Yesterday’s post about how to dismiss translations caused a good deal of discussion in the comments section, ranging from Monica’s question about whether other cultures have this same authenticity/accuracy/I-can’t-judge-without-knowing-the-original language issues (I doubt it, but would love to hear from international readers about this) to Paul Verhaeghen’s spot-on critique about how all culture is translation and that these issues don’t come up in regard to music or visual arts.
There’s also a comment from Dan Green (the inspiration behind the initial post) reiterating that in addition to wanting more translations, he also wants more informed critics writing about these books (I totally agree). He also responded to part of my argument about treating the book as a book rather than questioning it’s accuracy, etc.:
“If you don’t think a part of a translation is up to snuff, point out what you don’t like about it.”
But how am I to know what’s not up to snuff in the translation itself if I don’t have the ability to judge it against the original?
(I do want to point out one thing here—I think Paul Verhaeghen’s amazing Omega Minor is a book that Dan can review, since Verhaeghen wrote it in Flemish, but also translated it into English. That said, the Dalkey version is not exactly the same as the original . . . )
My belief is that you simply have to treat the book as it is. A translation isn’t the same as the original, and can be/should be evaluated on its own terms. If a sentence is poorly written, or a chapter overly muddy, it’s a moot point to debate if this was the fault of the translator or author. It’s part of the book as it exists in translation and can be criticized as such.
The real reason I’m writing this today though is because his comment reminded me of a response Michael Emmerich gave in a recent interview in Calque. The interviewer asked, “what distinguishes a good translation from a poor one?”
The reader. This sounds like another dodge, I know. But that’s the best answer. Unless we’re talking about a particular translation, and considering it in relation to the context within which it came into being, trying to determine how well it meets the needs it was designed to meet. [. . .] We tend to assume, for instance, that readers who are able to compare a translation with the work that inspired it are best equipped—are perhaps the only ones equipped—to judge its merits. And yet translations aren’t designed to meet the needs of readers who . . . I can’t think how to say this without slipping into tautology . . . who don’t need a translation.
To tell the truth, I suspect that readers who can compare translations and originals actually tend to be worse judges of the quality of a translation than people who are unable to read the original. [. . .]
Of course, readers who can access both the original and the translation are able to find obvious mistakes, and that’s something only they can do, and that can be important. But surely that’s not what we mean when we ask what distinguishes good translations from bad? We’re interested in something that runs deeper, I would hope—not something so superficial that any old multilingual reader can come along and point it out after a hasty comparison of the two texts. [. . .]
I sort of understand what Daniel Green is trying to do in this post in which he explains why he doesn’t focus on translated fiction in his blog. And since it is his blog, I have no complaint about his not wanting to write about international literature (except on rare occasions like the piece about Tulli’s Flaw). If you’ve ever wanted to see the rhetorical way in which someone dismisses and belittles translations though—or at least the actual writing found in translated texts—this post perfectly illustrates the “well it’s inferior because it’s not the real thing” argument.
He starts by disagreeing with Wyatt Mason about the quality of a passage from Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate:
In a recent post at his Sentences blog, Wyatt Mason examines a passage from Robert Chandler’s translation of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate and enthuses over its wonders. Although Mason acknowledges that it is a translation, and rightly notes that without it we who have no Russian would have no access to Grossman’s writing at all, still, I am reluctant to myself conclude definitively that the quoted passage has precisely the qualities that Mason otherwise ably explicates.
And why is he reluctant to make conclusions? Because he can’t read the original:
Indeed it is a translation, and it is possible the translator has actually improved it in its transformation into English, or made it worse, or in some other way failed to adequately render the original in a way that would duplicate the Russian reader’s experience of Grossman’s text.
This is not to say that the passage does not have the qualities Mason describes, and certainly not that Chandler’s translation is ultimately a failure. I have no way of knowing whether it succeeds or not, and while I am usually willing to take the word of a critic proficient in another language that a given translation is acceptable or not, I am not thereby sufficiently emboldened to approach the text as a critic in the same way I am willing to work with a text written in English.
I generally respect Daniel Green (he wrote a series of thought-provoking essays for Context a few years back), but this argument is, and always has been, rubbish to me. This is the way that readers/reviewers/booksellers avoid “foreign” books by essentially diminishing their importance. It’s the same sort of logic that dismisses the quality of something — like Cubs fans — by questioning its authenticity — even if they really don’t understand baseball — is a slippery slope.
It’s almost funny to see Green try and remove foot from mouth in the final paragraph:
I certainly don’t want to imply that translations perform no useful service or that we in the United States need fewer, rather than more, of them. It’s a scandal that so comparatively few translated works are made available to American readers and that so comparatively few of those readers seem to be demanding them. Translations allow us an important, if ultimately somewhat cloudy, window on the literary practices of the rest of the world, practices from which both readers and writers can and must learn.
“Important, if ultimately somewhat cloudy” . . . Nice.
It may be because I’m a bit cranky today, but this really hits me as insidiously irritating. Judge what you have before you. If you don’t think a part of a translation is up to snuff, point out what you don’t like about it. It could be a flaw with the original or with the translation, but in my opinion, it really doesn’t matter, since most readers only experience will be with the work in translation. So evaluate the translated edition of the novel instead of dancing around the issue of whether it’s “accurate” or “as good as the original.” Not only is this the sort of readerly prejudice that adds to the lack of international literature making its way into our country, but it shits on the art of the translator as well.
Daniel Green’s post on Magdalena Tulli’s Flaw makes this book sound incredibly intriguing:
Flaw relates what happens on this square over the course of a single day. And it is an eventful day. Most dramatically, a large group of “refugees” emerges from the streetcar and crowds into the square, to the extreme consternation of the local residents. Eventually the refugees are confined en masse in a cellar, but at the end of the day it is discovered that they have disappeared. An Army general is disconcerted by this turn of events, reflecting that “What he ordered to be locked up should have remained so, period. . .The absence of the crowd is nothing but a special form of presence, and what has changed is in essence of secondary importance. Since the refugees are no longer here, they must be somewhere else, that much is obvious” The refugees seem to be a consequence of a coup that has taken place somewhere amid the “sandy excavations” outside the square but that we know about only through the rumors circulating through the square and that may have been connected to a loud explosion heard earlier in the day. [. . .]
One senses that the next day on this (presumably) East European square would unfold much like the day the novel has related, if not in detail then certainly in essence. That the novel has managed to convey this essence is perhaps a mark of its “success,” but Flaw also seems to suggest that representing a bare essence of human existence is the best that fiction can do. By dramatizing the seat-of-the-pants process by which fiction is composed, highlighting the conventional signals of “setting” or “character” that guide our reading of fiction, disclosing the extent to which fiction is the active struggle to incorporate reality within an aesthetic scheme, not a completed account of reality, Flaw exposes the “flaw” in thinking that fiction can be a seamless represention of the real. It is artifice all the way down, and it does no justice, either to fiction or to the reality it seeks to encompass, to deny that fact.
Ultimately the true success of Flaw is its dynamic—I would even say entertaining—performance of this internal drama about the act of fiction-making.
Green also touches on something that I’ve been on about for a while—the necessary struggle to create a context for international literature:
Archipelago Books has without question become an indispensable source of translated fiction, but I wonder whether it would be possible to include with its volumes a preface or critical introduction, presumably by a scholar or critic familiar with the author’s work and/or with that author’s national literature. Such an introduction might be especially useful for readers curious about a writer like Tulli but who really have no context within which to place her work.
Daniel Green at The Reading Experience posted an excerpt from an interview with Tom McCarthy (whose book Remainder is definitely worth reading) about how literary folks really aren’t all that literary. Here’s his description of a dinner party he went to:
A few years ago I was invited to a dinner for young British novelists at the ICA. The other guests were for the most part successful published writers – unlike myself back then. The talk was of lucrative three-book deals with major publishers, review coverage, agents – anything, in fact, but literature.
When I steered the conversation with a couple of my neighbours that way, I discovered why: they were both indifferent to, and largely ignorant of, literary history. Sure, they’d read a book or two by E. M. Forster or Jane Austen back at college – but Faulkner, Joyce, Kafka, Sterne, Cervantes? Forget it. . . .
I don’t think this ignorance is confined to writers. Publishers, editors, etc., rarely ever talk about books either. Obviously there are some very well read people in the book business, but on the whole, I think booksellers (the real ones, not the B&N summer help type) are more well versed in modern and contemporary lit than 80-90% of publishing people. But we know more about Entertainment Weekly and how to create buzz, which, in the end, doesn’t really equal out, does it?
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Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
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