úterý 1. dubna 2014
The art of fidelity: Why is Kundera wrong
Et voilà: it is Milan Kundera's birthday today. I thought I'd email him a card, but in the morning, I heard on the radio, that Kundera actually dislikes birthday wishes (so if you run into him on Boulevard de Montparnasse later tonight, don't leap to him with a bouquet and a handshake, as his attitude to birthdays compares to the one of Frenk Underwood). Kundera, in any case, is the only Czech author whose work proves a point I have tried to advocate since ten years: a non-native writer can make it. Apart from remarkable storytelling and clarity of thought, the linguistic perfection Kundera demonstrates in his French texts tops most of contemporary native French writers. It is the absolute mastery of foreign language he achieved that, in my eyes, authorizes any scepticism he might have with regard to literary translation. Still, instead of congratulations, let’s challenge some of his scepticism and explain why he is wrong.
Right there, Kundera countered with the following simile: "A translator is comparable to a performer, a pianist, not the composer. If the translator thinks he is a composer, he should get out of the concert hall."
The idea seems to carry inner logic, nevertheless, the core of the parable couldn't be more wrong.
The limitations of interpretation are incomparably more narrow in case of a musical performer than in the case of a literary translator. Talking about music, this is rather an advantage: in the score, the pianist gets served the key, the rhythm, the melody, and a sophisticated system of comments (think all the pianos, fortes, crescendos and ad libitums in any musical score). The pianist has no choice, but to obey. Whereas the translator only gets the original. No footnotes, no stage notes, no instructions of any kind. He must decode all of the above himself, which, inevitably, gives him a way larger authority than the pianist gets from the composer. Moreover, the pianist is very unlikely to change his interpretation of the piece according to the actual audience. It makes no difference to him whether he performs in front of respected musicologists, hip-hop teenagers, or, people who have never heard the sound of a piano before. In any case, he delivers his best - his very same best, regardless of the occasion. The translator, on the other hand, must think of his readers with every hit into the keyboard: he must respect their cultural experience, their language history, their perception of humour, their understanding of metaphors and slang, and about a thousand of other elements of language. Using the performer's terminology, this means that in the interest of fidelity and with all due love and respect to the original, the translator must sometimes change the key, prolong the pauses, and, if necessary, he might even choose to present the piano suite on a harpsichord, because as such, it will better maintain the original quality and meaning.
By the way, if you googletranslate “Happy Birthday” into fifteen random languages, you will get a remarkable mix of expressions bearing a range of cultural and language identity. They will all mean the same, however, only a few of them will translate happy as “happy”.