Gained in Translation

Private Collection/Bridgeman Images

A photograph by Sophia Andreevna Tolstaya of Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky, late nineteenth century

“But isn’t it all just subjective?”

The scene is a Translation Slam, so-called. Two translators translate the same short passage and discuss their versions with a moderator in front of an audience of other translators. “Slam” suggests violent struggle and eventual victory or defeat. In reality, it’s all very polite and even protective. There will be no vote to decide which version wins. Nobody is going to be humiliated.

All the same, the question of which choice is better comes up again and again. Right now, we’re looking at the difference between “group” and “phalanx” in the phrases “commander of a group of loyal knights” and “commander of a phalanx of faithful men”—both translations of the Italian “comandante a una schiera di fedeli.”

The translator who has used “knights” explains that since the “commander” in question is King Arthur, the “fedeli” or “faithful” whom he commands would surely be the Knights of the Round Table. The translator who has used “phalanx” explains that the Italian word “schiera,” as he sees it, means men arranged in a particular formation or order. And a phalanx would be such a formation.

What about “faithful” and “loyal”? “Faithful” alliterates with “phalanx.” “Loyal” commonly collocates with “knights,” and perhaps borrows a corroborating aura from its assonance with “royal.”

We discuss all this for some time, until someone in the audience objects, “Isn’t it all just subjective?” Meaning, this debate is pointless. De gustibus non est disputandum. Once the literal meaning has been more or less respected, a translation choice, or indeed any literary usage or style, is merely a question of personal taste. You like it or you don’t.

The objection is persuasive, but is it true that aesthetic preferences are “just subjective?” We need to put some pressure on this idea. Does such a description match our experience of books, theater, films, and music? Not all our dealings with books are arbitrary. Young children tend to like a certain kind of story, a certain manner of storytelling, then they “grow out of it.” This or that narrative formula begins to seem too simple, perhaps. Adolescents might enjoy romance or fantasy fiction, then their accumulating experience leads them to look elsewhere. 

Two facts seem obvious here. Any element of choice is limited. The child cannot help first liking such and such a story, then eventually putting it aside. When your mother reads you Where the Wild Things Are, you are immediately hooked. Or not. So it’s true that one simply likes or doesn’t like something. You can’t choose to respond positively to “Earth hath not anything to show more fair” if it doesn’t grab you. And if you like Fifty Shades of Grey, you like it, even though it might be convenient to say you don’t.

But it’s also true that when preferences shift they do so for a reason, if not as a result of reasoning. Growing up, one brings more context and experience, more world, to one’s reading and this “more” changes one’s taste. We might even say this new experience changes the person and with the person the book. At this point, earlier preferences will likely be disparaged, or fondly set aside.

From this observation, it’s a small step to the idea of education and learning. I deliberately, systematically, increase my experience and knowledge in order to have a richer encounter with what I read. The appropriateness of this approach is obvious when, say, reading in a second language: I know enough French to read Bonjour Tristesse, perhaps, but not enough to appreciate Proust. Or when reading things from other times: I pick up The Faerie Queene and am soon aware that the experience would be less frustrating if I knew more about the period and the genre. Our responses and preferences are not arbitrary; they depend on what we bring to what we read or watch.

Does this mean we can say that this preference is better than that? Or that this critical reading is superior to another? Let’s go back to the Translation Slam. The passage we’re looking at is the opening, three short paragraphs, of L’isola di Arturo, by Elsa Morante, which was a major bestseller when it was published in 1957. The first thing that strikes the reader is the way a highly elaborate style, packed with parentheses, subordinates, and rhetorical outbursts, has been placed in the mouth of someone remembering what it was like to be a little boy. Here is an unapologetically literal translation of the first paragraph, to give you an idea:

One of my first boasts had been my name. I had soon learned (it was he, it seems to me, who was first to inform me of it) that Arturo is a star: the fastest and brightest light of the constellation of Boötes, in the northern sky! And that what’s more this name was also borne by a king of ancient times, commander of a band of loyal men: who were all heroes, like their king himself, and by their king treated as equals, like brothers.

As an evocation of childhood, this is hardly Huckleberry Finn or The Catcher in the Rye. Or even David Copperfield. How to deal with it? One of the translators felt that the challenge of the Slam was to translate the passage in isolation, so he hasn’t, he tells us, looked up the novel or read any further. In the Italian, he finds the style over-elaborate in places; it needs reining in, he feels, because English doesn’t do these things.


