Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What the French call a certain Jay Nest Kwa

I spent about 12 hours reading 458 pages of Gregory Rabassa last weekend.

Never heard of him? Neither had I until I read the back cover of “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

But didn’t Gabriel García Márquez write that? Well, sort of. He wrote “Cien Años de Soledad” in 1967. Then, he waited for three years while Rabassa’s schedule cleared, so he could translate it to English.

Márquez was even known to say the English translation of his story was better than the Spanish original. (I’ll have to take Márquez’s word for it, since my Spanish hovers at a second-grade level.)

Translators have a rough deal. They are one part necessary evil and one part artist. Would it be better if we could all read Tolstoy in the original Russian? Sure, I guess. Honestly, I have no idea. (I can count the Russian words I know on one finger. Gazpacho is Russian, right?)

Were it not for Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, I would be incapable of understanding “Anna Karenina.” (Even with them, I’m pretty sure I missed something.)

“Don Quixote,” “The Brothers Karamazov,” “The Aeneid,” pretty much any religious text that isn’t the Book of Mormon… most bookshelves are dependent on these invisible hands. They have to take one artist’s words, translate it to a different language, but preserve the story and the art.

How do you translate the Italian pun of traddutore/traditore into English? How do you maintain the rhythm of a French stanza while transforming it into another language? It’s like trying to recreate “Night Stars” with charcoal or “Pour Some Sugar on Me” into folk rock. (I would listen to that.)

I have enough trouble trying to rewrite what some people say to me in English, let alone leaping the language barrier.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is, thank you, Rabassa. Thank you, Pevear and Volokhonsky. Language is still the easiest way people have to communicate, and you span the barriers that divide us.

So the next time you’re reading Márquez, Voltaire or Sun Tzu, flip the book over and remember the translator. They are just as much artists as the authors.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com

P.S. Rabassa has written a book called “If This Be Treason: Translation and its Dyscontents” about the art of translation. I have not read it and, as such, cannot recommend it. But I liked the last thing I read by him, so it might be worth a gander.

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