Footnotes? Why Not?
I’m very happy to have Alluvium editor Susie Gordon back for another conversation at A Polite Lie this month, where we will once again cover a wide range of topics.
Susie’s course with Tender Leaves, entitled Editing Literary Translations, includes 6 video modules (audio and written transcripts available), a suggested reading list, and 1-month paid access to all content at A Polite Lie.
Hi, Susie! It’s great to have you back for another discussion here at A Polite Lie.
In our last discussion, you said, "Of course, there's the issue of over-explaining, which can also bog down a text. It's a question of finding a happy medium - a subtle but adequately explicatory touch!” I completely agree with you, and I find this is something very difficult to teach inexperienced translators, and even tough for some long-time translators to get a handle on. I mentioned in response to that comment that I’d like to start this month’s discussion with the issue of footnotes. This is something I’m often asked about when I teach new or aspiring translators. It seems that many think that the answer to getting what is “lost in translation” back into the text is to squeeze it into a footnote. I am perhaps somewhat extreme in my view on footnotes, feeling that, as a general rule, they should be completely avoided outside of academic texts or other primarily informative/"serious" nonfiction. For other types of writing, a footnote only serves to disrupt the flow of the reading process.
In a recent edit of another translator’s work, I came across a perfect example of why I take this view. The translator had included two footnotes in back to back sentences where two terms were used, one from traditional Chinese medicine and the other an obsolete practice in Western medicine. From that description, it is easy to see why a translator might be tempted to offer footnotes to define the two terms, as they are specialised terms with specific meanings in a specific field, and one might particularly anticipate a lack of familiarity with TCM among the English-reading public the translation was meant to address. But here’s the problem: the two sentences in which the translator added the footnote were actually describing the difference between the two terms, which by necessity included a brief definition of each. This over-zealousness on the part of the translator is a perfect example of the problem I have with footnotes generally. The translator had to have already decided that the reader wouldn’t know the terms, and then failed to trust the text to do the job of making its meaning clear – and also to trust the reader to pick up the clues they needed to fill in any gaps in their general knowledge while reading.
Thanks for having me back! It's very interesting that the issue of footnotes has come up just now, because I've been thinking a lot about it lately. Now that I've finally wrapped up my PhD thesis, I'm devoting some of my time to a personal project, which may turn into an essay collection somewhere down the line, or a series of blog posts. I've decided to analyse the opening chapters or paragraphs of the translations of some well-known English-language novels, comparing them to the original texts. The first one I'm looking at is the 2005 Chinese translation by Zhu Fang of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. The opening chapter is only 353 characters long in the translation, and the four footnotes that accompany it are 262 characters - that's almost as many explanatory notes as there are actual translated words. The first footnote explains that the first word of the original novel is the name "Lolita" (translated as 洛丽塔,luò lì tǎ); the second note is a somewhat confusing claim that the "li" of Lolita is an allusion to Humbert's youthful love, Annabel Lee, which seems to be a fanciful invention by the translator; the third gives the meaning of the name Dolores, and the fourth is a note about the term 'seraph' from the Book of Isaiah. That's an awful lot of explanation for a 600-character text! However, the case could be made that without these notes, a Chinese reader who is not versed in Western (particularly Judeo-Christian) culture would miss a lot of the detail of Nabokov's original. But in having so many notes, the reading experience is very much bogged down by having to jump out of the narrative four times within a single page. In a way, the translated text in this case seems more like a study rather than a replication of a novel. I'm still divided as to whether I think footnotes belong in literary translation. I don't want to discount their value completely, but I do see their pitfalls. Hopefully this project of mine will give me more of an insight. I'll keep you posted!
Thanks for this example, Susie. It’s exactly the kind of thing I am talking about, and to me, it demonstrates why footnotes should not be used in translations. Now, having said that, I would agree that there is a place for such notations, and that is exactly where you’ve said – when you’re producing a study of the text, not strictly a translation. This sort of explanatory note can be useful in the original text or the translation, but only in a very narrow setting – a classroom where one is studying a text rather than reading it as the text itself seems to want to be read. This sort of notation completely disrupts the actual reading experience. I think these notes are very useful, but only AFTER the reader has already read the book and been taken up in the story. So when the goal of the publication is for in-depth study of a text by people who have already experienced the story as a whole, then these notes are useful as notes for any reader, not just the reader of the target language who cannot read the original.
