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Tim Parks on Literature in Translation

Really interesting article called “America First?” in the new issues of the New York Review of Books. In this piece, Tim Parks looks at four recent books: Best European Fiction 2010 edited by Aleksandar Hemon, Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman, The Novel: An Alternative History, Beginnings to 1600 by Steven Moore, and Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields.

Thanks primarily to the first two books listed (although obviously Steve Moore’s book also includes heaps of translation references), there’s a lot in here about literature in translation, which Parks approaches in rather interesting ways.

He starts by taking a few slight jabs at the Best European Fiction anthology, not necessarily at the stories themselves (which he seems to have enjoyed), but at some of the claims of representation and uniqueness:

All the contributions are interesting and some impressive. That is enough for me. But it does make one wonder whether we are learning much about other cultures from this venture, whether it is true, as Hemon claims, that “ceaseless” and “immediate” translation of literature from abroad is a “profound, non- negotiable need.” Similarly, as if in response to Grossman’s concerns about eventual conflicts brought on by cultural isolation, frequent references here to the recent wars in the Balkans remind us that familiarity with each other’s literatures has never prevented Europeans from slaughtering one another. Remarking, in her short preface, on this reluctance of the anthology’s contributors to be identified with their national cultures, Zadie Smith nevertheless feels that

“if the title of this book were to be removed and switched with that of an anthology of the American short story, isn’t it true that only a fool would be confused as to which was truly which?”

Truly, truly, aside from superficial markers like names and places, or the fact that it is fairly easy to distinguish translated texts from those in their original tongue, I am not sure that Smith is altogether right. It seems to me rather that as we tackle intriguing stories from Latvia and Lithuania, Bosnia and Macedonia, we are struck by how familiar these voices are, how reassuringly similar in outlook to one another and ourselves.

And on more of a stylistic point:

The many different narrative forms used in the collection, though frequently “experimental,” are, again, hardly unfamiliar; stories are fragmented, seen from different angles, in ways that make it interestingly difficult for us to decide how much reality to attach to them or how much emotion to invest. Again this is in line with an eclectic renunciation of any absolute version of events. In personal statements included at the back of the book, writers mention such models as Kafka, Borges, and Barthelme, suggesting that narrative experimentalism (which invariably undercuts certainties, rather than reinforcing them) has become a literary lingua franca, an international convention.

I hate to overquote this article, but it really is fascinating on a number of fronts . . . When discussing Grossman’s and Hemon’s admiration for the translation cultures of France and Germany, he makes a couple of interesting points:

Is this, then, American isolationism, or imperialism, or a new kind of internationalism? Grossman says she is at a loss to understand the American reluctance to translate; the fact is that in Europe there is enormous public interest in America as the world’s first power and the perceived motor of changing mores. American authors take up considerable space in the literary pages of Europe’s newspapers not, or not only, because they are good, but because they are American, they talk about America. This gives them a celebrity value; readers want to read them. An equally good Polish author talking about Poland is simply not considered interesting and will very likely not be translated. Indeed many of the authors who appear in Best European Fiction 2010 are not widely published in other European countries. [. . .]

It is ironic here to find Grossman quoting a Nobel Prize judge claiming that Europe is still the center of the literary world; this is wishful thinking on the Swede’s part. European writers may be unconcerned whether or not they are published in this or that other European country, or indeed in Chinese or Japanese, but they are all extremely anxious to be published in America, precisely because, as Grossman points out, this gives access to world recognition. If Americans translate little it is partly because all eyes are turned in their direction. That said, a University of Rochester research program lists 349 works of translated fiction and poetry published in the US in 2009, more than anyone could read in a single year and not, for the most part, made up of the kind of genre fiction that European countries import so avidly. Does the unceasing translation of the second-rate matter?

Most interesting though—maybe because this was a subtopic at the Wolff Symposium last week—is his extended bit about the proper way to review translations. Grossman talks about this in her book, using James Wood’s review of the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace as a positive example of how to review a book. Parks takes this down a bit, instead focusing on Grossman’s definition of how the translator’s task is one of deep reading followed by recreation “within the alien system of a second language, all the characteristics, vagaries, quirks, and stylistic peculiarities of the work.”

Parks admires this definition (for good reason! Grossman’s spot on in a beautiful way), but where does that lead in terms of reviewing?

What can I say then, if I wish to comment on the thirty-one translations in Best European Fiction 2010, twenty-two of them from languages I do not know? That on the whole the reader gets a strong impression of a cohesion of style and content that can only be the result of extremely attentive reading, followed by respectful and imaginative rewriting. This cohesion is the hallmark of good translation and the only thing a reviewer with no knowledge of the original can sensibly comment on and elucidate. In each case it would be futile to seek to establish how much we should be praising the author and how much the translator: the author wrote a fine story, which inspired the translator to make a fine translation. Of my own translations, I should say that I was always happy when the author got the praise and I escaped mention; it’s self-evident that only a good translation makes it possible for the reviewer to praise the author.

Reviewing translations is a really knotty topic, and one that is rather fascinating and worth talking about in much greater detail. Although I am of the belief—also stated last week at the Wolff Symposium—that it’s not necessary for every review in every publication to address the quality of the translation. I believe that all reviews should at least reference the translator and acknowledge the book’s origins, but if the goal of a review is to interest the readers of that particular publication (be it a blog or a weekly magazine) in the books being featured, the very fact that different people read different review sources for different reasons leads to different emphases in different reviews. It would be great (or utopic) to imagine a book culture in which a Scandinavian noir book is reviewed in one place for it’s noirish elements, another for its representation of Scandinavian culture, another for the wonderful job that the particular translator did, etc., etc.

But anyway. This article is definitely worth reading—not just for these parts, but for the section on Moore’s book (which still sounds interesting to me) and on the fascinating Reality Hunger.



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