The trajectory of a translator: David Ball in conversation with Shoshana Werblow

David Ball is a Professor Emeritus of French Language and Literature and Comparative Literature at Smith College. He retired from Smith in 2002. Since his retirement, he has published more than a dozen book-length translations, including Jean Guéhénno’s, Diary of the Dark Years, and with his wife, Nicole Ball, Lola Lafon’s We Are the Birds of the Coming Storm, and Abdourahman A. Waberi’s Transit and Passage of Tears. In 2017, Professor Ball was named Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques by the French Republic. He was president of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) from 2003-2005. 

How did you come to translation?

I think it came from a long time ago, really loving the poetry of a strange, French poet, named Henri Michaux. And I had the feeling that I just wanted to tell my friends about him, and you can’t tell friends about a poet, you have to see it, and my friends didn’t read French at the time, although I was in Paris. So, I began translating him. And through the years, that finally led to a whole book, actually. And I think that’s really a motive for translation, broadly speaking, “I want to tell my friends about that.” Obviously, if it’s a book, you hope that not just your four or five friends are going to buy it, but that’s the idea. 

How do you experience the process of translation when you’re working on a project?

I can tell you how I work I guess. First of all, unlike what many academics who study translation theory will tell you, I don’t believe translation theory has anything to do with what translators really do. That is, it is a description, and that’s fine, it’s an object of study. It’s like, you know, you can study the physics of baseball, that’s not going to help you play baseball. Interesting in itself, why does the ball curve when thrown in a certain way, and so on. That’s how I feel about translation. So, I translate, I might say, almost instinctively, that is I know immediately what the words mean, of course, to me that’s the sine qua non of translation, you just have to know the language, and translators don’t like to talk about that because it sounds like any dictionary will do that, Google translate will do that, no. A language is a huge complicated thing, and you have to really know it. So I know it,  what it means, and now I kind of think, well, what would we say in English for that? And then I think at the same time that I’m thinking that, I’m thinking of the kind of effect that this author is producing.

This is, let’s say this is a wild image and the words are very strange. Well, I try to do that in English, I want the words to be strange, not necessarily the most obvious words, but the strangest, that will fit the meaning. And, the problem with this, that is glaring in the translation of poetry but is also true in the translation of prose, is that when you’re trying to get the meaning, but also the quality of the text, what it feels like, you have to compromise, you have to sacrifice one or the other to a certain extent. The most obvious example: suppose you’re translating a rhymed poem, unless you’re really great at that and very lucky–and some are, I’m not–it’s impossible to get the English to rhyme the way French does, because French has more rhymes than English, it just does, all the Latin languages do. So, if you want it to rhyme you have to either twist lines in a very uncomfortable way, and you don’t want to do that, or you’re going to have to change the meaning somewhat. Now, which is more important in the poem, you’ll have to decide in each line. That’s why poetry is so hard to translate. It’s somewhat true in prose, because you want to get the effect that the author is getting in her or his language, the effect that as a French reader, when I’m reading a text in French, the text does something to me, I feel it in one way or another. Okay, how can I create that effect in English? 

What is the most recent problem you’ve run into in translation and how did you solve it, or have you not solved it yet?

I’ll tell you the most recent problem that’s on my mind, and it’s not really a problem about translation, well it is, it’s sort of an ethical problem. The last novel I translated, that was just published, is a book called Bande de Français.

In this novel, the novel is a lot of fun, I enjoyed it, there are some very funny scenes in it, it’s interesting. About halfway through I realize this guy is far-right French-Israeli, and I hate that politics. And the only character in the book that’s presented with no sympathy is a journalist that is who is, quote, “telling lies” about the Israeli army, and he’s financed by the European Union. First of all, journalists are not financed by the European Union, that’s a lie, but it’s in the novel. Secondly, he’s obviously not telling lies about what the Israeli army is doing in the occupied territory, he’s looking. So, it was odious to me. So, what do I do? I could have said, I’m sorry, I’m not translating this, but I was in the middle of the project that I was paid in advance for, and I enjoyed the novel. I could simply not translate those passages–but no,  I would never do that. So I translated these passages that I found truly odious, and I did it. I don’t feel good about it, and apparently the book is selling very well. I have mixed feelings about that, people can read things and believe that nonsense. Luckily, it’s not a major thing in the novel, but it’s absolutely there. I also had a feeling of irony about it, almost tragic irony  (not to puff it up to be too important) because I was in a panel for ALTA,  our professional organization of literary translators, where there was a question of translating, let’s say “bad passages”, whether obscene, racist, this, that. And my point of view was that if you translate something, you are ethically bound to translate it. 

