On the blog of the NY Review of Books, novelist and translator Tim Parks discusses how and why particular translators are chosen to translate important literary works—a process that is far more fraught that most readers realize. Using translations of Italian author such as Primo Levi, Umberto Eco, and Giacomo Leopardi as examples, Parks (who himself is a translator from Italian) shows why the most skilled translators aren't always the ones chosen to translate the most important books—and why the greatest translations sometimes fade into obscurity. Check out an excerpt below or the full text here.
So does translation matter? Does the choice of translator matter? Some translators’ associations (in Germany for example) insist that a translator ought to be paid a royalty for the translation and share in the commercial success of the work, as if the individual translator had the same impact on the work as the author. This is nonsense. Umberto Eco was better translated by Geoffrey Brock and Richard Dixon than by William Weaver, but The Name of the Rose, which Weaver translated, was an infinitely better book than The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (Brock) or Numero Zero (Dixon). Why should the one translator grow rich and the others not? J. K. Rowling, Stieg Larsson, and E. L. James are not difficult authors to translate. Would it really make sense to skew translators’ earnings by giving vast amounts of money to those doing work that is immeasurably easier than, say, Jonathan Galassi’s translations of Montale, or Anne Milano Appel’s 2012 translation of Claudio Magris’s impossibly convoluted novel Blindly? To introduce royalties would be to encourage the finest translators to drop literary work altogether and concentrate on genre novels.
Translation matters for those who want to be brought as close as possible to the original inspiration of books that matter (a group that does not necessarily include publishers’ accountants). The choice of translator is crucial when a text is of such a nature that a very special affinity and expertise is required. The problem is that it is hard for the wider public or even the critics really to know whether they have been given a good translation, and not easy even for the editors who have the duty of choosing the translator, fewer and fewer of whom have appropriate second-language skills. So the inclination is to consign the book to a translator who has some reputation, deserved or not, and be done with it. In particular, there is a tendency to privilege those who gravitate around the literary world, as if this were some kind of guarantee of linguistic competence. It is not.
Image of Primo Levi via Tablet Magazine.