Thursday, May 26, 2011

Translation is like sex.

...or at least, that's what Julian Barnes seems to be implying in this article about the difficulties of translating Madame Bovary. Witness:

1.) If you go to the website of the restaurant L’Huîtrière (3, rue des Chats Bossus, Lille) and click on ‘translate’, the zealous automaton you have stirred up will instantly render everything into English, including the address. And it comes out as ‘3 street cats humped’. Translation is clearly too important a task to be left to machines.

2.) Then we make a key decision: should this translator be ancient or modern? Flaubert’s contemporary, or ours? After a little thought, we might plump for an Englishwoman of Flaubert’s time, whose prose would inevitably be free of anachronism or other style-jarringness. And if she was of the time, then might we not reasonably imagine the author helping her? Let’s push it further: the translator not only knows the author, but lives in his house, able to observe his spoken as well as his written French. They might work side by side on the text for as long as it takes. And now let’s push it to the limit: the female English translator might become the Frenchman’s lover – they always say that the best way to learn a language is through pillow talk.

3.) Madame Bovary is many things – a perfect piece of fictional machinery, the pinnacle of realism, the slaughterer of Romanticism, a complex study of failure – but it is also the first great shopping and fucking novel.

4.) When my novel Flaubert’s Parrot was being translated into German, my editor in Zurich modestly suggested some additional flourishes: for instance, a pun on Flaubert as a ‘flea-bear’, and a German slang phrase for masturbation which literally means ‘to shake from the palm tree’. Since Flaubert, at this point of my novel, was being masturbated in Egypt, this felt like a happy improvement on the English text.

What's the connection? My guess: Translating literature is like sex because two writers come together to create one new work, and you can never tell how ugly (or not) it's going to turn out.

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