speed reading with Natasha Wimmer

Conversational Reading recently published an interview with Natasha Wimmer on her latest translation of Bolaño, The Third Reich (FSG 2011). Recommended. Not only does it offer insight into the inner workings of the novel (which, I’ll admit, I haven’t yet read), it also reminds us how articulate Wimmer is on the subject of translation. As anyone who’s translated knows, the experience of reading is markedly different from that of reading for pleasure – not that it’s any less pleasurable for it. It’s slower, but also more active (and, admittedly, more obsessive). Wimmer:

George Steiner says somewhere that translating is like loosening the weave of a fabric until you can see the light through it. He considers this to be a negative effect, but it’s something I must admit I enjoy. As a civilian reader, I tend to read too quickly, skimming over small tangled bits without even noticing, but as a translator I have to shine a light on every phrase and decipher what I think the author means, even if there’s no way to know for sure, and even if it happens to be a phrase that was obscure to the author himself. […] The result is a text that is perhaps too brightly lit, but the experience of total illumination can be an exhilarating one for the translator.

When asked whether this process of illumination implies that translation is inherently a creative act, Wimmer expressed a somewhat heterodox but nonetheless interesting position on the extent – limited, according to her – to which a translator’s interpretation of a work will affect the way it comes across in the target language.

I think critics tend to overemphasize the importance of individual phrases and bits and don’t take into account the extent to which plot and subject matter (things a translator has no power to alter) affect our experience of a novel, and even our sense of the novel’s style. Small things do add up, but I would argue that as long as the translation is consistent and confident (and competent), the degree to which it’s tilted in any particular direction by the translator is so slight as to be insignificant.

Yes. Critics and translators, myself included, can be guilty of a certain myopia when it comes to the mechanics of a text, and yes, there are broader elements at work that are, ultimately, more important to the reader’s experience of the novel as a whole. But I don’t know if the inflection given a work by the translator is necessarily all that slight. Wimmer, I would guess, is speaking from the perspective of a highly competent and – more importantly – deeply sensitive translator adept at keying into the nuances of register and respectful of maintaining those elements in her work. But it is not always so. I’ve seen readings imposed by translators that fundamentally alter a text; without naming names, I recall one collection of poems that was knocked off balance by the choice to exchange playful euphemism with a sort of bar-room bawdiness throughout. And while poems are, in some ways, more delicate objects than novels, I would argue that the question of register applies – equally – to both. Even the slightest “tilt,” if applied systematically, can color those larger elements like plot and character development in a definitive way.

In bringing up the difference between the close-up and the wide angle, as it were, Wimmer returns to the qualitative difference between reading to translate and other forms of reading. The interview names three: reading for pleasure, reading to review, and reading to translate. Each of these occurs at its own velocity; what comes across in the conversation is that slower is not always better. Just as one has to step back from the minutiae of a work to understand the way it all holds together, reading too slowly produces what Wimmer, via the Mexican essayist and poet Gabriel Zaid, calls the “slug effect,” or loss of perspective as a result of excessive delectation of a single passage, page or chapter. I know I’ve been guilty of this in the past; given that it’s the season for resolutions, perhaps I’ll make it mine to tear through more books this year.

The full article can be read here.