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Translator as writer

Some US publishers say that when they promote a literary translation, they do their best to downplay the word "translation," fearing it will scare away US readers even as the word "subtitle" tends to frighten off domestic moviegoers.

But others in the business say discomfort with the subject is irrational. Many translators are writers themselves, they point out, who often succeed in rendering foreign-language versions that are every bit as compelling as the originals. And in recent years, translators have even gained a bit more respect, with some now insisting on seeing their names placed with the author's on the title page.

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The job, however, remains a difficult and sometimes thankless one.

"You have to tread a line between being too literal and too free," says Jonathan Galassi, editor in chief at Farrar Straus Giroux in New York, who is also known as a translator of Italian poet Eugenio Montale. A translation that one reader may feel does an excellent job of rendering the essence of a work, often strikes another as an imposition, he points out.

Nancy Huston, a novelist who recently translated her own novel, "The Mark of the Angel," from the original French into English, says the language being worked in also has much to do with variations between the original and the translation. "I'm more intellectual when I write in French and more emotional in English," she notes.

William Gass, a writer and essayist who has also translated the poetry of Ranier Maria Rilke from German to English, describes in dramatic terms the difficulties faced by the translator of poetry.

He asks in his recent book, "Reading Rilke": "The complete poem is a series of delicate adjudications, a peace created from contention, and there are occasionally those beautiful moments when every element runs together freely toward the same end and every citizen cries out, 'Aye!' Must the translator mimic this mess, and take the measure of such miracles?"

He answers simply: "He must."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society


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