Read all previous posts in Josh Billings’ Lives of the Translators here.
Translation is supposed to be an impersonal art, but one of the interesting things about studying translators’ lives is that it gives us a chance to see how patterns from their biographies reappear, like watermarks, in the works from which they’ve allegedly removed themselves.
Some of this reflection can be explained by affinity (translators translate authors they like), or chance, or an overactive critical imagination. At the same time, in many cases the parallels between a translator’s life and craft are obvious enough to make us think that something else is going on—something closer to the public soul-searching and -solving that we like to think occurs in more explicitly confessional arts.
A good example of this can be found in the great translation of Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel by the 17th-century Scottish translator Sir Thomas Urquhart. A man of incredible energy, Urquhart spent the majority of his life dealing with the debts that his father had accumulated on their ancestral estate of Cromartie. His original books sink like barges under the weight of their pedantry; but his Pantagruel soars on a spume of high comedy, freed by its source material into a pitiless celebration of language’s unwillingness to pay back what it owes.