jueves, 4 de noviembre de 2010

Lost in Mistranslation: Penguin's Underwhelming and Unreliable "The Swindler"

Two Spanish Picaresque Novels: Lazarillo de Tormes and The Swindler (El Buscón) (Penguin, 1975)
by Anonymous (Lazarillo de Tormes) and Francisco de Quevedo (El Buscón) [translated from the Spanish by Michael Alpert]
Spain, 1545 & 1626

On Tuesday, I promised you all a post about why I thought Michael Alpert's Penguin translation of Francisco de Quevedo's 1626 La vida del Buscón--along with the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes and Mateo Alemán's Guzmán de Alfarache, commonly regarded as one of the three greatest picaresque novels to come out of Spain--was such a dud in its English incarnation as The Swindler.  While I realize that the vast majority of you won't be bothered by the idea of a bad translation of a book you were never going to read anyway, I hope those of you interested in translation matters in general will bear with me for a couple of moments while I relate this "cautionary tale."  Although I actually have a lot of complaints about the translation, I'll try to keep things relatively brief and non-technical as regards the language issues.

At the beginning of Chapter Twelve in Alpert's translation of The Swindler, we find the rascally narrator Pablos on the road to Madrid in the Castilla-La Mancha region in Spain.  "But to get back to my journey," he writes, "I was riding on a grey donkey like Sancho Panza and the last thing I wanted was to meet anybody when, in the distance, I saw a gentleman walking along with his cloak on and his sword by his side, wearing light breeches and high boots" (147).  This gentleman, whose appearance, manners, and hard luck may superficially remind some of Don Quixote, will then fall in with Pablos for a spell in what looks like it could be a send-up of an adventure from Cervantes' recent runaway best-seller.  So what's the problem with such a tantalizing metafictional scene? It doesn't appear this way at all in my Spanish version!  At least, there's no mention of Sancho Panza in my Quevedo--just the detail that Pablos was riding on a "rucio de la Mancha" [gray horse from La Mancha] (II, 5, 95 in the Spanish text).  Is Alpert trying to embellish the Don Quixote-like "cameo" for English readers, using a variant text, or just making shit up?  It's hard to say.  While there are at least three Buscón manuscripts known to scholars in addition to various printed versions of the novel, Alpert never once mentions which version of Quevedo's text he's used as the source for his translation.  Kind of a big problem there, no?

While I wouldn't expect Alpert's "popular" Penguin translation of The Swindler to have the full critical apparatus of Fernando Cabo Aseguinolaza's academic Crítica edition of La vida del Buscón given that they were probably put together with different audiences in mind, my concerns with not knowing Alpert's source text are compounded by disputes with his translation itself.  I've already mentioned elsewhere how his mistranslation of a raunchy joke about priests and prostitutes misses a wicked anti-clerical jab by Quevedo.  In addition, he muffs up simple translations often enough that I'm not sure whether he's just sloppy or whether he's actively trying to rewrite Quevedo.  Sloppy: Translating "four" years (120) instead of the correct "forty" years (Quevedo, 55) in the description of how long Pablos' uncle had worked as a hangman.  Actively rewriting: Substituting "man of leisure" (86) for "caballero" [gentleman or nobleman] (Quevedo, 12) when translating Pablos' stated goal for what he wants to become in life.  Granted, some of these quibbles are minor--but some are not.  In any event, they all tend to erode my confidence in the English version of the work.

As does Alpert himself.  If I can step away from the nitty gritty of the translation for a moment, I have to say that the personal side of himself he reveals in his introduction makes me less forgiving of his miscues as a translator.  He would almost certainly make a dud tour guide as well.  Check out these three asides: "The pícaro's goal is respectability, which means money, and of course he is keen to make the best showing he can in the world; Spaniards traditionally are" (7).  "The author satirizes at the same time the traditional Spanish preoccupation, quedar bien: to impress, to make a brave showing in the world.  No one can have failed to notice it who has been to Spain and seen how apparently poor people dress impeccably and spend their money freely" (9).  "Besides, that Spaniards are proud is a truism" (10). These comments, while they may not be as "racist" as many of the barbs in Quevedo's 17th century text, rub me the wrong way with their 20th century cultural stereotyping...and this from a British translator who discusses Spanish currency in terms of the "farthing" on page 85!  Maybe translators should just be seen and not heard, I don't know.  In any event, the sad thing is that Alpert's translation of The Swindler--as underwhelming and unreliable as it is in my estimation--is one of the few ways for English readers to experience a Spanish classic so wrongly comic that it almost landed its "anonymous" author in hot water with the Inquisition.  More on that in a day or two perhaps along with a quick look at some of the other targets of Quevedo's humor.

