Torrid Translation Troubles… #Baudelaire


There’s a saying that goes ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’, and alas I tend to find that can be the case when I’m reading translated works… I’ve grumped a bit about translation issues in the past, and these can be a particular problem when I’m reading from the French; in particular a dual language edition of poetry. A case in point is a recent book which became such a struggle that I actually stopped reading it, although the problem may be more my expectations than the book itself…

The author is Charles Baudelaire, who’s appeared on the Ramblings before; and I *am* a bit of a fan of his work. When I was perusing the Seagull Books sale last year, I initially intended not to purchase from it, but did get hold of a volume of his they’d issued via a second hand site. The book is “Invitation to the Voyage”, translated by Beverley Bie Brahic, and it’s an anthology featuring selections from his prose and poetry arranged thematically, so that works in the two different forms relate to one another. The poems are presented alongside their French originals, but not the prose.

Baudelaire poetry

So I started reading with enthusiasm, but soon began to stumble. The problem is my schoolgirl French, and the temptation to compare the translation with the original; and then finding that I would prefer a different rendering!! This is not me being arrogant, as I would never presume to translate and can’t imagine how complex it is, but there were places where I was uncomfortable with what was being presented in English…

Now, I *know* a literal translation is not necessarily going to be the best, and that any translation of a poem (in particular) is going to be an interpretation. But the renderings weren’t working for me and when I got to “The Balcony” the disjuncture between what I felt I should be reading and what I was reading was too much – I abandoned the book…

Baudelaire is an author whose poems I have in several different translations, as you can see from the book pile above, and I dug them all out to compare the various versions of “The Balcony”; and the one which appealed to me most, oddly enough, was from the Penguin Classics Selected Poems which contains what they call a plain prose translation by Carol Clark. Simply a literal prose rendering, but I found it the most moving and the one which spoke to me most – go figure…

This leaves me with a bit of a dilemma, really, as another slight quibble I had with “Invitation…” was its selectiveness. As I read through, I was reminded that Baudelaire’s one great poetic work was “Les Fleurs du Mal” which kind of is a complete whole of its own. Reading selections from it just felt a bit wrong, but the dilemma I now have is that the Penguin only has part of it so I’m not sure where to go next with reading Baudelaire’s poetry.

Baudelaire Prose

Really, I’m my own worst enemy I suppose; maybe I would be better off sticking large post-its over the French originals, finding the translated voice I like best and just reading that. The danger is that I will always have that question mark in the back of my mind as to whether I would prefer different words; if I can get past that, I may be ok!

Baudelaire has, of course, been translated many, many times and so it may be that I just haven’t found the right version for me yet. For the time being, however, I shall stick to the literal prose translations for a little while (and these are also the form used in my Penguin Book of French Poetry, which is a help). And I can also dip into his prose as I have a number of collections of this too. But if anyone can recommend a translation of Baudelaire they think is particularly good, please do let me know!

“… a kind of catch or halt or temporary immobilization in the run of culture.” #fitzcarraldofortnight #katebriggs #thislittleart @FitzcarraldoEds


My final read for the #fitzcarraldofortnight is a book I was very excited to read; I picked it up in one of the publisher’s flash sales a while back, and I don’t really know why it took me so long to get to it – thank goodness our reading event gave me the necessary nudge!

The book in question is “This Little Art” by Kate Briggs and I know enough about it to know how highly regarded it is. Briggs is a an author, teacher and translator (hence one of my favourite kind of people), and most notably has translated two volumes of notes for Roland Barthes’ final lectures into English. (There really *is* a thread running through all of my current reading, isn’t there??) “This Little Art” is, then, in simple terms a book about translation – but, goodness, *what* a book!

The point seems to be this: left to its own devices, the path of reading is very rarely chronologically ordered, thematically coherent, limited by language or respectful of borders. Books open out onto, they cross with and follow haphazardly on from one another. Left to its own devices, the path of reading strays all over the place.

The art of translation often seems to me some kind of arcane mystery, practiced by brilliant people who have not only the ability to read in two languages, but also to convert one to the other bringing all the nuances of the original language with it – I think it involves fairies…. “This Little Art”, however, rather brilliantly lets the reader get inside the whole process as Briggs meditates on the art of the title, her own particular experience and method, and the complex relationship between the translator and their specific author.

That relationship is a vital one, and Briggs illustrates this with the experience of two women translators – Helen Lowe-Porter, who was Thomas Mann’s original translator to English, and Dorothy Bussy who not only rendered Gide into English, but also had a long and loving friendship with him. Lowe-Porter coined the phrase “this little art” and her story is fascinating; an intelligent woman, married with a family, her work could almost be regarded as a hobby, yet she took it extremely seriously, committing large portions of her life to it. Bussy, however, was somewhat in love with Gide (although she was obviously not his type) and they maintained a close and emotional relationship over many years, with Gide choosing her as his preferred translator. The connection between them was particularly charged and potent, as Briggs reveals in quotes from their letters which she features.

