quite distinct ones, and in suggesting in English some of the qualities of the Portuguese lyric tradition that lay behind the book's poems even though a number of them were, frankly, less than first-rate in the original. I could also mention a precious paragraph by V.S. Pritchett on my rendering ofJuan Goytisolo's very Spanish rhetoric in English. But otherwise my scrapbook of critical comments on my work consists largely of a collection of the portmanteau adjectives I have mentioned.

What about yourself? Do you like to review translations?

In reader's reports for publishing houses, yes: I have the space to develop in detail why I judge them good or bad. In published short reviews, no: unless I take great pains with the tiny space allotted me for specific evaluation of the translation in a review, not enough room to justify my remarks without my falling into the distribution of portmanteau adjectives of praise or blame. There are so few forums, outside of specialized publications, where editors permit or encourage the reviewer to give equal time to author and translator.

It's common in reviews of translations to read about the writer's style, to read about Proust's style, let's say, and how the translator, Scott Moncrief in this case, "captured" it. But what about a translator's style? Does one--or should one--have a style as a translator?

I'll make my answer brief since the question of "capturing" (or not capturing) a style really is a version of that knotty central question of fidelity I've gone into at length before. As for my own practice, if the original has a powerful, or even recognizable, style, I make a concerted effort not to impose my own. The super-difficult translation I have just finished of Ernest Sabato's classic Sobre Heroes Y Tumbas, for example:the Argentine angst that informs it is central to the very "message" of the book, and however tortured and overwrought it may sound in English, that is Sabato and I wouldn't presume to substitute a "calmer" style: the angst must be transmitted, raw and screaming, and Sabato spared stylistic thorazine treatment.In the case of texts that are so awkwardly written as to have no distinctly discernible "voice" essential to the import of the whole, I tend to rewrite to the point that a style that would be recognizable as mine, probably, is imposed. This style of mine, I think, is often aimed at decompressing a text, untangling metaphors by laying out the strands, making implicit meanings more explicit, and I suspect that a knowing editor would recognize this as one of my hallmarks. Statistically, a translation into English from a Romance language should run some 10 to 15% shorter than the original:often my Englishing tends to be a bit longer than the original. Another reason for this is my feeling that two word Anglo-Saxon English verbs are usually more natural-sounding than one-word Latin derived ones, and probably this too is an immediately noticeable feature of my own style. My "at-desk" practice is pretty much that of most professional literary translators I've talked with about work practices.I read everything I translate several times before ever putting a work on paper.My first draft stays very close to the original text and language, to the point where at this stage it is often very close to "translatese." In later drafts, I deliberately leave the original aside and concentrate on the problems of smooth flow and style in English, and when I strike a glaring infelicity or find myself struggling with a particularly awkward rendering, about ninety percent of the time I find that it goes back to something not adequately grasped in the original. What changes I make as I type the final draft are usually minor improvements of a word, a rhythm, a phrase here and there, not fundamental recasting or rewriting.

Tape recorders? Impossible for me to use at any stage, either in translating or in my own writing: I need the concrete written word before me, both the author's and my approximations. A tape recording gives me nothing to hammer away at till it gives out, among other things, the right sound to my inner ear. How to hear--and how to render--the silence that is always at the heart of a major author if one is yakking into a tape recorder and then playing the yakkings back? Even typewriters get in the way between me and a text--but I've had to join the twentieth century and learn not to mind.

If a translator can have a style, then there must be such people as "translators' translators."Do you think so?

Of course! In any craft, there are master-craftsmen; in any profession true professionals.Samuel Putnam and Scott Moncrief in their generation; Maurice Coindreau in his language; Gregory Rabassa, Ralph Manheim, William Weaver, Willard Trask, Horace Gregory among those working from languages I share; as communicators of style from languages I don't know at all, Mirra Ginsburg from Russian, Donald Keene from Japanese, Dale Saunders from Chinese.

Which brings up the question that is usually asked of writers: for whom do you write? In this case, though, the question is for whom do you translate?

For my teachers: how otherwise to repay the debt I own them? For fellow workers in the vineyard I cultivate: critics, editors, translators who will appreciate what blood, sweat and tears a particular paragraph has cost me and why I have had to let it cost me that much. For friends, standing for all the readers with whom I want to share all the life locked in languages I know that are closed mysteries to them. For my authors, since they have trusted their lives in other languages to me. For myself, since to translate is to "carry across"--and what better way of helping in the dharma-task of bringing all sentient Being "to the other shore?"

