In previous articles, this author has mentioned the ongoing surge of new translations into English, a surge that has been enriching the Anglo literary world for the last twenty or so years. While this surge has made a few foreign authors unprecedently famous in the English speaking world – a prominent example being Elena Ferrante – this surge is not restricted to just contemporary works. Classics of the 19th century and long-forgotten modernist works alike have been discovered, re-discovered or rehabilitated, while literature from previously under-translated languages and cultures is now accessible for Anglo readers. The process continues to this day.
While it need not be stressed to professional translators and translation scholars alike, this translation surge is a phenomenon of great historical importance. And like many historical developments, competition ensues. The opportunity to either 1) be the first to translate a particular novel, and/or 2) create the definitive translation of any one novel, is a tempting prospect for many translators hoping to make a name in the literature industry. As translation scholar Itamar Even-Zohar points out: “In spite of the broad recognition among historians of culture of the major role translation has played in the crystallization of national cultures, relatively little research has been carried out so far in this field” (Even-Zohar, 2000, pp. 192). While Even-Zohar’s observation focuses on historical developments, the underlying reality about translation, its lack of recognition, is commonly understood and frequently lamented. Add to that the current trend of greater recognition among translators in general, and it is understandable that translators will want to seize the opportunity to stand out not only in their circles, but elsewhere as well.
Notes On The Greater Profile of The Translator
From the perspective of translation scholar Lawrence Venuti, the act of translation itself is deeply and inseparably associated with scandal. At least it was in 1998. As Venuti wrote back then: “Translation is stigmatized as a form of writing, discouraged by copyright law, depreciated by the academy, exploited by publishers and corporations, governments and religious organizations” (Venuti, 1998, pp. 1). He went on to write: “Translation is treated so disadvantageously, I want to suggest, partly because it occasions revelations that question the authority of dominant cultural values and institutions. And like every challenge to established reputations, it provokes their efforts at damage control, their various policing functions, all designed to shore up the questioned values and institutions by mystifying their uses of translation (Venuti, 1998, pp. 1).
Elements of this stigmatization do persist: or, to use Venuti’s words, “suffer from an institutional isolation, divorced from the contemporary cultural developments and debates that invest it with significance.” (Venuti, 1998, pp. 2) This author, also a scholar of American literature, particularly laments the lack of focus given to literature published in other languages like Spanish and German by immigrant groups in the United States (a notable exception, translated from the German, is The Mysteries of New Orleans, by Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein). Another noteworthy hindrance is the nature of categorization itself. While, to give one of Venuti’s examples, the relationship between philosophy and literature is close in most cultures, the philosophical works of philosophers like Jan Patočka (who wrote in Czech) and Leszek Kołakowski (who wrote in Polish) will be translated strictly as philosophers in a manner that has obliterated the connectivity they share with literature and other forms of the arts (or, in both cases, the role they had as anti-Communist dissidents); this is irrespective of the fact that Kołakowski was also a writer of fiction. This topic will be addressed in greater detail in a future article.
At the same time, things have changed since 1998. The most noticeable change is the surface-level trend to more often place the name of translators onto book covers. A change that must certainly not only signify greater respect for the art of translation, but a greater tendency by readers to keep track of their favorite translators as well as their favorite authors. The greater connectivity of the internet and social media has not only helped connect translators, but better advertise translations by helping to bring translated literature out of the niche it used to occupy. And since 2008 the Best Translated Book Award has become a prominent way of shedding light on the best translations, assisting in downplaying the traditional distrust many readers have had of translations being poor quality.
Which of Two Translations To Choose?
With this in mind, let us proceed to the phenomenon accompanying all this success: dual translations. This article will focus on the titles of one such pairing: Krysař, by Viktor Dyk, translated into The Ratcatcher by Roman Kostovski in 2014, and into The Pied Piper by Mark Corner in 2018. (Translated from the Czech.)
Krysař is a modernist version of the fairy tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin that has, since its publication in 1915, become a jewel in the Czech classical canon. While this author could not find any accessible reviews for either translation of Krysař – that stigmatization Venuti was talking about, perhaps? – it is enough to observe the title choices alone. According to the Czech dictionary, the word Krysař means, “A person whose job it is to exterminate or exterminate rats” (Nechybujte.cz). In contrast, the word pied refers to a type of clothing while the word piper, once its Anglo-American cultural connotations are removed, is somebody who plays a pipe with no connotation to rats whatsoever. The title Ratcatcher, as a result, makes Kostovski’s choice of a title the most literal and the most free of Anglo-American cultural perceptions. In Kostovski’s favor, it is worth noting that an earlier translated segment of Krysař published shortly after the author’s untimely death in The Slavonic and East European Review was also titled The Ratcatcher (Dyk, 1931).
