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the Complete Review
the complete review - translation

Translator, Trader

Douglas Hofstadter

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To purchase Translator, Trader

Title: Translator, Trader
Author: Douglas Hofstadter
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2009
Length: 100 pages
Availability: in That Mad Ache/Translator, Trader - US
in That Mad Ache/Translator, Trader - UK
in That Mad Ache/Translator, Trader - Canada
  • An Essay on the Pleasantly Pervasive Paradoxes of Translation
  • Published together with his translation of Françoise Sagan's That Mad Ache

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Our Assessment:

B+ : invaluable interesting, approachable case study

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Basic Books edition of Douglas Hofstadter's translation of Françoise Sagan's That Mad Ache (previously translated as La chamade) will be the envy of every translator. Aside from the translation of Sagan's novel, it includes a translator's super-afterword -- at 100 pages almost half the length of the translation itself --, that stands on its own. To emphasize that, Hofstadter's piece, Translator, Trader, is printed upside-down and with its own cover (i.e. the volume has two front covers, one for the Sagan, the flip side for Translator, Trader), making for a two-books-in-one volume.
       It is the sort of supplementary piece that translation-interested readers long for in every translation, as Hofstadter is able to go on at considerable length about how he came to choose this book, how he went about working on it, and, most importantly, his philosophical approach and technical choices. To say that this is invaluable hardly seems adequate: The Mad Ache itself is a fairly unexceptional novel (long out of print in English for good reason -- or reasons, rather, as that first translation (by a man who had been married to Sagan !) was apparently not a great one, either), but Hofstadter's close reading of his translation means readers for once have almost everything they need to fully appreciate the translation-aspects of an Englished version of a foreign text at their disposal.
       Hofstadter is a bit defensive about his choice of what even he admits is an obscure novel, but he needn't be; he reacted passionately to the text (for some reason), and surely one can't ask more from a translator. As he notes:

I found La Chamade beautiful and touching, and I yearned to re-experience as strongly as possible the emotions it had churned up in me. Merely re-reading the novel would not have allowed me that degree of emotional intensity and intimacy with its characters, but rewriting it in my native language did
       Hofstadter has very firm opinions about translation. None of this 'traduttore, traditore' ('translator, traitor') for him; the way he sees it, it should be:
"Translator, trader" (or if you wish, I can spell it out more explicitly as "Translator, phrase-trader").
       ('Translator, phrase-trader' apparently didn't look so good as a title, so they went with Translator, Trader .....)
       What this amounts to is that he is no great fan of literalism -- certainly not word-for-word translation (and he uses examples from Google's machine-translation feature to demonstrate the folly of that approach), but also not strictly literal beyond that. For him the issue is:
Not only how much liberty may a translator take, but how much liberty must a translator take, in order to do a good job.
       As he notes, many translators aspire to invisibility, wanting to disappear behind the text; not Hofstadter. He feels translation gives him co-ownership, and he is determined to leave his imprint on it. To some it may well feel like what he leaves is considerably more than that, as if he's firmly smashed his footprint on the text; at the very least, it's almost a surprise not to find his name as co-author rather than translator on the other cover.
       He is aware his approach is not the one most often taken (or at least admitted to), and he does wonder whether it is justifiable:
But do I, a mere translator, have the right to turn up the clarity and vividness knobs ?
     Well, the fact is that I'm naturally inclined to turn these knobs up high no matter what I'm writing, because clarity and vividness are, in some sense, my religion. I would be betraying myself if I didn't allow myself to be as clear and as vivid as possible when I translate. indeed, were I told that I had to adopt the principle of such rigid "faithfulness" to the author, then I would just give up translating, for it wouldn't allow me to use my own mind.
       Hofstadter's forthrightness is admirable -- and the liberties he's willing to take hardly unique; translators have done their own thing, so to speak, to texts many, many times. There's also something endearing about his cheery self-confidence, the consequences be damned; when he mentions Sagan's most famous book, "Bonjour tristesse ("literally, "Hello, sadness")" one can well imagine how frustrated he is falling back on that 'literally' -- and that he'd have translated it as Howdy, blues.
       I can see where Hofstadter is coming from -- and where this leads. An ultra-literalist -- with notable caveats -- (and supporter of comprehensive annotation) who believes in the primacy of the (source) text, I cringe at nearly every one of Hofstadter's choices and explanations; among the few I wholeheartedly endorse -- which, surprisingly, he considers one of the greatest risks he took -- is his use of a capitalized 'You' to indicate the French formal-vous (an explanation for which he also resorts, out of character, to a footnote in the actual translation). Nevertheless, while being in almost complete disagreement with Hofstadter, I find his essay does serve several useful purposes, including pointing out many of the less obvious difficulties of translation.
       Among the amusing issues are those of a copy-editing nature, where Hofstadter finds mistakes (or purported ones, at least -- though there are a few obvious ones). Considerably more problematic is his taking Sagan's three-act novel -- divided into Spring, Summer, and Fall (oddly enough, left in the French in the translation) -- and chopping apart the last section, adding two more ('Winter' and 'Plus tard ...'). Certainly he's right that Sagan's division makes no sense -- "Fall's part falls apart" (as the slightly too wordplay-enamored Hofstadter has to put it), and the final chapter takes place two years after the rest of the action -- but this seems tinkering that, however apparently justified, goes beyond what's tolerable.
       Some of his inspirations have their appeal: the choice of the title, for one, seems reasonable (even if the anagram-nature adds a bit more to the text than one might have wanted), but Hofstadter does get carried away fairly easily. Yes, the line: "Antoine was not like her, but was another -- an other, a not her" is clever, but the part that stands out is also all Hofstadter, and while it adds something to the text also doesn't really belong.
       Hofstadter also compares his translation to Robert Westhoff's, noting that the difference between styles is: "like night and day". The samples suggest Westhoff's wasn't all that impressive (and in his TLS review John Sturrock called it "a clumsy one") -- and Hofstadter also asks the obvious question, of why Westhoff didn't just call up his former wife and ask her about some of trickier or ambiguous parts. Nevertheless, Westhoff's own failures don't justify Hofstadter's approach, and at least Hofstadter is fairly fair in not trying too hard to make his case in this way: while not truly self-critical, he does at least pose the obvious questions about whether he is going about it the right way (all the while very certain that he is).
       Translator, Trader is a fascinating case-study. I disagree with Hofstadter's approach almost entirely (indeed, I find it outrageous), yet he makes his case in a way that is enjoyable and informative. The essay is an invaluable gloss on the (admittedly not so valuable) Englished text of what used to be a Sagan novel, but also stands fairly well on its own.
       The volume offering both That Mad Ache and Translator, Trader is one everyone interested in contemporary translation should read. One just hopes that novelists won't try to imitate Sagan too closely, and translators will steer clear of the Hofstadter-approach (even as there is much to learn from him, as he does address most of the important issues (he just comes up with all the wrong answers)).

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 May 2009

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Translator, Trader: Reviews: Douglas R. Hofstadter: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Douglas R. Hofstadter teaches at Indiana University.

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© 2009 the complete review

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