Lydia Davis on Translation

Liesl Schillinger (LA Review of Books) speaks to the American writer and translator about her work
This spring, I spoke with six outstanding translators: Lydia Davis, (who translates from French and seven other languages), Michael Hofmann (German), Edith Grossman (Spanish), Ann Goldstein (Italian), Jamey Gambrell (Russian), and Don Bartlett (Norwegian). On this round-the-world tour made from my desk, I sought to learn what impulses drew them to this painstaking craft. I wanted to prize out their passions and their working habits, and to learn what goal each of them thinks translation serves. I did this partly for selfish reasons: I myself translate from French, German, and Italian. In my frequent reading of literature from other nations, I have a visceral (positive) reaction to translations that seem to make language sing, faithfully and assuredly transmitting the meaning, power, and grace of the works they recast in English; and a visceral (negative) reaction to weak translations, which make me writhe. Lydia Davis told me that she, too, recognizes the peril of what she calls “translationese.” The interviews contained in this series, beginning with Lydia Davis, reflect my desire to learn as much as I could about these masters, and to share with you some of the secrets of their art: I wanted to translate the translators.


Not since Constance Garnett translated the Russian greats a century ago has any single translator garnered the cult following that Lydia Davis today enjoys. Her translations of Proust’s Swann’s Way (2003) and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (2010) became instant classics, but she had worked as a translator for more than three decades before her English renditions of those masterpieces made her a household word. Even so, her renown is not exclusively attributable to her gift at translation. Davis is also a greatly esteemed fiction writer — famous for her collections of wry, observant, very-short stories (some of them only a sentence or two long); a genre sometimes called flash fiction. Understated, wise, warm, and remarkably productive, she lives with her husband, the artist Alan Cote, in upstate New York. In 2013, she won the Man Booker International Prize for her body of work. In 2015, the French government named her an Officier of the Order of Arts and Letters.


lydia-davisLIESL SCHILLINGER: When did you start translating?

LYDIA DAVIS: I’d have to say in college. I went to Barnard, and I published prose poems by Blaise Cendrars in the Columbia Review. It was 1969, I think.

What made you want to translate them?

Someone just asked me — I don’t remember if it was an editor who suggested I might like to translate them, because I was studying French. I know I was already interested in translating before then, because I found a diary I kept in high school in which I wrote that I might want to be a translator one day. I liked languages; I had learned German as a child, when I was seven, and French, when I was 10. The Cendrars was a tiny story, and I was doing it just for fun. 

You say you liked foreign languages — what about them did you like?

Foreign tongues: I lived for a while in Graz [Austria] as a child — my parents had moved there. They put me into a school where German was spoken; the teacher didn’t know much English, so it was sink or swim. I think that the magic of the fact that these kids were jabbering away and laughing and making jokes that meant nothing to me fascinated me. I think that planted a little bug in me. I know I have a couple of the books upstairs I had from then — Max und Moritz and Struwwelpeter, the famous one — that made a big impression on me.

Did you have a favorite translator, when you were growing up?

I really can’t say, because that’s the hard thing about memory: I have this evidence that surprised me, from the diary entry, that I knew what translators were, and that I might want to be one, but I don’t have anything beyond that diary entry. I do know from another diary that I read Madame Bovary at 23, in English, and did not particularly like it, but it did not occur to me, or at least I did not write in the diary, that the problem might be the translation. The first full novel I translated was Maurice Blanchot’s Death Sentence (L’Arrêt de Mort) after college in 1978. I don’t have a PhD; I don’t even have an MA. I was living in France, probably in the early 1970s, when I was working on this Blanchot novel. I was also co-translating other books. I liked the book, and at that point I was blocked on my own writing, so I thought translating would be the compromise, because I’d be writing, but the text would already be there. Starting after college, I have worked as a freelance translator for most of my life, usually from the French. Some of the books interested me and some did not. For a long time, translating was my main source of income. Then, in 1981, I began teaching at the University of California at San Diego, and from then on, I combined translating, teaching, and writing. Eventually, the balance of my time and energy shifted to writing, but I still teach and I still translate.

What do you like about translating?

I love the English language. I know some people go into translating because they love foreign languages, but I love English above all, and I enjoy translating these foreign texts into my beloved English. I enjoy that aspect of translation — that it is a form of writing that doesn’t involve the invention of the piece of writing. I also love the puzzle aspect of it. I’m a fan of puzzles—sometimes crosswords, jumbles, cryptograms, but especially number puzzles, because they don’t involve words. Translation is both a form of writing and a puzzle to be solved: here’s a sentence; translate it into English. Constraints can be very helpful. [Read More]

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