Found in translation

Damion Searles thinks people just need to relax about whether or not reading a book in translation means you’re “missing out” on original language bits lost in the process. I tend to agree. Except with Russians. I feel like they sneak so much extra stuff in there, I am envious of those who can read in the original. That said, nothing will stop me from reading the translations.

Rumaan Alam: You translated a novel called Sundays in August by one of my absolute favorite living writers, the French Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano. I personally don’t have any language other than English, and I feel like there are these purists who will say, “No, you haven’t really read Modiano because you’ve only experienced him in translation.” His body of work is so big that it has multiple translators, because English publishers have been trying to catch up after Modiano won the Nobel Prize. I’ve read your translation of this book, and I’ve read a handful of his other translators in his other books. Am I getting Modiano, or am I getting a simulacrum of Modiano?

Damion Searls: I think that’s an overdefensive reaction to some sort of insecurity that’s been instilled in you by this kind of technical vision of, is it 99.7 percent accurate or is it 99.8 percent accurate? Why wouldn’t you be getting Modiano? There is a different layer when you read someone who wrote in English. They’ve been edited, and somebody put a certain cover on it, and they’ve been reviewed in a certain way, and they exist in the culture in a certain way. You’re either reading it in a course where the professor’s framing it a certain way, or you’re not. The bookstores decided to stock it and promote it in a certain way, so you’re not in some pure, ideal mind-meld with the author, either. The best analogy would be performing music. If you listen to Glenn Gould, are you listening to Bach or not?

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