Eager or Reluctant? A Translator’s Dilemma

The translator can’t go where the writer hasn’t gone. But it feels good to bound eagerly toward a text’s limits.

I. A Bad Mood

Not long before the pandemic, I got a fellowship to do research at the University of East Anglia’s archive of literary translators’ papers. My plan was to travel to England in May 2020. I didn’t make it there for two more years. By the time I finally showed up on their brutalist campus, I’d lost interest in the idea I’d pitched in my fellowship application. But neither had I developed a new plan. I walked into the reading room feeling like a fraud.

At first, my sense of inferiority made me a grouchy, ungenerous reader. I began with the papers of John Fletcher, having loved French writer Marie NDiaye’s Prix Goncourt–winning novel, Three Strong Women, which he translated into English. NDiaye’s original style is gorgeous, her prose—as Fletcher wrote to his British publisher, Christopher Maclehose—“as complex as that of Henry James, Proust, or Claude Simon: devilishly tricky to get right, but the effort’s worth it.”1 Yet Fletcher didn’t seem to relish the emotional and intellectual effort demanded by Three Strong Women’s plot. The tripartite story chronicles the loosely linked histories of three women driven to passivity and defeat by horrendous circumstances. Sometimes it stretches the bounds of reality; other times, it ventures into the realm of the symbolic. Fletcher’s emails to his editor, a freelancer whom Maclehose hired, are full of disappointment at the book’s dark strangeness. He wonders if the novel’s French publisher considered NDiaye “too grand to be edited” and laments having assumed “the Goncourt was a label de qualité. Silly me.”2

Fine so far: many publishers do fail to edit, and literary awards are indeed arbitrary. But when the editor asks Fletcher if the book’s title is “ironic,” Fletcher replies, “Would that it were! Mme NDiaye does seem to think that these women are ‘strong’ … The wife of the late, great Malcolm Bowie said of him at his funeral ‘he was a feminist in word and deed’ and I hope that the same will be said of me. If Norah, Fanta and Khady are ‘strong women’, I’d like to know what a weak woman looks like.”3 I immediately bristled. In my reading, the book’s main subject is the insufficiency of strength, its inadequacy for protecting NDiaye’s protagonists from harm. Day one in the archive, feeling worried and intellectually insecure, I wanted Fletcher to agree with me. When he didn’t, I decided he was no feminist. I imagined him, unkindly, as a crusty old man ill-prepared to understand, or relate to, female characters invented by a female writer. Probably, I thought, he was a little racist: after all, I’d been irritated that he chose to translate the French idiom tondre le laine sur le dos, which roughly matches “pull the wool over your eyes,” as the anti-Semitic phrase “jew you.” As I continued through his emails with his editor, I also found a number of instances of racial obtuseness on the editor’s part: she didn’t believe a multiracial character could be a redhead and failed repeatedly to understand that eczema looks different on Black and white skin. Fletcher didn’t quite correct her. Instead, he reminded her, repeatedly and doggedly, that NDiaye was the authority here, and that her descriptions couldn’t be contravened.

Slowly, I recognized that while the editor was consistently rude to and about Three Strong Women and its author, Fletcher really did respect NDiaye and her work, and often defended both against his editor. I came to the conclusion that she had no business editing NDiaye, but that Fletcher translated her with care, dedication, and skill. He admitted freely that his reactions to the novel’s title and its fantastical elements were too “literal-minded.” But more importantly, he buried his preferences. His subordination of himself to NDiaye was striking. Indeed, he practically went to war with his American publisher, Knopf, on behalf of her prose.

I read the American edition of Three Strong Women first, and, on arriving at UEA, was startled to see how different it was from the British one. I thought the American one was better: more fluid, more natural, less stiffly French in syntax. Fletcher disagreed vehemently. His emails dripped fury that his American editor had pushed him into a “rewrite that bore little resemblance to the French original.”4 He fought each departure from NDiaye’s phrasing, trying to preserve the content and tenor of her work. In an email to Maclehose’s team, he laments, “I don’t believe in slavishly translating the text word for word—far from it—but where the author has used a particular word the translator should in my view only change it for a good reason; and I fail to see … good reason here.”5 Fletcher was so reluctant to accept Knopf’s changes that, when compelled to do so, he insisted on adding a note to the American edition’s copyright page, which reads: “John Fletcher asserts his moral right to be identified as the translator of the work. The translation has been adapted by the publisher for the American market.”6

I myself am not reluctant to change words when I translate. In fact, I’m often eager to. My goal is always translation that is faithful to the sound and spirit of the original, but also vivid and elegant in English (or snappy, if elegant doesn’t suit the text). Sometimes striking that balance means making changes I doubt Fletcher would permit. His archives included semesters’ worth of marked-up student papers; nearly all his marginalia ask the student translators to adhere more closely to the source text.

