For a few years now, on the first day of my “Translation & World Literature” class, I give my students an impossible task—translating the first few paragraphs of Diego Marani’s Las Adventures des Inspector Cabillot into English. Inspector Cabillot may well be the only book ever published in Europanto, a macaronic language Marani invented that uses common words from any and all Western European languages, and has no fixed rules. Here are a few of the paragraphs I make the students translate:
Inspector Cabillot put seine Europanto crossverba under der desk, hanged der telefono und jumped op der cuirassed liftor por emergence cases.
“Moi demanded, Captain What?”
“Ja. Ich habe eine delicate mission por you. Als you know, die europeanos countries send plenty aid zum developingantes countries und superalles, butter, second hand bicyclos, italian beer, english vino, germanische fashion, olde stamps, greek horloges, rumenian shoes und bulgarische used tyres. Well, some van diese aid never arrive zum destinatione. There must esse eine hole someplatz in Sudamerica, plus exacto in der Petite Guyane Luxembourgeoise. There esse tambien eine klinika por invalidos europeanos polizeros die esse eine poquito suspecta. Ich wand dat you make eine enquest, inspector. You shal pretende de esse eine invalido Europeano polizero und make toiself hospitalized. Sergent Otto Oliveira van der Europeane Polizei Brigade por Paranormale Eventos (EPOBRIFOPAREV) shal mit you in touch permane und toi assiste from Brussel.
Even though I group the students by the languages they know (all Romance language speakers together, everyone familiar with Japanese or Chinese, etc.), there are a few things that are almost always present in their translations:
1) There’s a tendency to overemphasize the English words present, ending up with sentences like “You shall pretend to be a sick European policeman and make yourself hospitalized.”
2) To date, every single group has translated “bulgarische used tyres” as “Bulgarian used tires,” which isn’t nearly as natural as “used Bulgarian tires.” Because all the other items in the list follow the “country modifying noun” format (“Italian beer,” “English wine,” which is weird for a different reason), I think they just get caught up in that repetition.
3) Generally they have a similar experience when reading this: at first it seems like nonsense, then, after they realize that they know more cognates than they initially assumed, they can read it quickly, fill in the blanks and get the general gist. Once they start going through it sentence by sentence and word by word though, they realize that they don’t actually understand the text in full. (“Superalles” and “greek horloges” tend to cause the most difficulty in this section.)
4) They always translate for meaning instead of style. Given how the task is presented (“OK, go have fun and translate this into English. We’ll read all of the versions out loud and talk about which one is the best.”) this isn’t entirely fair, but no one ever tries to capture Marani’s style per se. They go after some aspects of the tone—trying to make it kind of madcap, a bit off kilter yet drawing from detective story tropes we’re all familiar with—but generally just try and take each little bit of this and figure out what it means. Sure, they can figure out what the story is about, but does that capture what makes this example of Marani’s writing unique? Shouldn’t they leave some of it as is, incorporating some of the foreignness, the strangeness into their translation? Isn’t part of the point of this story/book to force the reader to slow down and enjoy some weird language jokes?
Translating Style by Tim Parks starts off from a related idea: For one of the seminars he taught, he would give students the same text (generally from a travel brochure or advertisement) in both English and Italian and ask them to guess which one was the original and which was the translation.
Rather than simply replicate one of his travel brochure examples in Italian and bad English translation, I thought it would be more interesting to compare bad English translation to Google Translate. See if you can guess which is which:
The limpid poetry of the landscape on which descend sweet sunsets, the fertile earth with long rows of poplars and lazy currents of rivers and canals, the vigorous and hard-working people of the vast agricultural and industrial area (simple and tenacious in their traditions) are as wreath at the historical group of the city that the exemplary wisdom of local governments has duly respected.
The clear poem of the surrounding landscape, where very sweet sunsets go down, the fertile land with long poplar-rows and slow streams of rivers and canals, the laborious and strong people of the vast agricultural and industrial zone (simple and persevering in their own traditions) form like a ring round the historical group of the city that the exemplary wisdom of the local administrations has opportunely respected.1
Parks found that it’s pretty easy to figure out which is the original when you’re looking at texts of this nature. The translation tends to be overly wordy, and more or less ridiculous. (“Form like a ring round the historical group of the city that the exemplary wisdom.”) What’s fun about bad translations (like English As She Is Spoke) is that they’re oftentimes incredibly funny.2
What he found—and which shouldn’t be all that surprising—is that literature was much more difficult to judge.
