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Translation

In response to:

The Roman Spring of Clement VII from the March 31, 1983 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of André Chastel’s The Sack of Rome [NYR, March 31], Peter Partner cites five “mistranslations”; he is wrong in every case. He is furthermore in no position to judge “mistranslations” or “homonymous translations” since he had no original with which to compare them. It should be made clear that the present translation was made from an unpublished manuscript. Mr. Partner’s ability to reconstruct the language of a text which by his own admission he has never seen—“It was originally written in French (or so I infer from the introduction)”—is awesome indeed.

In reply to his erroneous observations:

1) reparation is a perfectly accurate translation of réparation in this context—cf. Webster’s New World Dictionary: 1. a repairing or being repaired; restoration to good condition. 2. repairs. The OED concurs. No one fluent in both languages would deliberately avoid a word that is not—as Mr. Partner presumes—a homonym, but an identical cognate.

2) deviations happens not to be a “homonymous” rendering since it does not translate déviations, as Mr. Partner imagines, but faux mouvements. (However, there are cases in which deviation would be the most precise translation of déviation).

3) express, in “authority express,” was read by Mr. Partner as an adjective, and then reinvented by him into “authorité [sic] expresse,” where in my sentence express is a verb translating expriment: “The distance between what these ‘symbolic forms’ associated with authority express, and the reality of power….” Careless reading of this kind discredits the reviewer.

4) As for Mr. Partner’s “favorite mistranslation,” the English is as clear as the French, which is both realistic and ironic: “…built after one of those accidents that sometimes bereave pilgrims” (un de ces accidents qui endeuillaient…), meaning that occasional accidents left pilgrims bereft of accompanying family or friends (cf. Webster: to leave forlorn as by loss or death).

5) With regard to Mr. Partner’s “mental block,” I can offer him the original sentence: “Aussi avons-nous cru devoir insister sur les obsessions révélatrices qui, à travers les systèmes astrologiques ou prophétiques, constituent des facteurs non négligeables de blocages et de faux mouvements.” Perhaps Mr. Partner would now like to reinvent Mr. Chastel’s text.

One is left wondering what kind of satisfactions can be derived from such irresponsible attacks.

Beth Archer

Princeton, New Jersey

Peter Partner replies:

I apologize for having missed the relative “what” preceding “symbolic forms” (Beth Archer’s para. 3 above). But I cannot withdraw my main criticism of her translation of Chastel’s book. Her citations from Webster’s are neither here nor there: the task of a translator is not to find a series of plausible equivalents for the translated words, but to express the sense of the original in the speech patterns of a native speaker of the language into which the translation is made. In other words, Beth Archer’s translation should read consistently like English, and it does not. Native speakers of English do not say “reparations” for repairs; they do not talk about the “individuation of the indicted power” (p. 90); they do not write (to continue the paragraph, pp. 16-17 of the text, for part of which Beth Archer cites the original French above) that there are “cases in which the modalities of the imagination become the stuff of historical moments.”

It is hard to criticize a translation for which the original is not available to the critic, and I am sorry that I made a wrong guess about the original French of “deviations” in the translation (Beth Archer’s para. 2 above). Of course I cannot “reinvent” Chastel’s text, nor was it my intention to do so. But the inaccessibility of the original does not protect the translation from criticism, as Beth Archer seems to imply. Chastel’s French is hard, and the obligation on the translator is onerous. But it cannot be avoided by simply quoting (Beth Archer’s para. 5 above) a sentence which shows the difficulty of the original. The implied challenge: “Make of that what you can!” suggests that the challenger sees a translation as a series of passages of more or less difficulty for which equivalents must be found. That is not, I suggest, what a translation is about. Translators must have enough understanding of the thought of the original writer, so that they can translate in a form that would be natural to someone trying to explain that thought in the ordinary idioms of the other language. Finding equivalents for a series of words or phrases is not the same as expressing their meaning, and if a translation seems to lack a meaning, then something has gone wrong. It may be that Beth Archer would agree with this objective, and that we are discussing degrees of success or failure in the execution of the aim. I must in honesty report that I do not think she has succeeded too well.

In the case of the bereaved pilgrims I am unrepentant. The idea of the dead being bereaved by their own deaths is grotesque in English, and Beth Archer’s speculation that the reference is to the deaths of “accompanying family and friends,” though not impossible, is tortuous. The reference is to a panic which happened on the Sant’Angelo bridge during the Jubilee of 1450, which led to the trampling down of many pilgrims, or to their being pushed into the river and drowned. No doubt many of the survivors lost family or friends, but Chastel’s text does not say so. In the absence of a published French text, the onus to be clear lies especially heavily on the translator; it is not up to the reader to puzzle if all out.

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