If I had been Fletcher’s student, I would have argued with him, I’m sure. Artistically speaking, that’s proper. You can’t develop if you don’t push against what you’re taught. Of course, you also can’t develop if you reject every lesson. It’s unclear to me, really, whether Fletcher was right to reject Knopf’s changes. It seems to me that adhering too strictly to your ideas about what translation should be is a way of privileging yourself over the reader; at the same time, Fletcher was clearly privileging the original text over all else. I find that fealty admirable. In fact, sitting in the archive, I started wondering if, by comparison, I’m a little too disloyal.

At first, I tried hiding in identity. I’m young, American, female, all traits generally associated with eagerness. Fletcher is British, male, and, at the time he translated NDiaye, middle-aged, all traits I associate with a certain reluctance to change. But those associations are too close to stereotype for comfort. Besides, I don’t want to conflate my identity with my style. My eager translation is looser than Fletcher’s; that’s fine. It doesn’t need to be explained via biography. Both our approaches are valid, just as both editions of Three Strong Women are good. Still, as I returned to Fletcher’s papers on later days, my mood and confidence both trending upward, I found myself fascinated and intimidated by his reluctance. It made me worry that my eagerness to make changes in translation is, really, a disguised eagerness to please.

As I branched out to other translators’ papers, I remained preoccupied with reluctance and eagerness. I began seeing them as a yin-yang of sorts. Every translator displayed both; every translator seemed to need both. I’ve started thinking that, in order to translate well, we must be eager and reluctant simultaneously. We must keep our eagerness and reluctance in balance—and, ideally, get them to work in harmony.


II. Eagerness

Then again, if I weren’t eager, I wouldn’t be a translator in the first place. I got serious about translation, pursued it, and remain devoted to it out of enthusiasm for specific works, and, often, a burning desire to share them. I know I want to translate a story or book when I realize that I can’t stop telling my English-speaking friends about it. Often, I think of translation as the show-and-tell of literature—and as anyone who remembers kindergarten knows, show-and-tell is no good if the person doing the showing isn’t excited about what’s in their hand.

I’m not alone in my enthusiasm. In Babbling Barbarians: How Translators Keep Us Civilized, the translator David Bellos describes reading the Oulipo writer Georges Perec’s colossal novel Life: A User’s Manual and thinking, “This is a book in French, but it’s a book that belongs to the world. I would love to be able to share this with other people.”7 Bellos had never translated before, but his conviction and enthusiasm were so strong that he taught himself. At UEA, I sorted through typed manuscripts full of Bellos’s margin notes instructing himself to go track down one of Perec’s myriad references, allusions, or quotations. I admired his many versions of the book’s 51st chapter. Often referred to as “the great compendium,” chapter 51 is a catalogue of some—but not all!—of the novel’s events, in which each entry contains only 60 characters. Nested within them, just to make the translator’s life harder, is a complex acrostic. I would face down such a chapter with dread. Bellos describes it as “the job I was doing every day between tea and the television news … [it seemed] like fun.”8

I’ve started thinking that, in order to translate well, we must be eager and reluctant simultaneously.

It seems to me it was here that Bellos crosses the line from eagerness to share into eager translation. Although the former is a necessary precondition of the latter, they’re not quite the same. Eager translation, I think, is what happens when you get in the groove. In the UEA archive, I found an unreleased essay by translator Anthony Vivis on what he calls the “intuitive approach” to translation. Said approach, he writes, “mainly involves letting feelings for individual words, constellations of words, or the pulse of rhythm connecting them, to develop lives of their own in the movement from source to target language.”9

For this to work, a translator must be open to change. It is impossible to embrace intuition while clinging to precision. Fletcher’s “good reason” lives nowhere near Vivis’s intuitive approach. Reason, after all, is the enemy of getting carried away.

But Vivis is no maniac of enthusiasm. He’s not rewriting whole plays—he worked primarily with German drama—willy-nilly. He argues that the intuitive approach “requires more trust, more faith in your own ability” than any other. He warns new translators to steer clear, and tells more seasoned ones, “It is important to keep referring to specifics—in a dictionary, thesaurus, or to your collaborator.”10 Vivis seems a little afraid of eagerness, as if it were some powerful, half-controllable force. I don’t think he’s wrong. I do think, though, that reluctance should be treated with similar care.


