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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Friday, September 14, 2007


Posted by Adam Roberts on 09/14/07 at 05:39 AM

By way of shameless self-promotion, I direct your interest to a piece on the Guardian book blog concerning the inadequacy of certain translations of Jules Verne’s novels.  (A warning, if you’re thinking of clicking that link; there is, at the top of the webpage in question, a photograph of me apparently punching myself in the face.  It may distress you if you’re of a nervous disposition).  If you’d rather not click, here the nub of my point:

But when I checked the 1877 translation [of Verne’s Hector Servadac] against the original my heart sank. It was garbage. On almost every page the English translator, whoever he, or she, was (their name is not recorded), collapsed Verne’s actual dialogue into a condensed summary, missed out sentences or whole paragraphs. She or he messed up the technical aspects of the book. She or he was evidently much more anti-Semitic than Verne, and tended to translate what were in the original fairly neutral phrases such as “...said Isaac Hakkabut” with idioms such as “...said the repulsive old Jew.” And at one point in the novel she or he simply omitted an entire chapter (number 30)—quite a long one, too—presumably because she or he wasn’t interested in, or couldn’t be bothered to, turn it into English.

The situation with Verne translations is pretty bad; I daresay Richard Dawkins is to blame for it at some level.  Anyway, in the Guardian piece I end up agitating for ‘a mass-translation of the whole of Verne into English, perhaps for e-publication—to make his whole body of work available to English speakers as it actually is.’

A couple of things come out of the comments thread there (and the thread from Rochester University’s ‘three percent’ blog, which linked to the discussion).  One, which I should perhaps have made more of in the original piece, is that university presses are starting to rectify this anomaly: Oxford University Press have put out a number of proper scholarly translations of the more famous Verne titles; and as J Howard notes, ‘the University of Nebraska Press has been issuing new translations of some of Verne’s novels (not the most famous ones, so far) under its Bison Books imprint’.  This is clearly a good thing.  Although, of course, there are people who consider academic publishing to be in a state that does not amount to rude health.

But what I want to do here, apart from shamelessly to self-publicise, is connect with some of the things John talks about in his post on the future of scholarly publishing.  What I wanted to float in the Guardian post was the idea of a web-based resource of new clean translations.  A number of professional translators responded to this by saying, in effect, ‘this is our livelihood you’re talking about’, and ‘translations are really hard work, why should anybody post them free online?’ Which is fair enough.  But it gets me wondering.

I can imagine that professional encyclopedists perhaps greeted the prospect of Wikipedia in the same way, with ‘but it’ll put me out of work!’ and with ‘tch, who would be so foolish as to undertake such enormous labour for nothing?’ And yet here we are.  Wikipedia, famously, tapped a largely amateur but nevertheless dedicated and enormous reservoir of enthusiasm for the dissemination of knowledge of all sorts.  Surely a similar reservoir exists, of bilingual (or multilingual) individuals, people who have glanced at the published translations of famous texts and noticed inadequacies?  Conceivably these could be interested amateurs; or perhaps professionals who have been working with a standard rendering that isn’t up to spec (let’s say, by way of concrete example, that John H. is teaching Nietzsche’s Antichrist to many rows of fresh-faced philosophy students, and that he has found the official translation insufficiently nuanced in certain ways, such that he retranslates it).  Oughtn’t there to be a wiki, or a set of wikis, for this eventuality?  A place where people could take those most glorious fruits of webmocracy, Project Gutenberg-style free e-texts of famous book, poems and plays, select those that are English translations of non-anglophone originals, and titivate them for the general good?  Is that such an impossible dream?


The Chinese translator of Dickens supposedly retold the stories, adapting very freely to fit the Chinese taste. Supposedly his adaptations were very good. The rambling nature of the books, the sentimentality, and (I think) the comedy all were very congenial to the Chinese. I wish I knew more about this.

By John Emerson on 09/14/07 at 11:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The comment thread there is ... oddly revealing of professional anxieties.  As someone who lives with someone who’s translated, I can certainly see the argument that a professional translator can better capture the tone of the translated work than a collective, if only because each member will read every sentence a little differently.  I could see the possibility of creating accurate, but not art-in-their-own-right translations via wiki.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 09/14/07 at 04:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I taught myself to read French with a stack of Verne novels. (Not that my French ever got very good, but it was fun reading the books. And I passed my foreign language qualifying exam.)

