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Reviews of ‘Translating Style’

Review of Tim Parks Translating Style:

The English Modernists and their Italian Translations.

The Translator, 1999

By Prof Jean Boase-Beir

At the beginning of the book, Tim Parks sets out clearly his twofold aim: by comparing English originals and their Italian translations he will both offer insight into the originals and point to the difficulties of translating them.
The first and, in my view, more interesting of these aims, though not an entirely novel approach to textual criticism – I A.Richards (1953) suggested a similar one – certainly allows a new view of translation loss. That famous saying attributed to Frost – “poetry is what gets lost in translation” – is generally looked at as though it were a pronouncement on translation rather than poetry, but here Parks’ analysis of what is poetic in prose puts the statement back into its proper perspective: by examining what is lost in translation he shows us that this is what is stylistically essential to the text. The second aim, to show that translation can be improved by textual criticism, turns out to be less important, though certainly not without interest.

A book, then, for anyone with an interest in translation studies, whether they are studying, teaching or practising translation. But equally a book for literary critics, essential for anyone concerned with Modernist fiction, and of great value to those working in the field of stylistics.
After presenting his general intentions, Parks gives a detailed analysis of the style of several important 20th century authors, in each case illustrated by one or two works which are examined alongside their Italian translations. After a brief overview of the author’s style a longish passage is given from the work in question, immediately followed by its translation. Parks then begins his analysis, pointing out the stylistic differences between the translated text and the original.
It is upon these differences that Parks builds the main argument of the book: where translation deviates from its original we have the clearest possible view of the style of that original.

Thus a study of lexical equivalents in Women in Love and its Italian translation highlights Lawrence’s use of words, even of those which might, on first reading, have seemed insignificant. Fearfully, for example, becomes tremendamente, (“tremendously”) in the Italian, yet the word Lawrence chose echoes a whole chain of other words and expressions running through the book. Here Parks underlines a constant problem of translation: when links between words and concepts get lost, there is a weakening of textual cohesion in the translation.
Parks’ analytical method is to take the reader, after examining English and Italian texts and noting the differences, both into closer examination of the original and behind it to the author’s overall style in order then, in a process reminiscent of Spitzer’s “philological circle” (Spitzer 1948), to return to the text and some of the difficulties of the translation.

This circular process is repeated with each author. We see how Joyce’s striking use of alliteration and inverted syntax are lost in the Italian translations, so we go to the originals and evaluate the importance of these stylistic features there. Joyce, we find, is deliberately creating a sense of confusion and uncertainty, yet Pavese’s version of A Portrait of the Artist (1976), appears to be trying to avoid confusion.
This tendency on the part of the translator to make things less obscure is replicated in the translation of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway: where Woolf uses vagueness of reference to create a sense of disorientation, the translator makes an effort to clear things up for the reader, thereby creating a text which is no longer a mirror of Woolf’s view of life.

Language which plays games, drawing attention to itself and undermining clear links with its referents is especially difficult to translate; and the comparison of Italian translations of Beckett with the originals show that much of this foregrounding of language has been lost. Again, the loss serves to emphasize what the original does and why. Barbara Pym, on the other hand, creates irony through the contrast between a conventional view and that of the narrator, which the reader is asked to share. Conventional meanings are signalled by the use of inverted commas, and, in a translation, it is essential that these signals are preserved. The Italian translation, incredibly, fails to preserve them, so the contrast of points of view is lost, and with it much of the irony of the novel.

Similar loss becomes apparent in the translations of Henry Green’s novels, which use distorted syntax to disorientate the reader and create a sense of hesitation, confusion and uncertainty. The Italian translation is much less hesitant, and here again, it is the difference which points up what is really essential in the original.
Early on in the book (p. 5), Parks notes how difficult it is for a non-native speaker to assess “the appropriateness or otherwise of a deviation from standard discourse”. This seems to me a central point in his argument. Without saying this very explicitly, Parks is in fact providing an intriguing answer to all those who dismiss the idea that style is deviation with the question “Deviation form what?” There have, of course, been many attempts to answer this question, notably by the Prague School scholars (for example, Mukarovsky 1964), who envisaged deviation from a proposed standard form of the language, but Parks’ answer is more concrete: translations, almost without exception less stylistically marked than the originals, provide the standard against which the deviation of the original can be measured. This is an unusual and interesting way of approaching the question of style as deviation, but one senses that Parks, in failing to take note of the wider context of his work, never quite realises just how clever he is being.

