Gove v Briggs

Some weeks ago, Michael Gove (Tory MP and also a member of the Shadow Cabinet) wrote in The Times,

Lost in translation

Thinking about phrasebooks – and what gets lost in translation – allows me to unload another crude Tory prejudice of mine. I’ve always harboured the suspicion that reading great literature in translation involves a loss of nuance, a sacrifice of subtlety, which few will admit to. It is not in the translators’ interests to acknowledge what’s lost in the process, and neither is it in the authors’, if they’re still alive and earning. But surely the suppleness of language in the original doesn’t come through in the same way as when we’re reading our mother tongue.

We all know that the weight, cadence, rhythm, colour, connotations and allusions of Dickens’s or Waugh’s language must be, to an extent, sacrificed when they’re rendered in German. So what am I losing when I pick up Thomas Mann? And if I am losing something is it better to revel in the work of a second division Brit (James Hogg, George Meredith) than persevere with a foreign classic knowing you’re not getting the best out of it? Can readers help? Are there some foreign works that lose nothing in translation? And if so, why?

This led to a flurry of letters, notably from Anthony Briggs whose translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace was published in 2005.  Briggs’s stinging rebuke culminated with the non plus ultra of put-downs: “I wince for your shrunken life if you have not yet read War and Peace”.  However, he then ended on a remarkably constructive note by outlining a shortcut for hard-working, time-poor politicians to tackle the tome:

“Dive in media res. Go straight to volume 2, part 4, and read it all, only 13 chapters, pages 533-587. (See overall plot summary, p. 1385.) There’s nothing very sensational here, just the domestic life of a landed Russian family in the autumn and over Christmas. But wow, the wolf-hunt and the evening after, the young people falling in love, troika rides under the stars, family celebrations, dancing, vodka, singing, happy youth and contented middle age…it makes life seem so good. Virtually nothing will have been lost by your not knowing Russian because this work depends hugely on events, (mis)adventures, character and ideas. All of these can be transferred from mind to mind even in translation. They are more numerous, challenging and inspiring in Russian literature than anywhere else.”

This is a fascinating insight, “straight from the horse’s mouth”.  So, any War & Peace virgins, give it a go – the trick is that by the time you get to page 587, you’ll be hooked and will read straight on to page 1316.

As for Gove, a confession duly appeared in The Times of 1 September:

My worry that subtlety of language and precision of thought would inevitably be lost in translation, making B-list Brit novelists a better bet than front-rank foreigners, is, I now understand, total Balzac.

Well, not very elegantly put, but at least the point has, I think, been pressed home.  Briggs 1: Gove 0.  However, thanks also to Michael Gove for prompting the debate and the subsequent media coverage (also on Radio 4, Today – Saturday 6th).

About Lucy Byatt

I'm a translator, from Italian into English. I also teach Italian Renaissance history and write.
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