Thursday, January 6, 2011


My partner reads in three languages: Chinese, English, and German. He puts this monolingual reader to shame. His views on translation are worth watching, and it was on his advice that I chose the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation (2007) of Tolstoy's War and Peace when we visited City Lights Books in San Francisco's North Beach last week.

Here's a paragraph from the introduction of that edition, in which the native-English-speaking half of this very highly regarded husband-and-wife team gives his view of a translator's role:

"A translator who turns a great original into a patchwork of ready-made 'contemporary' phrases, with no regard for its particular tone, rhythm, or character, and claims that that is 'how Tolstoy would have written today in English,' betrays both English and Tolstoy. Translation is not the transfer of a detachable 'meaning' from one language to another, for the simple reason that in literature there is no meaning detachable from the words that express it. Translation is a dialogue between two languages. It occurs in a space between two languages, and most often between two historical moments. Much of the real value of translation as an art comes from that unique situation."

That perspective convinces me to entrust the hours it will take to read 1213 pages of Tolstoy's fiction to Pevear's & Volokhonsky's linguistic judgment. I'm trying to translate the French bits for myself as I go along, but really it's hopeless. There's almost always a key word I fail to recognize; I depend largely on the translators' footnotes.

Earlier the same day I bought War and Peace, we'd been to the De Young Museum for the second of two wonderful exhibitions of art on loan from Paris, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay. I have long been enamoured of Van Gogh's visionary paintings, so I'd have to say the room dominated by The Starry Night (1888), Bedroom at Arles (1889), and other Van Gogh works was my favorite. If you're in the Bay Area, the exhibit closes on 18 January, so there's still time to see it.

The show is made up principally of work by painters whose native language was French. I therefore found the lack of original, original-language titles on labels provided by the curators disappointing. This lack was brought into sharp -- but misleading -- focus by one of the labels that did include titles in French and English. The painting is one drawn from the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, rather than d'Orsay, and was painted by an American who spent much of his life abroad, John Singer Sargent.

The painting's title is given as "Le verre de porto" in French; and "A Dinner Table at Night" in English. The one is not a literal translation of the other, which was easy to recognize. Why then, I thought, did the label layout (see photo) imply that it is?. "Le verre de porto" is literally translated to English as "The glass of port."

We don't happen to have any books on John Singer Sargent at home, but a master's thesis written by Jennifer Lynn Friedman (1999, San Jose State University) treats the English label as authoritative, and indicates several alternate titles, including "Glass of Claret" or "Verre de Porto." Friedman cites as a source for the French title "an article from the Gazette des Beaux-Arts reviewing the show" in 1885, at the Galerie Georges Petit, in which the painting was first exhibited (cf. footnote #14 in Friedman's thesis if you're fact-checking this post.....). I am curious whether the artist, his gallerist, the reviewer, or someone else altogether supplied a French title for Sargent's painting.

Whatever the source of the alternate titles, the initial impression I had of "mistranslation" turned out to be a case of a painting named differently during the period of the work's earliest exhibition.

Another interesting example of how a painting's name can change can be found in Matthew Felix Sun's blog post, Paintings as pivotal elements (27 Nov 2010):

"As a painter, it is always gratifying for me to see a painting or a drawing as pivotal element in literature or stage work[s]. It is even more fascinating when the focal point of the work is the creating of a piece of visual art. A good example is the novel by Tracy C[he]valier and [the] movie The Girl with a Pearl Earring, which gave a very detailed and fascinating account of a period of great painter Johannes Vermeer's life [...] and his creation of the painting The Young Girl with Turban. The novel and the movie was so overwhelmingly popular that even the collector of this painting, [the] Mauritshuis Museum in [Den] Haag, was presumably forced to change its title to The Girl with a Pearl Earring."

I do wish I could read in more than one language. Lacking that ability, I am deeply indebted to those like Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky who share their multilingual, cross-cultural riches with lesser mortals.

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