Found in translation

The invisible art of translation deserves wider recognition.

I once met a French translator of Shakespeare. My immediate reaction on being introduced to him was odd: I felt a stab of envy. This French translator, I felt, could get really close to Shakespeare; I myself, being neither an actor nor a producer, could only read him.

My reaction was, of course, perverse. Most people would think that, as a native speaker of English, I can understand Shakespeare more intimately than any foreigner. Nevertheless, I had some idea of how deeply this translator might have pondered every word of the plays he was translating. I know, after all, that few Russians have pondered each word of Andrey Platonov's stories as I have myself. And my collaborator Olga Meerson has often pointed out that a scholar or critic can choose which passages to focus on, whereas a translator has to do justice to every word of the original; he has to think about everything.

So, translating a great writer is nearly always rewarding. And I am especially fortunate in that there are several great Russian writers, especially of the Soviet period, who are still little known in the west, and whom I have had the honour of translating for the first time. Over 25 years ago I spent the best part of four months living almost as a hermit on the north coast of Cornwall in order to complete my translation of Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate. Yesterday Life and Fate was the number one best seller on Amazon. I feel I have achieved something.

And I know that other translators feel the same way. Here, for example, are a few lines from a recent blog by the poet and translator George Szirtes:

Translation has opened the door to new territories, new people, new understandings, new travel: a different field of recognition. It has felt good to offer new life to works in a language as little spoken as Hungarian. [...]. I am glad that those I have translated have sometimes found opportunities to extend their readership to England and other English-speaking territories. So territory. I too live here. I live here with them and I like being with them.

In comparison with this sense of achievement, complaints about the invisibility of translators seem trivial. Nevertheless, if translators are, as a matter of course, undervalued, then it is hard for them to earn a living. And if it is hard for them to earn a living, then much good literature will either be translated badly or not translated at all. This matters; it is a loss to all of us.

A few days ago someone sent me an article about Life and Fate from The Economist. There is no mention of my name, but I was not intending to respond. I had, only a few days before, spent a lot of time and energy drawing attention to the BBC's failure to mention my name in a press release for their dramatisation of the novel - and I was wanting to forget about all that and get on with my work. Then I caught sight of a review, on the preceeding page, of Is that a Fish in your Ear?, a book about translation by David Bellos. I wrote the following letter to The Economist:

Your review of David Bellos's excellent book about translation refers to "the unrecognised importance of the craft". Your review - on the following page - of the BBC dramatisation of Life and Fate illustrates this point very well. The review is titled "Vasily Grossman's epic novel is transformed for the radi"'. Nowhere, however, does it mention that Grossman's novel has already undergone transformation from one language to another. From sentences like this you might even think that the novel was originally written in English: "The grittiness of Grossman's dialogue becomes a little bland in the well-modulated voices of the British actors." Yours, Robert Chandler (invisible translator of Life and Fate).

I enjoyed writing this; The Economist had presented me with an opportunity and I wanted to make the most of it. Nevertheless, what I wrote does not get to grips with this question of invisibility. Most people, after all, have some idea, if only from seeing a few bilingual restaurant menus, of how badly things can get mangled in translation; most people enjoy my story of a Petersburg restaurant that offered a starter called "beef language" - a dish more commonly known as ox tongue. Why then do so many people want to pretend that translators don't exist?

One possible answer is that we are still in the grip of the Romantic ideal of individual creativity. We don't like to think of great, serious works of art as being co-authored. We tend to forget about the librettists but for whom many great operas would never have been written. Scriptwriters probably get still more deeply forgotten. And even a famous writer, if he moonlights as a translator, can slip into the abyss; no less a figure than Christopher Hampton was recently omitted from the credits of a Polanski film based on a play by Yasmina Reza that Hampton had himself translated. Seamus Heaney, admittedly, was praised to the skies for his version of Beowulf - but this only reinforces my point. Beowulf is anonymous, and so there was no other author competing for the public's attention. Only when a work of art does not demand to be taken too seriously are we willing to accept the idea of co-authorship. Gilbert and Sullivan are allowed to co-exist, and so are Laurel and Hardie. The two most popular satirists of twentieth-century Russia - Ilf and Petrov - also worked closely together, and their names - for Russians - are no less inseparable.

It is also worth adding that our Romantic view of creativity leads us to undervalue craft. After the omission of my name from the BBC press release, a colleague wrote that, "Sadly, the BBC display a lordly disdain for craftsmanship of all kinds - but especially the kind of skills which make things possible, and without which their stars and attendant orbiting egos could not shine." This, of course, is probably equally true of most other branches of the media.

A Russian colleague said to me that translators are like rubbish collectors - only noticed when they don't do their job. But the situation may actually be slightly worse: people often seem surprisingly eager to imagine that a translator is not doing his or her job. People who would trust a writer often do not trust a translator. Today, for example, I came across a largely enthusiastic customer review of Life and Fate on Amazon. After saying he had not found the novel difficult to read, the reviewer continued, "This is probably due in no small part to the excellent translation (at least my Russian speaking friends tell me so) although certain words or phrases do jar - would a "pike-perch" actually be what we call a sturgeon?" In reply I quoted the OED's definition of a pike-perch: "pike-perch, a percoid fish of the genus Stizostedion, with jaws like those of a pike, species of which are found in European and N. American river". What makes a reviewer single out one word in a book of several hundred thousand words? Why did he not first look the word up in a dictionary? The frequency of such criticisms makes many translators nervous about using language that is in the least out of the ordinary. This too is a loss.