Interestingly, Lowe-Porter has been much criticised in recent years for the decisions she made and the methods she used when translating; which reminded me again of Constance Garnett’s pioneering versions of the Russian classics. “Square Haunting” nudged my memory of how the Bloomsberries were so responsible for bringing Tolstoy, Dostoevsky et all to the English speaking public, and I know that Garnett’s work is nowadays considered flawed. Yet, as Briggs makes clear, it’s easy to be dismissive of the work of the past, taking an all too arrogant academic outlook on pioneers and discounting the connection they had with the works and the authors. Tastes and fashions and approved methods in translation change. Can we dismiss for example the Maudes, who were actually Tolstoy’s translators of choice, and instead go for a modernised prose translation? It’s a knotty problem, and I digress a little.

Typically, though, the relation you form is with the writer – your sense of the writer – who wrote the book first. If my friend feels the way he does about Calvino (about Calvino and not Weaver), it is because translation makes this possible: it is precisely this chance of forming a reading relationship with a writer writing in another language that a translation, making no official claim to original authorship, also produces.

However, as I read on, it became obvious why Briggs had chosen them as examples of the close association between author and translator; as much of Briggs’ narrative explores her translation of the Barthes lectures and her attachment to ‘her’ author is striking. I mentioned in my review of “Essayism” that much of Dillon’s book was informed by his relationship with Barthes, and I use the term advisedly. In an intense reading experience, I’ve realised, you *do* feel as if you have a personal connection with the author, and it’s something which has happened to me on a regular basis (I have regular intellectual crushes on writers). Briggs also pinpoints this element of the writer-reader relationship, and of course this is enhanced even more when the reader is also the translator of the work into another language. They become not only a reader, but in fact partly the writer of the book. This latter element is something which vexes Briggs throughout the narrative: is the translator also the author? How much fidelity *should* you have to the original text? Should you go for a literal (and potential flat and awkward) version (my view of the P/V renderings…)? Or should you, like Lowe-Porter, point to the overall feel of the translated work and whether this is in keeping with the original? Is perfect translation *ever* possible? And so on.

Reading the same books as someone else is a way of being together. This is the premise of seminars, book-clubs, of so many friendships and conversations. What it is to discover that you’re currently reading the same book as someone else – especially someone you don’t know all that well. The startling, sometimes discomforting, effect of accelerated intimacy, as if that person had gone from standing across the room to all of a sudden holding your hand.

One particular episode which stuck with me and highlighted the complexity of translations was in the section of Brigg’s books where she considered part of Barthes’ last lectures which was concerned with Haiku. It’s not a form of writing I would particularly have connected with the French theorist, but he apparently personaly translated, from English to French, many of those which featured in his last lectures. This leads to a fascinating section where Briggs, instead of trying to translate back, searches instead for the original English versions. But her understanding of what the English should be, based on Barthes’ French renderings, brings no success initially until after a moment of clarity she looks for alternative English words to the ones she initially thinks he means. This really emphasised for me how complex an art translation is, where the choice of a single word matters (and in fact Briggs reveals how she would now change one particular word choice she made in her Barthes’ lecture translations!)

Festooned with post-its – always the sign of a good book! 😀

It does seem to me, from reading this wonderfully discursive, always fascinating and incredibly thought-provoking work, that translation must be one of the most complex and under-appreciated arts going. Which word to choose? What is the background context to the work you’re translating? Should you leave bits out? This latter is a particularly emotive issue, and a charge levelled at many early translators; though it’s preferable to the experience I had when reading a collection called “The Stray Dog Cafe” and discovering that the translator had seen fit to *add* bits to a Mayakovsky poem….. =:o

Do translations, for the simple reason that we need them. We need translations, urgently: it is through translation that we are able to reach the literatures written in the languages we don’t or can’t read, from the places where we don’t or can’t live, offering us the chance of understanding as well as the necessary and instructive experience of failing to understand them, of being confused and challenged by them.

Anyway – I could ramble on forever about “This Little Art” but I won’t. I shall just say that it is a magnificent, immersive and marvellous book, full of so many insights into not only translating but literature itself and how and why we read. All of the books I’ve read for our #fitzcarraldofortnight have been excellent, but “This Little Art” is really something special (as you can no doubt tell from the amount of post-its…). Even if you’re not particularly interested in translation I think you should read it, because it’s so good; but if you are, oh boy, are you in for a treat! 😀

(For other posts on this book, Lizzy has written about This Little Art here and Simon shared his thoughts here)

Explore translated literature with Asymptote Book Club


Translated literature… a topic I bang on about on a regular basis, probably risking boring you all to death! However, some of the best books of my life are those translated from other languages and, in an increasingly fragmented and hostile world, I do feel that absorbing another country’s culture has to be a way to help us try to understand each other.

