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October 28, 2009

Hey all,

As anyone who’s been following this blog has no doubt noticed, we’ve stopped posting to it. When we publish the next issue of eXchanges we’ll remove the link from our magazine to this blog.

However, we’re not removing this blog so that old links don’t go dead.

We had to discontinue the blog because of the universally-experienced lack of time that grad students, and perhaps especially grad student-editors, experience at some point.

Thanks for reading!


Random poking around on the Internet led me somehow to Manolis Antoniou’s analysis of Andrew Hurley’s translation of the famous Borges story “Borges and I.” Antoniou’s own translation is actually pretty good, and he does a fascinating and thorough presentation of the choices made in each translation.

The First Sentence

Borges: Al otro, a Borges, es a quien le occurren las cosas

Hurley: It’s Borges, the other one, things happen to.

This is an impeccable opening to an impeccable story in the original, and Hurley manages to mangle it. No one says it’s Borges things happen to — it’s completely unnatural English and reads poorly because the indirect object, Borges, is so far away from the to. Sure, the original is not exactly free-flowing, but it doesn’t sound wrong.

Then there’s the repeated a in the Spanish which acts as an important device to create distance between Borges and his other. Hurley, though, not once uses the almost-equivalent to correctly, let alone thrice as the original does, to recreate that distance.

I also object to the contraction it’s. The tone of this story is too formal for contractions.

My attempt: It is to that other one, to Borges, that things happen.


Over at the Center for the Art of Translation’s web site, they’ve posted several audio clips of discussions with Cuban writer (and former literary translator from Russian) José Manuel Prieto and translation dynamo Esther Allen, whose English translation of Prieto’s Rex was published earlier this year. In addition to some specific conversation about Rex and readings from the original and translation, the clips also include more general discussion of world literature and the role of translation in that literature. Fascinating material. I particularly loved Allen’s tangential anecdote about a panel of five translators of Don Quixote into five different languages.

It’s just so interesting because every translator’s experience is completely different because the experience is affected by the translator they’re translating into, not the language they’re translating out of. And Susanne Lange [translator from German] gave a presentation about Don Quixote that was so extraordinary that at the end of it, the correspondent from El País went up to her and said, “I’m going to learn German so I can read your translation of Don Quixote.”

(Via Three Percent.)

I was curious about the German translation so I went poking around and found an interesting article (in Spanish) on Deutsche Welle. Lange has apparently been much lauded for her Quixote, and was awarded the Johann-Heinrich-Voss Prize by the German Academy of Language and Poetry in May. She says of the novel,

Above all it has taught me a lot not just about Don Quixote and his era — a universal myth, a book that has almost everything in it and remains very modern to this day — but also about my own language, since in order to translate the Quixote I’ve had to look at all the sources of the German language, look from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries for the words that would work in my translation.

Take a look, if you read Spanish. I can’t in good conscience recommend Google Translate — union issues!


Brooklyn Rail has posted a fantastic interview with Susan Bernofsky, translator from German (oh, yeah, and she writes fiction, too). It’s a very thoughtful discussion of translation and of Robert Walser in particular. New Directions will publish Bernofsky’s translation of The Tanners next month.

Rail: I’m curious as to whether sharing a sensibility with an author makes it easier to translate their work. Salman Rushdie, for example, compliments Tobias Smollett’s translation of Don Quixote by saying their rambunctious personalities were ideally matched. Meaning, I guess, that being like Cervantes helped Smollett convey his style.

Bernofsky: I’ve wondered about this too. All my authors are very different from me and write differently than I do, but with certain authors I do have the feeling that I can summon up “their” voices fairly readily in English—and this certainly applies to the writers I’ve translated repeatedly: Jenny Erpenbeck and Yoko Tawada as well as Walser. I like trying to hear other authors’ voices as well, which is why I like it when publishers ask me for sample translations from different books—it’s like an invitation to dress up as a stranger and try to pull off the disguise.


It took me a while to find time to read the whole thing, but the roundtable discussion that went up a week ago over at the Observer Translation Project is really excellent. Susan Harris (of Words Without Borders), Chad Post (of Open Letter and Three Percent), novelist Norman Manea, and translator Susan Bernofsky offer thoughtful exchanges on topics such as marketing and editing translated literature, team translations, issues of domestication in translation, and the appeal and value of international literature. For example, here’s Susan Bernofsky on editing translations:

The same editing skills that apply to the best editors of English apply to the best editors of literature translated into English as well. Great editors have a sixth sense that tells them exactly what a book’s style wants to be and shows them the spots where it diverges from this ideal. If there’s an outright mistake in the translation, an editor may or may not be able to spot it (depending on whether it breaks the skin of the book’s mood) – but that’s not the editor’s job, that’s the job of the translator.

