Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What would Flaubert Say?

In the past, I have expressed reservations about reading fiction published in translation from another language into English. An article in the The New York Times of June 21, 2010 in the “Arts, Briefly” section has only served to reinforce my opinion.

Here is an excerpt from the article:
“The Twin,” the debut novel of the Dutch author Gerbrand Bakker, has won the 2010 International Impac Dublin Literary Award, besting the well-published authors Marilynne Robinson (“Home”) and Joseph O’Neill (“Netherland”). The Impac award, organized by Dublin City Public Libraries and chosen from submissions by libraries in 43 countries, will earn Mr. Bakker, a sometime gardener and skating instructor, more than $123,000, almost $31,000 of which will be given to the book’s translator, David Colmer. “It’s wonderful,” Mr. Bakker told The Guardian while in Dublin on Thursday to receive his prize. “But for me it was also wonderful to read the book in English. I said to David the translator, ‘Who wrote this book?’ I didn’t recognize it. (Emphasis added) I thought it was very good. It made me realize it really is a book, and I am a writer.”

What should I make of the author’s comments? He didn’t recognize his own work? Was he just trying to be modest? or funny? or truthful? All that I can conclude is that, as good as the English translation may be, it will not provide the same reading experience as the original version. Of course, no two readers, even reading the same book in the same language, will have the same experience. But to give an award to a book in its translated version doesn’t seem to me to be quite right unless all of the books in contention are translations which is not the case here – even if author and translator are sharing the prize money.

I’m not ready to say that I will never read a book in translation because I may want to read Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina again, and I haven’t yet read The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest (although, having worked my way up from No. 123 on the waiting list, I just picked up a copy at the library). But with respect to The Twin, I have reservations about the award. There should at least be an asterisk.

Any thoughts? Any special experience, good or bad, with a book in translation?

1 comment:

  1. Reading "Out Stealing Horses" was a wonderful experience and it was a translation. That is the one that I most clearly remember. I am going to check my bookcase for other favorites. That was certainly a strange comment by the author of "Twin"!