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Volume IV, Issue 4   --   November, 2003

Twice Removed

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Witold Gombrowicz: Cosmos, Pornografia, -- and Ferdydurke
Ismail Kadare
Stanislaw Lem: Solaris and The Invincible
Sándor Márai: Embers
the Strugatskys: Hard to be a God

Witold Gombrowicz: Cosmos, Pornografia, -- and Ferdydurke

       Much of Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz's (1904–1969) work is available in translation, notably his dramas and his Diary. A highly regarded author, he nevertheless has had the misfortune of having several of his works of fiction appear only in second-hand translations: Cosmos, Pornografia, and Ferdydurke.

       Cosmos -- first published in Polish (but in Paris) in 1965, as Kosmos -- was quickly made available to English-speaking audiences, first published in London in 1966. The book at least explains what text is being presented to the reader:
This version by Eric Mosbacher made from the French translation by Georges Sedir and the German translation (Indizien) by Walter Tiel.
       Not only isn't it translated directly from the Polish, it's a translation based on two other translations. Possibly this allows for comparisons, that allowed Mosbacher to choose which sounded better, but surely it's clear that this process only removed the English result even further from the Polish original.
       Some of the reviews did mention the curious translating method -- so, for example, V.D.Mihailovich in the Saturday Review (28 February 1970): "A serious question about the method of translation must be raised here." But interest in pursuing that question seems to have remained limited.

       Pornografia, first published in Polish under the same title in 1960 (also in Paris), was also first published in English in 1966. The book describes the text as:
Translated from the French by Alastair Hamilton.
       Again, there were only limited concerns about the translation-method, and John Ashbery, reviewing the book in The New York Times Book Review (9 July 1967) even wrote: "Alastair Hamilton's translation of 'Pornografia' (from the French) reads flawlessly."

       Gombrowicz's best-known novel, Ferdydurke, was first published in Warsaw in 1937, but only published in English translation in 1961, in a version by Eric Mosbacher. The book does not make clear what language Mosbacher translated from, but given that his later Gombrowicz-translation was not from the Polish it's safe to assume that this one wasn't either.
       John Ashbery, who hadn't minded the Hamilton translation of Pornografia, was less thrilled by this one, writing in the same review (in The New York Times Book Review, 9 July 1967):
Eric Mosbacher's [translation] of 'Ferdydurke,' from an unspecified language -- perhaps the French also ? -- is less good.
       The anonymous Times Literary Supplement review (3 February 1961), however, shows little concern for the how the text was transformed into English, and even calls the final product: "brilliantly translated".

       All three of these translations are also the ones used in the most recent re-publications of these texts.

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Ismail Kadare

       If there's a poster-child for twice-removed translations it's Albanian author Ismail Kadare. A large number of his books have been translated into English, by a bewildering number of translators, and while some have been directly from the Albanian most are from the French translations. At least publishers have been fairly upfront about this: many of the translations prominently credit the French translator as well, noting that the book in question was: "Translated from the French of Jusuf Vrioni" (This credit is noteworthy; the in-between translators in many of the other twice-translated texts are often completely ignored.)
       Albanian is not widely spoken in the first place, and more than four decades of Stalinist rule after World War II served only to further marginalize the country (as well as hampering much artistic production). Still, Ismail Kadare became internationally acclaimed and most of his work has been published in Western Europe and elsewhere.
       The translations into English do include several directly from the Albanian -- though there are questions about several of these as well. For example: neither Kronike ne gur (1971; English: Chronicle in Stone, Meredith Press, 1987) nor Prilli I thyer (1980; English: Broken April, New Amsterdam, 1990) lists any translator anywhere in the book (the translation copyright on the copyright page given as, "© Al Saqi Books, 1987" and "© 1990 New Amsterdam Books and Saqi Books" respectively).
       Noteworthy about the translations directly from the Albanian is also how many different translators there are -- suggesting that a lack of qualified translators is not behind the problem of translating directly from the Albanian. (It is, of course, possible that, while fluent in both Albanian and English, these translators were simply not very good and that is why new ones were constantly enlisted.) Among these named translators are: Ali Cungu and Naim Frasheri (The Wedding, 1968), Pavli Qesku (The Castle, 1980), John Hodgson (The Three-Arched Bridge, 1995), and Peter Constantine (Elegy for Kosovo, 2000).

