Translator Update #4: Translation, A Grubby Job, but Someone's Got to Do It

Whenever I read about Constance Garnett, doyenne of Russian-to-English literary translation, sitting in the garden and banging out her work with scarcely a break for reflection (“She would finish a page,” D.H. Lawrence tells us, “and throw it off on a pile on the floor without looking up...”), I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Garnett’s reference sources must have been sparse, if not nonexistent, and her method could hardly have encompassed the sometimes frustrated mania for pinpoint accuracy that besets so many of her descendants in translation and has only intensified with the advent of the internet. She was also, sadly, unable to fire off an email to a colleague (or, even better, the author) with “Huh?” as the subject line. And as a result, she should surely be forgiven for misreading, misconstruing, and outright omitting words, sentences, and whole paragraphs that would only have slowed her down.

In my work over the past year on Dmitry Chen’s The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas (Montpelier, VT: RIS Publications, 2013), I had no such leeway. There is really no excuse for getting things hair-curlingly wrong these days. And whenever I did, my actively involved author let me know it, for which I will be endlessly grateful. As a stranger barging into such a strange and wonderful land, I needed all the help I could get.

My research, be it into obscure language or elusive facts, follows no discernible plan. Basically, I flail around, beginning with my favorite online sources, widening my search in an effort to confirm or refute, and bugging my colleagues mercilessly when all else fails. Beyond that, I have no particular desire “to open up a corner of my workshop,” as Dmitry Chen, in his afterword to Hawk, tells us he always yearns to. It’s way too messy in here.

But let’s look at just one of the topics that the author and I batted to and fro before reaching a conclusion we could both live with.

The problem, I learned to my dismay, was that back in the eighth century C.E., there was no such thing as a Byzantine Empire. Who knew? Well, probably every historian worth his or her salt and, of course, Dmitry Chen. The term “Byzantina” was apparently first used in print – to refer to the city and the territory it ruled – by a German historian in 1557.

Byzantium had been the name of Emperor Constantine’s capital, but he renamed it Constantinople in the fourth century, replacing a nod to the city’s reputed but probably mythical founder Byzas with a name that, Constantine must have thought, gave credit where credit was due.

During the period in which Hawk is set, the people who lived in what we now call the Byzantine Empire firmly believed they were living in the Roman Empire – which they actually were. Or, to be more precise, the eastern Roman Empire, since the better-known western part was on History’s ash heap by the fifth century. But, I mused, the term “Roman Empire” would be associated with Julius Caesar informing us that all Gaul is divided into three parts, in any normal reader’s mind. (And a normal readership, trust me, is what most translators aspire to.) That wouldn’t work at all.

But the translated text, which by that point was almost ready for prime time, was peppered with Byzantiums. So, after much soul- and internet-searching, a round of compromises was hammered out, which my long-suffering author may not have relished but has graciously tolerated. And in the interests of spoiler-avoidance, I shall smile coyly now and leave it at that.

Of course, this was just one of the numerous tough decisions that had to be made (and ditched and remade) in the months it took to bring Hawk to press. And the book, I believe, deserved no less. Constance Garnett may even be envying me just a little.

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