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Keeping the Foreign in Translated Literature: a Dispatch from the Oklahoma Prairie George Henson

George Henson is a translator of contemporary Latin American and Spanish prose, a contributing editor for World Literature Today and Asymptote, and a lecturer at the University of Oklahoma.
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Unlike my fellow BTBA judges who have published blog posts before me, I am not going to tease you with cursory reviews of the books I am reading.

This decision is due in part to the fact that the books have been slow to arrive to the hinterlands of Norman, Oklahoma, where I teach at the University of Oklahoma. But also because the University of Oklahoma celebrated last week one of its best kept secrets: the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, which gave me occasion to think about what it means to evaluate foreign literature.

The Neustadt is a biennial prize awarded during even years since 1970 by the University of Oklahoma and World Literature Today. The first recipient was Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti. In 1972, the prize was awarded to Gabriel García Márquez, who ten years later would earn the Nobel Prize. That same year, 1982, Octavio Paz became the seventh Neustadt recipient. Eight years later, Paz would also go on to win the Nobel. It is this pattern that has led many to call the Neustadt the precursor to the Nobel. Like the Nobel and the Neustadt, the BTBA recognizes international literature. It differs, however, in that it is awarded to a translated book.

At last week’s opening night reception, Chad Post, founder of Open Letter Books, Three Percent, and the BTBA, was charged with introducing the 2016 laureate, Dubravka Ugrešić. As publisher of three of Ugrešić’s translated books, Nobody’s Home, Karaoke Culture, and Europe in Sepia, Chad has worked closely with Ugrešić. His affection for the Croatian—she prefers European—writer is obvious.

During his introduction, among many humorous anecdotes, Chad recounted that the only request Ugrešić had of Open Letter Books was that the diacritics be removed from her last name. Her rationale was that her name was hard enough for readers to pronounce without the added confusion of Croatian diacritics. Hence, Dubravka Ugresic was born.

Immediately, I remembered an anecdote recounted by Valeria Luiselli about Mexican author Sergio Pitol, whose Trilogy of Memory I translated. Writing in Granta, Luiselli recalled that when she first happened upon one of Pitol’s books, she thought he “was a dead Eastern European or Russian writer whose real name was probably Sergei Pytol.” “For decades,” she added, “Mexican publishers had us reading works by Guillermo Shakespeare and Federico Nietzsche.”

This odd habit of domesticating names was not limited to authors; on the contrary, it applied equally to their characters, whereby Gregor Samsa became Gregorio, Anna Karenina, Ana, and the Count Alexey, the conde Alejo.

This practice points to a wider strategy among translators (and publishers): the erasure of the foreign in translated texts. For a translated text to be marketable, the argument goes, it must be readable. In this domesticating logic, readability is synonymous with fluency; in other words, for a text to be fluent, the translator must be invisible, and, in order for a translator to be invisible, he must domesticate. Lawrence Venuti examines this phenomenon in depth in his groundbreaking work, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation.

A byproduct of this logic is the all-too common refrain, “This book reads as if it were written in English,” which runs counter to Walter Benjamin caveat that “it is not the highest praise of a translation, particularly in the age of its origin, to say that it reads as if it had originally been written in that language.” The translator, Benjamin adds, “must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language,” which is achieved to greater effect by foreignization.

Edith Grossman echoes Benjamin’s injunction in Why Translation Matters: “Literary translation,” Grossman writes, “infuses a language with influences, alterations, and combinations that would not have been possible without the presence of translated foreign literary styles and perceptions, the material significance and heft of literature that lies outside the territory of the purely monolingual.”

This, of course, is only possible if the translator resists the temptation to domesticate her translation, to find an equivalent for every idiom and metaphor, to rewrite the syntax so that it conforms to the strictures of the receptor language, to recur to linguistic formulae and set phrases unique to the receptor language that trick the reader into believing he is reading a text that was written in English.

In an interview for Asymptote, the very insightful and equally gracious Rosie Clarke asked me what I hoped English-language readers would gain from my translation of The Art of Flight. This is perhaps the best question that could be asked of anyone who translates into English (and infinitely more interesting than the all-too-often and always banal question intended to solicit from the translator a new metaphor for translation). My answer was:

“I hope they also realize they are reading a foreign text. I am not a fan of domestication. I think to say that a translation reads as if it were written in English is unfortunate. I know that most translators consider it a compliment, but I do not. All translators praise the ability of translation to ‘enrich’ the target language and culture, but it cannot do that if translators erase the foreign from the text, if they find English equivalents for every metaphor or idiom. Translation will only enrich the receptor culture and language if translators allow foreign aspects of the source text/language/culture to be visible. The translator can disappear without making the text’s foreignness disappear.”

As the books that comprise the Best Translated Book Award competition begin to reach my homestead on the vast and distant Oklahoma prairie, and I’ve begun to read them, Rosie’s question will be in the forefront of my mind.

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