Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

Lost in the Details: Translating Master Peter's Puppet Show

Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

Lost in the Details: Translating Master Peter's Puppet Show

Article excerpt

TRANSLATION IS A SISYPHEAN task, one that promises frustration and despair for the translator and dissatisfaction, at best, for the reader of the translation. The great Spanish critic Ortega y Gasset says, "the idea that there ate philosophers and, more generally speaking writers who can, in fact, be translated is an illusion" (93). After examining the enormity of the translator's task and exploring how translation theory has framed the perspectives of three translators of Don Quijote--John Ormsby, Burton Raffel, and Edith Grossman--this essay will examine how those positions affect their respective translations of Maese Pedro's puppet show (II, 26).

In his essay; "No Two Snowflakes are Alike: Translation as Metaphor" Rabassa cites sound, curses, and articles as problems in literary translation, but then focuses on three larger issues that make translation a quixotic enterprise. "The author who knows his language inside out" (8) is the first. Rabassa uses a line from the Brazilian writer Joao Guimaraes Rosa's novel, Grande sertao: Vere'das: "O diabo na rua no meio do redemoinho," which translates literally as "The devil in the street in the middle of the whirlwind." In the Portuguese, the devil is not only in the whirlwind but literally in the word for whirlwind: "redemoinho." The translator of this difficult text has to deal with how to accomplish a similar feat in English. Second, Rabassa cites the author who has a strong knowledge of local idiom as yet another problem that makes a text untranslatable. Juan Rulfo provides the perfect example here with the title of his short story, "Es que somos muy pobres." The title literally says, "It's just that we're very poor." The "Es que," when translated, sounds strange to the English speaker, giving it affectation; yet in Spanish it not only sounds natural, but also lends humility. Finally, Rabassa talks of those works steeped in their cultural milieu. The example he gives is Luis Rafael Sanchez' La guaracha del Macho Camacho, but Don Quijote, could be substituted just as easily.

Don Quijote is the quintessentially impossible task for the translator because it combines all of Rabassa's problems and adds yet another: the cultural milieu that Don Quijote is steeped in lies across a temporal gulf of four hundred years. Ormsby, Raffel, and Grossman tackle the problem of Don Quijote's essential untranslatability in different ways. Ormsby relies on a strict fidelity to the letter of the text while Raffel frequently dismantles the literal level in pursuit of higher "sense," or authorial intent. Interestingly, Grossman falls somewhere in between these two, concerned with modernizing her text for the contemporary audience, yet unable to bring herself to break down the original text in order to reconstruct a new one, as Raffel so often does. Here, once again, Rabassa proves a useful guide: "a translation can never equal the original; it can approach it, and its quality can only be judged as to accuracy by how close it gets" (I). There is no "right" way to translate; there are as many methods and theories as there are translators. However, if the translator is to have any hope of approaching the original, and the reader is to have any criteria by which to judge the translation, then it is critical to explore how a translator "best" makes his of her approach.

Walter Benjamin states: "The task of the translator consists in finding that intended effect upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original" (77). The question is how to find that intended effect. "The person who desires to turn literary masterpiece into another language has only one duty to perform, and this is to reproduce with absolute exactitude the whole text, and nothing but the text. The term "literal translation" is tautological since anything but that is not truly a translation but an imitation, an adaptation or a parody" (Nabokov 134). Nabokov's insistence on a "literal translation" places him on one end of the spectrum. …

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