What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Translation, Interpretation, Distortion

I see in this week’s Times Sunday Book Review that Robin Robertson’s idea of translation is not only to simplify the original, but to insert details of his own creation (see David Orr, “Versions,” March 11, 2012). For example, in his translation of Tomas Transtromer’s poem “Calling Home,” he adds a knife-fight that isn’t in the original. I think this takes translation too far. While I realize there’s no such thing as a definitive translation, I think a translator has to be true to the original. Richard Pevear, translator (in partnership with his wife Larissa Volokhonsky) of The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina, among other classics, compares translation to music interpretation: “It’s like a musical composition and a musician, an interpretation. If your fingers are too heavy or too light, the piece can be distorted” (quoted in David Remnick’s “The Translation Wars,” The New Yorker, November 7, 2005). Orr, in his piece, makes a similar analogy. He says:

But translating a poem is like covering a song. We can savor the liberties someone is taking with, say, “Gin and Juice” in a way we couldn’t understand similar variations on songs written by Martians. And Transtromer, however popular he is among poets, remains largely unknown to readers eager to see work from the new Nobel laureate. In this instance, even a sincere imitation probably isn’t the most helpful form of flattery.

I agree, except I’d put it more strongly. It appears that Robertson’s interpretation of Transtromer constitutes distortion.

Credit: The above photograph of Tomas Transtromer is by Ulla Montan; it appears in The New York Times Sunday Book Review as an illustration for David Orr’s “Versions.”

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