In a few minutes the train was running through the disgrace of outspread suburbia. Everybody in the carriage was on the alert, waiting to escape. At last they were under the huge arch of the station, in the tremendous shadow of the town. B shut himself together—he was in now.
Di li a qualche il treno percorreva gli squallidi sobborghi della città. Tutti i passeggeri erano all’erta, in attesa di evadere dal convoglio. Finalmente entrarono sotto l’enorme arco della stazione, nell’ombra terribile e immensa della città. B si chiuse in se stesso: ormai era preso.
In this case, most of his students didn’t recognize D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, instead assuming that the Italian was the original.
The rationale of his students does make some sense: “disgrace of outspread suburbia” isn’t a natural phrasing in English, and “waiting to escape” lacks a direct object (what are they escaping from?). By contrast, the Italian is much more “normal”: “the squalid suburbs of the town” and “escape from the train.”
By looking at the differences between original works by Lawrence, Woolf, Joyce, Beckett, Pym, and Henry Green and the translations, Parks zeros in on the way in which the translations tend to normalize the original style, oftentimes obscuring the larger philosophical-linguistic intent that prompted the author to bend English in his/her particular way. Style had been pushed aside in favor of meaning.
But rather than dwelling on possible alternatives in Italian, the thing to grasp is how all the translator’s changes, whether forced or not, are in the same direction, towards more conventional, commonplace concepts than those generated in the English. In diverging from ordinary usage here, Lawrence insists that the experiences he is talking about require thought, and what’s more deserve to be thought about in new ways. Again expressions like “in complete ease” and “her complete self” get their meaning through their provocative distance from the conventional. Without wishing to be unkind, the Italian reads like the kind of text Lawrence was eager to escape from.
This sentiment recurs over and over throughout Translating Style. Boiling the book down into two main points, it’s about a) how translations tend to standardize innovative prose styles and b) by back-translating and examining the differences between the translation and the original, interesting things about the author’s global approach tend to emerge.3
There are at least three tangents that this book inspired me to think about, and which I want to elaborate on:
1) The obvious tension between translating for style vs. meaning.
This goes back to my initial Marani example, but I’ve always argued in class (inspired in part by Adam Thirlwell’s The Delighted States) that the goal of translation isn’t fidelity to the original or making the text work in the target language, but capturing the style of the original. The problem with this is that the idea of style is, almost by definition, incredibly elusive, mostly because it can manifest in so many different ways.
In short: It’s not what you say, but how you write it. This is an incredibly lame, obvious statement to make. But one that’s harder to follow than you first imagine.
First off, there’s the difficulty of determining what aspects—on the line-by-line level—are distinctive, rather than something that needs to be normalized when it’s mapped onto English. What’s weird about the author’s style that’s intentional and distinct from the trappings of the language the author writes in.
Secondly, not many people feel comfortable translating ambiguously. So many times an editor—who is basically just doing his/her job—will ask a translator, “what exactly does this mean?” with the expectation that the translator will be able to parse a particular sentence. Sometimes that’s the case, and once the translator explains the line in question, both parties realize that switching one word or reversing one phrase makes everything click. But again, what if the author was trying to do something strange and non-normal in his/her writing that, taken in the aggregate, points to a larger philosophical belief? When are you normalizing the larger idea out of the text?
Which brings us to:
2) Translators and editors need to be great readers.
I don’t want to go full Venuti here,4 but it’s crucial that anyone undertaking a translation have a justifiable read on the book’s overall style. Almost every pitch letter we (being Open Letter) receive deals with what a book is about. It’s important because it’s the first book from XXXX to deal with women’s issues during the reign of YYYY. It’s a book that should be translated because nothing from ZZZZ has ever been translated into English.
All of these reasons for translating a book—or reading one—are totally fine. But they also don’t even brush up against the idea of what makes that book unique. These are structural things based in meaning; books that last are books that are stylistically unique and convey their larger ideas in a way that is inimitable. A pitch letter detailing how a particular author employs language in a strikingly unique fashion is much more likely to make it through our editorial process than one that emphasizes the social issues present in a novel.
That said, it’s terrifying to translate or edit a book on this basis. I don’t think many people who read are all that keyed into these ideas of language and structure. Some are, sure, but they are in the minority. Reading Parks’s book just reminded me over and over how stupid I am about interpreting and understanding books. It’s much, much easier to read for visceral pleasure. To take oddities as odd and just jam them into your cognitive schemas, scraping books for general ideas and momentary pleasure before moving on to the next book/Netflix show/album/political kerfuffle. Being able to break down a text on such a detailed level (“the lack of a direct object in this sentence is related to the author’s general approach of how boxes work on humans in general, unspecified ways, which then becomes a core part of his writing style”) requires more self-confidence and concentration than most people are capable of.5
Editing a book brings with it a basket of neuroses. Getting things “into English” might be the smartest way to find people interested in reading and buying a book, but might fuck that author’s chances of being known as a Beckett-level stylist forever.6 We all tend to normalize. This doesn’t mean whitewashing every instance of the foreign (like changing place names and fashions), but on a more syntactical level, translators and editors want things to “sound right.”
I am super guilty of this at our weekly translation workshops. Partially this is due to the fact that I’m just tired of everything—I feel old and like literature doesn’t really matter in the end—and also because I find it hard to understand an individualized style based on three pages of a novel that I’m reading for the first time. In my defense, when a book is sufficiently weird (re: written in an interesting style), I glom on to it and we try and publish it.
But way too frequently, I rip on something for “not being in English.” About 75% of the time that’s because the translation is sloppy—an event that happened without a terrible amount of thought during the execution—and the rest of the time it’s because I have an idea of how English can be written and I want the book being translated to fit into that.7
Sometimes that’s pretty minor—a type of phrasing that is a frequent translation issue, or a word choice—other times it’s much larger—the overall voice. Either way, I have a frame that the book needs to fit into. And as weirdly as my frame might be bent, it’s not absolutely forgiving.
This sentiment is what’s behind translators’ laments that editors tend to “smooth out” their translation. Lawrence Venuti wrote a long, sort of diatribe about this in relation to his translation of Melissa P.‘s 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed. His piece frequently focuses on specific word choices and fashions that the editor “normalized” according to her belief in how this character would “talk” in English:
My editor thought otherwise. I had to use “beautiful” instead of “lovely,” since “American teenagers generally don’t use this word to describe things.” Likewise “pants” instead of “trousers,” “crying” instead of “weeping,” “totally” instead of “utterly.” Archaisms provoked disagreement, even in a Gothic sex dream in which the cold enters the “finestrello” (embrasure) of the castle cell where Melissa lies naked, and she smells her “umori” (humors) on her monkish companion’s face. Ethnic dialects were out. For the “sugo” on the spaghetti eaten by Melissa and her parents I chose “gravy” precisely because the word is Italian-American for this meal. It was changed to “sauce.”
Occasionally my choices met with obtuseness. “Some people have plans that are linear and orderly,” Melissa is told at an orgy, “while others prefer a rococo caprice.” That curious phrase is my calque of the Italian (“un capriccio rococò”). My editor judged it “so obscure as to be meaningless,” so she consulted colleagues at Grove/Atlantic, who concurred. Yet Melissa is simply using an art historical metaphor to distinguish between conventional sex and kinkiness. Amazing that a publisher of erotic classics doesn’t employ editors who could get the point.
Venuti’s piece can be a bit aggressive, and I’m not sure I personally always agree with him, but he’s not alone in making complaints of this sort. Gather a group of experienced translators together and give them a bottle (or three) of wine, and you’ll hear about all sorts of egregious “fixes” that editors made to their translations—frequently at the expense of an author’s unique style, which is then subsumed into the dominant mode of contemporary American writing.8
Defenses can be made for the actions of these editors (this is a book that’s being sold to an American audience, and most of publishing is a business first, concerned with sales, not aesthetic advances), and there should be a healthy conversation between and editor and a translator, but one idea related to this has stuck with me for more than a decade: When an American writer does something strange with language, editors and critics are much more likely to praise this as innovative or progressive or new; when a translation twists the usual sentence structure or phrasings, it’s assumed that this is a problem with the translation, that the text hasn’t made it all the way over yet.
This is an idea that I’m definitely going to pick up in future posts.
3) Do contemporary authors write in styles that will be philosophically and linguistically meaningful 80 years from now?
This is a question that can’t possibly be answered either in this post, or at this time. If we could somehow transport ourselves to the year 2100 and look back on the books that came out from 2005-2015 to evaluate what stylistic quirks and philosophical-aesthetic advances changed the way we thought about literature and the way writers wrote, who would we focus on?
Again, there’s obviously no way to evaluate this, since it’s impossible to predict literary trends in advance, but at the same time, for me, there aren’t that many people who come to mind who will be studied rigorously, with their prose painstakingly analyzed in the way that Parks did with D. H. Lawrence or Henry Green.
