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Translators shouldn’t be slaves to the holy “original”

Never an easy task, but where do you draw the line between original and translation?

The annual Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, awarded to the best contemporary fiction in translation, rewards author and translator equally. What if book reviews divided their attention in a similar way? First, reviewers might need a few lessons in what to look for. The ritual genuflections of a single adjective – “smooth”, “supple”, “taut” – would no longer do. Bilingual reviewers might become the rule rather than the exception. Two-thirds of a review might assess the original, leaving the rest for a judgement of how well it speaks in its new voice.

The question of what exactly they’d be listening out for is thornier. What makes a good translation? How is one produced? Young translators are usually advised to find an undiscovered author they might have a good relationship with and whose work they love. Yet both these roads are potholed. Publishers, who simply want to find the best person to translate a foreign book, are usually wary of an author-translator alliance presented to them as a fait accompli. There’s a whiff of cronyism to it. And as for the second point, a translator’s passion for a particular novel can hinder as much as help: a “kind” translation isn’t a very honest one. Lydia Davis admitted that she “didn’t actually like” Flaubert’s Madame Bovary but this didn’t stop her editor judging her to be the person best qualified to render the new version. “A translator is to be like his author,” Dr Johnson said. “It is not his duty to excel him.”

Less controversial is the view that a good translator brings together skills that are analytical (understanding the original) and creative (writing the new text). The married couple Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear co-translate Russian classics and embody this alter-ego balance. She, the native speaker, reads the text and drafts it into English using her superior comprehension. He, the stronger English compositor, edits and revises her text, able to sit the original alongside it for reference. But their Dostoevskys and Tolstoys are often held to be clunky or unhelpfully exoticising. They have overdone it, perhaps, imposing too much order on a necessarily mysterious process.

There is a deeper problem in all this. Our standards for translations usually conceal an impossible demand. We want a clone of the original, only made of different stuff. We invoke the Latin etymology of “translate”, which roughly means to “carry across” – for example, from one riverbank to another. In the absence of a bridge, someone needs to wade in, holding our bundle over their heads. If that’s really the idea, should we be surprised that our treasure is wet and mud-spattered by the time it reaches us? Concealed here is an assumption we thought we’d outgrown: that the best translator is the most servile – the one who will risk drowning to bring you your bounty.

Imagine trying to cook the same meal twice with different ingredients. You wouldn’t man­age it. Which is why the axiom of the triumphant cynic – that “There is no such thing as translation” – could actually be the start of creative good news. If we could get away from our reverence for the holy “original”, we might be freer to enjoy the work of translators. In music, it is perfectly acceptable to arrange a previously written piece for a new instrument or ensemble. When Franz Liszt transcribed a Beethoven concerto for solo piano, no one was about to complain that they couldn’t hear the violins. He was writing for the piano. In the days before recording, new arrangements of orchestral works had a practical purpose, too: to make them manageable for a salon quartet or accessible to those who lived far from the concert halls. Rather like translators, arrangers were adapting works in order to widen their audiences.

Naturally, I’m not recommending putting an author’s name on a work they wouldn’t recognise. Yet there are other tricks. I recently completed a co-translation of a collection of stories with four other translators. It is a new work, combining five stories from an original collection of six, a novella split into its four parts and one previously uncollected piece as a sort of coda. Despite a translation copyright line that reads like the result of a multiple merger of legal firms, and a mammoth editing process, we’ve managed to produce a single, coherent text.

Given that we were dealing with highly self-referential, connected stories in the first place, this was no easy task – but the publisher wanted a longer book than the originals offered, knowing that, as American and British readers, we expect a certain thickness of paper between our fingers. So we wrote a sort of fantasia for anglophone quintet – in a new key, for a different audience. Translations are derivative but they can also be new.

Ollie Brock is a freelance translator. His co-translation of “The Polish Boxer” by Eduardo Halfon (Pushkin Press) is published in October

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis