Translation Geekery

I recently started subscribing to the London Review of Books, I’m not too sure why. I like to tell myself it was so that I could keep abreast of new books that were coming out but the reality seems to be that I head straight for the personals section at the back to amuse myself  over the ads that are placed.

I’m very curious to know what the response rate is. I mean how do you reply to ads such as these?

This ad is a rare glimpse into my mind. You are in there, but in my mind you are blonde, no older than 30 and have tentacles instead of human limbs. Comply with just one of these imaginings and win my heart. Male, 39 Box no. 20/08

Allow me to buy you dinner! It’s chicken or fish and one of the conditions is that i get to harp on for three hours about my ex-fiancé who dumped me a week-a fucking week! -before our wedding. but yes, after that I’ll let you have sex with me. Female, 29 Box 19/03

Last night I read Writer’s Writer and Writer’s Writer’s Writer by Julian Barnes. He was reviewing Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or more accurately he was reviewing the translator’s version, the translator in this case being Lydia Davis. I don’t know about you but I’ve read Madame Bovary only twice in my life. The first time was when I was around 18 or 19 and I loved it, a few years later I decided to re-read it but have to admit it wasn’t such and easy read. I’m not sure why I didn’t enjoy it as much but after reading Julian’s review I’m going to put it down to the translator.

I discovered there have been over 15 English translations of the book which surprised me as I couldn’t and still can’t imagine what differences they’d all find from the one French text. Differences they did find however and most started before they even opened the book. Madame Bovary has a subtitle, in French it is Moeurs de province. As a non-French speaker I won’t bother you with my Babel Fish translation as it would only add to the growing list and would be as valid as half the translations. Those three words have variously been translated as; Provincial Manners, Life in a Country Town, A Story of Provincial Life, Provincial Lives or Provincial Ways. Some translators found it so difficult to put into words they just dropped it completely

The outcome of the review made me go find the new edition I recently bought from the Folio Society. I was curious to know which translator I had and it transpires I have the original which was carried out by Eleanor Marx Aveling, Marx’s daughter and published in 1886. According to Julian her translation is not as free as that by Francis Steegmuller or as tight as that done by Geoffrey Wall, whether this is good or bad I do not know. Some might call all these differing translations the work of pedants but I like to think of them as latter day geeks.

There was a time when to be called a Geek was an insult but to use the common parlance, it has been reclaimed and is now worn as a badge of honour amongst not just technology minded people but you now have Cinema Geeks, Mathematics Geeks, Comic Book Geeks. In fact if you can think of a subject you can add Geek as a suffix quite easily to label someone who is enthusiastic about said subject. Certainly the 15 or so translators of Madame Bovary would earn the suffix in my book.

As it happens, 2010 sees the first annual  Geek of the Year event sponsored by at The Underbelly in Hoxton and it promises to be a fun evening with comedians, live music from the rising stars of indie, Ex Libras, together with DJs and of course geeks, lots of them! The ultimate Geek of the Year will be chosen by a panel of judges including The InBetweeners writer Iain Morris and will win a prize pack of gadgets, goodies, an editorial spot on the website and a luxury holiday worth £5,000. started life in 2009 as a gadgets and tech lifestyle website but has since branched out and now includes music, film, and comedy; all covered by a team of award-winning journalists. When asked about the awards it’s editor, Ally Millar, said

We started out with the idea that the definition of geek has changed. Traditionally, it described someone in thick black glasses with an unhealthy interest in technology and sci-fi; but this stereotype has evolved into something sexy and more mainstream. In the last few years the old definition has evaporated and to us, a Geek is simply someone with a deep interest in their chosen topic, be it film, art, music, cooking, gadgets or gaming; Geek of the Year will be a night to celebrate and reward that passion.

Sadly it’s too late to enter for this year’s event but if you let your inner geek out now you might be in the running for next year’s awards!

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