On this week’s episode of Working, Rumaan Alam spoke with translator and writer Damion Searls. They discussed Searls’ process for approaching his projects; why a translator doesn’t necessarily have to be fluent in a language to translate from it; and what it takes to capture a book’s style, idioms, and nuances in another language. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rumaan Alam: You translated a novel called Sundays in August by one of my absolute favorite living writers, the French Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano. I personally don’t have any language other than English, and I feel like there are these purists who will say, “No, you haven’t really read Modiano because you’ve only experienced him in translation.” His body of work is so big that it has multiple translators, because English publishers have been trying to catch up after Modiano won the Nobel Prize. I’ve read your translation of this book, and I’ve read a handful of his other translators in his other books. Am I getting Modiano, or am I getting a simulacrum of Modiano?
Damion Searls: I think that’s an overdefensive reaction to some sort of insecurity that’s been instilled in you by this kind of technical vision of, is it 99.7 percent accurate or is it 99.8 percent accurate? Why wouldn’t you be getting Modiano? There is a different layer when you read someone who wrote in English. They’ve been edited, and somebody put a certain cover on it, and they’ve been reviewed in a certain way, and they exist in the culture in a certain way. You’re either reading it in a course where the professor’s framing it a certain way, or you’re not. The bookstores decided to stock it and promote it in a certain way, so you’re not in some pure, ideal mind-meld with the author, either. The best analogy would be performing music. If you listen to Glenn Gould, are you listening to Bach or not?
That is a really tough question.
There’s no real answer, right? The answer is both. You’re listening to Bach as good as you can ever listen to Bach. There’s no better way, unless you just read the score, but maybe that’s the worst way. On the other hand, Glenn Gould is not going to be playing it the same way everyone else will be playing it. So if you have 10 different recordings of the same piece, you’re listening to Bach in 10 different ways, but you’re not not listening to him. That’s what I would say about the Modiano: How could you better read Modiano?
Go back in time and be born in 1929, I suppose. But I can’t think of another way, really. How do you evaluate a translation? Especially with a writer like Modiano who has multiple translators. I hear people say this all the time, “Did you like that translation? Did you like this new book?” I don’t really have a perspective on it because obviously I’m reading the language and thinking about the way it’s working, but I’m understanding that as the choice made by the author and not the translator, even if it is something that’s happening as a duet, without my realizing it.
That’s another one of those mysterious questions, right? Because I feel like I can judge translations, even if I don’t know the original text, even if I don’t know the original language. You can sense: Is this an artistically motivated stretch of the language, or is this some weird deformation of the language, where it just doesn’t sound right, like people wouldn’t say that?
Translations from different languages tend to go wrong in ways specific to the languages. For example, translations from Spanish might sound really flowery, because Spanish has a Latinate vocabulary and Latinate words are flowery in English, even though they’re not in Spanish—they’re just the words. Translations of Chinese poetry can sound foggy because they have a different grammar. You can just tell if this hasn’t clicked. So I would encourage you to let go of this inner schoolmarm who’s telling you that you don’t have the right to judge a translation. If it’s a book you like, then it works. It’s good. If it’s something that you’re bored and confused by, then it didn’t work. It’s true you may not 100 percent know, was it the author or the translator? A bad translator can actually make you think that the author is bad without meaning to. But you don’t have to feel, “I’m not able to judge a translation because I haven’t got this or that skill.” Why not? You judge every book you read.