Aeolian harps and alien trinkets: talking to Tim Parks about translating style

It often seems as if there is only one debate in literary translation, despite our ingenuity in coming up with new terms to describe it. Is translation a discipline or an art? Are we “text-oriented” or “reader-oriented”? Are we literalists or activists?

Sometimes, this dichotomy is expressed in metaphorical terms. You can choose old-world sexism: “Translation is like a women. If it’s beautiful, it’s not faithful. If it’s faithful, it’s not beautiful.” Or Marina Warner’s recent (and oddly one-sided) musical simile: “Should a translator respond like an Aeolian harp, vibrating in harmony with the original text to transmit the original music, or should the translation read as if it were written in the new language?”

However, while I think there’s a tendency these days to emphasise the creative aspects of what we do and play down the question of language competence, I’ve yet to see the phrase “reader-oriented translator” on any of my colleagues’ business cards.

Aside from which, I’m not entirely convinced by this dichotomy as a description of the translation process. Right now I’m working on the opening sentences of En el cuerpo una voz (In the Body, a Voice) by Bolivian novelist, Maximiliano Barrientos, and have gone through five drafts. At first glance, draft three looks the most ‘creative’ (in the sense of being furthest from the source) while draft five is the most literal. But it’s this last version that has benefited from all the effort of the previous drafts; the original Spanish strains at the boundaries of what Spanish ordinarily does, and I’ve had to attempt something similar to reproduce that effect in English.

In short, the literal versus creative opposition doesn’t strike me as offering a helpful way of classifying translations or of explaining translation as a process. I decided to inflict my musings on Tim Parks, and see if he had any other thoughts about how to describe what’s going on.


What about this distinction between literalists and activists? Are there any other metaphors or frameworks that you feel provide a better starting point for talking about our work?


Let’s avoid metaphors; they tend to take on a life of their own, which is distracting. I’m more intrigued by the five drafts you describe, particularly your rejection of what you felt was the most fluent and savvily English version. It might seem creative, you say, but actually it ignores the specific creativity of the Spanish. And presumably that creativity is integrated with the content of the book, it’s not just a random ‘style element’. I’d really like to see the two versions you mention and the Spanish and have you talk us through them. But before we do that, let me throw in a couple of comments that stuck in my mind recently reading through an anthology of older translation theory to prepare for a teaching course.

Commenting on his translation of Aeschylus, Humboldt remarks: “With every new revision I sought to eliminate more of what was not stated plainly in the text – since the impossibility of rendering the original’s unique beauties tempts one to embellish it with alien trinkets that give it overall a divergent colour and sound.”

That makes sense to me. We come at the original. We’re frustrated that our version doesn’t sound as good. We throw in some tricks to liven it up. Then we realize that we’ve actually written something completely different in feel from the original, and that maybe in the long run it might be better to look for ways to stay closer to it. In general, especially where the prose is unusual, we should remember that, as the pages turn, readers can be drawn into a different kind of fluency. A writer knows this. Translators shouldn’t lose their nerve just because the first sentence sounds odd. Imagine a Spanish, or French or German translator tackling the opening of Henry Green’s masterpiece, Party Going:

“Fog was so dense, bird that had been disturbed flew flat into a balustrade and slowly fell dead at her feet.”

If we turn that into standard fluent French or Italian or whatever, we’re going to miss the whole point of the way the fog seems to have seeped into the syntax so that readers like pigeons are in danger of bumping into things, or having other things fall at their feet. The whole book is going to go on like that. The translator has to take a risk, wait, write quite a few pages, see if some kind of different enchantment can be conjured up. That’s where the creativity lies.

The other thing your musings reminded me of was Dryden’s division of translators into the ‘word-for-word’ brigade, the ‘paraphrase’ brigade and the ‘imitation’ brigade, the last being the ones who simply go for it ‘creatively’ without worrying too much about the original. He remarks: “Imitation of an author is the most advantageous way for a translator to show himself, but the greatest wrong which can be done to the memory and reputation of the writer.”

In short, I suspect Dryden would be with your fifth draft rather than your third, but can we see them?


Here are those opening sentences in Spanish:

Cada vez más pálido, observó por la ventanilla cómo el paisaje se pulverizaba en la velocidad.

Ya no duele, dijo mi hermano.


Ever more pale, he observed through the window how the landscape pulverized itself in the speed.

It doesn’t hurt any more, said my brother.

My ‘fluent’ translation came out as follows:

My brother grew paler and paler as, through the car window, he observed the speeding landscape turn to dust.

“It doesn’t hurt any more,” he said.

But by the time I’d reached the fifth draft, it had turned into this:

He was growing paler and paler. Through the car window, he watched the landscape crumble in the speed.

It doesn’t hurt any more, my brother said.


So the problem really is understanding what’s standard and what’s non-standard in the original, where the author is surprising the reader. I’m no expert in Spanish but that cómo el paisaje se pulverizaba en la velocidad looks interestingly odd. Then maybe you want to know why the author went for that non-standard usage, whether there’s going to be more of it, how it fits in with the book’s vision, whether you can do something similar in English. I expect you’d want to translate quite a lot more before you go back and finalize your opening lines.