       All the second-hand translations appear to have been made from the French translations of Kadare's books. (It's noteworthy that here, too, there was a considerable turnover of translators.) Second-hand translations from the French include:        Kadare has been particularly acclaimed in France, and he did eventually move there. In addition, there is considerable uniformity in the translations into the French (in the form of the near-ubiquitous Jusuf Vrioni), making the French versions a reasonable choice -- if such a choice need be made -- on which to base translations into third languages. (It should be noted that Kadare's works have also been translated into other languages (not just English) via the French translations instead of the Albanian originals.)

       There is relatively little discussion of the fact that some of Kadare's text's are twice-removed from the originals, and many reviews simply fail to mention the fact at all. For example, Bill Marx wrote at length about The Concert (The Nation, 19 December 1994), but failed to mention that it was not a translation directly from the Albanian. Toby Mundy, in his review of a new edition of The General of the Dead Army (New Statesman, 30 October 2000), similarly avoided the issue entirely.
       Some of the reviews are simply misleading, for example Marc Slonim's review of The General of the Dead Army (The New York Times Book Review, 8 November 1970):
We know very little about Albania and even less about the literature of this rugged country of some two million inhabitants. This is probably why the translation from the Albanian of The General of the Dead Army, a novel by Ismail Kadaré, who resides in Tirana, provoked so much European attention.
       Nowhere does he then clarify that, while in some of Europe the translation truly was "from the Albanian", the English language edition was not.
       A few reviewers do make mention of the circumstances, though some only in passing. In her review of The Concert (New Statesman, 7 October 1994) Imogen Foster notes:
Style and tone are particularly hard to judge in a text twice removed from its original, but both translations suggest a pervading inertness, a dogged but curiously affectless voice.
       Alan Brownjohn's review of the new edition of The General of the Dead Army (Times Literary Supplement, 10 November 2000) inadvertently (and hilariously) shows the level of discussion of the problem of twice-removed translations:
With no literary translator from the Albanian then available, the 1971 English edition was translated from the French of Albin Michel by Derek Coltman, who this time round adds numerous small-scale authorial revisions incorporated in the 1998 French version. It all reads immaculately, suggesting meticulous and inspired effort by the two translators in rendering a spare, astringent and lucid prose style.
       It's another curious slip by translator Brownjohn (and the TLS, which really should know better): while there once was a man named Albin Michel he died way back in 1943, and, as far as we can tell, never translated a thing from the Albanian. What he did leave behind was a publishing house -- which in 1970 did publish a French translation of Le Général de l'armée morte. Apparently they also claimed the translation copyright (hence, presumably, Brownjohn's confusion) -- though their online catalogue credits none other than Jusuf Vrioni with translating the work. (The 1991 American edition, which is the only one we could find, stated only: "Translated from the French" by Derek Coltman, and provided no French translator's (or copyright holder's) name.)
       (One also wonders about Brownjohn's supposition that there was "no literary translator from the Albanian then available"; clearly, mere availability isn't always the criteria in how publishers go about making their often peculiar decisions as to who is charged with translating what.)

       Noteworthy about the Kadare translations generally is that there has been no real change in the situation: even his recent works are presented sometimes directly from the Albanian, sometimes via a third language (French) -- an inconsistent approach that would seem to serve neither the author nor his readers well.

       (Updated - 7 June 2005): Kadare-translator (from the French) David Bellos offers a good deal more insight into the complicated situation surrounding these translations in The Englishing of Ismail Kadare: Notes of a retranslator. (Highly recommended !)

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Stanislaw Lem: Solaris and The Invincible

       Polish author Stanislaw Lem is probably the best-known (and best-selling) of the authors considered here. Extensively translated into all the major European languages (and many others), he is less widely acclaimed (and seriously considered) in the English-speaking world than elsewhere. Nevertheless, a large number of his works have been translated into English -- and most have been translated directly from the Polish into English. The two exceptions are Solaris and The Invincible.

       Niezwyciezony i inne opowiadania was first published in 1964, and a German -- East German, incidentally -- translation appeared in 1967: Der Unbesiegbare, translated by Roswitha Dietrich. It is this German edition that Wendayne Ackerman translated, and that was published as The Invincible by Seabury in 1973.
       Among the few reviews of the book is Ursula K. Le Guin's (Science Fiction Studies, Spring, 1974) -- which also considers another twice-translated book, the Strugatskys' Hard to be a God (see discussion below). She remarks on the double-translations:
A note on the translations: both are by Wendayne Ackerman; the Lem (and presumably the Strugatsky) is translated from the German translation. Both read easily, though connoisseurs of the originals assure me that they have lost much of their texture, style, and impact. It is a pity that we had to get these novels at two removes from the original, but I am told that Seabury will not have to repeat this proceeding.
       The title has been reprinted several times, and no effort seems to have been made to properly translate it from the original.

