26 August 08 | Chad W. Post

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.


Comments are disabled for this article.
....
The Indian
The Indian by Jón Gnarr
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

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. . .

Read More >

Mother of 1084; Old Women; Breast Stories
Mother of 1084; Old Women; Breast Stories by Mahasweta Devi
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

Mahasweta Devi is not only one of the most prolific Bengali authors, but she’s also an important activist. In fact, for Devi, the two seem to go together. As you can probably tell from the titles, she writes about women. . .

Read More >

Tristana
Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

The prolific Spanish author Benito Pérez Galdós wrote his short novel, Tristana, during the closing years of the nineteenth century, a time when very few options were available to women of limited financial means who did not want a husband.. . .

Read More >

The History of Silence
The History of Silence by Pedro Zarraluki
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how. . .

Read More >

Flesh-Coloured Dominoes
Flesh-Coloured Dominoes by Zigmunds Skujiņš
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

There are plenty of reasons you can fail to find the rhythm of a book. Sometimes it’s a matter of discarding initial assumptions or impressions, sometimes of resetting oneself. Zigmunds Skujiņš’s Flesh-Coloured Dominoes was a defining experience in the necessity. . .

Read More >

Iraqi Nights
Iraqi Nights by Dunya Mikhail
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

In a culture that privileges prose, reviewing poetry is fairly pointless. And I’ve long since stopped caring about what the world reads and dropped the crusade to get Americans to read more poems. Part of the fault, as I’ve suggested. . .

Read More >

Three-Light Years
Three-Light Years by Andrea Canobbio
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

I would like to pose the argument that it is rare for one to ever come across a truly passive protagonist in a novel. The protagonist (perhaps) of Three Light-Years, Claudio Viberti, is just that—a shy internist who lives in. . .

Read More >

The Little Horse
The Little Horse by Thorvald Steen
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered. . .

Read More >

Guys Like Me
Guys Like Me by Dominique Fabre
Reviewed by Peter Biello

We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying. . .

Read More >

Birth of a Bridge
Birth of a Bridge by Maylis de Kerangal
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

One hundred pages into Birth of a Bridge, the prize-winning novel from French writer Maylis de Kerangal, the narrator describes how starting in November, birds come to nest in the wetlands of the fictional city of Coca, California, for three. . .

Read More >