I guess also that many of you will, like me, be avid followers of Marina Sofia’s excellent blog, Finding Time to Write. She’s started working for the Asymptote Journal which covers world literature in translation, and she recently gave me the heads-up about a new book club the Journal will be hosting – the Asymptote Book Club.

The idea is that you subscribe, either for three months or a year, and each month you get sent a lovely book of translated lit. Tempting or what… The three-month sub would be an ideal Christmas gift for the book lover in your life (hint, hint, family…) or just a great investment to treat yourself and widen your literary horizons.

As well as reading the books, there will be plenty of online interaction with blogs and discussion groups, which sounds fun. The translators will be much to the fore, which is a plus point for me as I think they’re the bee’s knees, basically.

You can read more about the book club here – go on, treat yourself, you know you want to…. 🙂

Some thoughts of a Monolinguist


It occurred to me recently, while browsing the lovely Pushkin Press site recently and trying to resist the temptation of another rediscovered 20th century classic, how lucky I am as a modern reader. For where would my reading be without translators?

I am a total monolinguist – I was good at French at school, but that was a long, long time ago and I have no vocabulary left. Additionally, I think the French I would speak would very formal and old-fashioned, because the version my children were dealing with at school was very different to the one I learned. As for other languages – hopeless! I once dreamed of learning Russian, but I think it’s beyond me. So, staring at my piles of Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, Zweig, Szerb, Hesse, Beauvoir, Sartre, Camus and the like, it’s sobering to realise how much of my reading pleasure is dependent on the people who undertake to approach a piece of art in another language and render it in English so that I (and many others) can enjoy it.

And it’s only recently that I’ve started to think more deeply about which translators’ work I like best, and which I’ll choose to read. Admittedly, in the early days of my reading, there was much less choice than there is now, and I more often than not ended up with any Penguin Classic I could find. You still often can’t go wrong with one of their volumes, but the range available is so much wider nowadays. Some independent publishers, like Hesperus, Pushkin and Alma, specialise in bringing us lost works in sparkly new versions, and NYRB are also responsible for many. So in no particular order, here are some of my favourites:

happy mosc

Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, for their sterling work on bring Platonov to the English-speaking world


Len Rix, champion of Antal Szerb


Anthea Bell, known best for many volumes of Stefan Zweig, but also translator of Irmgard Keun


Joanne Turnbull, who’s given voice to Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

gambler alma

Hugh Aplin, quietly translating away so many volumes of Hesperus and Alma Classics

rilke in paris

Will Stone, who rendered “Rilke in Paris” so beautifully and has staunchly defended Zweig’s work


The Maudes, whose translations of Tolstoy were contemporary and are still definitive in my mind


David McDuff, whose versions of Dostoevsky are really wonderful


William Weaver, doyen of Calvino translations

These are just the ones that spring to mind, translators who’ve provided some of the books which have given me so much pleasure recently. Alas, it’s likely that I’ll stay a monolinguist forever, so thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for giving me the freedom to read literature from around the world!

Echoing translations…


When I was considering posting Akhmatova’s “Echo” earlier in the week – for a long time, one of my favourite poems, I had a quick look online for a digital version. I guess I was feeling lazy and didn’t feel like digging out the old handwritten version I had, as I couldn’t remember at the time where it came from.


Well, I was in for a shock! And I shouldn’t have been, really, bearing in mind the amount of grumbling and pondering I’ve done here about the issues of translation, particularly from the Russian! But the three versions I found online of “Echo” were so different from the one I knew and loved, that I feel it’s worthy of contemplation!

Just as a little reminder, here is the version I posted earlier this week:

The roads to the past have long been closed
and what is the past to me now?
What is there? Bloody slabs,
or a bricked up door,
or an echo that still could not
keep quiet, although I ask so…
The same thing happened with the echo
as with what I carry in my heart

(translated by Richard McKane)

Here is the first version I found online:

Long ago were paths to the past closed,
And what shall I do with past, at all?
What is there?  Just washed with blood flat stones,
Or the door, immured in a wall.
Or the echo, that all time me worries,
Tho’ I pray it to be silent, hard…
To this echo happened the same story,
That – to one, I bear in my heart.

And the second:

There’re no paths to where the former gone is.
I don’t crave for the passed by long ago.
And what is there? The lit with blood floor stones,
The immur’d and forgotten door,
Or echo which still doesn’t have any patience
To be quite mute, though I’ve prayed much for that…
This helpless echo fell in the same station,
In which is one in my heart set.