       Lem's Solaris is among the most notorious of the double-translated titles, not least because Lem (who reads English fluently) has repeatedly voiced his disappointment about it.
       The Polish original, also titled Solaris, was published in 1961. Jean-Michel Jasiensko's French translation was published in 1966, and it is from this version that Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox translated the text into English (published in 1970 by Walker & Co., and frequently republished since).
       The official Stanislaw Lem site notes that Lem has frequently expressed the wish for an improved English translation to be made available. Unfortunately, the author does not seem to have adequate rights to see to it that a better English version is made available; having sold the English-language rights (and the book -- a consistent seller -- always remaining in print, so that the rights have not reverted to the author), his publishers can do as they see fit. Unfortunately for both Lem and his readers, they have seen fit to offer only what is considered a second-rate version of this classic novel.
       The fate of Solaris is all the more disappointing because as a consistent seller it has certainly made enough money for his publishers that they could afford to invest in a new translation. A perfect opportunity would have been in late 2002, when the second movie version (Steven Soderbergh directing George Clooney) was in preparation. Faber had no problem re-publishing the text as a movie tie-in -- see their publicity page -- but couldn't be bothered to offer their customers a superior product.

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Sándor Márai: Embers

       Hungarian author Sándor Márai (1900-1989) died in almost complete obscurity, only to be 're-discovered' in the decade after his death. Translations of several of his novels -- most notably his 1942 novel, A gyertyák csonkig égnek (Embers) -- were critically and popularly acclaimed when they were published in western Europe in the 1990s. American and British publishers were late to catch on, but eventually Knopf (in the US) and Viking (in the UK) bought the English-language rights to some of his work. In 2001 the first Márai novel came out in English: Embers, "translated by Carol Brown Janeway".
       As noted in small print on the copyright page (but not on the cover, or anywhere else in plain view), it turns out that Ms. Janeway's translation is not of A gyertyák csonkig égnek, but rather of Christina Viragh's German translation of the book, published as Die Glut in 1999. (Note also, however, that in the introduction to an interview with Janeway on All Things Considered, Jacki Lyden states: "Carol Brown Janeway has translated Embers from German and French versions of the Hungarian original published in 1942".)
       Hungarian is an unusual language -- Finno-Ugric, bearing no resemblance to any other European language (save Finnish) -- and has a relatively small number of native speakers (around ten million). Relatively little Hungarian literature is translated into English, and a great deal of worthy and interesting work remains inaccessible to English-speaking audiences (including the bulk of 2002 Nobel laureate Imre Kertesz's work). The small number of native speakers apparently means that there is also a dearth of qualified translators capable of rendering Hungarian literary texts into English (though this was apparently not a problem with the German, French, Italian, etc. editions).
       Whatever their reasons, the decision by the American and British publishers to rely on a second-hand version of the book (i.e. the German translation, rather than the original) is a shocking and desperate one. The success of Viragh's German translation (certainly in terms of sales) perhaps suggested that it was a text that could be relied on, as it was presumably the (sales) success of the translation that they wanted to duplicate, rather than having any high-minded ambition of being true to the original or anything of that sort. Possibly, also, it was felt safer to rely on a tried and successful translator such as Ms. Janeway (who is apparently an in-house translator of sorts at Knopf), rather than depending on someone with a working knowledge of Hungarian but with limited or no successful literary translations to his or her credit.

