‘In Translation’ by Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky (eds.) (Review)

Over the past couple of years, as regular readers may have noticed, I’ve become much more deeply involved in the translated-fiction side of life in the literary blogosphere, and my ratio of books originally written in languages other than English has sky-rocketed.  I’ve also found myself reading more in German, and for a while now I’ve been contemplating an alternate universe, one in which money and free time magically appear, allowing me to go off and study again, this time in the field of literary translation.  It’s unlikely (sigh) to ever happen, but if I get many more books like today’s offering, my arm might just be twisted…

*****
Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky, two noted American literary translators, have put together a wonderful book on the art and science of their metier, In Translation (published by Columbia University Press, review copy courtesy of Australian supplier Footprint Books***).  It consists of eighteen essays by leading translators and writers, each giving a small insight into the art of translation and the life of the translator.  The first section is mainly concerned with theory, and the essays here come complete with footnotes and academic jargon; the second part then moves onto practice, with real-life examples from a host of renowned practitioners.

Before we get onto the nitty-gritty though, we gain an insight into the unglamourous, and often thankless, role of the translator.  Peter Cole discusses the ethical dilemmas of the translator, often a choice in the eyes of the public between invisibility and treachery (to the author and to the original text).  Eliot Weinberger suggests an image of the translator as tradesman, not artist (one who really should be better paid!).  While David Bellos muses over the concept of ‘foreign-soundingness’, Michael Emmerich shows us how translation can be just as much about the visual as the phonological – in Japanese, snow literally (almost) falls down on the page…

If you think these issues sound a little abstract and unimportant, others are a touch more controversial.  Alice Kaplan, in an essay on the trials and tribulations of translating, talks about her battle of wills with authors (and her own translator), also mentioning the time when Nabokov ordered all the copies of a Swedish translation of Pnin to be burnt.  Whoever said the author was dead…

In the final act of the first part, Esther Allen cautions the unwary reader against assuming that translation is a given for any particular book; you see, it’s not quite as straight-forward as that:

“…any given act of literary translation is a product of unique political, linguistic, cultural, technological, historical, and human contexts.”
p.101 (2013, Columbia University Press)

The reality is that it takes a unique combination of factors, a whole myriad of planets aligning, to get any one particular work published in the English-speaking world.  Quality is only one small factor.

Once we dive into the practical side of things, we also get to hear from, and about, some superstars of world literature.  Maureen Freely discusses the problems of translating Orhan Pamuk, a story of an ‘ethnically-cleansed’ language, a head-strong writer and an unexpected venture into Turkish politics.  Cuban poet José Manuel Prieto explains the difficulties he had in translating Osip Mandelstam’s most famous poems into Spanish, and Haruki Murakami explains how (and why) he took ‘his’ Gatsby into Japanese (on a side note, it was nice to see these last two in the collection – translated by Esther Allen and Ted Goossen – as a work on translation without any translated pieces seems rather silly…).

Once you’ve got your head around what you’re going to translate, you need to give some thought to who you’re actually translating it for.  One of my favourite pieces had Jason Grunebaum pondering this issue in translating a novel from Hindi into English.  Should he be concentrating on American English, or Indian English?  After all, if you’re looking for a large potential market…

Laurence Venuti had a slightly different dilemma in wrestling with the issue of anachronism in his translation of 12th-century Italian poetry.  A poet monk criticising the Pope – what voice would work best in English?  Venuti’s answer – Slim Shady:

You spoke with forkéd tongue
and deeply I was stung:
it has to lick my sore
to show the plague the door;
because I’m sure my grief
can’t find the least relief
without the execution
of your absolution (p.205)

At any rate, it’s certainly original…

If you’re a polyglot, In Translation provides you with many great opportunities to test your skills.  Whether it’s Russian, Polish, Hindi, German or 16th-century French ballad lyrics, there’s something of interest in every piece.  My only issue with the collection (ironically) is that for the Englishman in me it’s a little narrow, and slightly US-centric.  A piece on the US-UK language divide would have been nice (as would more British contributors…)

Still, it’s a wonderfully-absorbing collection, one which has given my nascent ambitions a further push.  For those of you who think Goethe had more than Dan Brown on his mind when coining the phrase Weltliteratur, let’s give a big thank you to the people who show us that there’s a lot out there that is worth reading 🙂

Before I finish though, I’ll leave you with some final advice from Susan Bernofsky, who discusses the need to let go of the original text, and the importance of both frequent revision of translation and taking the odd semantic risk:

“It takes a certain amount of pluck – not to mention aesthetic sense and the ability to write well in English – to let go of an original long enough to allow oneself to fully imagine the English words that will take its place, but without this no fully realized translation is possible.” (p.233)

That sounds like a job for me 🙂 

*****
***Footprint Books say that this book is available in good Australian bookshops and directly through their website 🙂

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6 thoughts on “‘In Translation’ by Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky (eds.) (Review)

  1. I have been thinking a lot about translation lately. Having recently read Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov I devoted an hour or so to research and reading excerpts in deciding which translation to read. It is striking how alternate translations can create such a different experience. Thus, this book sounds very interesting.

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  2. I hope to read this book, too. It has an outstanding predecessor, if you can find it:

    The Craft of Translation, eds. John Biguenet and Rainer Schulte, University of Chicago Press, 1989

    That book features an older generation of translators discussing their craft – Donald Frame, Gregory Rabassa, William Weaver, etc. Edward Seidensticker's “On Trying to Translate Japanese” is a highlight. The range of languages, forms, and most importantly approaches sounds similar.

    I had not known of another book like it – now I do.

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  3. Tom – Thanks for the tip 🙂 It's certainly an area I'm very interested in, and I suspect I'll be trying several more books on the topic of translation in the not-too-distant future…

    …but then I've said that so many times before 😦

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  4. Nice post. It shows how rich could a literature be in terms of translation.Through translating shows the rich blend of knowledge and culture in a society.Whether in . finnish translation. or in any foreign language translation helps one to get acquainted with the thoughts, traditions, principles and actions of the people from the region

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