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.
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