I have, almost without exception, been fortunate as regards my publishers. My editors at Harvill, Harvill Secker, NYRB Classics, Penguin and the MacLehose Press have always made me feel that they value my work, and their editorial input has always been both sensitive and enormously helpful. But I have also been extremely fortunate in another respect: my wife - who is also my closest collaborator - has been able to support me through twenty years during which I have not once earned anything approaching an average income. Were it not for this support, I would never have been able to devote so much time to such an exceptionally difficult writer as Andrey Platonov.

In the past, I used not to speak of this; I felt ashamed. I mention it now because I think it is worth calling attention to the difficulties faced by literary translators in this country. I have sometimes joked that by the age of 70 I might at last - as the writers I translate become recognised - be earning a normal income. Most people, however, cannot afford to wait this long.

Robert Chandler is the translator of "Life and Fate" by Vasily Grossman (Vintage, £9.99)

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How power shifted dramatically in this week’s Game of Thrones

The best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry.

Last week’s Game of Thrones was absolutely full of maps. It had more maps than a Paper Towns/Moonrise Kingdom crossover. More maps than an Ordnance Survey walking tour of a cartographer’s convention. More maps than your average week on CityMetric.

So imagine the cheers of delight when this week’s episode, “Stormborn”, opened with – yes, a map! Enter Daenerys, casting her eyes over her carved table map (Ikea’s Västeross range, I believe), deciding whether to take King’s Landing and the iron throne from Cersei or a different path. After some sassy debates with Varys over loyalty, more members of her court enter to point angrily at different grooves in the table as Dany and Tyrion move their minature armies around the board.

In fact, this whole episode had a sense of model parts slotting pleasingly into place. Melisandre finally moved down the board from Winterfell to Dragonstone to initiate the series’ most inevitable meeting, between The King of the North and the Mother of Dragons. Jon is hot on her heels. Arya crossed paths with old friends Hot Pie and Nymeria, and the right word spoken at the right time saw her readjust her course to at last head home to the North. Tyrion seamlessly anticipated a move from Cersei and changed Dany’s tack accordingly. There was less exposition than last week, but the episode was starting to feel like an elegant opening to a long game of chess.

All this made the episode’s action-filled denouement all the more shocking. As Yara, Theon and Ellaria dutifully took their place in Dany’s carefully mapped out plans, they were ambushed by their mad uncle Euron (a character increasingly resembling Blackbeard-as-played-by-Jared-Leto). We should have known: just minutes before, Yara and Ellaria started to get it on, and as TV law dictates, things can never end well for lesbians. As the Sand Snakes were mown down one by one, Euron captured Yara and dared poor Theon to try to save her. As Theon stared at Yara’s desperate face and tried to build up the courage to save her, we saw the old ghost of Reek quiver across his face, and he threw himself overboard. It’s an interesting decision from a show that has recently so enjoyed showing its most abused characters (particularly women) delight in showy, violent acts of revenge. Theon reminds us that the sad reality of trauma is that it can make people behave in ways that are not brave, or redemptive, or even kind.

So Euron’s surprise attack on the rest of the Greyjoy fleet essentially knocked all the pieces off the board, to remind us that the best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry. Even when you’ve laid them on a map.

But now for the real question. Who WAS the baddest bitch of this week’s Game of Thrones?

Bad bitch points are awarded as follows:

  • Varys delivering an extremely sassy speech about serving the people. +19.
  • Missandei correcting Dany’s High Valerian was Extremely Bold, and I, for one, applaud her. +7.
  • The prophecy that hinges on a gender-based misinterpretation of the word “man” or “prince” has been old since Macbeth, but we will give Dany, like, two points for her “I am not a prince” chat purely out of feminist obligation. +2.
  • Cersei having to resort to racist rhetoric to try and persuade her own soldiers to fight for her. This is a weak look, Cersei. -13.
  • Samwell just casually chatting back to his Maester on ancient medicine even though he’s been there for like, a week, and has read a total of one (1) book on greyscale. +5. He seems pretty wrong, but we’re giving points for sheer audacity.
  • Cersei thinking she can destroy Dany’s dragon army with one (1) big crossbow. -15. Harold, they’re dragons.
  • “I’ve known a great many clever men. I’ve outlived them all. You know why? I ignored them.” Olenna is the queen of my LIFE. +71 for this one (1) comment.
  • Grey Worm taking a risk and being (literally) naked around someone he loves. +33. He’s cool with rabid dogs, dizzying heights and tumultuous oceans, but clearly this was really scary for him. It’s important and good to be vulnerable!! All the pats on the back for Grey Worm. He really did that.
  • Sam just fully going for it and chopping off all of Jorah’s skin (even though he literally… just read a book that said dragonglass can cure greyscale??). +14. What is this bold motherfucker doing.
  • Jorah letting him. +11.
  • “You’ve been making pies?” “One or two.” Blatant fan service from psycho killer Arya, but I fully loved it. +25.
  • Jon making Sansa temporary Queen in the North. +7.
  • Sansa – queen of my heart and now Queen in the North!!! +17.
  • Jon choking Littlefinger for perving over Sansa. +19. This would just be weird and patriarchal, but Littlefinger is an unholy cunt and Sansa has been horrifically abused by 60 per cent of the men who have ever touched her.
  • Nymeria staring down the woman who once possessed her in a delicious reversal of fortune. +13. Yes, she’s a wolf but she did not consent to being owned by a strangely aggressive child.
  • Euron had a big win. So, regrettably, +10.

​That means this week’s bad bitch is Olenna Tyrell, because who even comes close? This week’s loser is Cersei. But, as always, with the caveat that when Cersei is really losing – she strikes hard. Plus, Qyburn’s comment about the dragon skeletons under King’s Landing, “Curious that King Robert did not have them destroyed”, coupled with his previous penchant for re-animated dead bodies, makes me nervous, and worry that – in light of Cersei’s lack of heir – we’re moving towards a Cersei-Qyburn-White Walkers alliance. So do watch out.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.