The whole thing is highly recommended.


Redefining Translation

July 6, 2009

Beyond Words has a post today about translating poetry that references that old Johnson (via B.J. Epstein) quote about how poetry is impossible to translate. I hesitate to make grand statements about translating poetry since I’m a prose translator myself, and I may irritate some poetry translators with the following proposal, but it seems to me that the difficulties of translating poetry are not generally much different than those of prose. It’s just that most of the problems that crop up in literary prose — allusions, idiom, double entendre, culture-specific metaphors, etc. — are much more concentrated in poetry, showing up a few times a line, maybe, rather than a few times a paragraph. On the whole, except when talking about specific issues of musicality like rhyme and meter (which even so can also appear in prose), or of issues like voice (which do appear in poetry, as well, if not as often post-19th century), the challenges are largely the same.

And if that’s the case, then poetry as a genre is no more impossible to translate than prose. This is not to say that there aren’t individual works that are impossible to translate — in prose, for example, I gave up on Andrés Caicedo’s ¡Que viva la música!, and didn’t even attempt Luis Humberto Crosthwaite’s “Sabaditos en la noche.” But thinking in terms of “perfect” translations capable of capturing every nuance is absurd. If that’s how we’re going to define translation in order to declare it impossible, there’s not much I can argue about because the translator has been set up for failure. But to me it seems analogous to declaring it impossible to really learn a language — even for native speakers — because you can’t possibly learn the definitions and etymologies and usages for every single word.

The post’s author, Jes, does a good run-through of some basic translation theory and uses Beckett’s self-translations to consider the function of translation:

Beckett realized that a translation of Godot was actually a new version of Godot, and in order for him to maintain artistic authenticity (note: not accuracy but authenticity) he himself needed to translate the work (i.e. rewrite the play in the requested language).

But while I agree with the idea that a translation is a new version of a work, the conclusion that follows, that therefore poets must translate their own work in order for the translations to be “authentic,” just puts the author right back up on a pedestal of untouchability. I think the problem is not translations themselves but our widespread cultural conviction that translations must be perfect. If we could accept that translation will not capture every detail of the original without having that be inevitably linked to a condemnation of translation — if we could accept, in other words, what translation is instead of harping on what it should be — we wouldn’t have these tedious hand-wringing debates about whether translation is possible or not.

One major flaw in the debates, besides that they’re eternal, boring, and unresolvable given the parameters as they have traditionally been set, is that they focus only on what is lost in the translation process. I would argue that translations can also enrich an original, not just in the abstract way posited by Benjamin, for example, but also in concrete details. People often think of “additions” to translation as springing from a Hofstadterian approach (see a previous post on that topic here), born of an arrogant translator meddling with a work and forcing it to conform to his or her own literary vision. (That kind of manipulation, of course, is part and parcel of translation anyway, if not usually in as noticeable a way as in Hofstadter’s work.) I’m not thinking of those intentional alterations, however, but of something even more inevitable: the ways in which transfer to a different language and culture transform a work of literature. One of my fellow Iowa translators, for example, translated a story from Japanese in which a hug received from a bear suddenly acquired an entirely new aspect because of our idiomatic “bear hug.”

In any case, this definitely seems to me one of those cases where the perfect is the enemy of the good. As long as we are convinced that translations are inevitably failures, literary translators will continue to be marginalized and their art eyed with suspicion. What I hope is for a less hidebound, more complex vision of translation that privileges a work of literature and its power, rather than privileging the specific set of words composing the original itself or, worse still, the author who arranged them. What, too idealistic?


Two recent letters to the editors of the New York Times have made vociferous — and much-needed — calls for more recognition of translation in American literary culture. In the first, Ezra E. Fitz gently points out that an adulatory reviewer of a García Márquez biography

notes that García Márquez studied Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner and Proust “in Spanish translation,” but when he raves about the “gorgeous sentences” in “The Autumn of the Patriarch,” lauding it as “a heroic demonstration of man’s triumph over language,” he neglects to mention whether he read those sentences in Spanish or English.

How often we seem to forget that the brilliance of world literature is only available to us thanks to the brilliance of numberless and nearly anonymous translators.

