>Readers and Writers as Translators

>I started to post the following excerpt about translations almost a month ago, but never finished it. Originally, I thought it relevant to the discussion at the Reading War and Peace blog on which translation of Tolstoy’s novel was the “best”. But, reading BikeProf’s post yesterday at The Hobgoblin of Little Minds, brought to mind again the following excerpts from Michael Cunningham’s introduction to a new translation of Mann’s Death In Venice (Ecco, 2004). I think it’s relevant to BikeProf’s comments about literature evoking an emotional response: the writer creates–or translates as Cunningham suggests–and the reader re-creates. The writer/writing is evocative, the reader/reading emotive; both use the process of interpretation, the translation Cunningham writes about. The following excerpts are a bit long. I highly recommend not only reading Cunningham’s intro, but also Michael Henry Heim’s translation as well.

All novels are translations, even in their original languages. This has been revealed to me over time, as I’ve worked with the various dedicated (and inevitably underpaid) people who have agreed to translate my own books. When I started working with translators, I couldn’t help noticing that many of the problems that vexed them — questions of nuance, resonance, and tone, as well as the rhythms of the sentences themselves — were familiar to me. I’d worried over the same things when I wrote the book in the first place. It dawned on me, gradually, that I was a translator, too. I had taken the raw material of the book in question and translated it into language.

Every writer of course works differently, but I suspect that most novels begin in their writers’ minds as confusions of images, impulses, scattered meanings, devotitions, grudges, fixations, and some vague sort of plot, to name just a few. A novel in its earliest form, before it begins to be rendered into language, is a cloud of sorts that hovers over the writer’s head, a mystery born with clues to its own meanings but also, at its heart, insoluble. One hopes — a novel is inevitably an expression of unreasonable hopes — that the finished book will contain not only characters and scenes but a certain larger truth, though that truth, whatever it may be, is impossible to express fully in words. It has to do with the fact that writer and reader both know, beneath the level of active consciousness, something about being alive and being mortal, and that that something, when we try to express it, inevitably eludes us. We are creatures whose innate knowledge exceed that which can be articulated. Although language is enormously powerful, it is concrete, and so it can’t help but miniaturize, to a certain extent, that which we simply know. All the writers I respect want to write a book so penetrating and thorough, so compassionate and unrelenting, that it can stand unembarrassed beside the spectacle of life itself. And all writers I respect seem to know (though no one likes to talk about it) that our efforts are doomed from the outset. Life is bigger than literature. We do the best we can.


Fiction is , then, at least to me, an ongoing process of translation (and mistranslation), beginning with the writer’s earliest impulses and continuing through its rendering into Icelandic, or Korean or Catalan. Writers and translators are engaged in the same effort, at different stages along the line.


Still, a handful of blunders does not seem likely to alter the fundamental tone of a book, or seriously subvert its meaning. Any assertion that a translation can be rendered “accurate” if its blatant errors are corrected underestimates the art and magic of translation. A translation, any translation, is filtered through a particular sensibility, and so the discrepancies, as they accrue, must be, at least to some extent, an expression of whatever the translator brought to the job. However multilingual we may be as readers, we find ourselves faced with a fundamental, inescapable responsibility. We must understand that any book, and especially a great one, is a complex and highly personal exchange between its writer and its readers. None of us reads precisely the same book, even if the words are identical. Readers, too, are part of the ongoing process of translation, the one that originates in the author’s mind.

Introduction to Death in Venice, Thomas Mann, Michael Cunningham, 2004 (p, v-vi, viii, xiii-xiv)

As for War and Peace, I’m so far behind I’m not sure that I’ll catch up with the rest of the group to participate in the discussion. In using terms that BikeProf might appreciate: I crashed on a Cat 1 climb. I tried reading some of W&P using an on-line edition I could access away from home, and another version when I was at home. That proved very difficult; the translations were different enough in feel that it was odd switching from one to another, even if the transition was at a chapter.

2 responses to “>Readers and Writers as Translators

  1. >I am way behind too. I am not even going to try and catch up at this point. I am just happy to be reading a little each day and I will finish on my own. I thought about trying to read online, too, but I don’t want to mess up the translations–I really like the new one!

  2. >I DO like Michael Cunningham. Thinking of all reading and writing as translation — taking the cloud in our minds and shaping it into words — makes perfect sense to me.