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Why Translation Matters

August 10, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In the 2010 book Why Translation Matters, Edith Grossman proposes the question: what is an intelligent way to discuss and critique translations? Near the end of the Introduction, she asks, “Even if it is unrealistic to wish that every reviewer of a translated work were at least bilingual, it is not unreasonable to require a substantive and intelligent acknowledgment of the reality of the translation. I am certainly not lamenting the fact that most reviewers do not make one-for-one lexical comparisons in order to point out whatever mistakes the translator may have made – a useless enterprise that enlightens no one since the book has already been published and errors cannot be rectified until the next printing – but I do regret very sincerely that so few of them have devised an intelligent way to review both the original and its translation within the space limitations imposed by the publication” (32). This is such a difficult question, and it is of vital importance for those interested in the classics. Most of the readers will access the books through translation. Furthermore, any canon perpetuates a specific translation, so it is in our best interests to understand a little bit about the era and translator, as well as the author and canon. To me, it makes obvious sense that the translation is a unique entity separate from, but tethered to the original by ideas and context.

Since I enjoy wordplay, I periodically dabble at translating works on my own. I like to think of it more as a conversation than a concrete, finished product. I like to try to understand the author from every angle and then, place that into my world as best I can and make sense of it. The struggle here is that I am central to the role, not the author. Rather, the translator must be aware that personal perspective and experience can be hindrances. The reader, too, then, must understand that translation is a process, a conversation, an imperfection, much as the original text is.

Translation involves a great amount of creativity. I find it a pleasurable, but exhausting exercise. I simply cannot imagine a project such as Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, for example. The barriers to this type of project are many: time, historical period, Plutarch’s history, lack of outside sources, language barriers, etc. And yet, I have had the pleasure of reading this fantastic work in the Dryden translation. I would be much poorer without it. Grossman expresses similar sentiment when she writes, “Imagine how bereft we would be if the only fictional worlds we could explore, the only vicarious literary experiences we could have, were those written in languages we read easily. The deprivation would be indescribable. Depending upon your linguistic accomplishments, this would mean you might never have the opportunity to read Homer or Sophocles or Sappho, Catullus or Virgil, Dante or Petrarch or Leopardi, Cervantes or Lope or Quevedo, Ronsard or Rabelais or Verlaine, Tolstoy or Chekhov, Goethe or Heine: even a cursory list of awe-inspiring writers is practically endless, though I have not even left western Europe or gone past the nineteenth century to compile it” (26). Grossman’s book, Why Translation Matters, asks the question: What is the cultural profit or public good that we gain from reading translations? I tend to agree with her position: where would we be without them? I honestly cannot fathom a life without these amazing works. As it is, the United States has one of the lowest rates of published translations in the world, not because foreign literature is unworthy, but because there is no system. Translators receive little pay or incentive and often go unnoticed.

A few years ago, I submitted a paper on one of my favorite books: Fortino Sámano: An Overflowing of the Poem. Translated into English in 2012 by Sylvain Gallais and Cynthia Hogue, this book represents something very important to me: dialogue across languages. The original French poems by Virginie Lalucq revolved around a single photograph. Jean-Luc Nancy then offered a philosophical discussion of the poems. Translation adds a third layer of communication. However, one of the reviewers of this paper (which remains unpublished) wrote: “It is unclear as to why this text is of importance.” I realized that my paper had not adequately expressed Sámano’s importance, which I had hoped was self-explanatory. To me, this book offers a rare glimpse of a poetic argument (in two languages) followed by philosophical discourse. We simply do not see that kind of dialogue in English. Regardless of the paper's other faults, I am still disheartened by my reader's response, particularly because it was the response of a scholar in my field and I thought the ideas of translation were self-explanatory. I see now, however, that while my writing and ideas were complimented, the content itself is marginalized. Grossman expresses this more eloquently when she states, “It has been suggested to me by an academic friend who is not a translator but is an indefatigable critic, editor, and reader, that translation may well be an entirely separate genre, independent of poetry, fiction, or drama, and that the next great push in literary studies should probably be to conceptualize and formulate the missing critical vocabulary. That is to say, it is certainly possible that translations may tend to be overlooked or even disparaged by reviewers, critics, and editors because they simply do not know what to make of them, in theory or in actuality” (47). This, I believe, reflects my experience in writing about translation.

To further complicate matters, translations into other languages often rely upon the English version. So, while the English may not be the original, translators rely upon the English as if it were original. Grossman continues, “Another salient reality that affects writers profoundly is the need for books to be translated into English in order for them to be brought over into other, non-European idioms, for English often serves as the linguistic bridge for translation into a number of languages. The translation of texts originally written in other Western languages into the enormous potential market represented by Chinese, for instance, often requires an English version first. Because, at least until recently, many more Chinese translators work from English than from Spanish, a considerable number of Chinese-language versions of Latin American literary works have actually been based on the English translations. Some years ago, French was the conduit language, and many Spanish-language versions of Russian books were actually rooted in French translations of the texts. Of equal significance is the possible transfer of the book into other media like film and television. Powerful filmmakers and television producers whose work is distributed worldwide are all apt to read English” (58-9). I understand the reasons for this, but it reinforces the idea that translations should stand separate from the original.

I second Grossman’s question as to how we can critique and discuss translations with an element of consistency. While there are various entities dedicated to this, they lack cohesion. I find this question of vital importance since it involves not only the important ideas we discuss, but also the language with which we do it. Grossman cites Octavio Paz who says, “When we learn to speak, we are learning to translate” (75). In other words, ideas of translation are foundational and coexistent with being and education. Perhaps we need to better understand our own language to appreciate translation. Perhaps we can add courses on translation for young students. Whatever the answer, I hope that we are careful and clear about the documents we use, naming author, but also translator.

My few experiences in creating translations have greatly expanded my love of language. I feel a connection with the way that Octavio Paz celebrates language. Grossman explains, “He [Octavio Paz] states that children translate the unknown into a language that slowly becomes familiar to them, and that all of us are continually engaged in the translation of thoughts into language. Then he develops an even more suggestive notion: no written or spoken text is ‘original’ at all, since language, whatever else it may be, is a translation of the nonverbal world, and each linguistic sign and phrase translates another sign and phrase. And this means, in an absolutely utopian sense, that the most human of phenomena – the acquisition and use of language – is, according to Paz, actually an ongoing, endless process of translation; and by extension, the most creative use of language – that is, literature – is also a process of translation: not the transmutation of the text into another language but the transformation and concretization of the content of the writer’s imagination into a literary artifact” (75-6). Whether or not you agree with the deep importance that translation plays in our lives, it is worth our while to take note of those who do the heavy lifting of bringing foreign texts into English. I, for one, would not be happy without Borges and Paz, Dostoevsky and Chekhov,  Plutarch and Homer, or Lalucq and Nancy. Therefore, I would not be happy without Dryden and Grossman, Pevear and Volokhonsky, Lattimore and Le Guin, or Gallais and Hogue.

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