Referring to a "dharma-task," you imply a mission in your work. What determined you to become a translator?

Entirely practical reasons, primarily. My life-partner's career as a free-lance transportation designer required so many moves that it was impossible for me to continue in university teaching, since such a career implies as a minimum a year's stay somewhere. Translation offered the precious possibility of moving almost anywhere any time: my dictionaries and my typewriter safely transported, I could be at work instantly anywhere in the world, and at the same time use just about everything that my academic education had prepared me for as a life-work.

Your phrase "life-work" recalls the etymological sense of the word "career," not the current meaning, which tends to be "job."

Career also related to carrera, a race, and all too often I still must "race" to outstrip the old genus lupus at the door. Hence I'm forced more often than I like to accept unchallenging projects in order to self-subsidize the arduous ones that I know will bring in too little to meet even current living expenses. More and more, however, "I've been able to choose the texts I translate, and this has been the gradual result of my having acquired, through my work, a certain status, several prizes--a reputation.

Besides those rewards, hard-earned as they are, there must be a psychological satisfaction in translation that you couldn't have gained in more lucrative careers.

Translation as a lifework answers many psychological needs for me. Above all it permits me to make something, and I thus enjoy the great pleasure of craftsmanship. It is a way of making an honest living with fewer grave moral compromises, dilemmas, and dead ends than is the lot of most mortals in our system. It is a way of keeping my life as I live it and life as I reflect on it in harmony: communicating through language, that most human privilege, may just be a fundamental part of our assigned task in the evolutionary scheme. That's for starters and basics; I could extend the list indefinitely, in many directions.

What about the acknowledged fact that translation is a field in which women have excelled? Why do you think that is?

Perhaps out of the timidity about doing writing of their own that I have said I find so noticeable in myself? Perhaps because women's survival mechanisms for so long had to include a sensitivity to the hidden nuances of meaning and feeling of the men who were the intermediaries interposing themselves between them and the world, a sensitivity that carried over when it wasa text (in the past usually a man's) before them whose hidden intentions required deciphering? Perhaps because translation in the days before it became a profession was one of the "genteel," ladylike arts in which a woman could modestly display her interpretive talents, as at the clavichord or harp? In the twentieth century, perhaps because poorly-paid occupations were until very recently precisely those relatively few to which women had easy entry?

Have there been any hurdles or opportunities--chutes and ladders!--in your own career because you're a woman?

I don't think I have ever been seriously handicapped in my career by being a woman. Luckily, sisters before me waged and won battles for me: the scholarships, grants, and prizes I have won over the years, for instance, have long been more or less free of a really severe bias against women applicants or nominees.I suspect that early on in New York I was offered (and accepted) lower fees and salaries because the male executives for whom I worked presumed that since I was a woman I would not fight tooth and nail for better terms. Among women editors this sort of diffidence was so widespread in the fifties and sixties as to constitute a professional syndrome, glaringly reflected in the demonstrably lower salaries and lesser status that were the lot of women throughout publishing. I have know far fewer women translators personally, so don't really know how widespread this syndrome is (or was) among them. What I do know is that I feel very much more comfortable in the publishing world now that there are so many more women editors in senior positions: I find "feminist bias" quite noticeable in publishing these days, and consider it one of the definite "ladders," as you put it, in my career at the moment.

What's the response when you answer "I'm a translator' to the question, "What do you do?"

In America, most often a polite and perfunctory expression of interest, the next question being a slightly more interested inquiry as to what languages I speak and how I learned them, whereupon the talk generally slides into wishful discussion of how my conversational interlocutor would so much like to have mastered other languages, but alas, even after three (five, seven, whatever) years of studying a language at school...In France, the almost universal reaction is one that to me is most curious: "Ah, you translate from English into French, that is?" Why that interpretation of what I do? Because translation seems to so many people in this country where so few speak a second language such a mysterious and difficult thing that naturally I wouldn't be occupied in doing something so transparently easy as translating into my own language?

Easy or hard, what have been the books you've most enjoyed translating?

