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)