Gained in Translation

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Gained in Translation

Publishers across the board provide a number of reasons for their increasing reluctance to take a risk on unknown foreign authors. At the top of the list is the concentration of ownership in the book industry by a few profit-minded conglomerates. Publishers also note that most American houses employ few if any editors who speak foreign languages and are hesitant to count on the advice of outsiders as to what foreign books might capture the American imagination. As for the elusive American imagination, it is characterized as preferring story and action over atmosphere and philosophizing (the latter qualities being more prevalent in non-American literary works than in homegrown ones). In addition, American readers have become accustomed to literature that is tailored to their specific situation. Very few contemporary American works are written with a truly international perspective any more. Even those that are placed in an international setting – such as Prague by Arthur Phillips and sequences of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen that were set in Lithuania – rarely transcend the domestic mental framework. In the same New York Times article, Esther Allen, chairwoman of the PEN translation committee, discussed the ramifications that such parochial publishing trends have beyond America’s borders: “Since English is the lingua franca, translating a book into English puts it in a position to be translated into many different languages. We’re the clogged artery that prevents authors from reaching readers anywhere outside their own country.”
Yet however tempting it may be to make a simple causal connection between imperial cultural swagger and a disregard for foreign literature and its translators, many other factors enter the mix and to a great degree it is the very nature of translation that dictates more universal attitudes toward translation as a literary activity. I would venture to say that in no culture, however open-minded or cosmopolitan, does a translated work of literature have an equal stature as an original work, or does the translator occupy the same exalted role as the author. Even in a small country like Slovenia with a population of barely two million, a country that actively promotes and subsidizes the translation of its literature into other world languages and vice versa, the translator hardly sits upon a literary pedestal. My sister-in-law who is a nursery school teacher recently related to me the apocryphal story of a little boy who proudly announced that he planned to be a bricklayer when he grew up. When she asked him if his father was a bricklayer, the boy’s pride turned to embarrassment.
“Nah,” he muttered under his breath: “He’s a translator.”
The boy is far from alone in his scorn for the tedious and largely invisible role of the literary translator. If the translator’s job is well done, as was the case with Peter Kussi’s translation of Immortality, his intervention all but disappears on the page. The work of author and the work of translator meld into one smooth artistic utterance for which the author is given the lion’s share of credit. If, on the other hand, obvious errors or infelicities enter the translation, the translator is pilloried. In either case, from the perspective of his nursery school age son, he is destined to appear a meek and unimpressive figure.
What’s worse, even those who should know better – book lovers, writers, even the maligned translators themselves – hold the translator in contempt. Vladimir Nabokov, who translated Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin from Russian into English and took the unusual position that only literal word-for-word transpositions count as valid translations, dismissed the work of modern commercial translators with the following quip: “… a school boy’s boner would be less of a mockery in regard to the original masterpiece…” In an essay entitled Pleasures and Problems of Translation, Donald Frame, the translator of the complete works of Michel de Montaigne, expressed essentially the same opinion, though with a little more politesse than Nabokov: “Clearly ‘translation’ belongs far below good literary creation, and below good literary analysis.” Good literary analysis! Alas, is that what the discerning reader is expected to read on transatlantic flights these days? But what stings the most in Frame’s remark is the complacence of the adverb “clearly,” which rejects even the possibility of disagreement.
Why do translators get such a bad rap? After all, Frame, in the same essay, admits that translation “demands much of the same sensitivity” as both literary creation and literary analysis. The chief practical problem that besets translators – and certainly affects the reputation of the craft – is the utopian nature of the task: the avowed impossibility of producing an unassailable and irreplaceable translation. Though extremely difficult, it is, of course, possible to create a perfect and singular work of literature – that is, after all, what great writers do. But it is never possible, even for the most accomplished of translators, to create a perfect and singular translation for all time. Nabokov’s claim that the only legitimate translation is one in which the translator’s style would in no way impede upon the style of the original author (in other words, a completely neutral, word-for-word transliteratation) is just another way of saying that translation is not a legitimate enterprise. Because, of course, a translator cannot achieve a completely neutral, transparent, styleless style any more than an author of an original literary work can. Complicating the act of translation even further, not only authors and translators, but individual languages and the historical eras during which languages are spoken and written also have their own particular style. Each language has its own internal form, its own grammatical contingencies, its own specific vocabulary with unique cultural connotations.