Absolutely. Sometimes there’s a key word that you just have to resolve for the rest of the translation to work. In this case, it’s the verb se pulverizaba, right in the first sentence. It’s tempting just to get the meaning and then translate that in the most ‘normal’ way possible: ‘turned to dust’, for example. But that shifts the focus of the sentence from the process (the crumbling of the landscape) to its result (dust). If you read on in the novel, you notice the author uses a lot of ergative or reflexive verbs, creating an open-ended atmosphere where nothing is resolved, which is also true of the plot itself. As a theme, then, this issue of disintegrating landscapes is clearly one that interests the author; in fact his latest novel is titled La desaparición del paisaje (The Disappearance of the Landscape).


A good question to ask is how the unusual aspects of the style are linked to each other, how they are working together. For example, in the Spanish we don’t identify the protagonist as ‘my brother’ until the second paragraph, after an unpunctuated piece of dialogue. Even then we can’t be sure that it’s the same person as in the first paragraph because we’ve gone from an undeclared subject to ‘my brother’ rather than vice versa. This disorientation then meshes with the experience of the person watching the landscape dissolve or turn to dust or whatever en la velocidad. We’re launched into the book at speed without any fixed points of reference. That sensation has worked its way into the language.


Yes. Disorientation and loss of reference points occur at every level: it’s a story about a country that has disintegrated, descending into chaos in the wake of a military coup.


In any event, for the purposes of our discussion, what you referred to as your most ‘creative’ version actually only entailed the ‘creativity’ of finding a standard delivery in the English, which would be fine if the Spanish was standard, but it isn’t. So often this ‘radical domestication’ as they now call it is just a way of giving us déjà vu, things like other things we’ve read before.

Two lessons we could draw maybe: first, your Spanish has to be good enough to distinguish the standard from the non-standard, the ordinary from the not. And this means knowing the language so well that you really feel the surprise when there’s something exciting going on. When I ask a class of Italian translators to read Hemingway’s “He thought about alone in Constantinople that time having quarrelled in Paris…” and they aren’t shocked by the odd use of ‘alone’, or don’t even notice it, I know they aren’t going to be able to translate the book’s flavour.


This is probably the hardest thing for people reading in their second language. How do you develop that sense of what is ‘normal’ and what isn’t? Especially since the two shade into each other. There’s no easy solution, though I think active use of your source language, really living in it, probably helps develop that sensitivity. And I agree that it’s not just about identifying it but, as you say, feeling the surprise.


Second lesson. You have to become aware of your own bias toward writing in this or that style and resist it, or at least not mistake it for creativity. I have heard translators talking about their ambition to write “beautiful sentences” when they translate. But what is a beautiful sentence? The attraction of the writing is in relation to the content and the overall project. What works in Proust won’t work in Camus. Your Bolivian author is trying to create a certain feel. We have to trust, at least initially, that when we’ve strung a few paragraphs together the reader will be drawn into this world, even if we find ourselves writing sentences we never expected to. Because the translator – and I think this is crucial – is both server and performer.


I hear so many variants of that attitude: “writing elegant sentences”, “setting aside the source and working on the translation” and so on. It’s easy to get distracted from the original and its style. Aside from my Bolivian project, I’m also working on a historical novel at the moment. It’s set in the 19th century and narrated by a retired slaver with a highly distinctive voice, at once deranged yet sane, inhumane and deeply human. Sometimes I find myself departing from that into a generic ‘nautical novel’ style, but whenever I do, that disturbing voice softens. A reader probably wouldn’t notice. They’d certainly find my generic mode less brutally jarring than the original and might even prefer it. So it’s a problem.

The notion of translator as both server and performer makes sense in a situation like this. Without that commitment to serve, however pleasing the performance, the reader is deprived of something in the original. Of course, a degree of loss or distortion is inevitable, but that seems all the more reason not to advocate approaches that lead to more loss.


To return to your opening question – Can we avoid the “text-oriented” or “reader-oriented” dichotomy? – I think we can now say that that formulation is based on a condescending attitude that assumes we know what readers want, what ‘reader-oriented’ means; essentially we assume they don’t want anything too challenging, and that hence we must give them our ‘generic mode’, as you call it, which in the end is easier for us too, since it frees us from reading the original too closely or worrying whether we’ve really got it. This approach also fits perfectly with publishers’ anxieties that translations be easy to read and hence easy to sell. The danger is that the whole project of bringing people to foreign literature begins to look like an empty piety. As a teacher these days, I must say my focus is all on reading more intensely, in fact I’ll be doing another course at the Fenysia School in Florence soon, this time directed at Italian translators and considering how to read English texts more closely when translating to Italian. My belief is that when one is really immersed in the original and really has it, feels it, then one wants to give that to the reader; at which point the famous dichotomy just dissolves. You trust the original to seduce the reader and you trust the reader to want the challenge.