Thursday, January 21, 2010

Followup to elements: Anecdote found

A year ago, I wrote:
I remember reading an anecdote about a translation of a major literary work in which the translator wasn't familiar with chemistry, didn’t know the names of the elements in the target language, didn't bother to look them up, and got many of them wrong. I’d like to be more specific, but unfortunately I didn’t save the article and could never find it again in spite of much searching. Does anyone remember the specifics? That translator would surely have enriched his translation, as well as gotten it right if he'd had a resource like “Elementymology” to consult.

I have found the particulars of this case in an article by David Mendel, called “Primo Levi and Translation.” Here are the missing details I couldn’t remember:
David Jones, like Levi, both chemist and writer, reviewing Raymond Rosenthal's translation of L'altrui mestiere (Other People's Trades) in the Times listed a number of words in Levi's works, which had been wrongly translated. In The Periodic Table the translator made up English names for the rare elements. As the authentic English names could be found in any dictionary, to invent them is unforgivable. These elements were, understandably, unfamiliar to the translator, but he did not look them up. Perhaps he was translating against the clock; it is a badly paid job.

The article is well worth reading on many counts. It discusses Primo Levi both as translated writer and as translator himself.

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