Gained in Translation

/, Essays, Blesok no. 42/Gained in Translation

Gained in Translation

While on one level understandable, the glorification of originality tends to obscure other aspects of the creation of art and literature and its long-term significance in the evolution of civilizations: namely, that literature represents much more just a series of discreet original works produced by great creators. Just as importantly, it represents an ongoing conversation among and between different historical eras and civilizations. This conversation is, in fact, nothing more and nothing less than the history of civilization and, thanks in large part to translation, it has managed to transcend temporal, geographical and cultural boundaries and become accessible to even the most “aggressively monolingual” of peoples. Ezra Pound, a controversial figure in twentieth century modernism, also played a controversial (though less widely recognized) role in twentieth century translation. He spurned the practices of Victorian translators who put the ancients into pretty versified meter, and urged translators above all to: “make it new!” Pound’s translations, though criticized by critics for being too “free,” brought vigor and energy to a host of figures whose voices had been all but lost to this conversation among civilizations – to the sixth century Chinese poet, Li Po, to the Renaissance Italian poet, Guido Cavalcanti, to the French Provencal troubadours, Daniel Arnaut and Bertran de Born.
Throughout the course of his long career, Pound never lost sight of the importance of tradition and translation – the carrying over of great works of literature from one culture to another. In his essay How to Read, he points to the importance of translation in the history of English literature: “… English literature lives on translation, it is fed by translation; every new exuberance, every new heave is stimulated by translation, every great age is an age of translations, beginning with Geoffrey Chaucer, Le Grand Translateur…” And in a passing remark in the same essay, he reveals that the strange ambivalence (or obliviousness) of the Anglo-American literary culture to translation preceded the emergence of English as the lingua franca, let alone the emergence of America as the sole global superpower: “Curiously enough, the histories of Spanish and Italian literature always take account of translators. Histories of English literature always slide over translation – I suppose it is inferiority complex – yet some of the best books in English are translations.”
Because of Pound’s larger-than-life persona and the privileged position he gave to translation in his own oeuvre, he almost managed to dislodge the limp stereotype of the translator: to overturn the notion of translator as eunuch in the harem of literature. He inspired a generation of so-called modernist translators – Louis Zukofsky and Paul Blackburn among others – who strived to bring forward the works of ancient Latin and Provencal poets in fresh, thoroughly modern, sometimes controversial ways and thus to stir the passion of new readers. All the same, the Poundian influence is little present in contemporary Anglo-American translations, which now, rather than imitating the Victorian stylistic techniques that Pound so loathed, adopt a sort of transparent discourse or authoritative plain style. In any event, the dominant translation methods (dominant at least on the market, if not in the university) tend toward the domestication of the foreign text, toward rendering it so smoothly that the English speaking reader often fails to realize that the work is a translation at all. Any regular reader of reviews of translated works of literature will note the propensity to praise smoothness, fluency and eloquence and to condemn signs of “translatorese”: that is disconcerting syntax, word choice, or archaic vocabulary that retain traces of the foreign quality of the original.
Nevertheless, in part because of Pound’s legacy and in part because of the prevalence of postmodern discourse in the academy today, the main conflict in translation studies persists between these two poles: that is, between the domesticating and so-called foreignizing modes of translating. Though deconstructionalists have taken this issue up with a new and predictably political fervor, it is hardly a new concern. The theologian, Frederich Schleirmacher, included in his 1813 essay entitled On the Different Methods of Translation a single sentence that encapsulates the fundamental choice faced by every translator then and now: “Either the translator leaves the writer alone as much as possible and moves the reader toward the writer, or he leaves the reader alone as much as possible and moves the writer toward the reader.” Moving the text to the reader in a translation indicates domestication of the foreign text – the elimination of its essentially foreign element. Moving the reader toward the original represents what some theorists call foreignization – that is carrying over the element of cultural “otherness” that characterizes the foreign text.
This debate recalls an amusing episode that took place during the early months of my residence in Slovenia when I had yet to learn the language. It has to do with one of the great bugbears of translators and language students alike: the existence in European languages of the formal, as opposed to the informal, address, a conversational convention that provides essential social cues in both written and spoken dialog. The practice is commonly believed to be untranslatable in English, and this episode would seem to confirm that point of view. I was in a Ljubljana café enjoying a coffee with an acquaintance when a young man sauntered in and joined us. My acquaintance introduced the new arrival and, after shaking my hand and bowing in a distinctly old-world manner, the young man sat down opposite me and looked earnestly into my face. “May I call you ‘you’?” he inquired in impeccable English. I took some time to consider his unusual request and then, not wanting to disconcert him, I demurely consented and, with this effort at what might be called extreme domestication behind us, the conversation continued unhindered.