12 comentarios:

  1. Actually, given what a hot topic translation is getting to be in the blogosphere, I wouldn't be surprised if people WERE upset by the idea of a bad translation of a book they'll never read...

    And it sounds like you have some genuine gripes here. The addition of Sancho Panza to the one paragraph is really pretty bizarre!

  2. I don't think that's so bizarre. The translator is assuming that the reader will not understand the "La Mancha" clue.

    It's a liberty, that's for sure. I don't know why the "nudge" can't be kept in a footnote. This translator, by the way, is just stealing this particular intrusion from the 1926 Charles Duff translation (I have a copy). It's not even an original liberty!

    Everyone should read this book, even in a mediocre translation. I can't vouch for Duff's accuracy, but his version is certainly lively. Ignore Richard's pessimism - "never going to read anyway"! Someday, one of your readers will create a Siglo del Oro book blog.

  3. This is another one of those posts that really pushes me more toward making an effort to read in original languages. I don't really have any good excuse for not at least attempting Spanish--not only is it the non-English language I read best, I already have quite a few books (novels, plays, short stories) on hand that I could choose from. The whole discussion though makes me wonder how many other books are out there that have questionable translations.

    Amateur Reader's comment about a 'Siglo de Oro' book blog makes me laugh. Some of those books I mention above do fit that era...

  4. *Emily: I did some research in the library earlier today and saw what Amateur Reader later confirmed independently: Alpert follows a translator named Duff (who himself followed a translator named Stevens) in the matter of Sancho Panza and the error of reporting four instead of forty years. While this takes him off the hook for making stuff up, it still doesn't explain why he and Penguin would want to make a copy of a copy of a corrupt (or at least not optimal) English translation from the 1700s. Weird.

    *Amateur Reader: I don't think it's bizarre that the translator would want to tip off readers to a potential Quixote reference, but I do think it's crossing a line and well beyond just taking a liberty if the translator puts words into the author's mouth when the author didn't say them. As you point out, that's what footnotes are for! While I do agree with you that "everyone should read this book, even in a mediocre translation," I don't think it's pessimistic at all for me to say that the vast majority of my readers aren't going to read the book. I'd love to be wrong about that, though, and I appreciate your optimism in calling me pessimistic about it!

    *Amanda: Amateur Reader has dropped hints about a Siglo de Oro blog before, and he even has a great name for it lined up and ready to go (although it's eluding me at the moment, ack). Maybe you and he could have rival Siglo de Oro blogs! As for the Buscón, I thought it was a difficult read in Spanish (lots of wordplay, criminal slang, regional dialects) and an entertaining read in English despite all the translation flaws. Anyhow, thanks for the visit--I look forward to seeing you post on something from your Spanish lit collection at some point in time!

  5. I don't speak Spanish but I am interested in the translation matter. I'm shocked by what you discovered about this translation.(of a book I've never heard of, btw, since I'm really ignorant of Spanish literature)and really shocked by the judgmental comments made by the translator.
    Translators shouldn't take liberties such as: changing the level of language (formal to informal for example), translating names (I didn't like that Zweig's Ludwig was named Louis in my French copy)or references (ex: giving an American chain store name instead of the local name)and of course, adding words or things that weren't in the original text or cutting the original text. That's what footnotes are made for.
    Max from Pechorin's Journal and I discussed this when I posted something about Murakami and discovered that the English translation was abridged. He found a really interesting exchange on the subject from Murakami's translators. Japanese seems very difficult to translate in occidental languages.

    I didn't study literature more than the mandatory classes in high school. Blogging in English kind of opened my eyes on that issue, since I've been looking for translations of French quotes for my posts and disagreed with them sometimes.
    In the end, I still haven't decided if I miss more of an Anglophone book when I read it in English and don't understand all the words, references and play-on-words or when I read it in translation.