Recognition of deviation is, then, one problem a translator always faces. Transfer between cultures with widely different attitudes and conventions is another. A further difficulty for the translator is to avoid imposing his or her own personal interpretation on the work. How to do this, and at the same time to avoid the invisibility of which Venuti (1995) warns, is a philosophical and practical question which exercises everyone working in the field of translation studies. Yet another difficulty is that of credibility: if you mirror the original in deviating from standard discourse, you are likely to be thought simply a bad translator. Translation tends to normalize partly because this is what is expected of it; critics wait to pounce on every unusual construction, for what is seen as a virtue in original writing is seen as a vice in translation. Faced with such prejudices many translators give in, and try, in Venuti’s terms, to become as invisible as possible. Parks lays the faults of normalizing translation before us again and again: ambiguities are sealed off, tangles are unravelled, twists are straightened and hurdles are removed. This gives rise to a familiar and depressing catalogue of translation losses: loss of alliteration, assonance, semantic linking, key images, word play, complexity. Above all, what concerns Parks, though he does not give it a name, is loss of iconicity, the mirroring of content in form. He hints at this when he quotes Beckett as saying that Joyce’s “work is not about something, it is that something itself” (p.123). The important point here, it seems to me, is that Beckett was in fact having us on. The text only pretends to be the thing itself. Green’s twisted sentences and stops and starts are not real hesitancy, they merely represent it, and Woolf’s mimicry of “unhingedness” is in the end just mimicry. If a translator fails to preserve the mirror-link between text and world, that world will be lost to the reader, leaving merely textual confusion, in Woolf’s and Green’s case, or banalities in Pym’s.

Throughout the book, Parks is careful not to appear to criticize his chosen translators. This is important, because a poor translation would tell us little of general import. Logically, however, in protesting that analysis does not constitute criticism, he is suggesting that any translation will such losses. This is just one of many important questions about the nature of writing and translation which are raised in this book. Parks is not especially concerned with providing solutions or evaluating translations, even though he does point in passing to many inadequacies in those he examines. In focussing on how translation can act as a tool for criticism, he has produced something quite different from recent books on translation, which give histories (Venuti 1995) or provide models for the process of translation (Hatim & Mason 1997). The book differs, too, from recent studies of style, which, with the exception of Freeborn (1996), generally behave as though literary translation did not exist.

Parks, himself a writer, teacher and translator, brings many talents to the writing of this book. Though he wrongly maintains that translation theorists in general regard literature as a branch of linguistics and so avoid value judgement (p. vi), thus misrepresenting both linguistics and translation studies, as well as ignoring the existence of stylistics, which indeed attempts to give a solid base for value judgements, much as Parks does himself, such prejudices in no way affect his judgement of the texts. This is extremely sensitive and precise, even if he does occasionally miss things, such as Lawrence’s mischievous word-play on venison and venery. Yet what the book lacks is a little more focus on its main arguments, a lack which partly arises from the circular nature of his analysis, inevitably difficult to reproduce in linear fashion for the book. Tentativeness is not a trait one associates with Parks, despite the ambivalence in his novels, but as his emphasis shifts between his two-fold aims, the reader is sometimes left wondering what it is he is really proving. It is perhaps because of the inherent circularity of method that he feels the need to provide a framework in the first and final chapters. Yet I feel this is not entirely successful. While the first chapter is very helpful in its presentation of general issues, the hints at classroom practice, taken up again at the end, seem something of a red herring. In the final chapter the reader is asked to participate in the game of guessing which of two texts is the original, and, whereas up to now the direction of translation, English to Italian, has been consistent, we are suddenly presented here with Italian originals. Fascinating as the exercise is, the links to what has gone before are just not clear enough. One is left with a feeling of too many loose ends; a concluding chapter which drew together some of the earlier arguments, rather than introducing too many new ones, would have been more useful.

There is a slight additional problem in the lack of back-translation from the Italian; we are presented with detailed and fascinating discussions, and it seems a pity to risk frustrating those readers who have little Italian.
Hard going at times, then, but well worth the effort, for the reader is rewarded with unexpected and often brilliant insights. This is certainly one of the most interesting books on translation to appear recently. And, if it raises more questions that it answers, that is surely in the nature of translation.