When doting becomes passion
Translating Style: the English Modernists and their Italian Translations, by Tim Parks
The Daily Telegraph, 20 December 1997
This illuminating book should be read closely by anyone interested in the art of translation. Tim Parks belongs to that rarest breed of translator- one who also writes. He is a brilliantly idiosyncratic novelist who brings to the difficult task of translation a keen understanding of the way other novelists work. His renderings into English of such diffuse authors as Alberto Moravia, ltalo Calvino, Antonio Tabucchi, and the immensely learned Roberto Calasso are notable for being in a recognisable language rather than that awkward transatlantic hybrid that declares itself instantly as translationese.
Parks lives in Italy, and in recent years has been lecturing on literary translation at the University Institute of Modern Languages in Milan. Translating Style is based, in part, on the lectures he has given and the seminars he has conducted. He invites his students, both English and Italian, to identify the original language in which a fragment of text was written. For example:
“In a few moments the train was running through the disgrace of outspread suburbia. Everybody in the carriage was on the alert, waiting to escape. At last they were under the huge arch of the station, in the tremendous shadow of the town. B shut himself together-he was in now.”
When confronted with this passage, the majority of students are struck by the Italianness of the prose, by what Parks calls “an extravagance of diction (“disgrace”) and “an unusual and vague collocation” (“outspread suburbia”). They also find the use of the word “escape” vague and inexact – what is everybody escaping from, and why? And as for “he was in now” – he was in what? They reach the conclusion, invariably, that the quotation comes form an Italian novel poorly translated into English. It comes, in fact, from D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love.
Parks demonstrates, in his discussion MrsDalloway, translated by the eminent scholar and feminist Nadia Fusini, how the addition of a single word ormai (“now”) changes the sense of what Virginia Woolf intended. Sometimes the very title suggests an entirely different book, as when Henry Green’s Doting becomes Passioni. Tim Parks is especially interesting on the problems involved in translating Green, and quotes from a translation of Party Going which was rejected by the commissioning publisher, Adelphi. All of Green’s novels have been bought by either Adelphi or Einaudi, but so far Only Doting has appeared. The reason for the non-appearance in Italy of his finest works has much to do with Green’s quirky syntax and the frequent absence of definite or indefinite articles. One translator after another has attempted, at the publisher’s insistence, to clarify what Green wishes to remain opaque, with results verging on the banal. The whole point of Henry Green is his curious style. Take the style away and little is left, since he is not a storyteller by nature or intention (actually, I feel Green is a great storyteller, but the stories work because of the style).
The would-be translator of Barbara Pym has no missing articles to contend with, but just as many insurmountable problems. Pym revels in the commonplace, in the cliché that covers up what a character is really thinking. Each language has its own colloquialisms which, when translated literally, sound either daft or incomprehensible.
Translating Style makes the reader aware of the huge challenge a conscientious translator faces whenever he or she takes on the task of reproducing faithfully not only the language of a book, but also the life and mind that inform it. Many bad translations are published because publishers, both here and in America, are stingy with time and cash. Most of Primo Levi’s works need re-translating, for instance, as do the novels of Cesare Pavese.
The sole aspect of translating that Parks does not ad- dress is that of the writer who appears more significant in a foreign language. The French still admire Charles Morgan, whose windily philosophical fictions they keep in print, whereas we have long since relegated them to the second- hand bookshops. But that is a mystery that demands a whole book to itself.