May 26, 2009
Faking It In Translation
Suzanne Menghraj loved Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read so much that she read it twice. She wanted to read Bayard’s 2000 book Comment améliorer les oeuvres ratées (How to Improve Failed Works). But it hadn’t been translated, and she couldn’t speak or read French. So she decided to bang it out herself anyways:
I came very close to failing French several times over the eight years I studied the language. This does not make me proud. But it does make me want to explore my persistent lack of facility with a language whose structure and habits I understand only well enough to catch a word here, a sense or mood there (let’s say I “skim” French). And so, a good French-English dictionary in hand, I read “Hélas!” (literally, “Alas!”), the introduction to Comment améliorer les oeuvres ratées and was as taken with the iconoclastic ambitions expressed in it as I am with those expressed in How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read—so taken that I decided to give translation of “Hélas!” a shot.
My own speaking French is terrible, and my reading French is so slow that I’ve read more than a few books with the original in one hand and a translation in the other, jotting notes with a pen between my teeth when I can’t be bothered to put either book down. (I’m telling you - this is the only way to read Proust.)
And my German’s probably about the same as Menghrai’s French. I was astonished when I switched from philosophy to comparative literature, because suddenly everyone around me was fluent as hell - they were born in Austria, they spent every summer in Paris, they didn’t just like to dick around with Kant or Baudelaire.
But I still think that my ambient awareness of, my ability to skim four or five different languages, has really helped me do a lot of things I otherwise wouldn’t be able to do. I say, let’s have more people half-assing it in languages not their own.
Language is like cooking, or sex: if you get all hung up on being really, really good, not only won’t it be fun, you’re probably never going to get around to doing it at all.