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Reviews of ‘Translating Style’

Perspectives on Translation

By Isabel Quigly

You should never, I am told, take the smallest notice of puffs on book jackets. But when Umberto Eco, no less, is quoted as saying that Tim Parks’s Translating Style is ‘attractive and interesting,’ my nose begins to twitch just a little, like that of Fiver, the rabbit with extra-sensory perception in Watership Down. And how right Eco is, though the praise, to my mind is a little faint for a stunningly successful essay on the nuts and bolts of translation, the most useful, from a translator’s point of view, that I have ever come across.
As its readership will be confined to people with good Italian, it cannot expect to become a big seller – which is a pity, when so much that it deals with is piercingly true and interesting to anyone who cares about language in general, any language. In fact, those with only basic Italian (or perhaps the remains of school Latin) should be able to get something out of it, for one thing a close encounter with the original English writers examined, for another a sense of the awesome complexity of translating, of the subtle twists and turns, oddities and quiddities, the exactness demanded and the necessary preparation for any literary translation.

Tim Parks believes (a counsel of perfection, of course) that at a high level this is impossible without a deep knowledge and understanding of the culture, history, ideas and background (quite apart from the language itself) of the novelist being translated; and in taking a group of what he calls modernist English writers (Lawrence, Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Beckett, Henry Green and Barbara Pym) and examining in close detail passages from their work and Italian translations from it, he shows the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of reaching the ‘interior’ language in which a tale is told and a world put across.

Occasionally he (mischievously but usefully) asks his university students, highly motivated, intelligent teachers and translators, to identify the source language from two passages: which is the original, which the translation? In the case of a passage from Women in Love almost everyone regularly chose the Italian piece as the original and thought Lawrence the writer of a rather clumsy translation. Parks then goes on to show the inner workings of Lawrence’s mind and spirit (well, not quite), the often tormented feelings that govern his use of fractured, jerky language and the near impossibility of conveying it in that of another culture, in an Italian that is often inadequate to suggest the full range of his meaning, which requires the richness of English with its broader linguistic background (bit off here, I would never suggest that one language is ‘richer’ than another). The translation, a good, syntactically straightforward piece of prose, seems to the Italians more likely to be the original than the often immensely difficult language used by Lawrence, with its suggestiveness, its implications, its often eccentric grammar. Yet Lawrence is generally considered a straightforward writer of English by foreign translators, certainly in comparison with Joyce or Beckett.

All Parks’s examples are rewarding and stimulating, and (more surprisingly, perhaps) he has made the book so readable that I have read it anywhere and everywhere, in bed, on buses, in a hospital waiting room, even in the bath. It is that sort of book, approachable, exciting. Let me just mention his chapter on Barbara Pym, who, unlike the others, is not generally called ‘great’, but whose linguistic roots are, like theirs, in soil too foreign and specialized for a translator to replant them entirely successfully in another. With her, Parks suggests, the difficulty is social as well as spiritual. What he calls the ‘untranslatable commonplace’ in her writing, the banal chitchat of everyday, the narrow social background, the artefacts and seemingly trivial detail that fill it, all make it difficult or impossible to translate satisfactorily: the tiny emphases of feeling, or class and period, are lost in their transfer to another sphere just as much as Lawrence’s more scratchy, more original outlook (again I’m not happy with this – Pym’s aesthetic is most sophisticated).

In a short review it is equally impossible to deal with all the linguistically subcutaneous matter of this remarkable book. In a way it is depressing for a translator. If English is so hard to convey in Italian, how about our efforts to put Italian into English? Parks believes that a profound knowledge of the original country, as well as the language, is needed. How can this be, in the commercial world of quickly demanded translations? Parks himself lives in Italy, is steeped in its everyday as well as intellectual culture; as a translator, he has a huge advantage over the rest of us, the outsiders. His book is wonderfully sparky, concise and often amusing, as well as rewarding. I have learned more from it, and been made to think more about translation, than I have from any other comparable text – but then, what other book on translation is really comparable? This one seems entirely one off.