III. Reluctance

It takes some mind stretching to see reluctance as risky. After all, being reluctant generally helps us avoid danger; it keeps us from screwing up, from going too far too fast. It keeps us planted in the realm of the explicable and justifiable, which is, I assume, what Fletcher means when he writes of only changing words for “good reason.” (Certainly it is not what I mean when I write in my notes to an author that I’ve switched the order of a sentence, broken up a paragraph, or added an idiom because it “helps flow” or “sounds right.”) Yet, in translation, the fear of danger and mistakes can be paralyzing. Regretting or second-guessing your choices can bog a translator down. Too much regret, too much reluctance, can stop a translation in its tracks.

As it turns out, Fletcher understood this danger well. In an archived draft of a never-published essay called “A Translator’s Second Thoughts,” he writes that,

far from feeling guilty about “second thoughts,” a translator has to accept that they are an occupational hazard, something to be lived with, accepted. Welcomed even? No … Speaking personally, I cannot go that far. I suspect that I am not alone in being a perfectionist, and although I know that a translation is by nature imperfect … it will never cease to pain me each time I am led to realise that it is.11

On reading this passage, I saw myself in Fletcher for the first time. My eagerness does not shield me from second thoughts. If anything, it exacerbates them. Being willing to change the original text means not only that I have to worry about betraying it, but also that I could have pursued more options, sought more variations, done just one more draft. My Scylla and Charybdis, as a translator, are doing too much and not doing enough. If I were more reluctant to make changes, I’d be protected from the latter. My biggest problem, I imagine, would be the desire to jam in every bit of meaning and allusion, from which I do still suffer, and which Fletcher memorably described in a letter to a friend as being “a bit like stuffing a lot of socks into a slippery plastic bag!—one always falls on the floor while you’re packing the rest in.”12

Translation is a slippery art. Reluctance is a way to feel grounded, to create reliable confines for your work. Eagerness does the opposite: it erases the confines inherent to translating somebody else’s work. But that erasure is always temporary, a respite rather than a removal. Even the freest, loosest, most experimental translations are limited by their sources.

Reluctant translation, then, is realistic in a way eager translation is not. It accepts the true conditions translators work in: we owe a debt of fidelity to the original text, but that debt is one we cannot fully pay. To return to Fletcher’s odd simile, we’re always going to lose a couple of socks. Our choice, then, is whether to eagerly stuff in some new ones or march reluctantly onward, knowing the bag’s a little lighter than it should be.


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Once the drafting stage is done, reluctance takes two final forms. I see reluctance in Fletcher’s desire to reject edits—a desire that also appears in Bellos’s archive: on several marked-up versions of Life: A User’s Manual, he replies to many suggested changes with a penciled “no, stet” (edit-speak for rejecting a change). Yet he was not totally unwilling to take feedback, and, reading, I could see how carefully he weighed his “yeses” and “nos.” His reluctance to accept edits is, like Fletcher’s, a way to protect the text, not—this is a danger of reluctance—a way to shield his ego.

I also see reluctance in a letter Bellos got from Oulipo poet Harry Mathews, who was the movement’s only American member and who had translated two chapters of Life: A User’s Manual for American literary journals. Bellos, presumably, wrote to ask permission to translate the novel. Mathews granted it gladly, but warned that

in America it is likely to sink like a stone in the bottomless pool of an indifferent and ignorant market. It’s true that if it were published by a university press it would be kept in print; but I like to think that this stupendous work might some day be presented to the English-speaking world with the attention that only a big commercial publisher can provide. This has been one of the main reasons I’ve postponed undertaking the translation.13

Bellos, of course, undertook the translation anyway, and it has remained in print ever since, finding English-language readers who, had Mathews’s reluctance won out, could easily have never learned about Perec’s work.

I can’t blame Mathews for being reluctant in the face of the market, or—I imagine—fearing disappointment if his translation sank like a stone. Reluctance is, after all, a protection not just from danger but from rejection. Knowing how “indifferent and ignorant” the publishing world can be, it’s only natural for Mathews, or anyone else, to be reluctant to deal with it. Here, though, it is vital that eagerness defeat reluctance. If the eager Belloses of the world didn’t translate books that seem unsellable, readers would be deluded into believing innovation happened only in their own language. The truth is that many publishers assume their customers are frightened of, or uninterested in, unfamiliar literature. All too often, it’s translators’ enthusiasm that keeps this assumption from turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy.


