Thursday, October 26, 2006

Movie about a translator

This article in the St. Petersburg Times talks about changes in the literary translation industry in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia, touching on a number of interesting issues.

By Evgenia Ivanova
Staff Writer

"'The goat cried in an inhuman voice…' I could not leave this in!" the English professor in Autumn Marathon (1979) remarks after spending hours helping with a translation by his less talented colleague.The Soviet classic comedy recreates in detail the perfectionism of St. Petersburg's old school translation trade.

"The translator's character, Lifanov, states that translation in the modern world must facilitate better mutual understanding between nations, and you, with your babble, will only divide them," says the same professor rejecting one of his students' works.

Such customs, it seems, sank into oblivion with the end of the Soviet Union and now, experts say, nobody guarantees that a foreign book translated into Russian will contain exactly what it promises.

"During the Soviet era, translations were done mainly by people working at foreign language departments [of universities] and who were directly related to teaching translating," Natalia Molchanova, president of Ego Translating, a local translating agency, said.

"Literary translation was considered to be a scientific, a prestigious and a very well-paid job," she said.

After the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, the state no longer provided financing for such work, and the job was left in the hands of publishers. The quality of translations significantly worsened.

"Publishing houses — commercial enterprises having profit as their main aim — were governed by economic interests and tried to economize on translations as much as they could," Molchanova, said.

Pavel Krusanov, the chief editor of St. Petersburg-based publishing house Limbus Press agrees that low-quality translations of foreign literature are a regular feature on the shelves of Russia's bookstores. In his opinion, this often arises as a result of publishers being in a constant hurry to dispatch their books to printers to avoid penalties for delays.

In the event of a poor translation, it would be very "uneconomical" for the publisher to try and find another translator, but at the same time, publishers are not able to control the level of quality, he said.

"Say a publisher has a contract with the printers half a year ahead, [the case with bad translations]. To commission the translation from someone else will mean doubling the publisher's losses which, in turn, will be reflected in the book's higher price," he said.

"Before the publisher signs the contract with a translator, the latter is asked to translate a short sample of about two pages of text," Krusanov explained.

"If the test is successful, then the contract is signed. But the problem is that the translator might work with someone to do the test or really put some effort in while preparing the sample. As a result the quality of translation on the contract might be wretched".

Viktor Toporov, a well-known literary critic and a translator, recalled that as recently as six years ago translators were simply "taken on their word" and nobody in publishing houses ever attempted to check the quality of the end result. But the situation is gradually changing.

"To a large extent, such naive perceptions are slowly shifting back to normal," Toporov said. One of the ways out of the current crisis lies in improving the training of translators, Molchanova said.

"Until they start to train translators on specifically tailored programs (and not only on philological ones), the translation of applied literature will continue to be done by those who over five years [in university] studied Shakespeare and the language as cultural heritage — and fiction will continue to be translated by the rest," she said.

Ironically, the English subtitles in the film Autumn Marathon, at least of the VHS version, are said to be less than well-translated. Another review (of the DVD) describes the English subtitles as "excellent." Were they redone for the DVD?

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