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I Want to Mamihlapinatapei with You [A Book You Must Buy]

The guest post going up in an hour or so—which also happens to be one of the best things we’ve published on Three Percent in quite some time—is by translator extraordinaire, Esther Allen, who, in my opinion and the opinion of many, is one of the most important supporters of literature in translation living today. Esther helped launch the current version of the PEN World Voices Festival, and was responsible for organizing the Michael Henry Heim Translation Fund financially benefiting around a dozen translators every year.

In her spare time from teaching, translating, dancing at Taylor’s during the Best ALTA Ever, and speaking on panels throughout the world, Esther managed to co-edit (with Susan Bernofsky, another giant in the world of literary translation) In Translation, an anthology of writings on translation that professors everywhere should be using in their world literature classes. (See below for a special offer from CUP for this title.)

Featuring essays by Haruki Murakami, Alice Kaplan, Peter Cole, Eliot Weinberger, Forrest Gander, Clare Cavanagh, David Bellos, Jason Grunebaum, and José Manuel Prieto, among others, you can expect a bunch more posts and references to this in the future. But for now, I wanted to share this piece that Esther wrote for last week’s PW Tip Sheet. It’s a nice lead in to today’s feature piece, which will post shortly, and which you’re going to love.

Words that don’t seem to have an exact equivalent are often described as untranslatable. But are there really words that simply can’t be understood outside of the language that produced them? An article by Jason Wire on Matador Network offers the word mamihlapinatapei, from the Yagan language spoken in Tierra del Fuego, as an untranslatable term . . . and then proceeds to translate it in a way we can all understand: “the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start.” If ten people who read this article begin using it regularly in conversation—“Is this mamihlapinatapei we’re feeling right now?“—within five years it could be as common as schadenfreude. And what a shame it will be if that doesn’t happen. [. . .]

Translation is an art, not a science, and like all artists (and perhaps all scientists, as well) its practitioners are more likely to be hacks than geniuses. But there aren’t many words, or poems, or books that genuinely cannot be conveyed in another language, and might not even be enriched in the process. The great Japanese translator Motoyuki Shibata claims that Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha (an English fiction that purports to be a translation from Japanese) is much improved by its translation into Japanese by Takayoshi Ogawa, who transformed it into something authentic by incorporating the actual traditional vocabulary used by geishas. (Even so, the novel never achieved bestselling status in Japan, where people just weren’t that interested in reading another geisha story.)

What really can’t be translated is the experience of sharing a language—not just a word or two here and there—within the culture of people who speak it. That’s why the Wampanoag are currently engaged in a heroic act of linguistic revitalization, translating their entire language from the written documents left by colonization to bring it back into spoken use in their daily lives. There’s no way anyone else can do that for them, just as no one but you can translate yourself—via study and practice—into the shared space of a new language.

As mentioned above, you can receive a 30% discount on this book via Columbia University Press by clicking here and using the discount code: INTALL. And you should. To appropriate a sports phrase, this book is an instant classic.



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