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

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The Translator's Art

Jean-Pierre 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.)

Here's a characteristically fine passage from the book:

"Prometheus 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 writers."

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 yourself?

There's 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.

I'm 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 that.

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.

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