I know I had a week off (more or less, and thanks again to Edward Gauvin for kicking such ass last week), but all I’ve really got right now is this review I wrote of Edie Grossman’s Why Translation Matters.
Honestly, this is one of the only things I’ve ever written that I’m pretty proud of. (And all props to Scott and Heidi for their support and help—y’all effing rock.) Really curious to hear what people think of this . . .
Back in 2003, the New York Times ran an article entitled “America Yawns at Foreign Fiction” driving home the idea that American publishers don’t publish many books in translation (the commonly cited statistic is that translations make up less than 3 percent of all books published in America), that readers don’t care to read international literature (the opening line of the article is a joke about how Americans had no idea who Imre Kertesz was when he won the Nobel Prize), and that this situation is unlikely to change.
All pretty depressing stuff for anyone interested in works from beyond our borders, but, to be honest, none of this was very surprising. Conversations about literature in translation are ruled by negativity: Translators aren’t paid enough. Publishers don’t support literature in translation. Booksellers ignore these books in favor of Twilight knock-offs and other schlock. No one reads anymore anyway. Translation is impossible.
No wonder Edie Grossman is a bit touchy:
“We read translations all the time, but of all the interpretive arts, it is fascinating and puzzling to realize that only translation has to fend off the insidious, damaging question of whether or not it is, can be, or should be possible. It would never occur to anyone to ask whether it is feasible for an actor to perform a dramatic role or a musician to interpret a piece of music. Of course it is feasible, just as it is possible for a translator to rewrite a work of literature in another language. Can it be done well? I think so, as do my translating colleagues, but there are other, more antipathetic opinions.”
The whole review can be found at The Quarterly Conversation.
Thanks to Jeff Waxman for alerting me to Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters, which Yale University Press is bringing out next March.
Why Translation Matters argues for the cultural importance of translation, and for a more encompassing and nuanced appreciation of the translator’s role. As the acclaimed translator Edith Grossman writes in her introduction, “My intention is to stimulate a new consideration of an area of literature that is too often ignored, misunderstood, or misrepresented.”
For Grossman, translation has a transcendent importance: “Translation not only plays its important traditional role as the means that allows us access to literature originally written in one of the countless languages we cannot read, but it also represents a concrete literary presence with the crucial capacity to ease and make more meaningful our relationships to those with whom we may not have had a connection before. Translation always helps us to know, to see from a different angle, to attribute new value to what once may have been unfamiliar. As nations and as individuals, we have a critical need for that kind of understanding and insight. The alternative is unthinkable.”
Throughout the four chapters of this bracing volume, Grossman’s belief in the crucial significance of the translator’s work, as well as her rare ability to explain the intellectual sphere that she inhabits as interpreter of the original text, inspires and provokes the reader to engage with translation in an entirely new way.
As if I wasn’t totally sold simply by the title and author (not to mention above description), this Harold Bloom quote is over-the-top:
“Edith Grossman, the Glenn Gould of translators, has written a superb book on the art of the literary translation. Even Walter Benjamin is surpassed by her insights into her task, which she rightly sees as imaginatively independent. This should become a classic text.”—Harold Bloom
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