Fact-checking Translations

A new book whose provocations seem to be helping it make the rounds is The Lifespan of a Fact, by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal (click here for a critical NYTimes review), where D’Agata argues that facts are often irrelevant in the pursuit of art, and that “nonfiction”

essentially means ‘not art,’ since the word fiction is derived from the Latin fictio, which itself means ‘to form, to shape, to arrange’ — a pretty fundamental activity in art.

I agree with NYTimes reviewer Jennifer McDonald about the bogusness of this argument–not only does it fall for the “etymological fallacy,” it’s also an ethnocentric claim that has no time for other cultures and their definitions of art from yesterday or today. According to Stephen Owen, for instance, while Euro / American poetry in the 19th and 20th centuries would be considered fictional, pre-modern Chinese poetry was taken as factually true.

Discussions about the nuances of such statements aside, the role of fact-checking in poetry and translation is a complex one (see here for another moment in which I ponder accountability to reality in Chinese poetry and translation). I noticed this recently when I posted Wang Ping’s translation of Xi Chuan’s “Books” 书籍. A couplet in her translation reads,

“All books are the same book,”
pale Mallarmé said with confidence.

But Xi Chuan’s Chinese lines read,


or what I would translate as “‘All books are one book,’ / an effiminate Shelley almost said.” Perhaps Xi Chuan changed his original between its first printing and the time Wang Ping translated it. Or perhaps Wang Ping found out that Shelley didn’t say this at all, that it was in fact Mallarmé (I’ve searched online to see if either one of them said it, but all my hits end up pointing me back here!). But this raises a question: when translating, is the translator accountable to reality, or to the original poem? If the fact-checker doesn’t have a role in editing the original poem, does he or she have a role in editing the translation? I’m afraid I don’t have the answer to these questions.

2 thoughts on “Fact-checking Translations

  1. The problems caused for the translator when an author doesn’t check his facts – these can be incredibly time-consuming. Recently I’ve had army Jeeps in 1938 (they were designed in 1941), Rolls-Royce watches (RR have never done anything so vulgar), and Rommel assassinated by partisans in southern France at Christmas 1942 (he killed himself in northern France in 1944). And then there’s quotations! Even with the internet’s vast resources, it can be impossible to verify a quotation, correct a wrong attribution, or identify the original wording of a translated text. Probably the single biggest headache I have. Chabuduozhuyi costs time and money to rectify! And of course, if we let an author’s error go by, it will be picked up by a reviewer and it will become our fault, poor drudges that we are.

    • Yes indeed! I was translating a language textbook from French to English, and one of the lesson texts mentioned Asian elephants having bigger ears than African elephants. I wrote to the editor to ask if I could correct this error, but the dialogues had been recorded on tape years before, and I couldn’t deviate.

      Then again, sometimes what you call 差不多主義 (great phrase, by the way!) is on purpose. Maybe not with Rolls Royce watches in Chinese historical novels, but lots of American pomo fiction contains bits of incongruity. Xi Chuan, though, is a different case; if he wrote that Mallarmé or Shelley said something, my bet is that they did.

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