The other translator says she initially felt disoriented by this extravagant voice and so found a copy of the novel and read on. What did she find? The narrator tells of his lonely boyhood on the island of Procida off the bay of Naples. His mother died at his birth. His father—who turns out to be the “he” of the second sentence—is mostly absent. Aided by a couple of elderly peasant folk, Arturo grows up in a house mysteriously known as the House of Rascals, in the company of a cheerful dog. The house is full of classical literature, myths and heroes and epic wars, which become the boy’s only education; so he spends his days in a fantasy world imagining grand exploits, beside his dog, in his Mediterranean paradise, yearning for the presence of a father, who, Ulysses-like, is always traveling. Alas, with time Arturo will discover that the reality behind the House of Rascals and his father’s absence is depressingly squalid. The book ends as he abandons his boyhood island for the continent of adulthood.

The elaborate nature of the style aligns with pleasurable illusion, pretensions, posturings, and boyish boasts that are inflated only to be later deflated and disappointed. Looking at the translations, one of the slammers has talked about being “proud of my name”; one has kept the idea of boasting. One has talked about Arturo being “the name of a star”; one has stayed closer to the original and said, “Arthur is a star.” One has simplified and shortened the paragraph; one hasn’t. Perhaps we can’t decide which of these two brief translations is better in absolute terms, as a passage in English, but we might begin to sense which is more in line with the book’s pattern of inflated illusion followed by disillusionment. And if we want to translate a book because we admire the original, perhaps that pattern is worth keeping. Fortunately, to warn us what she has in store, Morante gives us the emotional cadence of her story in miniature right on the first page. Thus the second paragraph, again in merely literal translation, begins:

Unfortunately, I later came to know that this famous Arturo king of Britain was not definite history, just legend; and so I left him aside for other more historical kings (in my opinion legends were childish things).

It is exactly the learning process we mentioned before. Discovery of the problem of historicity has altered Arturo’s appreciation of his name. But no sooner has the Camelot boast been shot down than the boy launches into another self-aggrandizing reflection:

But another reason, all the same, was enough to give, for me, a heraldic importance to the name Arturo: and that is, that to destine me this name (even without knowing, I think, its titled symbols) had been, I discovered, my mother. Who, in herself, was no more than an illiterate girl; but more than a queen, for me.

Of course, the verb “destine” is rarely used, aside from the past participle “destined,” and won’t do in a final translation, but I put it in this literal version to suggest just how much the narrator is puffing things up. One of our two translators felt this long sentence (which, in spite of the period, actually continues in the relative clause “Who, in herself,…”) was really too much; it was overheated, he thought, and manically indirect. In fact, both translators have split it into three, more standard segments. As if to show, though, that the overheating was precisely the point, Morante’s next paragraph again begins with a splash of cold water. Translated literally, we have:

About her, in reality, I have always known little, almost nothing: since she died, at the age of not even eighteen years, in the very moment that I, her first son, was born.

Have we done anything to counter the objection that response to translator choices are “just subjective,” and so beyond discussion? If we turn to the published translation (1959; by Isabel Quigly), we notice that our three paragraphs have been reduced to two; the boy’s disappointment that King Arthur was only legend is now included in the first paragraph, while the second begins with the fact that it was his mother who chose the name. At the same time, the register in this translation shifts radically toward something colloquial and recognizably boyish: “ages ago there was some king called Arthur as well… I thought legends were kid’s stuff… a sort of heraldic ring.”


Here we have neither the rhetorical puffing-up of the boyish boast, nor the paragraph interruption that underlines its deflation. This observation is not subjective, any more than it is subjective to say that “phalanx” is a word generally used in the context of ancient Greece rather than ancient Britain. It’s true, though, that we might find, in spite of these observations, that we prefer Quigly’s version. There is no reasoning that can make us like or dislike something. But with the knowledge we now have of the original, we might also wonder how Quigly’s different, more laconic voice can possibly be made to fit with the story that is going to be told. Just as, once it is pointed out, you might start to feel that Arthur’s knights are not the 300 Spartans.

Translating literature is not always more difficult than translating other texts—tourist brochures, technical manuals, art catalogues, sales contracts, and the like. But it does have this distinguishing characteristic: its sense is not limited to a simple function of informing or persuading, but rather thrives on a superabundance of possible meanings, an openness to interpretation, an invitation to measure what is described against our experience. This is stimulating. The more we bring to it, the more it offers, with the result that later readings will be different from the first in a way that is hardly true of a product description or city guide.  

Translators are people who read books for us. Tolstoy wrote in Russian, so someone must read him for us and then write down that reading in our language. Since the book will be fuller and richer the more experience a reader brings to it, we would want our translator, as he or she reads, to be aware of as much as possible, aware of cultural references, aware of lexical patterns, aware of geographical setting and historical moment. Aware, too, of our own language and its many resources. Far from being “just subjective,” these differences will be a function of the different experiences these readers bring to the book, since none of us accumulates the same experience. Even then, of course, two expert translators will very likely produce two quite different versions. But if what we want is a translation of Tolstoy, rather than just something that sounds good enough sentence by sentence, it would seem preferable to have our reading done for us by people who can bring more, rather than less, to the work.

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