On Saturday, March 14, the NYCT held its first-ever literary translation conference. In the morning session, we heard from three experienced literary translators: Russian-to-English translator Antonina Bouis, Spanish-to-English translator Gary Racz, and French-to-English translator Lee Fahnestock.
Antonina Bouis discussed her preference for translating living authors over dead ones. The main advantage she sees is that translators can ask living authors questions about what they meant. She emphasized that translators shouldn’t feel as if they have to know everything; authors will be flattered to be asked for their help. However, she acknowledged that there are some disadvantages to working with living authors: they may have their own ideas about how passages should be translated, and they will receive some royalties, so the translator’s share of royalties (if included in the contract) will be smaller. Yet, in any case, most translations will not sell enough copies to recoup the translator’s advance and trigger the payment of royalties. Bouis concluded by asking if we truly need a fifth translation of a classic like The Brothers Karamazov, or if it’s better to hear a new voice. Miniscule changes in books that have already been translated will be of interest to critics and translators, but not to the general public.
Gary Racz spoke about translating the 17th-century Mexican author Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s play Los empeños de una casa. Racz, who is currently at work on The Norton Critical Edition of The Golden Age of Spanish Drama, laid out a central dilemma for translators of verse: very often, translators choose to render poetic forms in rhyme and meter as free verse. There’s a perception that contemporary readers will only accept free verse (despite Shakespeare’s unflagging popularity), and thus translators’ choices have been limited. Racz bucked this trend when translating Sor Juana’s play, and his translation has been performed on several occasions. He shared his translation of the mad, comedic ending of the play, in which he used poetic elements such as rhyme and assonance in order to mimic the author’s style. Racz also pointed out, during the question-and-answer session, that there are many works by dead authors that have yet to be translated, such as eight plays by Cervantes that aren’t available in English.
Lee Fahnestock related her experiences translating French poet Francis Ponge (1899-1988), whom she met several times. Ponge was from a Protestant family near Nîmes, and this gave him a sturdy independence. He’s been described as a “chosiste,” focusing on objects, particularly how the word matches the object it describes. For instance, he was fascinated by the sound relationship between the words “pré” (“field”), “près” (“close, near”), and prêt (“ready”). He saw this sound as the preliminary to everything. Fahnestock translated his book of prose poems, Le Parti pris des choses, as The Nature of Things, an English title that Ponge approved of (he was inspired by the Roman author Lucretius and had considered using “The Nature of Things” as his French title). She also translated work by Ponge for an exhibition devoted to him at Paris’s Pompidou Center in 1977. Fahnestock told a cautionary tale about overzealous copyeditors: a copyeditor inserted a mistake into one of her translations which she didn’t discover until after publication.