Yet how should the translator deal with this particular problem when he encounters it, as most inevitably will, in a work of literature? Should he strain to find an English alternative for the familiar form (something along the lines of “hey buddy”), or should he resort to the archaic “thee” or “thou”? A simple and elegant example of foreignization in a similar case can be found in the translation of Blindness by Jose Saramago, the Portuguese author who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998. Saramago’s translator, Giovanni Pontiero, when confronted with an explicit reference to the formal versus informal address, simply left the pronoun in the original Portuguese: “You must call me ‘tu’,” an older woman says to a younger one at a pivotal and moving moment in their relationship. The word and its connotation are understood by all but the most obtuse of readers. But more significantly, the translator makes no effort to create the illusion that the story takes place in, say, Cleveland, Ohio. He makes no effort, in other words, to create the illusion that the work is not a translation. The reader, in this example, is moved quite gracefully and effectively to the foreign text.
Many of the hottest polemical issues dividing translations theorists could be at least partially resolved if translation were considered a separate genre from original literature. This is not such an outlandish suggestion. It would make room for the many different approaches to translation: from Nabokov’s churlish literalism to bilingual publications to Pound’s freer improvisations on the original. Pound himself made the distinction between “interpretive translation” and “the other sort”. By “the other sort,” Pound wrote: “I mean in cases where the ‘translator’ is definitely making a new poem, ‘which’ falls simply in the domain of original writing, or if it does not it must be censured according to equal standards…” After all, some foreign texts (those that are deemed easily “translatable”) are more amenable to the literal touch, while others (the less “translatable” sort) call for more creative solutions, and some undoubtedly gain new life under a strong authorial pen such as Pound’s. A broader definition of translation, and one that makes a clear distinction from original composition could embrace them all. Defining translation as a wholly different genre – and indeed shelving translations in a separate section from original literature as is routinely done in Slovenia’s bookstores – would eliminate the momentary confusion that overcame me in the Piazza Navona. No longer would the original work of Jack Kerouac be shelved between translations of Kafka and Kundera.
Yet while a change in definition might solve certain problems of translation in the Anglo-American literary market, it won’t solve the main one: the decreasing absolute number of foreign works being translated at all these days. Just as the dilemma between domestication and foreignization in translation long predated postmodernism and even modernism, so too does the more troubling issue of using foreign literature and translation as a method of extending (or denying) cultural influence. Not surprisingly, the practice has been around for as long as cultural empires and translations have been around. The Roman Empire, to which America is often compared these days, spawned Western civilization’s first crop of literary translators who tended to be far more highhanded than the current batch of cultural imperialists. The Romans not only domesticated the works of the ancient Greeks, they thoroughly assimilated them: pressing the Greek syntax into the service of Latin, even exchanging place names and proper nouns from antiquity with Latin names. Sometimes, in a reverse of today’s publishing practices that tend toward diminishing the role of the translator, the author of the original Greek work would be relegated to the back page and the Latin translator would get top billing. “In those days,” remarked Nietzsche, “… to translate meant to conquer.”
Today it is Hollywood that makes ample use of the old Roman methods, taking good films such as La Femme Nikita and masterpieces such as Godard’s Breathless and transforming them into bland American fare that bears little resemblance to the originals. The publishing industry, on the other hand, has adopted a more insidious model. By not even bothering to translate, much less assimilate, foreign works, American cultural interests conquer foreign literature simply by ignoring it. A steep price is paid on both sides of this cultural equation. Smaller cultures suffer because their literature does not circulate, but ironically the conqueror may pay the even higher price: stuffiness and parochialism in the sphere of domestic literary creation, and the deprivation of the potential stimulus needed to trigger a great age of literature. All of the squabbles in academia about good and bad translations, faithful and beautiful translations, domesticating and foreignizing translations are interesting, but in the current cultural battle, they are finally beside the point. It is rather like the old saying that the only thing worse than bad publicity is no publicity all. Likewise, the only thing worse than bad translation is no translation at all.
Certainly some would dispute this point. Yet so much has been said about what is lost in translation (Robert Frost famously remarked that it is precisely the poetry that is lost in translation) that we often overlook the enormous gains. A whole school of purists and radical translation theorists might argue that Aleš and I were not even reading the same work of literature as we traveled through the night toward our shared destination back in April of 1992, and, from a certain perspective, they may even be right. Ortega y Gasset (a brilliant thinker who like more than half of the luminaries quoted in this essay is quoted in translation) put it this way: “The simple fact is that the translation is not the work, but a path toward the work.”
But let us pause for a moment and marvel at that most modest of words: path. For without paths, both real and metaphorical, we are each stuck in our own place, incapable of motion, incapable of communication or understanding, unable to transcend our own local situation. Aleš’s path – his translation of Immortality, if you will – had taken him through the newborn country of Slovenia, across the Po River basin, over the Apennines mountain range and finally into Rome. My path, my quite different translation, had carried me up in the air, across a vast ocean, from one great continental mass to another. Yet despite our distant points of origin, our diverse itineraries, the fact that the vehicles transporting us were so different from one another – his a land bound train, mine a ferocious jet plane passing 30,000 feet over the surface of the earth – we both arrived in the same place: a cool stone bench in a nearly empty Piazza Navona. Or, more accurately, we arrived in a place as close to the same place as two human beings can ever hope to be.
That is what is gained in translation.

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