One complicating reason is that the books that will last for the next 80 years will likely need to be popular right now. New York Review Books Classics and Dalkey Archive (along with Melville House to a lesser degree and a handful of others) have spent decades rediscovering major books that have been out-of-print, generally unavailable to readers for years and years. Books like Stoner by John Williams, or the aforementioned works of Henry Green. Not that long ago, Dalkey “rediscovered” the early works of Carlos Fuentes—while he was still alive and actively writing. Given the publishing landscape, it’s much easier to envision stylistically innovative works having to be rediscovered by a future press interested in preserving literary history, than it is to imagine these books staying in print and influencing writers and readers in such a pervasive way. That doesn’t necessarily preclude these writers from developing a cult readership and exerting a significant impact on the literary world, but it sure does make it more difficult.
There are a number of popular literary writers of the moment who might have their works survive until that period of time, but I’m not personally certain that they’re doing anything stylistically unique—at least not on a world-changing level. That may not be possible anymore, given the democratic—and ever-expanding—nature of today’s publishing scene; that may not be something that writers are as interested in. (At least not the ones with large enough sales to have a big enough platform to talk about this.) Without using a lot of examples, and really digging into this, I’m 100% sure that I’m going to say some stupid shit, but my impression is that the American authors we think of as the most literary and/or important are doing more in the realm of representing traditionally underrepresented (or completely absent) voices and addressing major social issues, than they are in terms of altering the shape of writing on a sentence-by-sentence, stylistic level. Writers like Claudia Rankine and Roxane Gay immediately come to mind, along with Maggie Nelson and Chris Krause. There are counterexamples, obviously, and there are authors like Jonathan Franzen and George Saunders, who may or may not be all that influential in 80 years and who, it could be argued, are masters because they distilled the lessons of preexisting writerly techniques (at the moment in which audiences craved those distillations), rather than inventing something totally new.
And while I’m saying random shit, by contrast, it seems like at least some of the big names writing in languages other than English (Knausgaard and Marías, Ferrante much less so) are much more focused on style and form. There are social issues in the background of all of these books, sure, but what makes a Marías book unique are his long, mannered sentences that progress by a sort of one-step-forward-two-steps-sideways fashion.
Again, I’m way over my head here, and pretty definitely wrong in this general assessment. But the idea of style and how it’s represented in contemporary fiction—from English and elsewhere—is something I’m sure I’m going to pick up again in future posts. Especially how these styles play against the business of books, and how they come through (or don’t) in translation. And I’m going to start down this path next week by looking at Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s The Dirty Dust and Graveyard Clay.
1 The first is from Google, the second from Translating Style. I think “descend sweet sunsets,” “fertile earth,” “vigorous and hard-working people”—all from Google—are better than the version Parks used. Both are garbage, obviously, but still.
2 Who hasn’t put things through Google Translate for a cheap laugh?
3 Just to give an example, in the section on Samuel Beckett, the Italian translations totally lack the rhythm and pointed attention to language present in the English (and French) versions. So instead of getting the sort of playful linguistic humor evident in Murphy, Italian readers get a pure bleakness. But this sort of play is what Beckett aimed for—ramping it up in the French versions—and is a key element underlying his whole literary career. Trying to capture the meaning at the expense of the style basically kills Beckett’s prose for Italian readers. It’s just bleak, not bleakly funny. (All of this is based on Translating Style. I read zero Italian and know nothing of what contemporary Italian readers think of Beckett. But the examples in the book are pretty convincing.)
4 The incredibly famous and influential translation studies theorist and writer Lawrence Venuti gave a speech at an American Literary Translators Association conference a number of years back in which he argued that everyone involved in the translation process—editors, translators, etc.—needed to be familiar with the literary history of whatever country a book is coming from, along with the history of translation theory. Basically, he set forth a sort of ideal in which publishers and translators knew as much as possible about the context for every project they embarked upon—a really idealistic and admirable situation, but one that’s also 100% impractical.
5 All the math in the footnotes . . . So, let’s say you’re translating a 300-page novel. You’ll get paid approximately $9,000 for that. How much of your year does $9,000 pay for? Depending on where you live, this can vary wildly, but for the sake of argument, let’s say that everyone should earn at least $41,600 a year or $20/hour. (Yeah, whatever.) That means that you have about two and a half months in which to translate this book. That’s four pages a day, which, at first blush, sounds totally doable, and probably is, but not necessarily if you want to read the book two three times so that you can figure out what exactly makes this book’s language work and then replicate it. And that two and a half months includes no time for arguing with your editor about specific phrases.
This isn’t to say that translators don’t do an amazing job—they do, hands down—but by necessity, there’s a lot of slippage. Phrases that could be illuminating in their awkwardness get rendered into “normal” English, by fault of the translator and editor. And what do we miss out on? Everything, maybe.