All Octavio Paz's books, because he transmits on a wavelength that for some reason I feel tuned to automatically. Always the quite eerie feeling that I am his "medium," not so much translating as relaying crucially important messages, effortlessly. Juan Goytisolo's autobiographical fictions, narrated by a voice that calls itself "Juan Goytisolo." Outrageous, impenitent, deadly wicked parody at work everywhere, and it's indescribably exhilarating to try to invent ways of planting the same sort of subversive traps and mines and bombs in the English text. Juan, moreover, always an enthusiastic co-plotter in this endeavor: we set the traps and arm the bombs of the English text together, word by word and line by line. Claude Simon's Triptych and Conducting Bodies, from an earlier period in my career. French "new novels" that called for a very different skill: an absolute fidelity to the smallest detail in the original text. Exercises, thus, in the most rigorous, mathematical precision of execution--a translator's equivalent of playing, say, a Bach partita faultlessly. One of the few authors I have translated where it would be possible to speak, I think, of solutions that are quite clearly either right or wrong. The challenge to make every one of them so right that the translation would have one of the qualities of the original:elegance, as one speaks of an elegant equation in mathematics.

When you speak of solutions" in the plural, you remind me that you're one of the few translators who negotiates several languages: Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French. Do your standards and modes very from language to language?

They vary a great deal from language to language. To construct some very rough metaphors as short-cut illustrations: French is a harpsichord-language, and one must often be very careful not to overload a translation from it with all the rich organ diapason of English. Spanish (especially Latin-American Spanish) frequently has an unpruned quality, all looping vines and lush foliage, and the trick is to conserve this organic, vegetative feeling and yet not overpower the American reader with the feeling that he is in a stifling, hopelessly dense jungle of language. Italian is so Latinate a language, especially in vocabulary and in sentence periodicity, that the unwary translator ends up producing a lifeless neo-classic facade that hides what was really going on in the text; this has happened, for instance, with Moravia's essays time and again.And novels badly translated from Italian tend to make all the characters, whatever their background, sound much too educated and self-dramatic: the "Looking in the mirror, I was desolated to realize how hirsute I was" sort of rendering usually turns out to mean something so straightforward as "Before I shaved, I looked really hung-over." As for Portuguese, I have to keep constantly in mind that it is not Spanish, that it has its very own nuances (usually quieter) and music (usually minor-mode), and if I blithely assume that a Portuguese or Brazilian text will be easy for me to translate "because I know Spanish well," I soon find that using one language as a crutch to negotiate another results almost automatically, to carry the metaphor further, in a stumbling translation.

Many respected organizations, differing in purpose as much as the NEH and PEN, have taken a special interest in translation. In your opinion, what are the best things such organizations might do to further the cause of translation?

Very hard for me to answer, since not being based in New York, I have a much better idea of what pioneering work PEN has done in the past for translators than I do of what currently needs most to be done. Same with NEH, whose translation grants I didn't even know about until very recently. A few suggestions, then, more or less in the dark.(1) Finding funds for a computerized clearinghouse, the only really efficient way of getting editors with translation projects to offer and interested translators in immediate touch with each other. "Clearinghouse sections" in publications for translators not satisfactory: out of date, usually, long before they're even in galleys.(2) Serious attention to the creation of a truly prestigious NATIONAL TRANSLATION PRIZE. The very few translation prizes available have the reputation of being marred either by "book-business commercialism," shameful politicking within juries, or funding come by only with such tremendous difficulty that only a tiny handful of the many superlative translators in myriad languages and many domains could be recognized in the best of cases. If all existing translation centers, specialized publications, university departments offering translation courses, the PEN Translation Committee, the NEH, the various professional associations really pooled their efforts, couldn't such a prize program be well-organized, widely publicized, and adequately funded? Among the awards, I submit, should be one for the entire oeuvre of a lifetime "senior" translator--and one for the best first translation.(3) Similar organization, cooperation, and fund-finding for a first-rate replacement for the sorely missed Delos.

At the other end of the process, there are the "nuts and bolts" of the trade, which nobody seems to give much attention to. How did you acquire your knowledge?

At the risk of discouraging many aspiring beginning translators. I confess that my entry into the world of professional translation came about not because of skills I had acquired but because of a personal friendship. One of my fellow scholarship-at-the-Sorbonne friends I met in Paris became assistant editor at what was at the time (1958) a minuscule but already excitingly avant-garde house publishing as Grove Press. Without her personal introduction, I doubt that the four sample translations I brought with me would have occasioned anything more than a polite interview with Richard Seaver, the managing editor. Perhaps not so much by chance, knowing that Grove Press was interested in offbeat avant-garde writing, one of these sample translations was a chapter of Ramón Sender's El Verdugo Afable. Seaver's interest was piqued by this text, he took a closer look at my other samples, and soon after decided to try me out on a translation: I received $250, I remember, for a tiny paperback book, TheAlchemists, in Grove's Profile series (1959). One translation led to another, eventually I "graduated" to major hardcover translations, and learned the "nuts and bolts" in the privileged position within a house still small enough for its dedicated editors to have the time and generosity to be true mentors at every step of the way.