And finally the third:

All the ways to past are now closed,
What the past for me today, what for?
What do you see there? – The bloody stones,
Or the bricked up surely so heavy door?
Or the echo, which is still repeating
Words, and never could this action stop,
I am asking it to end, but really
It is carrying weight, as in my heart, for long.

Well! What a difference! At some points, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were reading a different poem (and some of the lines do seem rather clumsy and strange to the English-speaking ear)! And yet, if you look again, you really aren’t – the sense of the short verse, that of the echoing weight of the past in the poet’s heart, which she’ll never be rid of, is still there in all versions. But the elegance is not.

Translating poetry from any language must be unbelievably difficult, and from Russian particularly so. I remember that in the back of my battered old film tie-in paperback of “Doctor Zhivago” from the 1970s there were translations of Zhivago’s poems – two versions, a literal one and one that tried to catch the rhythms of the originals. I recall this being actually quite a useful aid to me as a reader as it helped me to appreciate both aspects.

At the end of the day, I suppose any translation of a poem is going to be a version of it; and I certainly love the version of “Echo” I’ve known for so long. I *did* track down its origin – I took it from an old book I’ve had since the 1970s, “Post War Russian Poetry” (a Penguin).  The only collection of Akhmatova’s work I have is the Selected Poems (again a Penguin), translated by D.M. Thomas. Alas it doesn’t contain “Echo” – but I would have been interested to see how Thomas rendered it!

Translation, Translation, Translation….


Yes, that vexing, troubling subject that exercises my brain so much has reared its head again! This time, it’s come to the fore owing to my plan to read the Russian “Ulysses” – Andrei Bely’s “Petersburg”!

St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg

I must confess that, despite my love of Russian literature, this one has only recently hit my radar, and I’m probably not the only one in that situation as it does seem to have been somewhat neglected over the years. Not much of Bely’s work is available in English and my first encounter with “Petersburg” was when I stumbled across a hardback edition entitled “St. Petersburg” in the local Oxfam Book Shop. I had a quick look, but left it there for a week or two; then, having looked it up online, picked it up and brought it home with me. Turns out it’s a hardback first edition with dust jacket – not bad for the princely sum of £2.49!

However, when the subject of translations starting bothering me so much recently, I did a little more digging and discovered that thing were a bit more complicated with this book. For a start, there are two versions of “Petersburg” – one longer one published in 1916, and a shorter version, heavily edited by Bely, which came out in 1922. To make things worse, there are four translations and I wasn’t clear which one was of which book, and which was considered better/more accurate/more accessible etc etc….. Not a straightforward choice, then.

Having just read the David McDuff translation of “The Brothers Karamazov” and got on very well with the writing style, I thought it would be good to try his version of Bely. So I ordered a bargain price copy of the Penguin version online, thinking this would be what I would get – however, when it arrived it turned out to be the translation by Maguire and Malmstad, since republished by Indiana University Press and reckoned to be a good one! So although that wasn’t quite what I was expecting, it was a pleasant surprise as I had been putting off getting the IUP version as it is quite pricey! Then there is the Pushkin Press version, a recent translation by John Elsworth and much-lauded, which I managed to find online, again for a reasonable cost. So I have these three lovelies to choose from:

The three versions of Petersburg!

I sat down last night to have a look at them – after all, I’ve often advocated reading several translations and have tried comparing various versions of books in the past to see which one appeals most. This led to some further discoveries – the Penguin Maguire and Malmstad is based on the later, edited version; the 1st edition hardback translated by Cournos appears to be the same one; and the Pushkin Press is based on the longer, earlier version. So it gets even more complex, especially when you realise that the Maguire and Malmstad has copious notes and the other two versions none at all…. which is a little odd in the Pushkin Press edition. The Penguin notes may even be slightly over the top, but I’d rather have too many than not enough!

At a quick glance, there *are* differences in the translation styles, and oddly enough it was the Maguire and Malmstad which grabbed me most to begin with. But I think I may well splash out on the McDuff so I can compare them all and decide which one I will take the plunge into – truly it’s a difficult business reading translated literature!!!

Why I don’t read Pevear and Volokhonsky translations….


russian alphabet

“As I begin the life-chronicle of my hero, Aleksey Fyodorovich Karamazov, I find myself in something of a quandary.”

translator: David McDuff (Penguin Books 1993)

“Starting out on the biography of my hero, Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov, I find myself in some perplexity.”

translators: P/V (Vintage, 1992)

‘Nuff said…….

(and for some awful reason, the Vintage edition has the epigraph and dedication on the copyright page – cheapo!)


For an interesting take on the whole translation hype, have a look here.


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