6 Thirlwell occasionally argues in The Delighted States that even bad translations tend to capture the overreaching style at the expense of other literary aspects. I think that’s maybe true with classics but only because they became classics. It isn’t possible to read the average literary novel translated in 2017 in this way.
7 If you stick with me through this
book or series of unpublishable essays because they are neither interesting nor have anything intriguing to say or, rather, blog posts that will dissolve into the ether by the end of the year, this core idea will come up about seven hundred times.
8 The more a translation sounds like it was written for an American audience, by an American writer, the better chance it has of selling. At least that’s one working theory.
This week’s podcast feels like one straight out of 2011, with Chad getting angry about all sorts of things and just letting loose. The starting point for their discussion is the three-part series Tim Parks wrote for the New York Review of Books (part one, part two, part three), but they go on to talk about JellyBooks and what “moneyball” is, and then discuss a series of book covers, including the following:
This week’s music is Buggin’ Out by A Tribe Called Quest. (RIP Phife Dawg. Tribe is has always been, and will forever be, the shit.)
Also, just a reminder, since we changed our podcast feed, you may need to unsubscribe and resubscribe to the correct feed in iTunes at that link, or right here:
Or, you can just put this feed link into whichever is your podcast app of choice:
The Iowa Review is up to a lot of cool things . . . First off, as you can see in the ad below, they’re sponsoring a writing contest for poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, with the winners each receiving $1,500 and the first runners-up getting $750. That’s pretty solid.
But more to the point of this website, they’ve also launched a more digital component to the Review—the “TIR Forum on Literature and Translation.”:
Translations have played an important part in the history of The Iowa Review, especially through the magazine’s various affiliations with writers from around the globe who have visited Iowa City over the years, to read at Prairie Lights Bookstore, study or teach in the Writers’ Workshop, participate in seminars and conferences, or in the International Writing Program or Summer Writing Festival, or because we’ve published their work and they have an inkling to meet us in person. Iowa is also the home of the oldest MFA program devoted to literary translation in the United States, a spin-off of the Workshop from the 1960s, guided for many years by Daniel Weissbort, long-time editor of Modern Poetry in Translation and translator of Joseph Brodsky, Nikolai Zabolotsky, and Claude Simon, among many others.
Here we are proud to publish a new forum on literature and translation, with an inaugural essay by translator and scholar Lawrence Venuti. This essay originated as a plenary lecture delivered to the annual conference of the American Literary Translators Association in October of 2010, where, to put it mildly, it caused a bit of a stir.
Yes, yes it did. You can read Venuti’s piece in full by clicking here, but as a gloss, here’s a few key paragraphs:
This state of affairs, however, is not only to be recorded and lamented. It must also be interrogated. What, I want to ask, can a translator learn from rejections? I will present two recent instances from my own experience, although I have chosen to preserve the anonymity of the editors in question. What follows is not a personal attack on these particular editors, but a critique of current editorial methods and their assumptions about translation. My account, therefore, should not be dismissively reduced to sheer sour grapes. What happened to me can and does happen to many other translators. I have decided to go public in an effort to engage issues that urgently need to be discussed by both translators and readers of translations alike. [. . .]
After an editor with whom I was acquainted had rejected some poems, I questioned the decision. I didn’t expect the rejection to be reconsidered. No, I rather wanted to force the magazine to do what magazines rarely do: to make explicit the standards by which it judged the translations, or if not this particular submission, then translations in general. Editor X was kind enough to reply, explaining that the poems “didn’t make us feel as if the tops of our heads were taken off.” I pressed further: had Editor X ever considered that translations, by their very nature, should be judged differently from original compositions in English, or that the standard might include but should nonetheless differ from a visceral reaction that is evidently rooted in a homegrown sensibility? After all, Emily Dickinson was being quoted at me. Editor X thought my view novel and promised to give it some thought, but the conversation stopped there. [. . .]
The experiences I have been describing reflect the continuing dominance of a belletristic approach to translation among literary translators, whether they are affiliated with academic institutions or work independently, whether their writing also includes poetry and fiction or focuses on translation, and whether or not they also write about translation in the form of reviews and commentary. The belletrism stretches back to the early twentieth century: it originated in modernist literary practices, particularly in the insertion of translations or adaptations in original compositions, but also in the polyglossia that characterizes many modernist texts, the use and quotation of foreign languages, whereby the reader is turned into a translator. These practices erased the distinctions that can usually be drawn between first- and second-order creations, permitting a translation or adaptation to be regarded as an original composition. [. . .]