IV. Humility

Buried in Anthony Vivis’s letters, I found an op-ed from a 1996 issue of The Bookseller. His agent had torn it out and sent it to him, attaching only a scribbled note saying it might be of interest. Its author, Steve Cox, argues that translators, at the time rarely named on book covers or in reviews, needed to stop “humbly drawing attention to their own existence” and start loudly demanding acclaim. By not doing the latter, he writes, translators give editors and critics permission to “cut [them] dead in the media streets, [turn them] into non-persons.”14 Cox is being performatively strident here, presumably in an effort to set an example. He wants translators to get rude and loud. More than 20 years later, translators are still a fairly decorous bunch, but we’re learning to raise our voices en masse. We’re asking for money and attention, overcoming the reluctance instilled by decades of being ignored—or, perhaps, by being told that translators cannot possibly be authors’ creative equals.

It’s too easy, I think, to claim that author and translator are perfect peers. It’s equally easy to claim we’re not. As ever, the truth lies in some tricky middle ground wherein the translator is respected, praised, and compensated as the work’s creator but not its originator, its writer but not its author. Notice, though, that in this essay, I have treated “writer” and “author” as synonyms, but I have not, till now, referred to translators as writers. I remain reluctant to do so, though I know translation is a form of writing. Maybe this reluctance is one I need to overcome.


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On balance, I continue to see reluctance as more harmful than eagerness. I think about John Fletcher digging his heels in with Knopf, defending his sense of how a translation should be and, in so doing, refusing good aesthetic feedback. I think about Mathews putting his fears of rejection, or market impurity, above his desire to get Perec published in English. But I also think about Fletcher’s and Mathews’s profound respect for Three Strong Women and Life: A User’s Manual, their dedication to seeing those books as their true selves, rather than changing them to please the English-speaking reader. I do not want to get carried too far away by what pleases me, or to forget the constraints within which I work.

As a translator, I can’t go where the writer hasn’t gone. Still, it feels good to bound eagerly toward a text’s limits, to bang up against them, to surpass them, and then, in the revision process, to reel myself back in. Really, all that feels more than good: it feels necessary. In taking creative license, I assert creative possession. Only after that is it time to get reluctant. I hope Bellos, Fletcher, Mathews, and Vivis could all be persuaded to agree.


This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames.


Correction: October 27, 2022

This article has been updated to include additional information about the sales numbers of Life: A User’s Manual. icon

  1. John Fletcher, email to Christopher Maclehose, December 16, 2006, box TA/JF/6, Literary Translation Collection, British Archive for Contemporary Writing, University of East Anglia, Norwich, England (hereafter referred to as LTC, BACW). Reprinted with permission from the writer.
  2. John Fletcher, emails to Harriet Harvey Wood, November 13, 2011, and December 7, 2011, box TA/JF/6, LTC, BACW. Reprinted with permission from the writer.
  3. John Fletcher, email to Harriet Harvey Wood, November 15, 2011, box TA/JF/6, LTC, BACW. Reprinted with permission from the writer.
  4. John Fletcher, email to Harriet Harvey Wood, November 13, 2011, box TA/JF/6, LTC, BACW.
  5. John Fletcher, email to Katharina Bielenberg, October 4, 2011, box TA/JF/6, LTC, BACW. Reprinted with permission from the writer.
  6. Marie NDiaye, Three Strong Women, trans. John Fletcher (Knopf, 2012).
  7. Howard Burton, Babbling Barbarians: How Translators Keep Us Civilized (Open Agenda Publishing, 2020).
  8. David Bellos, “Perec and Translation,” Formules 16 (2012).
  9. Anthony Vivis, “The Intuitive Approach to Translation,” July 20, 1994, box TA/AV/12, LTC, BACW. Reprinted with permission from the Estate of Anthony Vivis.
  10. Ibid.
  11. John Fletcher, “A Translator’s Second Thoughts,” box TA/JF/2, LTC, BACW. Reprinted with permission from the writer.
  12. John Fletcher, letter to Marilyn Gaddis Rose, February 7, 1984, box TA/JF/2, LTC, BACW. Reprinted with permission from the writer.
  13. Harry Mathews, letter to David Bellos, April 28, 1985, box TA/DB/5, LTC, BACW. Reprinted with permission from the Estate of Harry Mathews.
  14. Steve Cox, “Why It’s Time for the Translating Worm to Turn,” January 26, 1996, box TA/AV/12, LTC, BACW. Reprinted with permission from The Bookseller
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