Call it the translator’s dilemma. Most people notice a translator only when there’s a mistake. Do the work perfectly, and no one notices you at all: “The more fluent the translation, the more invisible the translator,” writes Temple University Prof. Lawrence Venuti, a translations expert himself.
Works by two New College professors, though, illustrate the artistry and skill needed in translation. Amy Reid, professor of French language and literature, and Thomas McCarthy, associate professor of history, both published translations in 2014.
McCarthy had to rely on text alone for his translation of a work in Latin by an 11th-century German monk, while Reid’s work continued a long collaboration with writer Veronique Tadjo, who is from Ivory Coast and writes in French. She has translated several works by Tadjo and Patrice Nganang, a writer from Cameroon.
Both professors faced a common problem, in providing not just accurate words, but their meaning.
“In each of these books that I’ve worked on, the authors experiment with language,” Reid said. “Tadjo’s voice tends to be fairly spare and poetic but you have to be attentive to the rhythms and the resonances.”
Far From My Father, her latest Tadjo translation, posed an additional problem. The novel is about family, identity, memory and mourning, set against the backdrop of the civil war in Ivory Coast. Tadjo’s narrative shifts back and forth in time, and in and out of reality.
“You can’t take as fact all of the dreams and fantasies that are presented in the book,” Reid said. “Part of the job of the translator is finding a way to contextualize that so the readers can find their way through.”
McCarthy, too, had to interpret the tone and subtext of his author’s work.
His book translates writings by Frutolf of Michelsberg, a monk in Bamberg, Germany, around 1100, and revisions and expansions by later monks. The book is an account of the struggle between German emperors and the papacy, a rare pro-Imperial account.
Frutolf is a rare scholar for that time, McCarthy said, because he both draws extensively from primary sources like letters, instead of simply writing a subjective account, and because he readily admits when there is uncertainty and conflicting accounts.
In the nearly five years he worked on the book, McCarthy repeatedly delved into the original text, in digital copies sent by university libraries and by traveling to Germany and England to view original manuscripts.
As he translated the work – 133,656 words, not counting the index – McCarthy, too, detected conflict and uncertainty. He initially worked from a 1970s edition with the original Latin beside a German translation. He found that some assertions by the German scholars about Frutolf’s successors were perhaps unfounded.
Translation of ancient manuscripts, he said, is part detective work, part art. Frutolf’s successors had a different, pro-papacy view, and in places literally scraped the ink from pages Frutolf wrote, replacing it with their own thoughts, penned in a different hand.
“When you really get down to it, it’s a question of how am I going to put this in English to capture the precise shades of meaning,” he said. “It’s great fun, actually.”
Reid didn’t have to uncover deliberate obfuscation, but her works often include portions that are intentionally obscure, even impenetrable. Nganang’s Dog Days, which she translated in 2006, is written in French but heavily inflected with a half-dozen African languages, and an urban slang popular in Cameroon.
“All of those are woven together in one narrative,” Reid said, “because in an urban space you’re not hearing just one language, you’re hearing the swirling of a whole bunch of different languages, from different people and from one person over time.”
“And so the translator has a real balancing act, trying to figure out how much information to present to help the reader through and how much to just remind the reader that they have to struggle, because we don’t understand everything that’s going on around us, especially in a cosmopolitan urban setting.
Translation, Reid said, is an “interpretive act,” where the translator is a creator, too, in the choices made to bring forth the translation. But foremost is a deep respect for the authors’ work. “This is their art,” Reid said. “They’re really trusting me to give a valid interpretation of their art.”
Chronicles of the Investiture Contest – Frutolf of Michelsberg and his Continuators, by T.J.H. McCarthy, associate professor of history. Published by Manchester University Press 2014. Read more about this book.
Far From My Father, by Veronique Tadjo, translated by Amy Baram Reid. Published by University of Virginia Press/CARAF 2014. Read more about this book.