Remarkably, Pound makes no mention of the source text when he describes the sort of translation that is “original writing” or aspires to be such through adaptation. He assigns it an aesthetic autonomy from the source text and judges it not according to a concept of equivalence, but according to the “standards” by which he judges original compositions.
I call this approach belletristic because it emphasizes the aesthetic qualities of the translated text itself. It is also impressionistic in the sense that it is vague or ill-defined. Pound’s essay is filled with intriguing ideas, but it is the statement of a practitioner, not a theoretical formulation, and he does not make explicit exactly what the standards might be. They could be inferred from his practice, it might be argued, although any inference would constitute an interpretation, dependent on and varying with the theoretical assumptions that different readers bring to the interpretive act. [. . .]
During the 1960s the belletristic approach was decisive in improving the cultural status of translators because it characterized translation as a writing practice. As Edmund Keeley has observed, “translators began to be accepted as legitimate creative artists during the mid-1960s and, eventually, as legitimate teachers of translation in the various university workshops that came into existence as part of the rapidly expanding field of study called Creative Writing.” In 1963 Paul Engle, then director of the Writers Workshop at The University of Iowa, invited Keeley to teach what was the first translation workshop in the United States. The pedagogy was belletristic, emphasizing the translation as an independent literary text. When in September of 2010 I interviewed Keeley about his work at Iowa, he recalled that Engle instructed him to “treat [the translation workshop] like a poetry or fiction workshop” and to “focus on the product in English.” The students were master’s candidates in poetry or fiction who translated from a variety of foreign languages. They were asked to present their translations to the workshop by explaining why they chose the foreign text, what rival translations they might have worked with or against, and what specific problems the text posed for translation into English. The content of the course consisted solely of the students’ translations. Keeley saw no need for readings in translation theory and commentary. In the interview, in fact, he described himself “as ardently against the idea of translation theory. You don’t read the theory of poetry to learn how to write a poem or to teach the writing of one.”
What recommends the very different hermeneutic model is both its explanatory power and its practical application. The interpretive activity begins with the choice of a source text and continues in the development of a strategy to translate it. These stages in the translation process are determined not merely by the source text and culture but by values, beliefs, and representations in the receiving culture. Translators should be able to give an account of their work that is cognizant of these cultural conditions. They should be able to show how, given these conditions, their translation aims to fix the form and meaning of the source text so as to inscribe a particular interpretation. The inscription can never be more than provisional, one interpretation among several different possibilities, and it is always subject to further interpretation by the range of cultural constituencies in the receiving situation. Nonetheless, translators should be capable of articulating the interpretants that make possible their translations. By “interpretants” I mean the various factors that every translator applies to transform the source text into a translation. Interpretants can be formal, including a concept of equivalence, such as a semantic correspondence based on dictionary definitions, or a concept of style, a set of linguistic features linked to a particular genre (as when a foreign crime novel might require a suitably hard-boiled prose in the translating language). Interpretants can also be thematic, meanings or codes. Examples include an interpretation of the source text that was presented elsewhere in commentary (such as scholarly research) or an ideological standpoint affiliated with a specific social group (as when a feminist or queer translator encodes a foreign text with a political agenda).
OK, I know that’s a pretty long quote, but I think it’s worthwhile in laying out the basics of Venuti’s argument, his objections to the “belletristic” approach to translation, and his belief in creating a more theoretically informed translation culture. (And, just a reminder: read the entire piece here.
Since the “TIR Forum” is geared towards discussion and argument, yesterday they posted Mysteries of the Meta-Task, Tim Parks’s reaction to Venuti’s piece:
But let us turn to the more interesting area of the paper: the insistence that translation theory be at the fore when we present and publish translations. Venuti doesn’t offer a theory of his own here, so it’s not easy to be entirely sure either what he means by theory in the context of translation, or whether he envisages any number of competing and equally valid theories, or assumes that through a scientific approach one might arrive at a theory superior to all others. [. . .]
Rather, he wants to change the nature of the phenomenon, to change the way people translate and the way readers approach translations (“the new translator I am fashioning,” he says boldly). In particular, he appears to be encouraging translators to be unconcerned that their work seem originally written or effortlessly fluent in the language into which they translate, and encouraging readers to accept the idea that reading a translation is a different experience from reading a text originally written in their language, requiring on the contrary a more “thoughtful” rather than “spontaneous and immediate” response. (Here I have difficulty with the idea that the two responses are mutually exclusive. Many fine works of literature provoke both an immediate and a thoughtful response, the latter being largely prompted by the former.) [. . .]