My issue with this sort of intrusive footnoting is that what the reader is encountering here is not Lolita, but the translator’s interpretations of Lolita. If there are four words given lengthy footnotes in a span of 353 characters of text, and those notes total 262 characters, then what we are really reading here is Lolita in a box – a box created by the translator. The text is not being allowed to flow naturally through the landscape of the reader’s mind, but is instead being confined to a narrow canal that has been dug by the translator/annotator. If the reader has already experienced the text for herself, then these sorts of notes serve to open up new paths along which the text can flow through her mind, but if they are a part of her first experience with the text, they will instead work in such a way that cuts off other possibilities. I believe these notes are very useful in their setting, but that setting is not for someone who is first encountering a new text.
Perhaps what is missing from my original comment on footnotes is a bit of context. The book in which I encountered the inserted notes is meant for popular distribution, and it is meant to be an approachable narrative of China’s battle against Covid-19. There is nothing specialised about it. I think that is what makes the footnotes the translator rammed into it so inappropriate. It sounds like the Chinese version of Lolita that you’re talking about is meant for a different kind of audience, and in that very specialised situation, it might be a different story. However, if this were a novel aimed for popular distribution, I would say that there is something very wrong with such footnoting, as it takes away all the space that is present in the original and fills it up with the translator’s understanding of the text. The goals of a particular translation project might dictate that there are such notes, but that would be determined by the purpose of the project and who it is for. This is a topic I have to think a lot about, as a working translator, and which I’ve written about from time to time, as in this post. The most important thing to keep in mind, I think, is that footnotes, especially the very extensive kind you’re talking about, are good in a very narrow context, and unless the translation is aimed at people who are already familiar with the text, it is actually intrusive to include them. I find such intrusions to be insulting to a reader who comes to the text, unless they have come to it with the goal of engaging with the translator (at least) as much as they engage with the original text.
I agree. I couldn't quite put into words how I felt about the heavy footnoting in the translation of Lolita that I analysed, but reading what you've written, you're right - it was insulting. I wasn't even the intended readership, but I felt slightly offended on behalf of those to whom it was aimed! In a way, it strikes me that it's a matter of control and perhaps even fear. A lot of translation decisions (and editing decisions) are based on a fear of not being understood or being misconstrued. It can lead to a lot of over-explanation and over-editing.
I think that lack of trust, that fear, is often a problem in all aspects of those who aspire to produce solid literary works – not only translators and editors, but often aspiring writers as well. The tendency to take away the space from the reader is one that many writers have to learn to eliminate early in the game, if they are to become successful writers. I think the trust in the text’s ability to work without us applying a heavy hand and in the ability of the reader to discern is something every producer of a literary work (not just writers, but translators, editors, publishers, everyone) must learn. Producing literary work always requires a light hand. If we hold too tightly, we will very quickly crush the life out of the work we are producing.
So, on the footnote issue. I ran into another similar instance as I completed the book I mentioned above. I won’t do a direct quote, but just give the form, without exaggerating how extreme the intrusion was. The text in the body of the paragraph said, “The hospital began treating arthritis and other joint ailments with the traditional Chinese medicine xyz.” The translator then added a footnote that read, “xyz is a traditional Chinese medicine used in the treatment of joint pain.” This is a perfect example of the translator’s complete lack of trust in both the text to do its work and the reader to understand even the basics of something so clearly implied in the original if it is in this apparently ultra-specialised, super mystical field of TCM. I’ve translated and edited plenty of texts on TCM, and I do know how difficult it can be, so I understand the impulse. But what has happened in this instance is that the footnote is a reminder to the reader that they are an outsider. It marks the reader as Other. This is the exact opposite of the goal of translating literature, in my mind. The point of translation is to draw the reader into the text. We want to build bridges between cultures, peoples, and worldviews. Footnotes are walls that remind the reader that this space is not so easily navigated, and that really, they need someone else to open the door if they are going to be allowed to enter.
It is vitally important that we open up space for the reader. Allow her to wander through the world created by the text and experience as she pleases. It is not for me to dictate the relationship the reader is allowed to have with the text. I feel that as a translator, my job is to create as much space for the reader in the new version of the text as the original gives its reader.
What you say about the footnote being a reminder to the reader that they are an outsider - that is precisely how I felt when I was reading and translating the copious footnotes for the first two pages of Lolita. The translator's over-explanation cast the intended reader very much as the Other, for whom he presumes the references and allusions within the original will be unfamiliar. This is not his decision to make. I think one of the things I appreciate most about your approach to translation is the space you give the reader to have her own relationship with the text. I think that is a characteristic that is sorely missing in a lot of translation practice. I'm about to embark on another post-PhD project, which is to translate some Old English poetry into modern English - a revision and rethinking of the more academic-style translations (i.e. heavily footnoted!) I made at university. I can already foresee that it will be challenging for me to leave that space for the reader.
I would love to hear more about your journey translating Old English poetry into modern English. It is always wonderful to examine how we evolve as translators across our career.
I am currently reading a book that makes excellent use of notes, Wong May’s In the Same Light: 200 Tang Poems for Our Century, with the aim of reviewing it for the online journal QLRS. I think Wong uses the convention of notes to perfect effect in the book. One of the crucial points is that she uses endnotes rather than footnotes, which leaves it to the reader to decide whether, when, and how to engage with those notes. The poems themselves are left without an indicator to tell the reader that there is a note, making the notations completely unobtrusive when reading the poems. The content of the notes is what makes them so special though. I’ll leave my reflections on that for the review (and link to it here when it is published). For now, I’ll just say that if you really want to study how a translator can make good use of footnotes and be available to the reader for engagement on issues involving the translation process, treating the reader as an equal in the process of meaning creation, then Wong May’s book deserves a long look. It is intensely interesting, and I think analysis of the form of the notations used here is instructive for a translator who wants to leave space for the reader.
That's a very clever way of doing it. I've heard several people speak favourably of Wong May's translations. I will be sure to get a copy of In the Same Light. That reminds me of another project of mine, which you were going to help me with - a novel focusing on a translation of Tang poetry. Another project for me, post-PhD!
Ah yes! I’ll look forward to that. And you… you’re going to be very busy post-PhD, aren't you?
I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts on In the Same Light when you read it. I’ll post a link to my review when it is up too.
I have some exciting projects lined up, mostly for translation, but also devoting some much-needed time to my fountain pens and inks! I'm also looking forward to making a dent in my "to be read" pile, which definitely includes In the Same Light.
Ah! Back to fountain pens and inks. I can hardly wait!
This looks like a good spot to wrap up our chat this month. I look forward to speaking again next month!
Thank you for sharing your insights with me and readers of A Polite Lie.
Thanks for having me! Looking forward to chatting again soon.
Born in the northwest of England in 1981, Susie Gordon is a Liverpool-based editor and writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.
Living in China between 2008 and 2016, she wrote and edited for many of Shanghai’s English language magazines, as well as for international publications such as Virgin Media, Condé Nast, Executive Travel, and the BBC. As a literary editor she has worked on the English translation of S. P. Tao’s memoir, as well as Fan Wen’s ‘Land of Mercy’ for Rinchen Books.
In 2016 she co-founded Literary Shanghai – a publishing and events company specialising in Chinese literature in translation as well as original work in English. She is currently the commissioning editor of Literary Shanghai’s international journal Alluvium.
Her short fiction has appeared in the Singaporean journals Eunoia Review and Junoesq, and in HAL Publishing’s two anthologies Party Like It’s 1984 (2010) and Middle Kingdom Underground (2011). Her non-fiction essay Empty From the Outside was published in Unsavory Elements (Earnshaw Books, 2013), sparking considerable press interest in China and beyond. In 2016 her short story Claire was selected for publication in Epigram Books’ Best Singaporean Short Stories: Volume 3.
Her first poetry collection, Peckham Blue, was published in London by Penned in the Margins in 2006, and her second collection, Harbouring, came out in 2015 under Math Paper Press in Singapore. Her poetry has appeared in the May Anthologies 10th Anniversary edition (2003), Unshod Quills (2011), and United Verses (2014), and her 2005 poem On Raymond’s Bike has been translated into Hungarian by the poet Kőrizs Imre.
Susie holds a BA in English (2003) from St. Anne’s College, University of Oxford, and an MRes in Chinese Studies from the University of Liverpool (2016 – 2017), where she is currently a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature, researching the persistent appeal of the “China exotic” in contemporary English fiction.
Her course with Tender Leaves, entitled Editing Literary Translations, includes 6 video modules (audio and written transcripts available), a suggested reading list, and 1-month paid access to all content at A Polite Lie.
You can find more courses on Literary Translation here.