Multilingual Wordsmiths, Part 1: Lydia Davis and Translationese

By Liesl SchillingerMay 12, 2016

Multilingual Wordsmiths, Part 1: Lydia Davis and Translationese
Every act of reading is an act of translation. As you, the reader, absorb a text, you receive it through your own filter of the world and of words. When you read a book in English that was first written in another language, you rely on the filter of the translator’s mindset. The best translators are authors in their own right; their nuanced, percipient sensibility and their superb command of English allow them not so much to translate as to reinvent the works they bring to us. The Colombian author (and Nobel laureate) Gabriel García Márquez once said that he preferred reading Edith Grossman’s and Gregory Rabassa’s English translations of his novels to reading his own Spanish originals. The prodigious expressive ability of Constance Garnett (who introduced the English-reading world to more than 70 masterpieces by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Gogol, and other Russian literary titans) — was compared by one critic to the powers of Chekhov himself (whom Garnett also translated).

In this globally interconnected age, in which the output of writers in foreign tongues (as well as our own) is more visible and accessible than ever before, the public’s desire to know what is worth reading remains as keen as it was a century ago, when readers had to wait hungrily for translators — with their peering eyes, sore necks, and scritching pencils — to single out the best titles, remake them in English, and bring them into print. Today, we don’t have to wait: smartphone apps and internet translation engines allow the casual reader to obtain a gloss of nearly any phrase with the click of a button. But too often the resulting translations are inartful and flawed, lacking what the novelist George Gissing called the “divine afflatus.” The sheer bulk of the writing that accumulates on the web has heightened the public’s appreciation of the role of translator as arbiter — winnower of good from bad literature; while the abundance of poor digital translations at our fingertips has increased awareness of the skill required to produce a well-wrought text. As a result, lately the quest for proficient, gifted multilingual wordsmiths has acquired new urgency and relevance. In our young century, growing interest in literature in translation has allowed for the rise of a handful of publishing houses and publications in the United States (both online and on paper) that specialize in such work. Readers who seek out the books and articles they produce quickly come to perceive the crucial, irreplaceable role that translators fulfill: they are the advance guard for transformative change in thought, expression, and literary production, which exists everywhere around us, but which we can only recognize once translation has given it name and form.

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.


LIESL 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.

How many books have you translated, loosely?

The count isn't even that loose, because I keep a running bibliography. I have translated about 35 books. One translator who seems to me amazingly prolific is Michael Hofmann — not only is there always another translation of his appearing, but he also writes essays, poetry, reviews. He’s amazing; he’s really bilingual.

From what languages do you translate?

It’s hard to sort out, because I’ve now moved on from translating only French to learning other languages. It is now a growing list. Besides French, I’ve studied, either in a course or on my own, German, Latin, Italian, Spanish, and others. My next book, in fact, will be a bilingual Dutch-English volume of stories by A. L. Snijders.

When did you learn Dutch?

About four or five years ago.


I made a resolution, which I may not be able to keep, that I would attempt to translate at least one piece of writing, however short, from any foreign language into which one of my own books has been translated. Lately, I have also decided only to translate short works, even from French. I asked for a recommendation for a Dutch writer, which is how I learned of Snijders, who writes very short stories. This bilingual book will be published by AFdH. Then, I moved from Dutch to Norwegian, without lessons and without a dictionary. The trick is just to start reading and work hard to figure out what you are reading. It’s great fun and I recommend it. I have read four books in the original Norwegian by Dag Solstad — he’s their most highly esteemed contemporary writer. I haven’t translated him, but I have read four of his books. I’ve read Norwegian in both Bokmål, which is the more widely used, and older language, and Nynorsk. So by now, I’ve translated at least one piece of writing from about eight different languages: French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Norwegian, Portuguese, Swedish, and Catalan, if I include a single poem.

Have you read anything by the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard?

I’ve read the first two volumes of My Struggle.

What are you translating next?

At the moment, I’m actually revising a book by Michel Leiris that I translated many years ago. I did two drafts about 18 years ago and then dropped it for the Proust, and I didn’t go back to it until now. It’s for Yale University Press. It is the third volume — Fibrils, or Fibrilles in French — of a four-volume work, Rules of the Game, that Leiris called an autobiographical essay. An earlier, related book preceded it, and that was Manhood, translated by Richard Howard.

