Douglas Hofstadter on Translating Francoise Sagan

Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach inspired me greatly when I was a teenager. Reading Hofstadter’s essay “Translator, Trader,” last night, I learned that I can still be blown away by Hofstadter’s combination of vast enthusiasm and sheer intelligence.

In “Translator, Trader,” Hofstadter describes having to “internalize” a book before translating it. Before translating Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin,” he memorized the poem in Russian, by way of making it his own.

At one point the heroine of Françoise Sagan’s La Chamade says, “Pourquoi toutes ces questions?” Hofstadter rejects the literal translation “Why all these questions?” and instead goes with “Why the sudden third degree?” I think this is the right choice — if a woman said to me, “Pourquoi toutes ces questions?” I’d feel that I was about to get crockery thrown at my head. The literal English equivalent just isn’t as loaded. This illustrates how mysterious translation is, and prompts the inference that a good translator should have dodged a lot of crockery.

Hofstadter, an Artificial Intelligence visionary, is unimpressed by Google’s mechanical translation engine. Rather than “literal” and “loose” translation, he prefers to talk of “cold” and “hot” translation — but he makes the case that translation can never be completely “cold.” Cooking changes the way a foodstuff tastes, and interpretation by a jazz master changes the way a tune sounds. So too, to translate a story is to transform it.
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