I fancy that such an ideal entree into the profession is scarcely possible now that small independent houses have very nearly disappeared into the great maw of conglomerates, and I suppose that the best possible way into the profession today is to have made it into print in a good small review (or even better, several) and to present reprints of these translations and an eye-catching sample translation of a work to which rights are available, accompanied by a succinct explanation of why this work should be of interest, to an editor in a New York house that has a good list of works in translation with which the hopeful translator is familiar enough to know what has a good chance of being eye-catching. (Little use to submit avant-garde poetry translations to Macmillan, for example. Consult the current Literary Marketplace for descriptions of what house publishes what sort of books in general.) Ideally, all this would be accompanied as well by an introductory letter, written by someone known to the editor you are sending your work to. In fact, you should get the best advice you can as to precisely who to write to in a given house: arrows shot into the air land in wastebaskets. In a word, the more specific your submission is, all down the line, the better the chance that it will be considered seriously.

How about translation centers? Do you think they're useful or helpful?

Translation centers came into my career very late--my first contact with them was after I had moved to Europe in 1972. The Center for Inter-American Relations, in particular, has changed my life, opening doors to translation-oriented editors in publishing houses who are new on the scene and to authors I might not otherwise have met personally, not to mention granting two generous translation subventions, one for a totally unknown Argentine author whom I more or less "discovered," another for Ernesto Sabato's masterpiece, Sobre Heroes y Tumbas. Neither of these works, I'm quite sure, could have found a publisher without this subsidy from the Center for the translation costs. My guess is that in the future, as "prestige publishing" becomes more and more a nostalgic memory on the current bottom-line-minded American publishing scene, more and more works in translation that are not "commercial" will never be offered American readers without the help of such centers. I also owe Dallas Galvin of the Translation Center at Columbia much thanks for quickly and skillfully putting me in touch with editors and houses with translation project sin mind--an inestimable help when my visits to New York are by necessity very brief. I also feel much more in touch here in Europe by being able to read the Center's Review and the Columbia Center's Translation and the ALTA's Translation Review, and I think that one of the fundamental functions of translation centers in general, and their publications in particular, should be to focus translation activities widely dispersed geographically.

What about the teaching of translation? You've had considerable experience at that and I wonder how it's affected your own work.

If I can't explain to a student what the intent and the stylistic strategies of a passage are, it would seem presumptuous on my part to attempt to translate it. Since the greater part to attempt to translate it. Since the greater part of my teaching experience was in French departments in the days when the explication de texte was the fundamental tool of both teaching and learning, I suspect that a major part of what skills I have as an interpreter of texts is owed to years and years both of being taught and of teaching what a good explication de texte accomplishes as an unparalleled way into the letter and the spirit of a text. Done correctly, I might add, as a collaboration of everyone in the classroom, the explication de texts teaches the teacher fully as much as the student. Some of my most illuminating flashes of understanding of a text have been owed entirely to students' insightful contributions.

(The trend toward bringing translators and students together in workshops cannot help but strike similar exciting sparks for all hands. The really vital link between teaching and translation lies here if any where: masters of our profession's living heritage passing it on to lively journeymen who will carry it on in their way in their time. Education and Translation: isn't their common denominator, their common secret that great central human symbol of symbols: Metamorphosis?)

And isn't one of the effects of such a coming together a further awareness of what Ocatavio Paz has said is a hallmark of our time: ours is the first age to be self-conscious of translation.

I guess I don't understand the assertion without seeing Octavio's text and its context. The minute one theorizes about translation, isn't one necessarily self-conscious about one's practice of it? And, in the West, from Saint Jerome on, translators have theorized and speculated as to that basic problem of translation, I repeat: fidelity. And, I also repeat, the impossibility of total fidelity as an ideal--and yet still for all that the ideal--has been a constant in writings about translation for centuries. How to be more self-conscious than that of one's role as translator? I fancy myself that this self-consciousness about translation dates approximately from the same time as man's self-consciousness about language itself. Genesis tells us that Adam named all the animals (just as in Indian tradition the monkey-god Hanuman invented grammar by naming all the plants in the Garden of Illo Tempore). No doubts, no self-consciousness: "Whatever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof." (Genesis II, 19). But after the expulsion from Paradise? I see Adam doubting the moment the possibility occurs that another name might be possible. And isn't that what all translators are?Proposers, in another language, of another name?

Translation Review, Volume 5, 1980.

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