Translator Linda Asher Handles the Poetic, and Mythopoetic, of Vernant’s The Universe, the Gods, and Men

Written by John Strausbaugh on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Translator’s Art

Vernant’s The Universe, the Gods, and Men, translated by Linda Asher
(HarperCollins, 205 pages, $24), beats the odds. Vernant’s a renowned classicist,
but there’s nothing stuffy about the way he tells his tales. He used to
tell these stories to his grandson–that must have something to do with
the vitality of the text. Rather than either simply "re-telling" familiar
Greek stories–the origins of the gods, the Trojan War, The Odyssey,
The Bacchae and others–or dryly explicating them, Vernant is a sort
of academic griot, both spinning his own interpretations of the tales and explaining
them as he goes.

Asher is
highly respected as a translator from the French; she may be best known for
translating Milan Kundera, and has also done Victor Hugo, George Simenon and
others. Her work here has the sort of deft elegance and clarity that can make
you forget for pages at a stretch that you’re not reading in the original.
To me, that’s the height of the translator’s art: to be so good you
disappear. (Although she offers a counterthesis below.)

a characteristically fine passage from the book:

sees he is beaten again. He understands instantly what’s being dangled
before the nose of the poor human race that he has been trying to help. As his
name ‘Pro-metheus’ indicates, he is foresighted, the one who understands
a situation beforehand, who anticipates; whereas his brother, ‘Epi-metheus,’
is the one who understands only afterward–epi, too late–who
is always taken in and let down, who never sees it coming. The rest of us poor
miserable mortals–we are always both Prometheans and Epimetheans at once;
we look ahead, we make plans–and very often events turn out differently
from what we expected: They take us by surprise and leave us defenseless. In
this case Prometheus sees what is going to occur and he warns his brother: ‘Listen,
Epimetheus: If ever the gods send you a gift, absolutely do not accept it; send
it right back where it came from.’ Epimetheus swears of course that he
won’t be fooled. But then the assembled gods send him the loveliest person
in the world. Before him stands Pandora, the gods’ gift to mankind. She
knocks at his door, and Epimetheus–in wonderment, bedazzled–opens
it to her and brings her into his home. The next day he is married, and Pandora
is established as a wife among the humans. And thus begin all their miseries."

Asher has
been translating French to English "since 1960 or so," she tells me.
"I’m an old lady now, so I’ve done many things over time."
When she got out of college in the mid-1950s she worked at Life magazine,
later at Time-Life Books, and for other publishers and agencies. She was in
the fiction department at The New Yorker during the 1980s. "I had
a fine time doing that, brought in a lot of good people whom I cared for as

We spoke
on the phone last week.

I find many translations
very leadfooted. The translators struggle to get from whatever language they’re
translating from into English, and all too often that’s a visible struggle
that comes between me and the text. To me the height of a translator’s
art is to become invisible. Would you agree with that?

As a thesis
for translation, largely yes. But there’s another notion afoot that I find
interesting and appealing, too–that somehow the reader should be brought
close to the nature of the original in such a way that he understands that there
really is a difference, a kind of chafing between the two cultures. To make
the reader alert enough to the fact that translation has occurred so he doesn’t
simply presume that everything starts out in his own language, as though English
could preempt everything. It’s a kind of anti-imperialist idea that we
shouldn’t simply take it all as though it’s ours, and make it ours,
and smooth over any indication of a foreign origin.

My sense
of translating is how very social an act it is. First there’s the urge
to help one person comprehend another, to act as intermediator. For myself,
it’s another impulse–if the writer’s someone I’m at least
partly in sync with, I respond very much to his or her style of language, to
what he’s doing. It’s as though we’re facing across a dinner
table. I’m hearing his dolefulness, his jokes, his levity, his cantankerousness,
and almost unthinkingly I rise to match it in kind, first in tone and eventually
in the best words I can find. Vernant is very lively, jocular and exuberant
about telling these stories. So I found that, apart from the various difficulties
in rendering a text like this, there was the element of responding to this man.
He’s an old storyteller, a classicist, and a bard himself, who’s used
to holding sway in whatever room he’s in.