Do you correct errors you find in the original text (typographical, or a detail changes from one part to another)?

I think I would, typographical doesn’t mean anything unless you’re not sure of a word. There was something very recently, where, in the novel I’m working on now, the character is talking. It’s a fictional biography of an old master of Tao, in the fifth century BC. It’s sort of a biography, but it’s a novel, it’s fictional. There’s a point where he says he’s mocking the Confucians, who give all kinds of rules for behavior, and one says about bowing, when you bow, your hands should be over la manche, la manche is the sleeve. But he wrote la marche, which means “the step”. That makes no sense, it must mean the sleeve, so we’re going to translate it as sleeve, I think, because with this, as with a number of other books, maybe half of what I’ve done, I collaborate with my wife, Nicole, who is French, and a good translator herself. So, we’ll see what she thinks about that. So, yeah, obvious mistakes I would correct, but you have to be really careful with that, is that what the author meant, or not, and if you’re translating someone alive sometimes you can ask. And we have done that. 

When do you know (if) a translation is finished?

I think you just have to stop, saying I think this is the best we can do. You’ve read it, re-read it, and if I’m working with Nicole, she’s read it, re-read it. We’ve corrected all we can, looked at it, what else are we going to do? But, it happens often that later you think, oh, why didn’t I do it this way and not that way? And in the Michaux, for example, long ago, I made a real dumb mistake and I can’t correct it, it’s in print, and I’m surprised no one picked it up. That glaring mistake is there, and no one ever noticed it except me, as far as I know. 

What words do you leave in the original language? Do you? Why?

Normally I wouldn’t do that at all. I’m trying to think what we did…no, I think you’d have to get an English equivalent, unless it’s a French text and let’s say there’s a German word in it, then you leave the word in German, because it had the same effect for a French reader as it would for an English reader. Again, what counts as the effect you’re producing. 

How have you as a translator changed over time, or progressed, or do you think you’re translating the same?

Frankly, I think I’m a lot better, partly because I know French a lot better. I mean, I thought I knew French many years ago, when I did Michaux, but I know it a lot better now. And also, I’m freer as a translator. For example, French punctuation is different, and in the past we didn’t dare change that and now we do. I just feel much freer. Be careful using that word, because sometimes people say “free translation”, and often I don’t think they should be called translations. I think a translation has to communicate the denotational meaning of the text as much as it can–like the dictionary meaning–as much as it can. And much as I said talking about poetry,  you can’t always do that to the letter, but as close as you can. When translators, often who are poets themselves, for example, sort of take off, that’s fine, call it “after Victor Hugo” or “after James Sacré.[James Sacré taught at Smith in the French Studies Department from 1972 to 2001.  Now living in France, he continues to write and publish poetry, editor’s note.Robert Lowell called his translations, not translations, but imitations, that’s very good. He did Baudelaire, for example, but he didn’t translate, he did Robert Lowell inspired by the poem of Baudelaire, that’s fine. But don’t call it a translation! In translation, you have an ethical responsibility to stick to what the damn thing means on the simplest level. 

How do you/do you make this a financially sustainable practice? 

I’ll answer that with an anecdote. Years ago, at our professional conference, the American Literary Translators Association, the keynote speaker looked at the audience, about 300, 400 people, and said how many of you earn your living doing literary translation? Two hands went up. I think that answers your question. Generally speaking, 98-99.5% of the time, you cannot earn a living doing literary translation. There are translators who earn a living, but they’re doing scientific translation, business texts, stuff like that, not literary translation. There are a few who translate, for example, big best sellers, for big publishing companies, and if they have a reasonable contract for royalties, they can earn a living, otherwise not. 

In the languages that you are working with, are there genres or perspectives that are not getting translated in the same volume as others? Are there voices missing in this work?

Well, I think generally, poetry isn’t published as much as other genres, and that’s true for things that are not translated too. It’s not advertised very much, it doesn’t sell very well, so that’s true for translation too. It’s harder, well my own example is I’d like to do  a translation of James Sacré’s poetry as a book, but it’s not easy to find a publisher . So that’s one thing, poetry in general. Aside from that, no, I couldn’t say. In the past, 20-30 years ago, you might have said, there aren’t enough translations of francophone writers, in other words outside of France who speak French. There’s not enough of that, there’re not enough women, that’s no longer true, it really isn’t.

Shoshana Werblow ’20 is a senior at Smith college, double majoring in French and Jewish Studies with the Translation Concentration. She spent the 2018-2019 academic year abroad in Paris with the Smith Junior Year Abroad program.   

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