What Scott said.

As Adam says, I’ve tried my hand pretty seriously at some Nietzsche translation. I was thinking of making a little book: everything Nietzsche said about Kant and Kantianism, collected together. Sort of an interesting cross-cut. I’ve got about 15 pages worth so far. Mostly it’s just educational for me, of course. The existing Nietzsche translations are quite adequate. And, even though everyone loves to bitch about the old Kaufmann translations, they were already pretty good, too.

One thing that I think is interesting is the way in which so many translators apparently do feel free to rewrite, drop sentences, drop paragraphs, make changes that cannot be put down either to honest mistakes or impossibility of carrying some element over intact. I might have shaky French or German, but it would never occur to me that my job was to rewrite my author fundamentally, if I were a translator. Do these practices reflect a weird concept of what the job is supposed to be, or is it just shameful negligence - a total indifference to getting it right?

The translator as mash-up artist, vs. the translator as preserver of some original item intact, vs. the translator as bored and indifferent hack, payed by the page? What are people thinking when they do these things?

By John Holbo on 09/14/07 at 09:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adapting Verne or Dickens is an oral-tradition sort of way of translating. It works to the extent that the translator is more than a translator. This kind of thing is not really limited to oral traditions—e.g. the way Boccaccio, Chaucer, and many other literate authors adapted anecdotes.

Not really on topic, but the official translation of Wittgenstein goes far wrong IMHO opinion when it translates “begrentzte” as “limited” in “limited whole”. Shouldn’t it be “bounded” or “delineated” or “defined”?

By John Emerson on 09/14/07 at 11:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I expect that this is another case of “build it and they will come”.

It’s worth noting that a huge amount of amateur translation already goes on—movie/TV subtitlers and the manga scanlation scene are particularly prolific. I dimly remember running across a couple of book translation efforts too, though I don’t remember exactly what or where.

It’s a fantastic opportunity for annotation and parallel translation, too. Notes about untranslatable wordplay etc. are always good to read, but all too rare.

By on 09/15/07 at 03:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think, from my experience (such as it is) of literary translation in the commercial publishing world, is that the margins, which for literary fiction (say) are very small, get reduced even further by having to pay the extras that translation entails: ie buying translation rights from the original author, paying a translator to do the translation etc.  This, added to the fact that translated fiction, in the UK at any rate, has a lamentably low profile (I assume because people say: “I’ve barely enough time to keep up with my reading of home grown fiction!  Why should I want to buy this novel by noted Estonian novelist Mati Unt, no matter how good it may be?’), acts as a discouragement to publishing houses.

The attitutde of translators, from the evidence of these threads, seems to me similar to the attitude of many writers I know: which is to say, they do a very difficult, time-consuming and intellectually demanding job, a job that calls for a very high skills base; therefore they feel they ought to be suitably renumerated.  So, I know authors whose mental processes are: ‘writing this novel took me 10,000 hours of intense labour...’ (a not unimaginable figure, time-wise, by the way) ‘...and the minimum wage in the UK is £5.25 an hour ... therefore the publisher must advance me at the very least £52,500, and in fact--since my work was highly skilled, not waiting on tables--considerably more.’ The publisher, on the other hand, thinks: ‘we might sell 7000 copies and scrape two grand profit, if the wind is blowing in the right direction, let’s offer him a thousand pounds ...’

By Adam Roberts on 09/15/07 at 09:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

One of my many unfulfilled dreams back when I was on the Valve (and in ALSC) was to propose some sort of PayPal-like contribution service (but with the possibility of official institutional support) for translating untranslated works. I’d gladly chip in $100 to help get a freely available English translation of Robert Musil’s bedroom farce, “Vinzenz und die Freundin bedeutender Männer”.

It was a pretty wonderful feeling when one of my blegs paid off, thanks to Paul Kerschen’s generosity.

By Ray Davis on 09/15/07 at 10:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"So, I know authors whose mental processes are: ‘writing this novel took me 10,000 hours of intense labour...”