When you look at the old draft, can you see what stopped you when you originally worked on it?

I could tell either when the passage was really difficult or when I had not worked hard enough on it. I’m still not quite done with it. I keep coming across sentences that are very difficult and read like “translationese,” and I feel frustrated, but then, I come across passages that are good. There’s a little wrestling going on with my earlier self. 

What have you loved translating the most?

Oddly enough, perhaps because I did it recently, I loved translating some German stories by the Swiss writer Peter Bichsel, which are very, very moving. There isn’t one I like best. Two of them appeared in The Paris Review last December. I haven’t even been in touch with Bichsel yet. I’d have to say another high point would be Proust’s very lyrical sentences.

What is it like working with living authors?

It hasn’t been all that different, because the few living authors I’ve translated tend to be very modest and self-effacing, like Snijders and Blanchot, so they’ll say, “Whatever you think is best, this is really your work,” that sort of thing. I have had friends who have had very different experiences with authors, who say, “No, that’s not it at all,” and virtually force them to write in a way that they’re not happy writing. I’ve had times when I wished an author were still alive, especially in the case of Michel Leiris, so I could ask, “What exactly did you mean?” Actually, Leiris sent me a couple of postcards that I framed. His handwriting is great, black spidery old man’s handwriting. As I remember, he said something like, “I’m here to help in any way I can.” I don’t think I took advantage of his offer, which is something I really regret, now. He was offering help, generally, not clarifying a point.

What do you dislike about translating?

The sheer frustration: It is a frustrating practice, because one sentence will come out beautifully, and the next one will just be so difficult, and you might end up with something you’re not really happy with, but you can’t come up with anything better. A lot of people agree that translation is really about compromise; you can’t get the sense exactly unless you sacrifice the sound, and vice versa. The constraints you work with are challenging and exciting, but the other side of that is you may not come out with very good answers. Another problem, in the past, was that as a freelancer, I couldn’t be choosy about what books I translated, so the tediousness of some books was really difficult. At times, I felt like a machine: feed the text into her and it comes out as English. This sort of translation did not feel like an art, but I always did the best I could.

Why should people read works in translation?

I think American or Anglophone readers are very isolated; we don’t publish many translations, out of the vast amount of literature that we publish, and we are too isolated culturally. We need to read and immerse ourselves in other cultures to enjoy their richness; it’s terribly impoverishing not to read translations of works originally written in other languages, to be confined to works written in English.

What do you consider to be your most important translation, and why?

In the late ’90s, I was invited to be part of the new Penguin Proust translation project — that was definitely a high point. After that, I have to say, another was Flaubert’s Madame Bovary; so you have two peaks in the mountain range. I think the Proust was really the first translation to which I gave all the time that it demanded, so I might spend an entire day on one word or one sentence and would be looking up French etymologies. I had never done that before. I had looked up English etymologies but not French. But then, there was the Flaubert — the other masterpiece — which was completely different stylistically. That was very interesting, too.

What is your process when conducting a translation?

Edith Grossman and I differed on this until recently, but I mostly like to translate without reading the text ahead of time. Now, I won’t say that’s true for the shortest of the short stories I translate, but when I was translating novels, and that includes Proust and Flaubert, I would not read the text first. This was very important to me, because it let me retain the excitement of the unknown. It kept me fully engaged. Another thing that is important to me is not to bang out a hasty first draft. It needs to be well done the first time, though that doesn’t mean I revise each paragraph intensely until I go on to the next; it just needs to be decent, so that I wouldn’t be embarrassed if somebody looked at it — so I wouldn’t embarrass myself by putting a lame version down. My ear tends to retain things very exactly; if I were to put down a rough or ugly version, it might imprint on my brain. So that’s another reason I wouldn’t put anything really bad down, even as a working draft, because it might become indelible. For that same reason, when I was doing Madame Bovary, which had had around 20 previous translations, I did not read or even look at the other translations when I was doing the first draft, because I did not want them to imprint on my brain.

What would you say is Edie’s approach? Of course, I will be asking her too!

Edie — at one point, we were on a panel together, and she was almost shocked that I didn’t read the text first, but then she wrote to me a year or two later and said she had now embraced translating that way too — at least that is my memory of what she said.

What makes a good translation?

