The experience of translating

Seamus Heany once said that the best part about translating is that you get to finish something you didn’t have to start. It’s a strange feeling, though, finishing up something for someone else — and not only that, finishing something that is always necessarily secondary and supplemental to that work by someone else. It is supplemental in the full Derridean sense, insofar as a mistranslation can become a “dangerous supplement” whose incorrect rendering replaces and obliterates the author’s original meaning.

That’s not where my anxiety lies as a translator of Agamben, however. Agamben is not a “difficult” author to translate in the same way that, for instance, Laruelle is. His writing style is smooth and straightforward, and he very rarely places a lot of emphasis on the specific resources of the Italian language (in the way that Derrida could be said to push French to the limit, or Heidegger German). My anxiety is less dramatic — I worry I’m going to make some dumb, low-level error. Nothing that obscures or distorts Agamben’s meaning, just the kind of thing that makes me look like an idiot.

There are errors of that kind in my published translations. They’re not huge, but they bother me. The worst is when I simply transcribed the Italian word “due” instead of translating it as “two.” It’s surprising in a way that something like that doesn’t happen more. When I run a spellcheck over my translation work, I notice how my spelling has been strangely influenced by Italian, and more generally how the quality of my typing deteriorates when I’m doing the relatively mechanical work of translating rather than producing material in my own name. Most of that comes out in spellcheck or at the various stages of editing and revising (whether I’m pressing friends into service or responding to the press’s copy editor). I comfort myself that some Agamben translations have more such errors than mine, and I have yet to find a translation that has none.

The worst part with Agamben isn’t the translation as such, but the vast apparatus of citations. For every source he cites, I must determine whether an English translation is extant. If so, the press requires that I base my quotations on that translation, though I must often “triangulate” between the English, the original text, and Agamben’s provided translations. Sometimes I must supply formal citations where the text lacks them (above all in classical references), and just for the sake of thoroughness, I have also taken up the habit of supplying macrons and breathings in Greek citations where the text lacks them. Agamben also loves to cite untranslated Latin, sometimes a paragraph at a time, and I must often provide my own translation in a concession to the monolingualism of the other.

Tracking down these sources is extremely time-consuming and often frustrating. The method I’ve developed is to put quotes in boldface in my draft. If it’s a long quote from a text I know to be translated, I’ll often simply put “quote” at that point in the text. If it’s a short quote, I’ll usually do a rough rendering of Agamben’s Italian just for my own convenience in tracking it down later. Then I go back after I have a full draft and fill in the quotations. Every time I do a translation I consider whether there’s any way around leaving them for the end, and I’ve decided it’s unfortunately the only way to go — tracking down quotations and translating are two fundamentally different tasks, and switching back and forth hurts the quality of both.

Better to stay “in the zone” of translating, I say, so as to get a full draft as quickly as possible. And sometimes I can really, really be “in the zone.” Those days can be satisfying, albeit in the weird way that intensive data entry is satisfying. I feel like I’ve accomplished a feat, but I weirdly don’t have anything to show for it. This is not to say that I don’t benefit from doing these translations. I get paid, and I also get the credibility of an “expert” on Agamben (or on certain texts of his), with the invitations to speak and write that go along with that. But at the end of the day, the person who really has “something to show” for my work is Agamben, who is after all the author of the text.

The best I can hope for is to be invisible, not to draw undue attention to myself through mistakes or overly aggressive translation choices. My fondest hope is that my translation will “hold up” after three or four close readings, at which point anyone wishing to go further would have to turn to the original Italian in any case. My nightmare, of course, is that I’ll wind up one of those accursed translators everyone hates (like the poor guy who did Adorno’s Negative Dialectics) or that one of my translation choices will later be regarded as having set back the scholarship by a generation (like the translation of Freud’s Trieb as “instinct”). I’ve probably already avoided the former, and the latter seems intrinsically unlikely given Agamben’s writing style.

And yet, and yet… I’ve woken up in the middle of the night, panicked at some translation error I’ve surely made. The feel of those incidents is not like a social anxiety dream (like where one shows up naked to school), but like one of those “work dreams” — the kind where you’re waiting tables and discover you’ve completely neglected one for an hour. That’s what it is, at the end of the day: a job. It’s a relatively cool job, one that helps me keep on top of my language skills, but it’s still a job.

4 thoughts on “The experience of translating

  1. Translator here, checking in. All of what you wrote resonates with my own experience. One other problem I’ve encountered, in translating an author who is at least as famous as Agamben (but not nearly as lucid of a writer) is what to do with passages in the original that are ambiguous, awkward or even downright poor in a stylistic sense. If you let the muddled parts of the source text come out in translation (which the publisher probably won’t let you do anyway), a casual reader will blame you for being a “bad” translator, not the author. If you smooth over poor stylistic choices in the original, scholarly readers may accuse you of “domesticating” the text. At least that’s one of the fears that I’ve always had…

  2. I don’t have much translating experience, but I’m glad to see that I fell upon the same strategies as you. I always leave the references for the end; for translated quotes, I do a rough version translating the translated quote and highlight it to check against the original (except for quotes from English, where I just put “ref.” and fill in the quote at the end).
    One aspect I’m never confident about is how “transparent” a translation should be, ie. should it feel like the reader is reading an English text, or should the translatedness be obvious? I’ve only done French-to-English translation, and French academic writing is in general quite different in style than English academic writing; I try to get some of the style of the original across, but I often find translations of French philosophers into English awkward and hard to understand because they stick too closely to the syntax of the original.
    It seems like translators from German to English are more willing to adapt the text to English syntax and style (eg. breaking up long sentences) than French-to-English translators. (Except for the Beiträge translation…)

  3. I’ve been repeatedly encouraged to shift Agamben’s syntax, etc., into a more standard English-language style, and I think I’ve become more confident on that over the years. The biggest difference seems to be that Italian writers, like French ones, are much more comfortable piling on parenthetical interruptions where the preferred English style is to put those modifiers at either end of the sentence so that you can clearly see the main clause — and yes, following the French/Italian conventions makes it unnecessarily confusing. The Romance languages also have resources (grammatical gender, more fine-grained demonstrative pronouns) that support the complex structure they prefer, whereas we lack those things.

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