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Translating “narrated monologue”

June 15, 2012

Languagehat has two posts on the most memorable book I’ve read about translation, Rachel May’s The Translator in the Text. The whole book made me think, especially the chapter on “narrated monologue,” or style indirect libre, or erlebte Rede, which has to do with who we think is talking when we read printed words, in particular when they seem to come from the narrator if you go by formal markers like punctuation and third-person forms, but from one of the characters if you go by the attitude and perspective expressed.

The temptation of explaining too much applies to narrated monologue as to other aspects of translation. It may be ambiguous whose perspective is being expressed in the original, but unjustifiably clear in the translation. Even when it’s obvious in both languages who’s talking, a light touch can be lost through overexplanation (93).

Grammar sometimes makes it possible to have shifts in perspective that are more vivid and more ambiguous in Russian than in English. English requires possessive pronouns that Russian omits; Russian “does not backshift tenses in indirect speech,” which means direct and indirect speech often want the same tense in Russian but not English; and Russian has so many impersonal forms it would sound horribly stilted to translate them all with English impersonal forms (96-105).

Perhaps most interesting is the idea that, even when grammar is no obstacle, literary conventions have developed so that canonical English literature makes sparing and ironic use of narrated monologue, while Russian writers use it constantly. RM argues that translators allow for the difference in conventions by muting the narrated monologue they translate, thus making Russian stories less unfamiliar, but shouldn’t:

The prevalent assumption that a work should fill the same niche in the target system (i.e., fit as well into the canon) as it does in the original system is, I believe, damaging precisely to such relative and communicative features as narrative voice. If we persist in believing that a reader should not be able to tell that she is reading a translation, then we devalue the translator’s art and remove one of the main reasons to produce or read translations in the first place: the chance to glimpse another culture. When translators discuss the hardships they face, they often mention the difficulties of conveying cultural specifics (traditional clothing, for example, or forms of address) while not making the work sound too foreign in English. Perhaps it would be more fruitful to see the translated work as a challenge to canonical English literature, much like ethnic and regional works. Stylistic methods, such as skaz and narrated monologue, may, after all, be just as culturally significant as borshch, and therefore just as worthy of a certain degree of departure from “normal” English. (109)

I’m of two minds about this and am rather sympathetic to the “prevalent assumption.” Or perhaps I’m an advocate of a dull and pragmatic middle ground – it’s easy to think up a reductio ad absurdum for both the “make it impossible for readers to tell they’re reading a translation” extreme and the defamiliarizing “departure from ‘normal’ English” one. In another context RM herself notes the second option, taken beyond that certain degree of departure, would “quickly put translators out of work”:

Walter Benjamin advocates a pure syntactic literalism in translation that “completely demolishes the theory of reproduction of meaning and is a direct threat to comprehensibility” (87)

It’s fun to read this idea in an ordinary, comprehensible translation, and it’s fun to imagine how a book translated with “pure syntactic literalism” would sound, but reading it would be tedious.

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