Monday, July 11, 2022



John E. Woods, interviewed by Judith Moore, "Thomas Mann translator John Woods in Mission Hills," San Diego Reader (August 14, 1997):
Literary translating is about literature, it's about being very, very skilled in your native language. Not only do you need to know the second language, and I mean know it well, but you have to love and work with and understand your own language. You have to know how to make it sing and dance. Being bilingual certainly is a leg up, but that doesn't create a literary text. There are a lot of people out there who are bilingual. They think, "Well, I ought to be able to translate something." And the publishing houses know that there's this vast pool of workers out there, and so they farm the stuff out in piecework. The results are haphazard. Some great and wonderful translations are produced, and some that are not so great and wonderful.


Every German publishing house has editors who go over every translation, comparing it word for word, with the original. I don't know of any publishing house that does that anymore in this country.


I've made lots of horrible mistakes. One in fact that Helen Wolff didn't catch, in a small book by Günter Grass called Show Your Tongue, about a year he spent in Calcutta, India. And somewhere he uses the word "Schuppen," which can mean the "scales of a fish" or "dandruff." And in a moment of average inattention, I chose dandruff — and it should have been the scales of a fish. That sort of thing happens, it just happens. You're working fast, you go back and check, but it never registers, and suddenly the translation is there forever in black and white.

One of the things you learn, particularly in this job, is that there is no such thing as perfection in this existence. And you learn to live with that. It will never be perfect. Any translation can be made better both aesthetically and in terms of accuracy, and that's why you correct four and five times yourself, and that's why somebody else should look at it too. Because it will never be as good as it truly ought to be.
Related post: Elaborate Defence of Howlers.

Hat tip: Mike Johnson (via Kevin Muse).

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