All questions like this come back to Hirsch’s Social Limits To Growth, which I know that I cite over and over again, but which I really think is one of the most important social science books of our age.  But, at an elementary economics level, writers generally like or need to write, it’s considered to be a personally rewarding job, it has low costs of entry, and most writers are on some level competing with each other for places in a limited high-status hierarchy (the bestselling author, the literary genius, the cult writer with fanbase).  Therefore, in our society they’re going to get shafted, because they will essentially work for free because they like it and to get a chance at the positional rewards.  The ones that don’t are those who industry must pay at a high rate in order to make them write exactly what they want them to write, e.g. advertising copy.  With variations, you see something similar in writing computer programs, say; it’s high-paid if you write what a client wants, if you want to write what you want, that’s interesting, there are a lot of people willing to write free code.

For translators, I assume that you can make big money translating corporate or government documents.  If you want the fun of translating obscure artworks ... well, getting paid is a laudable and necessary goal, but I wouldn’t bet on it in this case, with this society.

By on 09/15/07 at 12:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The goal of the PayPalling approach wouldn’t be to compete with commercial rates but to supply a minimal financial excuse for someone to indulge in labor that appealed to them. Sometimes a sop for the capitalist conscience is all that’s needed—I don’t know anyone who makes a minimum-wage living by selling short stories, and yet people are much more likely to write stories for a paying market.

By Ray Davis on 09/15/07 at 01:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Holbo: George Herbert Mead taught himself French from comic books. He lived in a part of New England with many French speakers. (Little-known fact: Jack Kerouac’s dad published a French-language newspaper).

A friend of mine learned passible Italian from prog-rock sleeves.

By John Emerson on 09/15/07 at 05:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Norman: Several Japanese “light novels” have been fan-translated. Most of the Full Metal Panic! and Suzumiya Haruhi novels, for example. All of the Suzumiya Haruhi novels were actually translated via wiki; it worked out better than you’d think, since there are people who approach the wiki’d books purely with the intent of editing them so as to have a more unified “feel”.

By Daniel on 09/16/07 at 04:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What Rich said.

Also ... learning Italian from prog-rock sleeves?  What a monster idea.  On the strength of John’s recommendation I decided to take a short course myself. Which puts me in the position to say:  “Alphataurus balletto di bronzo: Darwin! Felona e serona!” I challenge anyone to gainsay that.

By Adam Roberts on 09/16/07 at 06:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

JJMiller of NatRev in WSJ on Verne.

By nnyhav on 09/18/07 at 10:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A much more detailed and intelligent account of the deficiencies of Verne’s translators, by the eminent Professor Arthur Evans, is here (scroll down; it’s the 2005 article)

By Adam Roberts on 09/18/07 at 01:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

some of the comments reminded me of the translation of The Wizard of Oz into Russian. The original translation was adapted and changed so much that it was basically a new novel. The translator then went ahead and wrote several of his own sequels to the first book.
The best part is that this translation/reinterpretation and some of the sequels have since been translated back into english.

By on 09/26/07 at 07:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m the very translator who translated the Mati Unt mentioned by Norman David Gerre back in 2007 (15th September).

Blaming the translator for being greedy is an ignorant wind-up. Whoever thought of £52,000 is talking cock. The publisher need not pay for the cost of the translation into English, in any case. The promotional organisations of many European countries with a big literature are only too willing to pay the translator, thus relieving the publisher of about £8,000 for the average sized novel.

The Society of Authors’ (London) recommended rate for 1,000 words of translation of a literary work is £85. Given taxes, holidays, fallow periods for freelance translators, this is on the low side.

Many British publishers appear not to be interested in translated literature except for profit reasons. They use this “expensive translators” ploy as an excuse to ignore Europe.This is very sad.

More concrete calculations are needed; no more wind-ups, please. How are we going to get European literature into Britain without translations? Europeans translate British books. Brits cock a snoot at contemporary European literature.

By on 06/27/08 at 08:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Slow Return: Walter James Miller in Verniana - Jules Verne Studies via bookforum.com

By nnyhav on 02/26/09 at 01:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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