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Limits of Translation

In response to:

A Double Life from the June 25, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

P.N. Furbank’s discussion of my translation of Claude Arnaud’s Chamfort [NYR, June 25] has prompted me to reflect on the nature of the task performed by professional translators. Although many people are aware that it is a self-effacing and often thankless job, fewer realize the extent to which bold decision-making is inherent to any good translation.

The process might be compared to the task of reproducing a mosaic from a stock-pile of little tiles that are rarely the same shape or color as the ones used in the original. The overriding goal is to insure that the two mosaics project an identical image when viewed from a distance. Although an ideal translation would continue to match the original as the viewer gets closer and closer to the fragments, this is ultimately of secondary importance and is never really possible. The most common weakness in translations, in fact, involves choosing little tiles for their apparent similarity to each of the original tiles, only to produce an increasingly skewed or muddled picture as the viewer backs away. The critical decision-making process performed by a good translator first entails setting priorities (in most cases, functional meaning is of greater importance than stylistic or purely lexical considerations) and then employing experience and talent to select the right arrangement of tiles. A tile that looks quite different from its original counterpart may be perfect when carefully set in context.

I stress context here because Mr. Furbank, in a stern footnote, describes as a “serious slip” my translation of L’Art de la fugue as The Artifice of Flight.* Readers of his review could be forgiven for thinking that I fell asleep at the word processor, for Mr. Furbank provides no context for this apparently striking departure from the French text. The phrase in question functioned as a heading to a short section, the first paragraph of which told how the adolescent Chamfort ran away from school. The primary meaning of fugue, therefore, is “the act of running away.” The rest of the section described Chamfort’s schooling, stressed his intensive study of Greek and Roman classics, and concluded with the evocative image of a genius soaring high above his contemporaries. This passage conveniently offered a solution to the problem raised by the heading, since “flight” could punningly allude to “fly” and “flee,” paralleling the double entendre of fugue. The musical allusion in the French pun was deliberately discarded since there was no other reference to Bach or baroque music in the entire chapter. Claude Arnaud’s playful throwaway was primarily designed to lead into the section that followed, and the flow of the English prose would have been seriously disrupted by a heading that had nothing to do with “running away.”

Of greater moment is Mr. Furbank’s objection to my translation of what is perhaps Chamfort’s most well-known aphorism: L’amour, tel qu’il existe dans la société, est l’échange de deux fantaisies et le contact de deux épidermes. Furbank prefers W. S. Merwin’s original translation, which runs: “Love as it exists in society is merely the mingling of two fantasies and the contact of two skins.” I felt this version was weak for a number of reasons, and therefore attempted to produce a more faithful image (let me immediately credit Merwin, however, for having done a superb job on many of Chamfort’s other aphorisms). I finally settled for “Love, such as it exists in high society, is merely an exchange of whims and the contact of skins.” The lexical justification for these modifications essentially concerns the 18th-century phrase dans la société (which commonly refers to an elite circle, and not the world at large) coupled with fantaisie (“fantasy” is a false cognate; the term may have either positive or pejorative connotations depending on context, but is always fairly frivolous. The imaginative richness of “fantasy” is better conveyed by fantasme). On a more connotative level, épiderme suggests, above all, superficiality. The text itself thus indicates that Chamfort was making a sharp yet elegant attack on the frivolity of the French aristocracy (had he been referring to all instances of love, he would simply have said L’amour est l’échange de deux fantaisies…). This is coherent with the larger context of what we know about Chamfort. Unlike La Rochefoucauld, Chamfort was not usually drawn to universal maxims; he favored incisive social observations full of intellectual distinctions, formulated in what Joseph Epstein called “stiletto-like sentences.” I therefore strove for an accurate rendering of what I felt Chamfort meant and—since I discussed my translations of Chamfort with Claude Arnaud—how the biographer intended to present him.

Mr. Furbank cushions his dismissal of my version with the comment that this aphorism is, in any case, “untranslatable.” Yet this attitude highlights what is ultimately the most disturbing aspect of the article: his review appears to challenge the very viability of translation itself in many instances. For example, Mr. Furbank refrains from hazarding translations of two French passages he includes in his article, offering footnoted glosses instead. Such passages, he claims repeatedly, can never be adequately translated. Readers must either understand French perfectly (while remaining strangely incapable of expressing that understanding in English) or else they are out of luck. This is where I differ most profoundly with Mr. Furbank.

Nothing truly meaningful is untranslatable. When a real message is conveyed, it can almost always be translated, however imperfectly, into some other form. A good translator must have the confidence to decide what a given passage means, and also possess the interpretative intelligence and writing skills enabling him or her to put that decision on the line.

Deke Dusinberre
Paris, France

  1. *

    My thanks to Mr. Furbank for pointing out in the same footnote that I did indeed confuse the ancien régime office of maître de la librairie (“librarian to the king”) with directeur de la librairie (“director of publishing”), thereby ascribing the wrong office to Malesherbes.

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