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Michael Cunningham on Translation

Below is a guest post from intern/translation grad student Acacia O’Connor, who also used to work at the Association of American Publishers.

Over the weekend the New York Times published a really great editorial about writing as an act of translation by Michael Cunningham, author of the Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner award-winning novel The Hours. (A warm review of Cunningham’s latest novel, By Nightfall was also featured in the NYT Book Review yesterday.)

Cunningham offers an ode to translation and the difficulties it presents: musicality is an issue, fidelity, approximation of force, and so on ad nauseum until we translators are asking ourselves why on earth we would do this do ourselves, putting down our pencils and reaching for a drink instead.

He shares his observation that each attempt by a writer to write a piece of literature is an act of translation. Cunningham basically admits that the writer is attempting to approximate on paper the great work that he or she feels welling up inside of them, something I think few writers are willing to come out and say.

Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write. It’s one of the heartbreaks of writing fiction. [. . .]

Even if the book in question turns out fairly well, it’s never the book that you’d hoped to write. It’s smaller than the book you’d hoped to write. It is an object, a collection of sentences, and it does not remotely resemble a cathedral made of fire.

It feels, in short, like a rather inept translation of a mythical great work.

Then Cunningham talks about writing for the reader: writing for normal people who haven’t necessarily gone to Stanford or heard of Dostoyevsky, who will translate “the words on the pages into his or her own private, imaginary lexicon, according to his or her interests and needs and levels of comprehension” Ideal readers don’t exist, and it’s silly to think about them snuggling up with Your Epically Great Franzenian Work of Literature. Because all literary acts, including translation, are attempts at understanding and communication. And according to Cunningham “attempt” doesn’t necessarily mean failure or, as he puts it, “a mass exercise in disappointment.” Whew, that’s a relief.



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