Do you,
when you’re translating a classicist, in a sense have to become a classicist

a terrific kick in this, my current profession–I get to read all kinds
of stuff a task will throw me into. I did immerse myself in various readings
in preparing for and doing this book–the Fagles and other Odysseys,
some Edith Hamilton and Bulfinch and other wonderful books–to get the story
again, to understand relationships and motives, to confirm certain English-language
conventions in names and attributes of the characters. And then Vernant has
his rich interpretations too, so I wanted to recognize where he was making an
argument for some view. For that I read a good deal in his own scholarly books
and essays. They discuss various issues around these myths and tales–what
role food plays here, or jealousy there, or whether there is any justification
for the theory of the Oedipus complex, in view of the customs and implications
in ancient Greek society.

Does Vernant
read English?

Not easily,
I don’t think. I sent him queries, in French, and then the completed manuscript
for approval. He’s translated into lots of languages; if he started vetting
texts for English and not for Japanese, what’s the point? I haven’t
met him–I’d like to. I hope to get back to France soon, while this
is still a memory between us.

It sounds
to me that part of the craft as you practice it is an engagement with each of
the authors you translate. I would suspect that Vernant must be much different
to translate from Kundera.

Yes, but
Kundera and I have a very long and close relationship. He really does watch
every word, and therefore the process becomes much more collegial. I’ve
become even more punctilious through that rigorous work; there’s great
pleasure in the rigor of working and honing to get ever closer to the writer’s
words and intent, in not being offhand about it.

Does one
have to be more careful translating fiction than nonfiction?

I might
be more attentive to not just fiction, but literature. Most of my work has been
with essays or history or fiction that are "literary," in that they
are by writers who are very conscious of what they are doing, in style and diction
as well as in matter. It’s a matter of getting into their tone. On occasion
I don’t take on certain translations–sometimes when I don’t love
the book, which does happen, but more to the point, when I don’t feel I’m
right for it–that it would be an enormous strain to find that tonality,
and it wouldn’t be fair to the writer. I want to come up with an equivalent
spirit and diction that get the point across. It does draw on one’s capacity
for acting, for impersonation, more than mimicry, and that means letting go
of one’s own habits of expression, of self, a little…

A book I
did recently was Laurence Cosse’s A Corner of the Veil, a Jesuit
thriller, and the diction was very upper-class Parisian. I wouldn’t have
thought I could do it as readily as I did. It turns out I actually am an upper-class
Parisian matron in good shoes. I was forced into finding ways of rendering that
for an audience here. It was possible to get that tonality, but I hadn’t
registered it consciously for pulling up until I was translating this. So experience,
and observation of it, feed into this work constantly.

working now on a 19th-century memoir by a peasant from Brittany, that, oddly,
was a big hit last year in France. It’s very lively and interesting, and
I have to plumb for the right language for that.

That must
be very hard. A lot of translations of antique materials come off like distressed
furniture–the language becomes faux-antique. It drives me nuts when I read

What we
rely on there is the ear of the translator. It’s not that they’re
wrong in trying to do something to signal the period, but we don’t want
to make a voice archaic when in its own time it wasn’t. We often wind up
using a kind of neutral speech that is mid-Atlantic, as they say, and mid-era,
with a few markers for time and character.

Is it helpful
to travel to France when translating French literature?

I like to
freshen my language–both French and English. It’s very possible to
keep using the same old terms. For instance, the terms for "cool"
change every 15 minutes, both here and there. When you’re abroad, and you’re
reading or listening or talking, you’re intent on getting meanings–you
can forget to note the shifts in language. Having to translate sharpens your
attention, your observation. Then, poring through dictionaries and slang lexicons
and newspapers and movies and conversation–paying attention–it’s
a kind of deep tourism that’s great pleasure. It has to do, too, with managing
to disconnect your habitual style and responses to the fresh stimulus of the
foreign language and its dynamic changes. One great trick for me in France is
going to see American movies with subtitles. If they’re good, they tell
you how a character of a certain class or manner would say certain Americanisms,
while the English is coming into your ear barely consciously. In effect, the
English is annotating the French written lines. On one visit, I saw the Kevin
Kline movie In & Out, and Primary Colors. The Kline translation
was wonderful–funny, light, sexy–but I found the other was a little
prudish, not dirty enough. It missed the way the Hillary character–the
Wellesley girl–could get harsh and salty, use guy talk, when she was after
some political or domestic effect.