"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

How Pedantic Should We Be?

There seems to have been a sudden small eruption of interest in the Victorian traveller, Sir Richard Burton, with a recent TV documentary by Rupert Everett (which I missed because I was travelling myself in Turkey) and now a new novel by the Bulgarian-born novelist Iliya Troyanov who writes in German. I have just filed my review of The Collector of Worlds for The Independent so I will keep my powder dry for the moment except to mention in passing that Burton of course features substantially in my new book about the Victorian travellers, A Corkscrew is Most Useful: The Travellers of Empire.

I just wanted to say that the translation by William Hobson is fluent and readable and achieves what all translators want to achieve I would guess: the feeling that one is actually reading the novel in its original language. The production is also up to Faber's customary standards except that I noticed several examples of what are traditionally regarded as grammatical howlers: use of "comprised of", "totally disinterested" to mean "totally uninterested" and "dependent" where it should have been "dependant". Apart from demonstrating that one has been paying attention to the book under review is anything served by pointing this out? (For the record I didn't in my review.) Or should one take up the cudgels on behalf of 'proper English'? Some things can no doubt be dismissed as pedantry (except that the 'disinterested' issue results in the stripping of a useful word of its entire meaning) and if, overall, the prose is excellent, why cause trouble? Also, with growing evidence that undergraduates are struggling with basic English (I have direct experience of this) perhaps these nit-pickings are a luxury we can't afford. Bigger problems need tackling. Or should it be zero tolerance?


Stephen Mitchelmore said...

One thing I feel uneasy reading in reviews of translated novels is the reviewer listing quibbles with particular choices of words or phrases. Not that it isn't often fun and interesting, but it also comes across as academic point-scoring. That said, "totally disinterested" here is an appalling error. Does Faber have editors/proofreaders? If not, I'm available!

I found this novel in the library at the weekend so I won't finish it before your review appears. I might not get very far though because when I come to "totally disinterested" I'll probably chuck it across the room.

Nicholas Murray said...

Stephen, the phrase (about Speke's interest in anything African other than animals to take a pot shot at) occurs quite late on so you might be hooked by then! One other interesting issue about translation is how titles change. Kafka's Amerika is now generally rendered as The Man Who Disappeared and Metamorphsis as The Transformation. All in the interest of greater fidelity to the original but we do get attached to our old habits.

Mark Thwaite said...

Whilst we should absolutely avoid point-scoring, some "pedantry" is certainly to be welcomed. I think it is vital we point out the regular misuse of dis/uninterested because, as you say Nick, if we don't we'll lose a useful word.

Some proofreading lapses seem inevitable these days, but other grammatical and style errors can undermine an entire book.

I'm reading a book at the moment that has very idiosyncratic paragraphing (and no paragraph is more than 3 sentences long) -- it is ruining the book for me.