Shading and Retranslation: Translator Burton Pike’s Comments at BookExpo America
These comments were made by translator Burton Pike at a panel titled “Retranslating the Great Works of Literature: How and Why?”, presented by the PEN America Translation Committee at BookExpo America 2015.
I retranslated Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther for Modern Library because I felt that most of the existing translations into English did not adequately reflect the waterfall of Goethe’s style in the German. In recent years, literary translators have paid more attention to the shadings of the original work, whereas earlier translators were more focused on simply translating the story told rather than taking into account the many shadings in the original language in which the story was told. This greater attention to the author’s use of language has resulted in better translations, especially of demanding literary works. Another problem for translators is that English is a ruthlessly empirical language that does not have much room for subtle shadings when compared with other languages. In my process of translating, I deal with this problem by starting not with the words but with the author’s rhythms and voice, and try to fit the words in English to them, to the extent possible in a way that encompasses both story and shadings. In my introduction to Werther I pointed out that “Goethe created a language that overthrows the tradition of decorum, restraint, and neoclassical balance that was prized by eighteenth-century writers and readers, replacing it with an impulsive language of subjective feeling . . . Werther’s surging feelings can be expressed only by a language of disjunction: of rushing sentences, frequently broken off or run on, of cascades of clauses set off by commas and semicolons, of dashes, exclamations, and exclamation points.”
The first English translation of Musil’s unfinished novel The Man Without Qualities was published, from material then available, in 1953. It focused more on the story than on the style. The retranslation by Sophie Wilkins and myself, published in 1995 by Knopf, followed many years of work by the Musil research center in Austria, deciphering thousands of pages of Musil’s manuscript and notes, material that was not available to the original translators. This was the major reason for the retranslation. The 1953 translation was some 400 pages; the 1995 translation is 1,770 pages. Sophie Wilkins and I were also more interested in capturing the tone and rhythm of Musil’s style than were the first translators. I was helped by the discovery that Musil would often read aloud to his wife in the evening what he had written during the day, and with this clue I began reading the novel out loud. This made me realize that the novel’s formidable style is a spoken style, not a written one. Suddenly the rhythm of what looked formidable on the page when read silently fell into place when read aloud. This was a great help to the translators.
When teaching translation, I would tell the students that the words were the least of their problems, and that they should approach translating with a wider event horizon.