       Embers was widely reviewed in the US and UK. Surprisingly, the fact that it was a translation of the German translation was not even mentioned by many of the reviewers. Despite the fact that most reviewers presumably were in no position to compare the text with the Hungarian original (or the German translation, for that matter), this seems a point that that surely all potential readers could and should have been made aware of. Shockingly, even those that did mention that it was a translation from the German made no mention of Christina Viragh, who surely had as much to do with the final English product as Ms. Janeway.
       Arguably, the text can be simply considered for what it is: a novel in English, the original be damned. However, given the colourful backstory (of Marai's sad fate, and the fact that this book was 'rediscovered' some six decades after it was first published) many reviewers chose to emphasise this, presenting the book very much as something that was originally Hungarian -- while often not making readers aware that the translation was, in fact, not made from the Hungarian original.
       Reviewers generally tend not to focus much on the quality of translation on the rare occasions that they do bother with foreign literature. Often they are simply in no position to do so (not speaking the language the book was originally written in), and even when they are space limitations generally prevent any proper discussion of translation-related issues. Nevertheless, some of the reviews seem almost reckless in their indifference to the facts surrounding Embers -- offering praise without explaining some of the issues that should have been considered. So, for example, Bella Stander in her review in the Wall Street Journal (26 October 2001), whose only comments about the translation come in the sentence:
But as Márai brilliantly demonstrates in Janeway’s graceful translation, sometimes facts don’t necessarily establish the truth
       'Graceful' the translation may be (though we have no idea what that might mean), but surely readers should be made aware that it is not a translation of the original -- or is it that these facts don't necessarily establish a truth either ?
       Worse yet was Alan Brownjohn's dance around the issues in his Times Literary Supplement review (11 January 2002), where he did comment on the choice of English title (not a literal translation of the Hungarian one (though -- not that he mentioned it -- the same as the German one)), but otherwise said nothing about the translation:
Carol Brown Janeway's version of it reads with all the evocative power of an outstanding original work, but her task in arriving at a suitable title deserves sympathy. Embers is dull, and a more literal, if awkward, rendering of the Hungarian title as, say, "The Candles Are Burnt Down", might have given a better impression of the story.
       There was no suggestion that the book had been translated from the German; fortunately, TLS readers weren't quite satisfied with Brownjohn's comments, and so there was some back and forth in the letters-section in the weeks that followed. In a letter printed in the 25 January TLS Brownjohn acknowledges:
Peter Sherwood correctly points out (Letters, January 18) that Carol Brown Janeway's translation of the Hungarian writer Sandor Marai's remarkable novel A gyertyak csonkig egnek is, in fact, out of the German version. Yes, the English translation under review (entitled Embers) stated that "this edition (was) published in Germany as Die Glut" and that "this translation of Die Glut (was) first published in the United States of America". There were interesting, wider issues about translation here, but Ms Janeway's version of Marai's book seemed outstanding to this non-Hungarian reader, and he confined his questions to the title.
       Surely this is information that readers would have liked to have found in the original review .....
       Mr. Brownjohn also writes in a 1 March letter:
Readers coming late to this correspondence might conclude that Peter Sherwood (Letters, February 8) had wrung out of me an admission that I judged the quality of a translation without knowledge of the language from which it was made. I did not do that. In my review of Embers by Sandor Marai, I wrote that Carol Brown Janeway's "version" of the book read "with all the evocative power of an outstanding original work". Please note: an, not the, original work. The question of why Marai's novel came to us in English from a recent bestselling German version, and not directly out of the Hungarian, is (to rescue words in my last letter from Dr Sherwood's heavy irony) a quite genuine "wider issue". But it's one which the publishers could more adequately address.
       Brownjohn is -- literally -- correct, but it is clear that no reader of his review would have picked up on the fact that Janeway's translation was not from the Hungarian original (and readers may easily have been misled by his discussion of the (mis-)translation of the Hungarian title into believing the Hungarian original was his point of reference). This is basic information that should have been conveyed to the reader.
       Brownjohn admirably does at least point out that there is a "wider issue" here -- but instead of addressing it he claims "the publishers could more adequately address" it. Surely, however, the publishers sole interest is in book-sales: textual integrity, quality of translation, etc. are all of little concern to them -- and providing accurate and useful information to the consumer about the product s/he is spending good money on is of no interest whatsoever (consider book-blurbs and adverts, etc.). Here is the one area a reviewer can be of some use: in providing information to the consumer that is of actual use (and that the publisher would prefer to remain undiscussed), and Brownjohn and the TLS let them down miserably. (It's also somewhat surprising; Brownjohn is himself a noted translator, and the TLS is generally exemplary in its dedication to discussing foreign literature -- both in translation and the original).