Such an approach arises from an optimistic and political vision that ascribes to translation not the task of making a product of one culture available for appreciation in another but the meta-task of constantly heightening our awareness of language and the way we use it, regardless and perhaps at the expense of the commercial and maybe even the critical success of the work. This approach is thus in line with aspects of Benjamin’s famous “The Task of the Translator” and Derrida’s famously abstruse commentary upon it. (What remains of Derrida is always a sense of wonder that he should have rendered a quite reasonable line of thought so strenuously obscure and nearly mystical, as if it were important that only a small group of initiates or acolytes subscribe to it.) [. . .]
If we assume that Venuti is proposing that a translated text offer a series of surprises and novelties in our language unlike those of an original text, how are those surprises generated, and how are they linked together to form a coherent whole? How do they stand in relation to the content and style (if we can ever separate the two) of the original text? What if our author had a considerable investment in the conventional forms of languages—was a member, perhaps, of a highly conservative society—and wished to have nothing to with subversive techniques or texts that foregrounded the problematic of translation?
Venuti’s position perplexes me to the point that I feel sure that there is something I haven’t understood, something he could set me right on, and I wish he would spare us his litany of complaints and offer some exciting in-depth analyses of translations that he feels exemplify all he aspires to and admires; or if he has already done this (for I haven’t read all he’s written), then he might refer us to it so we can go away and do our homework. [. . .]
But to get back to my question for Venuti: when a translator works this way, each word he sets down—and of course, above all, the play of words semantically and rhythmically—has to do with what he understands of the original and the pattern of impressions it creates on his mind. I repeat: it is not a question of elegance or “belletrism” (how I hate that word), but of trying to find a way to make a particular text, which the translator has explored in-depth, happen in his or her own language. If I ask one of my students why he chose this word or that syntactical structure, he will show me something in the original that prompted this solution; he will tell me how this fits in with what he thought was going on in the original—it is conventional or unconventional, fluent or awkward, in a way he feels was prompted by the original and appropriate in the present context of Italian letters.
My question is simple: when Venuti’s aware and progressive “new” translator chooses solutions that are provocative and non-standard in his own language, provoking a thoughtful rather than a spontaneous response, heightening awareness and alerting the reader to the translated status of the text, is he doing so in response to the pattern of effects and impressions he believes he has found in the original? Or is he imposing a predetermined strategy that could perfectly well lead to similar effects being generated in translations of quite different originals (the case with Pound), and translating regardless of the impressions those originals created in the translator?
Both pieces are extremely interesting, and should be read in full. (Again, click here for Venuti’s, and here for Parks’s.) And they should be debated. Expanding this sort of discussion is great for translators, scholars, and all other interested parties. TIR has a great comments section, so if you want to speak your piece you can go to it.
Really interesting article called “America First?” in the new issues of the New York Review of Books. In this piece, Tim Parks looks at four recent books: Best European Fiction 2010 edited by Aleksandar Hemon, Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman, The Novel: An Alternative History, Beginnings to 1600 by Steven Moore, and Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields.
Thanks primarily to the first two books listed (although obviously Steve Moore’s book also includes heaps of translation references), there’s a lot in here about literature in translation, which Parks approaches in rather interesting ways.
He starts by taking a few slight jabs at the Best European Fiction anthology, not necessarily at the stories themselves (which he seems to have enjoyed), but at some of the claims of representation and uniqueness:
All the contributions are interesting and some impressive. That is enough for me. But it does make one wonder whether we are learning much about other cultures from this venture, whether it is true, as Hemon claims, that “ceaseless” and “immediate” translation of literature from abroad is a “profound, non- negotiable need.” Similarly, as if in response to Grossman’s concerns about eventual conflicts brought on by cultural isolation, frequent references here to the recent wars in the Balkans remind us that familiarity with each other’s literatures has never prevented Europeans from slaughtering one another. Remarking, in her short preface, on this reluctance of the anthology’s contributors to be identified with their national cultures, Zadie Smith nevertheless feels that
“if the title of this book were to be removed and switched with that of an anthology of the American short story, isn’t it true that only a fool would be confused as to which was truly which?”
Truly, truly, aside from superficial markers like names and places, or the fact that it is fairly easy to distinguish translated texts from those in their original tongue, I am not sure that Smith is altogether right. It seems to me rather that as we tackle intriguing stories from Latvia and Lithuania, Bosnia and Macedonia, we are struck by how familiar these voices are, how reassuringly similar in outlook to one another and ourselves.
