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.
Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .
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bq. “Isn’t melancholy something from previous centuries? Isn’t some vaccine against it yet, hasn’t medicine taken care of it yet?” I. . .
What to make of Vano and Niko, the English translation of Erlom Akhvlediani’s work of the same name, as well as the two other short books that comprise a sort of trilogy? Quick searches will inform the curious reader that. . .
The opening of Jón Gnarr’s novel/memoir The Indian is a playful bit of extravagant ego, telling the traditional story of creation, where the “Let there be light!” moment is also the moment of his birth on January 2nd, 1967. Then. . .