Can a Translator Develop His Own Style?

The AUC Press recently posted a video in which they talk to esteemed Arabic-English translator Humphrey Davies about the craft of translation:

daviesThe first thing the interviewer asked was whether Davies felt he’d developed his own style:

The idea of a translator developing his own style is antithetical to the whole idea of translation. The translator is supposed to be listening for the voice that is in the text, which is not, by definition, his voice or her voice. So if I’ve developed a style of my own it would only be through trying to reflect the text as closely as possible. Which I hope that people would see as a marker of my work, as of any other good translation, which in fact some critics have remarked on. But I don’t see that as my own style, but rather as attempting to get close to the style of the author.

“Is that what a good translation is,” she asked, “to really echo…?”

And of course it shouldn’t…because the authors don’t read the same. They all read incredibly differently from one another, or at least the good ones do. The bad ones all read the same, yeah.

I would think that’s what a good translation is. You make the reader feel that they are hearing a voice that is distinctive. And it’s been said that one of the problems with translation — I don’t know if it’s a problem with Arabic more than with any other language — …but one of the problems is that it often all sounds the same. And of course it shouldn’t…because the authors don’t read the same. They all read incredibly differently from one another, or at least the good ones do. The bad ones all read the same, yeah.

But, the interviewer asked, is it truly possible to mirror exactly the style of the author?

There is nothing identical. Identical would be the original text. But you have put it in another language, so it can’t be identical, and I like the idea of mirrors and reflecting, because what you see in the mirror is not identical. It’s subtly changed somehow, but at the same time it’s recognizable. And that, I guess, is a very good metaphor for what the translator tries to do.

Is there anything, the interviewer asked, that you couldn’t bring from one language to the other? Davies spoke at length — he has numerous times said he doesn’t believe in the untranslatable. But:

The only thing that I think poses sometimes insuperable problems for a translator in any language are puns. Because if the language into which you’re translating doesn’t happen to have anything, any pair of words that will complement one another, or any one word that will have two meanings that would echo the pun used in the original, then you’re in trouble.

Sometimes you find surprising possibilities, even between languages as distinct as Arabic and English. … And I regard this as simply a gift of fate.

What about punctuation, the interviewer asked.

Punctuation, yes, because I’m not sure that there is a single, agreed-upon system of punctuation in Arabic. Now, there isn’t a totally agreed-on system for English either, but we do have our Chicago Manual of Style…and there is no equivalent of the Chicago Manual of Style for Arabic punctuation. So I think it can be a little confusing to find the comma used, for example, where one would use a full stop. Let’s just there’s a wide variation in the way that Arabic writers use punctuation. And there is a real technical issue that you have to think about when you’re translation.

Next she asked about how the novel has changed in the time he’s been translated, which has been for a bit more than a decade. He spoke about the gothic novel, about young authors, and:

I think it’s a time of foment in Arabic literature, which is a good thing for me, and for everyone else.

Then the translator asked about how Davies went about choosing what he translates.

I really don’t like books that are “traditional.” … Usually, you read a book, and you feel, “This person is going through the motions of being a writer because for whatever reason they feel they need to be a writer. But they don’t actually have an individual vision.” And with that, having an individual vision, authenticity, comes a lack of tradition….

I’m very eclectic in my tastes. There are books written in very different modes which appeal to me greatly. And there could be another book that’s sufficiently similar to a book that I liked very much and I’ll say no, I do not want to translate this book, and in fact I don’t even want to read it, not after the first twenty pages or something. I’m…at essence, a 20-page reader. If I’m not interested after twenty pages, then I toss it.

That said, it’s not always me that picks it. … Books are often suggested to me by publishers. And that has become more and more the case as I’ve become better known, I suppose.

If I were to characterize what I like, and what gives me that frisson of, “Ah yes! This is good.” When you look at from a distance, perhaps… I really don’t like books that are “traditional.” … Usually, you read a book, and you feel, “This person is going through the motions of being a writer because for whatever reason they feel they need to be a writer. But they don’t actually have an individual vision.” And with that, having an individual vision, authenticity, comes a lack of tradition….

So, by and large, you could say that I like new stuff, non-traditional stuff. Now it may sound odd to say I like Faris al-Shidyaq and his book al-Saq ‘ala al-Saq. It is absolutely a brand new book with a very very authentic individual vision, extreme experimentation in form, and it was written in 1855.

Finally, the interviewer asked Davies if he’d sum it up by saying that he liked a challenge. He answered at some length, but the gem was:

To really squeeze the goodness out of a text is something I like to do.

Watch the whole video:

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5 comments

  1. Thank you for this interesting and very crucial interview for me as a translation scholar. I just did not fully comprehend the concept of the individual vision… Thank you.

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    • The author’s individual vision, you mean?

      Well, to speak for Humphrey (which I hope he won’t mind), I’d assume he would say that Elias Khoury — who he’s translated — has an individual vision. Khoury doesn’t just write novels in the same pattern as other writers, he has his particular obsessions (memory, violence) and he works to construct his novels based on the way he sees his characters and the world, making completely new-feeling novels out of the materials at hand.

      Most certainly he’d say that Faris al-Shidyaq had an absolutely individual vision, his own way of seeing the world and finding a way to construct his writing to express that / create that.

      As for who doesn’t have an individual vision, let’s say the majority of us, who write on the pattern of everyone else without breaking tradition and going somewhere new.

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