And on more of a stylistic point:
The many different narrative forms used in the collection, though frequently “experimental,” are, again, hardly unfamiliar; stories are fragmented, seen from different angles, in ways that make it interestingly difficult for us to decide how much reality to attach to them or how much emotion to invest. Again this is in line with an eclectic renunciation of any absolute version of events. In personal statements included at the back of the book, writers mention such models as Kafka, Borges, and Barthelme, suggesting that narrative experimentalism (which invariably undercuts certainties, rather than reinforcing them) has become a literary lingua franca, an international convention.
I hate to overquote this article, but it really is fascinating on a number of fronts . . . When discussing Grossman’s and Hemon’s admiration for the translation cultures of France and Germany, he makes a couple of interesting points:
Is this, then, American isolationism, or imperialism, or a new kind of internationalism? Grossman says she is at a loss to understand the American reluctance to translate; the fact is that in Europe there is enormous public interest in America as the world’s first power and the perceived motor of changing mores. American authors take up considerable space in the literary pages of Europe’s newspapers not, or not only, because they are good, but because they are American, they talk about America. This gives them a celebrity value; readers want to read them. An equally good Polish author talking about Poland is simply not considered interesting and will very likely not be translated. Indeed many of the authors who appear in Best European Fiction 2010 are not widely published in other European countries. [. . .]
It is ironic here to find Grossman quoting a Nobel Prize judge claiming that Europe is still the center of the literary world; this is wishful thinking on the Swede’s part. European writers may be unconcerned whether or not they are published in this or that other European country, or indeed in Chinese or Japanese, but they are all extremely anxious to be published in America, precisely because, as Grossman points out, this gives access to world recognition. If Americans translate little it is partly because all eyes are turned in their direction. That said, a University of Rochester research program lists 349 works of translated fiction and poetry published in the US in 2009, more than anyone could read in a single year and not, for the most part, made up of the kind of genre fiction that European countries import so avidly. Does the unceasing translation of the second-rate matter?
Most interesting though—maybe because this was a subtopic at the Wolff Symposium last week—is his extended bit about the proper way to review translations. Grossman talks about this in her book, using James Wood’s review of the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace as a positive example of how to review a book. Parks takes this down a bit, instead focusing on Grossman’s definition of how the translator’s task is one of deep reading followed by recreation “within the alien system of a second language, all the characteristics, vagaries, quirks, and stylistic peculiarities of the work.”
Parks admires this definition (for good reason! Grossman’s spot on in a beautiful way), but where does that lead in terms of reviewing?
What can I say then, if I wish to comment on the thirty-one translations in Best European Fiction 2010, twenty-two of them from languages I do not know? That on the whole the reader gets a strong impression of a cohesion of style and content that can only be the result of extremely attentive reading, followed by respectful and imaginative rewriting. This cohesion is the hallmark of good translation and the only thing a reviewer with no knowledge of the original can sensibly comment on and elucidate. In each case it would be futile to seek to establish how much we should be praising the author and how much the translator: the author wrote a fine story, which inspired the translator to make a fine translation. Of my own translations, I should say that I was always happy when the author got the praise and I escaped mention; it’s self-evident that only a good translation makes it possible for the reviewer to praise the author.
Reviewing translations is a really knotty topic, and one that is rather fascinating and worth talking about in much greater detail. Although I am of the belief—also stated last week at the Wolff Symposium—that it’s not necessary for every review in every publication to address the quality of the translation. I believe that all reviews should at least reference the translator and acknowledge the book’s origins, but if the goal of a review is to interest the readers of that particular publication (be it a blog or a weekly magazine) in the books being featured, the very fact that different people read different review sources for different reasons leads to different emphases in different reviews. It would be great (or utopic) to imagine a book culture in which a Scandinavian noir book is reviewed in one place for it’s noirish elements, another for its representation of Scandinavian culture, another for the wonderful job that the particular translator did, etc., etc.
But anyway. This article is definitely worth reading—not just for these parts, but for the section on Moore’s book (which still sounds interesting to me) and on the fascinating Reality Hunger.
The new issue of the NYRB is out, with some of the pieces available online. This is the special “Fiction Issue” and has a number of interesting articles, including:
The Great Bolano by Francisco Goldman which covers The Savage Detectives, Last Evenings on Earth, Distant Star, and 2666;
How To Read Elfriede Jelinek by Tim Parks about all five of her novels to be translated into English;
and, Lest We Forget by Joyce Carol Oates, which is about “amnesiac fiction,” including Remainder by Tom McCarthy and Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald.
Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by. . .
In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of. . .
Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary. . .
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .