The Translation Wars, Starring Douglas Hofstadter

In the literary world, translators are low in the pecking order. Titans like Milan Kundera and Isaac Bashevis Singer have branded them traitors for betraying the beauty of the original text, so most keep their heads down and hew closely to the source material. In their 2007 version of "War and Peace," translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky preserved Tolstoy's use of "wept" seven times in a single scene. But hold on a minute—is such slavish devotion really the right approach?

No, says Douglas Hofstadter, Indiana University's Pulitzer Prize–winning cognitive scientist, who moonlights as a translator. In an afterword to his third work, Françoise Sagan's "La Chamade," he issues a cri de coeur, urging his brethren to become "co-progenitors"—Ella Fitzgeralds to the author's Cole Porter, as he puts it— who must take liberties or risk failure. In "La Chamade," he punches up flat dialogue, refines blurry descriptions and injects dozens of ready-made phrases (such as "bit his tongue" for "he said nothing") and weird Americanisms ("if that doesn't take the cake!"). Hofstadter even tweaks the title from "Wild Heartbeat" to "That Mad Ache"—in part because it's an anagram of "Chamade."

Hofstadter is already a divisive figure in the translating community—"He has absolutely no ear," Mikhail Gorbachev's translator Richard Lourie once wrote—and his latest essay is likely to fuel a literalism debate that has reignited in recent years. Presentations tackling "Servitude or Collaboration?" at the annual American Translators Association conference have nearly doubled since 2007. Hofstadter, for his part, is undaunted. "If I had to suppress myself," he says, "I wouldn't bother." Let the war of words begin.

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