A Curious Footnote Speaks Volumes (Maybe)

Sometimes, a translator’s inner pedant escapes and just has to rear its little homunculean head. I found the tracks of such a creature in last night’s reading of The Banner of the Upright Seven (by Gottfried Keller, translated in 1964 by one Bayard Quincy Morgan, apparently known in sporting fashion as “B.Q,” and, I would assume, entirely comfortable with utterances such as “old chap”).

Behold, at the bottom of page 41, the description of a dinner party receives the following note:
“Feminine readers may be interested in the cakes which Keller specifies, and which are as follows: Hüpli and Offleten, crisp brown cookies of flour, cream and sugar; both are very thin, but the former are rolled into small tubes, while the latter are flat and frequently stamped with a decorative pattern, or with the coat of arms of the family… [etc., etc.] TRANSLATOR.”

Before examining the amazed guffaw that issued from yours truly, I first have to state that I love the biblical-style, all-caps-smaller-font signature B.Q. was granted here, much like THE LORD gets any time HE makes an appearance in Old Testament get-togethers.

But seriously, folks, “feminine readers”? 

Source: Motif Magazine

Yep, this was 1964, before the longhairs were running roughshod over innocent America and the women’s libbers were trying to bring civilization to its unstockinged knees. But just a year earlier, Betty Friedan had published The Feminine Mystique. And here begins the wild speculation that was going through my head just a few hours ago: it’s hard to believe something that made the splash Friedan’s book did wouldn’t have crossed the path of a well-informed Stanford Emeritus Professor such as our intrepid translator.

Maybe he and the publisher thought this little uproar was just a phase. (It’s more likely they didn’t think about it at all, in relation to the dumb footnote, but let’s keep going, just for fun.) Morgan was in his eighties when Upright Seven came out; he was born in 1883, and I’m sure he’d seen enough to know that the world usually doesn’t change drastically overnight, especially as the result of a book. But the way in which B.Q. assumed what sort of audience would (and would not) be interested in his footnote (especially when footnotes had thankfully been almost non-existent up to this point), and the way in which he addressed that audience, places him solidly in line with pre-Friedan attitudes.

Would there be something wrong with a man interested in knowing just what all these pastries were? If interested, would he be counted as “feminine”? Was Morgan using the adjective, not as an indicator of gender, but as a one-word label of bundled assumptions involved in a standard view of a particular gender? Did he use “feminine readers” in place of “ladies,” for example, because he was aware that these days, only certain types of women– those paragons of their “sex” still committed to the home and to “femininity”– were remotely concerned with impressing the guests at their next dinner party?

I realize I’ve gone off on a zany tangent here that many will find ridiculous. But– time for a little self-disclosure– since I am a translator, I know 1) word choices loom incredibly large, whether bringing a text into another language or selecting the right phrasing for a margin note or clarification, and 2) my colleagues and I, at least, tend to make sparing use of footnotes. B.Q. had, so far, stayed true to point #2, and so I find it especially curious that he took the time here to seek out his lady friends, who, had they really been that interested in what was on Herr Frymann’s table, probably would have done their own research.

And then: the text itself will bear with it its own date-stamp; how much do you, as a translator, want to 1) insert yourself into the text and/or 2) mark your own interventions with an additional era-indicator, thus (probably) leaving that much more excuse for someone else to come along and improve upon your own dated production?

I feel I’ve been a bit hard on ol’ B.Q., who really was a mover and shaker in the world of translation, a world to which he was deeply committed. And I can at least recognize that his little comment was more apropos in the mid-’60s than it would be today– and be thankful that, even though hearty strains of sexism still assume I’d rather be shopping and taking advice from The Millionaire Matchmaker, most people I know would laugh just as nuttily as I did upon reading that little gem at the bottom of page 41.

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4 comments

  1. lostgander

    How interesting that you are a translator– what languages and materials do you work with?

    There is an interesting interview with Lydia Davis in the latest issue of The Quarterly Conversation. It's rather lengthy and mostly about her own writing, but she has this to say in the beginning about her translation methods:

    “I read the text a little at a time and translate that little bit very directly, as I read it, sometimes almost simultaneously. I do not pull back and consider the whole work, interpret the whole, “contextualize” it (I don’t like jargon, but that word is useful), form a prior opinion of “how” it should be translated, and certainly I don’t recast or rearrange the sentence more than necessary. I’m not saying this method of translating would work with all texts—it wouldn’t with most poetry, for instance, which needs a lot of reinvention in translation—but I think it works well for many works of fiction.”

    Do you think this is a common approach? I'm always interested to hear about how translators work because so much of what I read is in translation. I try not to focus on this while reading, but it's hard not to wonder sometimes about the quality of a translation or what I may be missing by not reading the original. It's also interesting to see how writers react to their own translators. After reading some of Imre Kertész's books, I came upon some public criticism he directed at his original translators into English. He felt they missed the point of his work, or didn't properly capture the spirit of it. It seems like it would be devastating both personally and professionally to receive criticism from a writer like that.

    Of course, if you were Thomas Bernhard, you wouldn't even care enough to criticize, as evidenced by this response to a question about translations of his own books…

    “Doesn't interest me at all, because a translation is a different book. It has nothing to do with the original at all. It's a book by the person who translated it. I write in the German language. You get sent a copy of these books and either you like them or you don't. If they have awful covers then they're just annoying. And you flip through and that's it. It has nothing in common with your own work, apart from the weirdly different title. Right? Because translation is impossible. A piece of music is played the same the world over, using the written notes, but a book would always have to be played in German, in my case. With my orchestra!” (from this interview)

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  2. Special K

    So! I translate out of French, German, and Spanish, and tend to stick to literature, the academic humanities, and art scholarship/criticism/catalogs. My own approach to translation is very similar to what Davis describes– but I know some of my colleagues like reading through the whole text before tackling it, if they've got the time. For me, especially if it's literature, translating as I read keeps me honest about discovering the surprises and developments in the narrative, if that makes any sense.

    Translation often seems to me like such a presumptuous undertaking, almost as if you were daring to create an unauthorized clone of the writer's innermost self– and that's why I can understand Bernhard's feelings about it, although I don't think translation is always impossible (especially in terms of conveying feeling, atmosphere, etc.). His assertions also speak to cases like Hegel, who's often much easier to read in German than in English, which seems unbelievable.

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  3. lostgander

    How much does your reading for work put a crimp in your reading for pleasure? I would imagine you must be a fanatical reader in order to accomplish much of both. As a library cataloger, I can't bring myself to apply anything close to the same rigor in cataloging my books on LT as I do in my work, even though I would like to. Though perhaps in your case the two are more mutually exclusive…

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  4. Special K

    I try to keep the two separate, mostly by sticking to a a daily schedule that doesn't allow on-the-clock reading to bleed into evening reading for pleasure. And I *am* a fanatical reader– but admittedly, the fact that I'm currently stuck in a provincial outpost without a lot of appealing social options (circumstances which are hopefully coming to an end in the not-too-distant future) contributes to the amount of pleasure-reading I do.

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