exchanges: Hack Work

The new issue of eXchanges, the University of Iowa’s journal of literature translation, is now available online complete with a rather gruesome front cover. (And I know I mention this every time a new issue comes out, but please for the love of Jacob, drop the capitalized “X” in the journal’s name. Not only is this so 1995, but it reminds me of deodorant. Or other things “Xtreme.”)

Anyway, jokes aside, this is a solid issue, with the key piece being an excellent long essay by Larry Venuti on his career as a translator. Entitled Mémoires of Translation the piece covers Venuti’s entryway into literary translation, some of his thoughts on fidelity, and an awesome bit about his editorial arguments with Grove/Atlantic about his translation of Melissa P.‘s 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed. (This section is really interesting, but it’s obviously a one-sided account of the story, so before quoting anything, I just want to say that I love&respect all the Grove editors . . . )

But before getting to the controversial sections, here’s an excerpt about how Venuti sees the role of translator:

After translating fifteen books into English, mostly from Italian, after collaborating with many different publishers, large and small, commercial and university, after reviewing a steady stream of translations for newspapers and immersing myself in the growing academic industry of translation studies, certain truths have become self-evident. Translation is transformation. A translation can never reproduce a literary work, even though it is routinely read as if it were precisely that work. A translator offers no more than an interpretation, one possibility among others, which is both less and more than the foreign text. Merely to be readable, a translation must obviously be written in a language with which the reader is familiar. To go beyond readability, however, to enable a powerfully engaging experience, the language must somehow be appealing to the reader, who, it can’t be overemphasized, is not the reader for whom the foreign text was written. How can a translator avoid transforming it?

From this point of view, time-worn yet still unquestioned clichés prove to be utterly false. Take “traduttore traditore,” the Italian slur wherein the very name of “translator” is turned into a pun on “traitor.” Translation can be considered treachery only if one naively assumes that it can and should communicate a foreign text in some direct, untroubled way. Such loyalty is impossible, even if the translator consults a dictionary for every foreign word. That would just widen the spectrum of semantic possibilities, splintering the foreign words into so many scintillating chips of ice that start melting as soon as any interpretive heat is applied to them. Whereas the translator’s task is to freeze meaning in a form that is intelligible and interesting in another language and culture. The inevitable thaw occurs as the translation warms to the touch of different readerships, its charm dissolving with changes in literary taste, ultimately creating a demand for a new version.

For anyone interested in translation and translators, you definitely have to read the entirety of Venuti’s piece. It is really fascinating, and filled with great anecdotes, etc. But, like any stats driven normal journalist knows, controversy sells. So I’m skipping right over all those bits to get to the section on how Grove fucked with Venuti’s translation.

An editor’s approach to a translator’s choices, regardless of how reflective or calculated they may be, can vary widely from unquestioning acceptance to intransigent opposition. Put a page before most editors, of course, and you can expect it to be altered. Still, translations seem to invite the most extensive sort of editing. When my version of Melissa P.’s 2003 memoir, Cento colpi di spazzola prima di andare a dormire, had been copyedited, I received back a manuscript that was heavily marked up, almost every page containing some change. The editor at Grove/Atlantic spelled out her agenda in a cover letter: everything must be made “smooth and natural for the American/English reader.” I was shocked that she would describe her editing in these terms. Her experience with translations was limited, since she had spent most of her time selling foreign rights. Worse, she hadn’t a clue that her approach was now regarded as disreputable.

OK, before going on, I just want to say that I’ve heard (and even witnessed) about this sort of thing happening quite a bit. And from presses both big and small. Certain publishers take the view that by being the publisher, by having decided to invest heavily in a given book, they have every right in the world to massage the text until it resembles what they feel has the best chance to help them make bank on the titles they decide to publish. I’m not saying I agree with this (I pretty much don’t), just want to point out that this is how the business functions, and that Grove is not alone in this criticism. OK, back to the fun stuff:

Why translate this book? I was attracted by its status as a pop-culture phenomenon. With over one million copies sold in Italian, it was saying something about Italy, even if that something was up for interpretation. The controversy aired in reviews, on chat shows, and across internet blogs dredged up a tangle of ideas about youth and sex, women and writing. The most telling refrain: the book couldn’t (read a subliminal shouldn’t) have been written by a girl. Popular literature can offer a revealing glimpse of a foreign culture. Yet until very recently anglophone publishers customarily neglected it in preference for the elite aesthetic. I wanted to confront readers with a current craze that, for Italians at least, was rivaling the value assigned to high-brow works.

Melissa’s writing uniquely suited this task. The shifts in style and genre allowed me to depart from standard English, the most familiar form of the language and the most likely to foster the cherished illusion that the translation isn’t a translation, but the foreign text. Melissa’s Italian ranges from slang and obscenities to purple prose and poeticisms to porno cliché. Mimicking these nonstandard forms promised to frustrate any reader’s expectation for transparency. I aimed to foreground the strangeness of the book, calling attention to its artificiality, although the titillating material guaranteed that my choices would not be unpleasurable.

My editor thought otherwise. I had to use “beautiful” instead of “lovely,” since “American teenagers generally don’t use this word to describe things.” Likewise “pants” instead of “trousers,” “crying” instead of “weeping,” “totally” instead of “utterly.” Archaisms provoked disagreement, even in a Gothic sex dream in which the cold enters the “finestrello” (embrasure) of the castle cell where Melissa lies naked, and she smells her “umori” (humors) on her monkish companion’s face. Ethnic dialects were out. For the “sugo” on the spaghetti eaten by Melissa and her parents I chose “gravy” precisely because the word is Italian-American for this meal. It was changed to “sauce.”

Occasionally my choices met with obtuseness. “Some people have plans that are linear and orderly,” Melissa is told at an orgy, “while others prefer a rococo caprice.” That curious phrase is my calque of the Italian (“un capriccio rococò”). My editor judged it “so obscure as to be meaningless,” so she consulted colleagues at Grove/Atlantic, who concurred. Yet Melissa is simply using an art historical metaphor to distinguish between conventional sex and kinkiness. Amazing that a publisher of erotic classics doesn’t employ editors who could get the point.

This is all pretty aggressive, and Venuti even points out the NY Times review bashed his translation (“Cringe-inducing euphemisms abound here [. . .] Perhaps these words are more euphonious in Italian than in Lawrence Venuti’s translation.”), which, employing the logic of all that came before, is more the fault of the Grove editor than anyone else.

What’s ironic though? The book has sold more than 100,000 copies when most translations sell about 5,000 3,000 500. So maybe the smooth language did appeal to the masses? Just wondering aloud and remembering a call-in radio show I did a few years ago which ended with a woman calling in to complain about how she can’t read international literature because she can’t stand not being able to pronounce the names. And, not to beat dead a dying horse, but we recently got a postcard from a woman who returned her Open Letter subscription, claiming that nothing in her past could’ve prepared her for the incomprehensibility of cultural references in The Golden Calf. In her own words, “this book isn’t at all like The Elegance of the Hedgehog.“ Great.

Anyway, Venuti’s piece aside, I’d also recommend checking out the Letter from the Editors, Emily Toder’s translation of some poems by Felipe Benítez Reyes, the Translation Manifesto, and the excerpt from Dan Sociu’s Special Needs that Oana Sanziana Marian translated from the Romanian.

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