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When Translations Happen to the Wrong Writers

I don’t want to give this more attention than it deserves since the book in question is pretty much forgettable, but I was surprised to see such an unnecessarily angry and condescending attack against University of Nebraska Press (of all places) come from Cameroonian author Léonora Miano, whose book, L’intérieur de la nuit, it has recently translated into English.

Miano’s beef is that U of Nebraska mishandled the translation of her book by making a change to the title and adding a foreword. Now I can completely understand an author’s feeling of ownership over her work and a desire to have a translation reflect the original as accurately as possible. I don’t think there’s a single author in the history of the written word that likes it when an editor changes what she’s written.

But on the other hand . . . welcome to publishing. Miano is complaining that the original title, L’intérieur de la nuit, was changed to Dark Heart of the Night. Yes, not a completely word-for-word translation, but this is far, far closer to the original than a lot of translated fiction gets. For instance, see New York Times bestselling author Muriel Barbery’s Une gourmandise, which became Gourmet Rhapsody in English. Or Nobel laureate Jose Saramago, whose book Ensaio sobre a Lucidez (“An Essay on Clarity”) somehow became Blindness in English. Examples abound, but most authors don’t feel the need to air this kind of thing in public. So after seeing this somewhat off-base attack lodged at U of Nebraska, I was curious to see what Miano made of the foreword.

To be fair, so far as the foreword goes she does identify areas where its author, Terese Svoboda, could have been a little more accurate. Fair enough. They should have reconciled the foreword with the author’s life and thoughts on the text. But it’s still a wee bit unnecessary to communicate this to U of Nebraska by way of the Literary Saloon.

Not to mention, one would think that Miano’s frothing at certain details about herself and Cameroon that she claims are mishandled would make her sensitive to getting details right herself. So I was surprised to learn that:

Cameroon does not have the worse human rights record in Africa. We have a lot of issues to face, but our country is not more violent than the USA where people are killed on a daily basis for all kinds of reasons.

I don’t know about which African nation has the worst human rights record, but Careroon’s homicide rate per capita is about three times higher than the United States’. Now anyone who reads this site should be aware that I’m far from a raving nationalist–in fact, I’m quite confident that I’m much harder on my homeland than is the average American–and I have no interest in telling people that my country is better than theirs. But on the other hand, facts are facts. The U.S. is far, far more violent than it should be, but it’s not as violent as Cameroon.

Then there’s this:

I knew, when L’intérieur de la nuit (Dark Heart of the Night) was published, that some would use the novel in order to reinforce their views on Africa and its peoples. Really, I didn’t care and still don’t care about that. What I’m interested in, is the African point of view on the topics I work on. I think we’ve spent too much time hoping for understanding and recognition from people other than ourselves. It’s time we focus on our problems and deal with them, no matter how painful it is. I’m confident in our ability to do so. I’m confident in our desire to no more take lessons in humanity from people who created and used the atomic bomb, and who still have death penalty in their country. Things would be so cool if people could just clean their front door . . .

A laudable goal, and one that the book clearly aspires to, without hitting it. But I’m not quite sure how the author’s disappointment that “some would use the novel in order to reinforce their views on Africa and its peoples” squares with her reductive statement that “I’m confident in our desire to no more take lessons in humanity from people who created and used the atomic bomb, and who still have death penalty in their country.”

Frankly, that’s insulting to the thousands of people who have made it their life’s work to try and address the unequal distribution of resources worldwide, a state of affairs that, it must be said, Western nations have done more than any others to cause. True, there are people who have brought “aid” to foreign nations for the wrong reasons, and there are people who have prescribed very, very counterproductive solutions for foreign nations, but there are also a lot of men and women who have gone out there with sincere intentions and have done a lot of good. To tar them with the death penalty and the atomic bomb is . . . well, as stupid as tarring all of Africa because you read a book about an atrocity committed there.

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8 comments to When Translations Happen to the Wrong Writers

  • steve donoghue

    Yeesh – chastisements about the death penalty from somebody in CAMEROON? How are the mighty fallen …

    Still, I agree that “Dark Heart of the Night” is pretty terrible – and a pretty elementary misstep. The world-weary (and hilarious) admonition ‘welcome to publishing’ no doubt covers a multitude of sins, but a publisher ought to be able to get four little words right without invoking Victorian racial echoes about the Darkest Heart of Africa.

  • Davin

    I have the highest respect for Orthofer and his site, but it’s a little tacky to publish that entire letter and not give the publisher a chance to respond at the same time.

  • Davin: True, it seems a little credulous to take this all without consulting the publisher. Fair play would dictate at least giving them equal space.

  • Regarding the title, there are times when a completely different title is appropriate. The effect of the words in the target language matters. That is, in trying to best approximate the effect achieved in the original language, something different may be needed in the target. (This kind of nuance is usually lost on Orthofer as he rails against translation mistakes. But, for example, see Harry Mathews’ writing on translation, etc. Also, your very next post, on Calvino, touches on this point, indirectly. On the other hand, Miano’s point about the English title’s echo of Heart of Darkness is a good one.) Do we know what kind of interaction took place between Nebraska, the translator, and Miano about the translation? Was it discussed at all with her, or was she out of the loop?

  • Richard: Largely agree. This is something that, ideally, the author can and will be brought in on. That said, I know a lot of translators who have told me what a can of worms it is when an author is given too much control over a translation (and Miano’s letter suggests that this would be the case here).

    My problem isn’t so much with some possibly legit complaints on behalf of the author as with how they were lodged and the fact that U of Nebraska was not given the chance to respond.

  • R. Casanova

    “Or Nobel laureate Jose Saramago, whose book Ensaio sobre a Lucidez (“An Essay on Clarity”) somehow became Blindness in English.”

    Actually, Ensaio sobre a Lucidez became Seeing in English; Blindness is the English title of Ensaio sobre a Cegueira. Still, your point stands: “Essay” is clearly a no-no when translating fiction.

  • Trivial correction: Ensaio sobre a Cegueira was translated into Blindness. Ensaio sobre a Lucidez was translated into Seeing.
    And even though these translations keep something of the original, your point stands. It loses the “essay of” part, which makes the book a kind of parable, or project.

  • Elman

    Hi,

    May be my question is not so relevant to the post, but I wonder how the translation into another language mechanism works? If I have a book in my native language and want it translated into one of the global languages what should I do? Is it mostly a publisher does this work for famous authors like they get permission, translate it and publish it or this initiative comes from the author’s side?

    Thanks,
    Elman.

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