A quick glance at Czech Wikipedia shows that the Czech name for the Pied Piper of Hamelin is Krysařz Hamelnu; though the protagonist is a rat catcher, he is a rat catcher we all know just as much due to his musical talent as his ability to dispose of rats. By calling it The Pied Piper, Corner opted for a metaphorically deeper conveyance that not only cites a shared element between Czech and Anglo-American cultures – the original fairy tale associated with the Brothers Grimm – but increases the marketability of the translation considerably by providing a familiar cultural reference to the average Anglo-American reader. While this may appear crass to some – and indeed, to a certain degree, it is – literature in translation accomplishes little if it does not somehow end up in the hands of new readers and potentially new fans in the target language. Having read one of the two translations, this author most certainly approves of new Krysař fans.
So which title is the best? Both titles are accurate translations that convey two different dimensions of the famous fairy-tale character; neither one is “more right or wrong” than the other. While the best method of ascertaining the truth is to ask the translators directly, translators are nothing if not strategists. In the opinion of this author, Kostovski’s title is the better choice as it not only carves out a new place for Viktor Dyk and his Czech classic in the Anglo-American world apart from the Grimm Brothers fairy tale; it avoids inscribing qualities of domestication rightly condemned by Venuti (Venuti, 2000, pp. 468-469). While Corner’s title may result in The Pied Piper ending up in the hands of more readers than Kostovski’s, it does so at the cost of conveying a purer otherness not only by giving it Anglo-American connotations, but by too closely associating it with the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale rather than letting the short novel form its own separate legacy in the English language as has been the case with Dyk’s fellow Prague resident, Gustav Meyrink, and his version of the Golem legend. The Pied Piper as a title is comparable to a new Spiderman series trying to distinguish itself from the previous Spiderman series by simply calling itself The Amazing Spiderman instead of Spiderman. Which leads to the strongest reason why Ratcatcher is the better title: while Krysař may feature the Pied Piper of Hamelin as its main character, the title Pied Piper also conveys a fairy tale while Ratcatcher does not. Krysař is a lot of things. But it is not a fairy tale.
While this author would like to say that translation has transcended the marginal status Venuti described in the late 90’s, it is difficult to proclaim that apart from what was mentioned earlier in this article. Two other pairings were considered for this article: Cré na Cille, by Maírtín O Cadhain (translated into Graveyard Clay and The Dirty Dust) and Něžný barbar, by Bohumil Hrabal (translated into The Tender Barbarian and The Gentle Barbarian). While articles have reviewed these translations and the reviews were positive, there was virtually no commentary on them as translations. While translation scholars do great work, familiarity with the works of previously cited scholars in these articles like Cronin, Tymoczko and Venuti does not tell me as a reader whether Graveyard Clay or The Dirty Dust is the preferable translation. By breaking out of the corral of theory and directly making sense of the ongoing competition among translators to “be the first” or to have the flashiest title, translation scholars can only increase their already rising relevance by making sense of this. Not every translator is a competitor in this manner. But where competition is concerned, the end goal matters little if there is no way of declaring a winner.
Dyk, V. (2014). The Ratcatcher (R. Kostovski, Trans.). Academic Studies Press.
Dyk, V. (2018). The Pied Piper (M. Corner, Trans.). Charles University in Prague, Karolinum Press.
Dyk, V., & Jopson, N. B. (1931). The Ratcatcher. The Slavonic and East European Review, 10(29), 259–264. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4202657
Even-Zohar, I. (2000). The Position of Translated Literature Within The Literary Polysystem. In L. Venuti (Ed.), The Translation Studies Reader (pp. 192–197). Routledge.
Nechybujte.cz. (n.d.). Krysa%C5%99 - Slovník současné češtiny | Lingea s.r.o. www.nechybujte.cz. Retrieved November 4, 2022, from https://www.nechybujte.cz/slovnik-soucasne-cestiny/Krysa%C5%99?
Venuti, L. (1998). The scandals of translation : towards an ethics of difference. Routledge.
Venuti, L. (2000). Translation, Community, Utopia. In L. Venuti (Ed.), The Translation Studies Reader (pp. 468–488). Routledge.
Von Reizenstein, B. L. (2003). The Mysteries of New Orleans (S. Rowan, Trans.). JHU Press.
Figure 1: Czech Lit. (n.d.). The Ratcatcher [Illustration]. In Czech Lit. Retrieved November 5, 2022, from https://www.czechlit.cz/en/book/the-ratcatcher-en/
Figure 2: UMSL. The Lost Mysteries of New Orleans. [Cover Image]. Retrieved https://irl.umsl.edu/history-faculty/11/
Figure 3: Greenaway, K. (n.d.). Pied Piper and the Children. [Illustration]. In Wikipedia. Retrieved November 5, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamelin
Figure 4: The Rat Catcher. [Media from Wix].