Lost In Retranslation

on Thursday, December 24, 2009
As I continue to revel in the brilliance of Breon Mitchell's new translation of The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, I can't help but wonder whether it needed to be revisited. Back at university I studied German literature and loved Mannheim's perfectly functional translation of the book that Professor Graewe set us. That version adequately captures the terse cynicism and surrealism of the German original (insofar as I believe it is there), as well as the remarkable density of Grass's prose. The author, however, disagrees. This new translation was his idea. To celebrate fifty years since it was first published, Grass wanted a translation that properly reflected The Tin Drum as he insists he wrote it. Indeed, he oversaw Mitchell in the process to ensure its fidelity. Almost fifteen years have passed between readings for me and though I am greatly enjoying this new version, I can't discern any particular difference between it and Mannheim's translation. I'm sure I'm wrong, but that is hardly the point.

Masterworks of foreign literature tend to be translated over and over again. I can only speculate as to why. Integrity, perhaps? Conflicts of interpretation? Newly discovered restored texts? Who can doubt that any of Kafka's work, as edited by his butcher/executor Max Brod, is vastly different from the original versions as the author appears to have intended them? Two new major retranslations appeared in the past year - the Grass and Solzhenitsyn's In The First Circle. The latter contained several new chapters that had previously fallen victim to censors and as such, was an easily justifiable endeavour. But what is to be made of this new Tin Drum and, more generally, 'new' translations of other great novels?

I have read Kafka's The Trial in at least five translations and there are certainly differences to be found. I enjoyed Breon Mitchell's the most - he brought Kafka's complex humour out to a greater extent than any of the others. Both Robinson and Wylie's translations felt clunky. The Muirs' was good, but a product of their time. As it happens, it is the first version that I read, translated by Waller and Scott that spoke to me in the most meaningful way. This might have something to do with it having been my first encounter, but I suspect there's more to it. I can no longer find my copy, but I clearly recall that in their translation the first line is rendered in a manner that, from my reading of the others, might actually have been better than Kafka's original!


Muir and Muir: Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.

I. Parry: Somebody must have made a false accusation against Josef K., for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong.

B. Mitchell: Someone must have slandered Josef K, for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.

D. Mitchell: Someone must have been telling tales about Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.

D. Wylie: Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested.

R. Robinson: Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.

As I recall it, compared to all the translations above, Waller and Scott's reflects the tone I wanted Kafka to have; absurd, slightly humorous hopelessness and frustration. They also use "telling lies" which has a vastly different meaning to "false accusations", "telling tales" and "slandering". But the rest of their sentence has a more solid flow than the Muirs or Wylie, both of whom use "telling lies". And therein lies the issue. Reading in translation is more than a matter of trust. It is a leap of faith. Translations appear to be as much about the interpretation the translator chooses to imbue into the text as what the author put on paper. Hence Kafka the dark absurdist, Kafka the humourist, Kafka the oracle, Kafka the tedious bore. Which translation you happen upon will almost certainly influence your perception of the original, despite you having no idea how accurately it has been rendered. Without being able to speak any useful Czech or German, the two languages in which the majority of my favourite novels were written, I am a slave to my literary faith. As such, I am glad to have a multiplicity of testaments!

As for The Tin Drum, if you have yet to read it pick up Breon Mitchell's translation. I can't really comment on the nuance and fidelity of the translation, but irrespective of such things it is one of the greatest novels of the last century.


Remziye said...

The first line in the Scott and Waller translation reads

Someone must have been spreading lies about Josef K. for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one morning.

You gave me it as a congratulatory gift when I got into law school. I have always cherished it knowing that it was your first copy.
Whenever I re-visit The Trial I am astonished anew by Kafka's ability to communicate the horror and humour in the absurd. There is something relentless about it. A favourite for me because the experience of reading it is as visceral as it is intellectual.

Bram the Bookworm said...

Oh hilarious. I was scouring the house for it and assumed it was in one of the boxes I'd already packed and put into storage. Yeah I like that first line. It's as good as I remember it.

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