We have all heard that languages spoken by Eskimos have umpteen expressions for snow, but we have rarely contemplated the difficulties that would pose for the attentive translator of Inuit literature. How could the translator convey the subtleties of those many synonyms with the single word snow? Still less have we contemplated how those difficulties might change over the course of time as the languages and cultures in question evolve. Jose Ortega y Gasset, in The Misery and Splendor of Translation, gives an example from European languages: “Since languages are formed in different landscapes, through different experiences, their incongruity is natural. It is false, for example, to suppose the thing the Spaniard calls a bosque ‘forest’ the German calls a Wald, yet the dictionary tells us that Wald means bosque.” Ortega is addressing the deep experiential dissonance between cultural realities. Of course, this particular example would, on a practical level, give the translator little difficulty. Undeterred by incongruities in cultural realities, he would simply plug in the noun and, thankful for the seeming lack of ambiguity in its meaning, charge on.
But, in fact, there are relatively few expressions that do not present the translator with the dilemma alluded to by Ortega y Gasset. The translator must constantly not only understand, but choose among a vast array of words and phrases each carrying its own cultural implication. When should he choose an archaic expression over a contemporary one? When should he choose a marginal expression over a mainstream one, a slangy utterance over a bookish one, a highfalutin word over a commonplace one: perchance versus maybe, cops versus police, gaze versus look? Should the translator of a poetic work strive to retain meaning above all, or should he sacrifice meaning to serve the demands of form and rhyme, assonance and alliteration? The choices are endless, and no two paths will lead to the same result.
The challenges posed by translation have given rise to a number of adages and truisms about the craft. One is the at-first counterintuitive notion that every great work of literature should be translated at least once a generation. Dante’s Inferno, by way of example, has been translated into English at least nine times in the last three decades alone. Some of these versions strive to emulate Dante’s complex terza rima (Robert Pinsky, 1994), others use an unlinked tercet form (John Ciardi, 1982) and others resort to prose (Charles Singleton, 1970) to bring the great fourteenth century poem to a new generation of readers. Needless to say, each of these renditions is as dissimilar from each other as it is from the original work. Hence the more pessimistic adage offered in the language that produced Dante – traduttore, traditore (translator, betrayer) – implying that since any attempt to translate from one language to another is inevitably a betrayal of the original masterpiece, one translation – let alone nine – may be one translation too many. It is perhaps no coincidence that a lesser-known saying about translation also contains the metaphor of fidelity. This one addresses not only the meaning and the linguistic-historical context of the original text, buts its aesthetic qualities as well. “Translation,” the saying goes: “is like a woman: if she is faithful she is not beautiful, and if she is beautiful she is not faithful.”
If the principal pragmatic problem faced by the translator resides in the utopian nature of his task, the main reason he is denied literary respectability arises from a purely epistemological issue: the issue of originality. True, the translator must possess a great armory of tools: literary sensitivity, writerly techniques, fluency and mastery not only of the language and culture of the original text, but also of the language and culture into which the text is being translated. But what he and his translation will always lack, regardless of the intuition and skills brought to bear, is artistic originality: unmediated contact with the mind and pen of the original creator. Unfortunately for the translator, originality is a currency held in extremely high esteem by Western civilization. If it is discovered, for example, that a much loved work attributed to Rembrandt was painted not by the master himself, but by a member of his studio, than that specific painting – whatever its artistic merits – drops a notch or two in estimation. The downfall of Jerzy Kosinsky, the author of The Painted Bird and other works, offers a cautionary tale from the annals of literature. When it came out that editors and assistants (those who “translated” Kosinsky’s work from his broken Polish English into polished English) may have had a hand in the original composition of the works, the reputation of the novels and of the author experienced a sharp decline.

2018-08-21T17:23:21+00:00 May 1st, 2005|Categories: Literature, Essays, Blesok no. 42|0 Comments