  6. I more shocked about those weird comments of the trasnlator than about the translation, I do find it crtitical but is so common. I wonder if people know how much a translator of novels gets. Not a lot, be assured. Since I am translator (not novels) and worked also for editing houses in the past I am familiar with the sloppiness of the work due to lack of time. There should always be editing as well. Mostly it is not done. The best translations will probaly come from writers who translate out of passion. And then some language combination don't work well. Guess French-Spanish works better than Spanish-English. In any case the translation you are writing about seems to have another problem. Maybe the translator simply didn't like the novel and thought he was improving it.

  7. Is this a good time to mention that Edith Grossman forbids doing what you are doing in this post, "since any competent translator would already have made countless checks for accuracy before the books ever reached the publisher’s hands."

    Countless! That's from p. 30, or close to it, of Why Translation Matters.

  8. Clearly you have under(over?)estimated your readers, since we are all so interested in the translation issue!

    I both appreciate reading things like this and also live in fear of reading another one. It takes away all your trust. I mean, you should at least be able to depend on Penguin. Maybe it's not going to be great, but it should be reliable.

    This makes me lean strongly to reading things only in the original. Then I ignore entirely the literature in languages I can't read and also the ones in which I'm too lazy to read (all but English). Which is why I should be the one to get over it and go off and do the Siglo del Oro book blog :)

  9. Richard, I guess I'm going to actually have to do something about reading those Spanish books, since I keep talking about it!

  10. Hola, Richard!

    El lazarillo de Thormes es el mejor libro que leí en mi vida!
    Sigo con tu lista de supermercado más arriba.
    Un abrazo

  11. *Bookaroundthecorner: I love and agree with your list of liberties that translators shouldn't take, and Alpert of course violates the name change thing in his own "special" way: Pablos' uncle, Alonso Ramplón in the Spanish original, is given the stupid name of Alonso Yobb, presumably because ramplón means coarse, common, and uncouth in Spanish. This is another example of where a footnote should have been used instead of an Alpert intrusion, especially since "Yobb" isn't even used throughout the English-speaking world. I can also identify with the dilemma expressed in your last sentence; I almost always would prefer to read in the original language where possible, but potentially missing out on things in a foreign language plus the investment of time required to read outside of your native language do need to be factored into the equation of what you want to get out of the reading experience, don't they? P.S. I bought Murakami's Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in Spanish because I didn't want to subsidize the English translation that had been gutted--how funny you mention Murakami here!

    *Caroline: I felt as if the translator really went out of his way to insult the Spaniards with those "weird" and "judgemental" comments that you and Bookaroundthecorner mention--and what was even weirder was that his Penguin bio listed him as a Lecturer in Spanish with a PhD in Spanish history. So much for having an affinity for the culture he spent so much time studying! I also really appreciate having your translator's perspective here. I would have guessed that it wasn't a get rich quick type of profession, but the poor decisions that went into Alpert's translation make me feel that he and Penguin probably owe other translators an apology.

    *Amateur Reader: I think it's a perfect time to bring up that harebrained remark of Grossman's again! Thanks for the reminder. Of course, I guess it also depends on what Grossman means by a "competent translator." But how do we evaluate competence if we give the translator a free ride in the first place? I know you or somebody else raised this last question on one of your Grossman posts, so please forgive me if I've rendered it less eloquently than was done over at Wuthering Expectations!

  12. *Nicole: Sorry, I now see that I didn't express myself very well in the post--I meant to say that most readers probably wouldn't ever read the Buscón and NOT that most readers wouldn't be interested in a bad translation issue. My bad! That being said, I totally agree with your points about Penguin (those translations, if not great, should at least be reliable) and how the lack of trust a bad translation creates can more or less corner you as as a reader if you don't know every single language in the world. By the way, I'm ever so happy that this post--and more importantly, Amateur Reader's call to arms as a response to my pessimism in it--has established so much enthusiasm for a soon to be thriving Siglo de Oro blog scene. How wonderful is that? Cheers!

    *Amanda: It's all good! I kept telling Emily at Evening All Afternoon a while back that her essays on books in French were inspiring me to dust off my own rusty French chops, but it took me at least 10 months this year and some more last year I think to get with the program. I understand--but good luck!

    *Ever: ¡Hola! Lazarillo de Tormes es espectacular, sin duda alguna. De hecho, me gustaría leerlo de nuevo en el año que viene (ha sido un rato desde la última vez que lo leí). ¡Saludos! PD: Gracias por recomendarme ese El arte de la fuga de Pitol: otro librazo.