That’s a tough question. There are so many different kinds of translation, so many different kinds of work. For instance, when Barbara Wright translated Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, she had to recast it in English very radically, to use English slang, and to reinvent it in English; so that is a very different project from what I was doing. I was trying to stay very close to the French and not reinvent it in English. Really, it’s hard to say. If a work reads smoothly that doesn’t necessarily mean the translation is good. It needs to be as close as possible to the original but in living English, not dead English.

What makes a bad translation?

There is one version of Madame Bovary for which I can pick on the tone without naming the translator — the English seems stilted and awkward. Another translation strays too far from the original unnecessarily. I think you can be close and faithful without being slavish and awkward.

Do you think translators are receiving more respect lately than they have in the past?

I think they are getting more respect lately, but I can’t back that up. When you think of a work you read in translation, all the words, all the text, is the translator’s. We know that early versions of Kafka and the Russians were somewhat faulty and somewhat unfaithful, yet the originals were so powerful that it was more important to have some kind of translation than to have the “perfect” translation.

For instance, many people find fault with Constance Garnett’s translations of the Russian Classics, but many people also love them. Have the kind of people who translate changed? Was it once more of a hobby for people of leisure than an occupation or serious literary practice?

Fifty or 70 years ago, more poets in America would also translate, and that is much less the case now. I don't know how many writers are also translators. I think the ethics of translation has changed. For instance, I hear Constance Garnett worked very fast, and if she came to a phrase that really defeated her, she would just skip it. We wouldn’t feel right doing that today. And when the Muirs were translating Kafka [Edwin and Willa Muir were the first to translate Kafka’s The Castle into English, in 1930, and also translated many of his short stories], they would adapt his style so it was more acceptable in English. I don’t think our ethics now in English would permit that. We have a different approach, which is much more faithful and much more complete. To try and answer your question more properly about whether translation is more recognized today; I think there are more journals devoted to literature in translation than there used to be; I see a proliferation of presses — and online journals — that didn’t exist 20 years ago, that are totally devoted to work in translation, like Archipelago, for example. So that is evidence of a growing understanding of the importance of reading books in translation.

What tools or dictionaries do you rely on for your translations?

In this Leiris revision, I’m using online dictionaries and Googling things, but now and then I can’t find something online, and I go back to my old, beat-up print dictionaries, a two-volume Harrap’s and the Petit Robert. Yet I can’t always find the answer in my paper dictionaries, either. For the Dutch translation, I started out using a tiny travel dictionary then I went pretty quickly to some great online dictionaries.

Do you think there is some character trait that all translators share?

I would say I do, except that we are all rather different. I’ve met Michael Hofmann, I know him a little. I know Edith Grossman, but I haven’t met Don Bartlett. I would have said we’re all a little self-effacing, but I’m not really sure that’s true. We are willing to put our own egos aside, to invest in inhabiting another person, in another way. Not everyone is willing to do that, but we’re willing to be ventriloquists, to speak with the voice of another writer. That would suggest that we could be modest enough not to impose our own style on a piece of writing, but I don’t know; as I soon as I say we’re all modest, I don’t think we are.

How, creatively speaking, does translating differ from writing your own work?

It doesn’t have the anxiety of having to invent a piece of writing.

When do you think retranslations are justified?

I don’t think there are limits, especially. Another translation of Madame Bovary came out about a year after mine, and there was another one two years before mine. Sometimes, it seems every publisher wants to have its own. That is what I’ve heard. I don’t think it’s a problem; I don’t think there’s a limit. There’s a natural limit according to what publishers will be willing to spend or invest, but not apart from that. I do think you can have one amazing translation that’s good for all time, but if it is a translation that was done in 1850, maybe you do want another one or two. Why not have another one in 1920, and another in 1980? I don't think there has to be any limit to the number of translations of a good book.


Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based critic and translator.

LARB Contributor

Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based critic, translator, and moderator. She worked at The New Yorker for more than a decade and became a regular critic for The New York Times Book Review in 2004. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Beast, The New Yorker, Vogue, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, The Washington Post, and many other publications. She translates fiction and nonfiction from German, French, and Italian; recent novels translated include Every Day, Every Hour by Natasa Dragnic (Viking), and The Lady of the Camellias, by Alexandre Dumas, fils (Penguin Classics). She is the author of the book Wordbirds, an illustrated lexicon of necessary neologisms for the 21st Century (Simon & Schuster).


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