Translation, Pleasure, and Responsibility

Down House, Kent, England
Down House, Kent, England, home to Charles Darwin and his garden.

I have recently had the honour and the pleasure of co-translating Kristina Carlson’s dazzling novel, Mr Darwin’s Gardener (Herra Darwinin puutarhuri, Otava, 2009), into English; the result will appear in June of this year. The text is set in the late 1870s, in the village of Downe, in Kent, and concerns Thomas Davies, a grieving widower employed as a gardener by the notorious naturalist, Charles Darwin.

The book is a tour de force, in technical terms. The narrative hops in and out of the villagers’ heads in a daring and exhilarating way. At the same time, the book never loses sight of its central themes: loss, grief, faith, reason, science, progress. It is profound but not po-faced, humorous and humane.

Translating a book set in England into English offers a particular set of challenges. The first hurdle is finding a publisher. Literature in translation is ideally ‘exotic’ and ‘different’ (but not threateningly so), offering the reader a taste of the source culture, the opportunity for armchair travel. Carlson’s novel does not feature this selling point. Fortunately, the brave and uncompromising Peirene Press was persuaded of the book’s strengths, and took it on.

Then there is the translation process itself. In Translation Studies, there is much debate regarding the ‘domestication’ of literary texts in translation, that is, the process whereby excessively ‘foreign’ elements are erased. This might mean, for example, that streets are renamed, references to local practices are removed, and so on. This process is generally frowned on in scholarly circles, and it is indeed ethically problematic.

But what about a text set in the target culture? Such a text has a responsibility to that culture to render it ‘accurately’ (difficult term). And the translation process may involve editing in order to ensure this responsibility is adhered to.

It is not only a matter of ethical responsibility. There are also the (related) questions of pleasure and credibility. For an Anglophone reader to enjoy reading a translation – especially a translation set in the target culture – the depiction of the time and place in question, and of course the language in which that depiction is rendered, have to be sure, firm, spot-on. There must be no room for doubt, for the reader to wonder: ‘Is that really what someone would have said?’ or ‘Has the translator got that right?’ I stress pleasure, which feels subversive. But Mr Darwin’s Gardener is a pleasure, or should be.

How to ensure credibility and enjoyment? In the case of Mr Darwin’s Gardener, it meant thinking carefully about individual factual details, and where necessary checking them. It meant rendering the language authoritative and readable (but not pat or trite). It meant preserving the glorious oddness of the original while making sure the text was accessible, confident, sure of itself. So if a sentence sounded like a poorly translated Finnish idiom, it had to be reworked.

Of course one domesticates. There is no way round it. One is changing the language of the text! But this particular case – of a novel set in the target culture – brings this insight sharply into view. Again, I would insist on pleasure. The reader should delight in the text, not be bogged down or stumped by what are in English unworkable, unwieldy sentences – Finnish grammar is an intricate thing, which must be carefully attended to – or weird and puzzling expressions that disrupt one’s reading. Hooray for domestication (within reason)!

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