Reviews

Book Review: “Translator, Trader” by Douglas Hofstadter


Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

I’ve just finished reading Translator, Trader: An Essay on the Pleasantly Pervasive Paradoxes of Translation by Douglas Hofstadter and am still trying to digest the big translation questions that the author raises in it. As you might discern from the title, this essay – which reaches 100 pages – is a playful description of a translator’s quest to faithfully translate a piece of work. What a quest it is!

Hofstadter takes us through his process of translating the French book La Chamade (by Françoise Sagan) into English. He states that the idea of his essay is to demonstrate “that high-quality conversion of a novel from Language A to Language B reflects the depths of the translator’s soul no less than Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter reflects the depths of Ella’s soul.” In a nutshell, that translation is an art form involving endless translation choices, numerous “trades” between the languages, and carefully selected words which go beyond simple literal translation.

Regrettably, I am not bilingual, but I expect that speakers of multiple languages frequently encounter the conundrums he discusses. Even as a monolingual speaker I was able to get an understanding of the difficulties he faces with translations.

Hofstadter supports a non-literal translation style as opposed to a literal one, which he characterizes as typically dry and often rendering the finished translation as “wooden.” He humorously defends his choice to translate La Chamade with his own “translator” voice, even admitting when he may have pushed the line just a little when translating a word or phrase.

His essay introduces various struggles related to translation that readers might not typically know exist. For example, he discusses the original French text making use of the two forms of the French second-person singular: the familiar “tu” and the more formal “vous“. How should a translator express this difference in English, or should they even attempt to do so?

While a literal English translation of the text might do away with any such distinction and simply substitute the word “you” for both tu and vous, Hofstadter makes the argument that the original author, Sagan, made a deliberate choice to distinguish between the two forms. To solve this translation issue, Hofstadter chooses to capitalize “You” when referencing the “vous” form and uses the lowercase “you” when referencing the “tu” form.

If this sort of thing appeals to you, you are in luck as his essay is full of subtleties in this regard. What could have been a very technical book is a fascinating read. One strong point of his essay is how passionate Hofstadter obviously is about his work as a translator. It is apparent that he loves the original text and I got the idea while reading it that he lost a lot of sleep in his effort to represent the original text as best he could.

This unique essay is a must-read for anyone who reads translated texts. Even if you don’t agree with every point he makes, you will gain a much greater appreciation for the artistry of translation. I plan to read the accompanying copy of Hofstadter’s translation of La Chamade (That Mad Ache) in the near future. I have no doubt that my experience will be all the more richer having read his essay about the translation process beforehand.

Have you had your own experiences translating texts from one language to another? Or have you read a book that you felt was particularly well-translated? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: “Translator, Trader” by Douglas Hofstadter”

  1. Great review, and this essay sounds like such an interesting read! I have studied three languages other than my native English (Spanish, Latin, Hindi), and with the first two especially I notice the difficulties of things being lost in translation. I mean even listening to an English version of a song in Spanish is hilarious! I honestly commend those that translate author’s works into other languages.

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