Tim Parks, in the throes of translating the Italian writer Giacomo Leopardi, muses on how to get it right:
Fifteen years of diary entries. From 1817 to 1832. Some just a couple of lines. Some maybe a thousand words. At a rhythm ranging from two or three a day to one a month, or even less frequent. Suddenly, translating Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone, it occurs to me that if it were written today, it would most likely be a blog. Immediately, the thought threatens to affect the way I am translating the work.
I am imagining the great diary as the Ziblogone—launched from some eccentric little website in the hills of central Italy. I’m wondering if I should suggest to the publisher (Yale University Press) that they might put the entries up one a day on their site; they could use Leopardi’s own system of cross-referencing his ideas to create a series of links. Fantastic! Perhaps I could start embedding the links as I work. Why not?
No, stop. I have to take a deep breath and remember my job description: faithful, accurate translation true to the tone of the original.
But it is impossible to translate a work from the past and not be influenced by what has happened since. Or at least to feel that influence, if only to resist it. I translated Machiavelli’s The Prince during the Iraq war. States invading distant foreign countries with authoritarian governments, Machiavelli warned, should think twice about disbanding the army and bureaucracy that opposed them, since they may offer the best opportunity of maintaining law and order after the war is over. I remember wanting to translate this observation in such a way that even the obtuse Mr Bush simply could not miss the point. If I could have sneaked in the word “Iraq”—or perhaps more feasibly “shock” and “awe”—I would have.