       Even some who mention the double-translation of Embers do so only in passing, and without acknowledging that this might have consequences for the quality of the English end-product (at least insofar as textual fidelity is concerned). In his review in The Washington Post (30 September 2001) Michael Dirda merely states that the novel is: "beautifully translated into English from a German version of the original". The possibility that something is lost -- or something (a Germanic twist perhaps ?) unintentionally but unavoidably added -- along the way is not addressed.
       Lesley Chamberlain at least wonders about it briefly in a review in The Independent (12 January 2002):
Possibly some linguistic magic in Embers has been lost in this double translation from Hungarian via German. But it may also be that conveying repression, like boredom, is hard to do.
       J.M. Coetzee's review in The New York Review of Books (20 December 2001) offers a more comprehensive survey of Marai and recently revived interest in his work, especially in continental Europe. He also discusses Embers at some length, but regarding the translation notes only that:
Embers has been translated by Carol Brown Janeway not from the Hungarian but at second hand from a German translation -- questionable professional practice.
       Despite the luxury of considerable space in which to discuss Marai's books he does not take the opportunity to consider the implications of this "questionable professional practice", leaving it only at the light reproach.
       The most in-depth discussion of the issues -- though still not very in-depth -- came in Tibor Fischer's review in The Guardian (5 January 2002). He wrote:
Translation from Hungarian wasn't a problem, since this version has been translated from the German. This news caused me to throw furniture around my room, and I'd fear for the translator's safety if she ever went to Hungary. Yet the translation is, oddly, surprisingly faithful to the original. Nonetheless, much of Márai's style and patterning has been lost.
       Fischer's semi-Hungarian background give him some authority to comment on the end-result v. the original (though, British-born, Hungarian was not his mother tongue and one wonders how well-tuned his ear is to 1940s Hungarian ...). His conclusion -- that the English version is "surprisingly faithful to the original" -- certainly would seem to vindicate the decision to allow Janeway to translate the book second-hand, though sceptical (or incredulous) readers might have wished for something more of an explanation as to how he believes this linguistic sleight of hand was achieved.
       The general puzzlement might be even greater because of Fischer's mention that:
Márai himself was sceptical about the translatability of his work into English; this, however, didn't stop him bombarding English and American agents with his books. It's a pity he didn't get to see this pay cheque. Viking has coughed up over £ 100,000 for Embers, almost certainly more money than Márai saw in his lifetime.
       The publishers -- Viking in the UK and Knopf in the US -- of course miserably failed their customers, first in not insuring that the best-possible translation from the Hungarian be be made available to them, and then in not making them aware of the short-cut (or rather the detour) taken in getting the book from the Hungarian into English. As Fischer notes, Embers wasn't some cheap foreign work they happened to add to their lists. A bestseller throughout Europe, it cost them dearly. It is inexplicable, then, that Viking would pay £ 100,000 (and Knopf presumably a similar amount) for the rights to a book and then treat it so shabbily: between the two of them they could have shared the translation costs and paid a translator from the Hungarian very well indeed, still only at a fraction of the cost of acquiring the book.
       The sales-success of the book -- and sales will surely only increase again with the release of the Milos Forman film of the book (presumably in late 2004) -- suggest consumers are happy enough with the product as is (as were most of the critics).
       It is unclear that audiences, even if aware of the double-translation, understand that this might have had some effect on the text. A rare opportunity to actually consider the issue came in Jacki Lyden's interview with translator Janeway on All Things Considered, and though it was noted in the introduction to the piece that Embers was not translated directly from the Hungarian Lyden failed to question Janeway about that -- while gushing that: "The language is pitch perfect, just exquisite."

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the Strugatskys: Hard to be a God

       Arkady and Boris Strugatsky are the leading science fiction writers of the Soviet era. A limited number of their books have been translated into English, at least one of these -- Hard to Be a God -- via a second language.
       Originally published as Trudno byt' bogom in Russian in 1963 it was translated into the German as Es ist nicht leicht, ein Gott zu sein. (Actually: it was apparently translated twice: Arno Specht translating for the East German audience, and Hermann Buchner for the West German one.) It was again Wendayne Ackerman who perpetrated the English translation from the German (it is unclear which version she relied on), first published as Hard to be a God in 1973. (Wendayne Ackerman was also responsible for the Lem double-translation, The Invincible; see above.)
       Like Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, Hard to be a God has been filmed twice, once in a Russian version (2003, directed by Aleksei German; see the IMDb page) and once in the west (1990, directed by Peter Fleischmann; see the IMDb page). The Fleischmann version is noteworthy because the screenplay was written by Jean-Claude Carrière.
       Perhaps dismissable as mere science fiction Hard to be a God was not widely reviewed, but Ursula K. Le Guin wrote about it (in Science Fiction Studies, Spring, 1974) -- a piece in which she also considers Lem's twice-translated book She remarks on the double-translations:
A note on the translations: both are by Wendayne Ackerman; the Lem (and presumably the Strugatsky) is translated from the German translation. Both read easily, though connoisseurs of the originals assure me that they have lost much of their texture, style, and impact.

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