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Snakebite: Flaubert, Translation, and the Imprint of the Real

Where: University of Chicago, Rosenwald 405, Chicago, IL

Esther Allen, The 2010–11 Dedmon Writer-in-Residence

As the birth of photography made visual artists increasingly anxious about realism, Flaubert devised realist novels that claimed an impersonal, photographic, and near-scientific detachment from their subject matter, loftily asserting the supremacy of their sculptured prose over mere content. His vehement rejection of authorial self-expression and insistence on the absolute importance of le mot juste and the painstaking and immutable construction of sentences altered Western ideas of what literature is and had significant consequences for prevailing notions on the role and limitations of the translator. A closer look at Flaubert’s complex anxieties about writing, as evinced in several of his attempts to do precisely what he felt an author must not do—write himself—shows how problematic some of those consequences for translation have been. And the question arises: can translation itself be considered a form of realism?

Esther Allen has translated a number of books from Spanish and French, including José Martí: Selected Writings (Penguin Classics) and, most recently, Rex by José Manuel Prieto (Grove Press). Her translation of Prieto’s “Reading Mandelstam on Stalin” appeared in the New York Review of Books this spring. The Selected Non-fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Eliot Weinberger, which she co-translated with Weinberger and Suzanne Jill Levine, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism in 1999. She is the author of the International PEN/Institut Ramon Lull report on translation and globalization titled To Be Translated or Not To Be, and has twice won NEA Literature Fellowships in translation. In 2006, the French Government made her a Chevalier de l’ordre des arts et des lettres in honor of her work promoting a culture of translation in the United States. She is an assistant professor at Baruch College, City University of New York.

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