In the second letter, Jason Grunebaum objects to American publishers’ refusal to publish South Asian literature in translation:

Why hasn’t an American publishing house brought out a single contemporary Hindi novelist in translation in more than a generation? Not to mention the scarcity of translations of important writers from other South Asian regional languages like Bengali, Malayalam, Tamil, Punjabi, Telugu, Gujarati, and Urdu — just to name a few in which important South Asian writers write.

I’ve often thought of the South Asian literature-in-English phenomenon as a giftwrapped boon to reluctant and provincial publishers who want to give their readers that intriguing whiff of the exotic but are afraid of putting them off with a work in translation. And it’s a vicious cycle, too: having filled the South Asia quota with a number of works written in English, there’s no compelling reason for the complacent publisher to seek out works originally written in other languages.


Many people probably heard about the study of how the language we speak shapes the way we think a couple of months back. The article I saw at the time focused on gendered nouns and the different adjectives speakers tend to use to describe those nouns in different languages. The word for “bridge,” for example, is masculine in Spanish and feminine in German, and while Spanish speakers tended to describe bridges as being “strong” and “sturdy,” German speakers thought they were “beautiful” and “slender.” The same effect was observed in reverse for “key,” which is feminine in Spanish (“little,” “lovely”) and masculine in German (“hard,” “jagged”).

At Edge recently Lera Boroditsky posted a more complete presentation of the study, and some of the results are really fascinating, especially when it comes to how time and space are perceived by speakers of different languages.

Instead of words like “right,” “left,” “forward,” and “back,” which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space. This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like “There’s an ant on your southeast leg” or “Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit.” One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is “Where are you going?” and the answer should be something like ” Southsoutheast, in the middle distance.” If you don’t know which way you’re facing, you can’t even get past “Hello.”

. . . we gave people sets of pictures that showed some kind of temporal progression (e.g., pictures of a man aging, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. If you ask English speakers to do this, they’ll arrange the cards so that time proceeds from left to right. Hebrew speakers will tend to lay out the cards from right to left, showing that writing direction in a language plays a role. So what about folks like the Kuuk Thaayorre, who don’t use words like “left” and “right”? What will they do?

The Kuuk Thaayorre did not arrange the cards more often from left to right than from right to left, nor more toward or away from the body. But their arrangements were not random: there was a pattern, just a different one from that of English speakers. Instead of arranging time from left to right, they arranged it from east to west. That is, when they were seated facing south, the cards went left to right. When they faced north, the cards went from right to left. When they faced east, the cards came toward the body and so on. This was true even though we never told any of our subjects which direction they faced. The Kuuk Thaayorre not only knew that already (usually much better than I did), but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time.

While this particular anecdote might be said to be a result not of language but of some cultural factor that the language reflects, the architects of the study were able to test some differences and demonstrate that language itself did play a role. “This suggests that patterns in a language can indeed play a causal role in constructing how we think,” Boroditsky writes. “In practical terms, it means that when you’re learning a new language, you’re not simply learning a new way of talking, you are also inadvertently learning a new way of thinking.”


Insert Pun Here

June 27, 2009

I’ve been putting off responding to a number of things I’ve spotted around the internet, and now that our latest issue is officially launched (see our previous post), perhaps the moment has arrived.

In Three Percent several weeks ago now, Monica Carter reviewed Douglas Hofstadter’s retranslation of Françoise Sagan’s La chamade, which in typical Hofstadterian fashion he rendered with the anagrammatic title That Mad Ache. Carter and Michael Orthofer at the Complete Review are both somewhat dismissive of the novel itself — Orthofer, who is more aggressively critical of Sagan’s sophomore effort, describes it as “hardly worthwhile” — but both also dedicate a fair bit of space to a discussion of Hofstadter’s lengthy essay on translation, Translator, Trader, included in the volume.

Hofstadter is one of the most exuberant translators out there, and while his irrepressible love of wordplay and colloquialisms can get in the way of his translations, I appreciate his enthusiasm and his willingness to muck around in a text in ways many translators would consider inappropriate and even disrespectful of the original. And however mediocre Sagan’s novel, the publisher’s decision to include such an extensive discussion of the translation in the same volume is a wonderful change from the silence in which the translator usually labors. Translators know the books they translate as well as anyone in the world, and I am certain that most of them could provide all sorts of fascinating insights into their texts, but it is the rare translator these days who is even given the space for a brief note.

Translator, Trader, then, could be declared a success for its mere existence. That said, Carter and Orthofer both have their misgivings about the essay, many of them centering around the way Hofstadter seems to generate puns as a default setting, leaving him oblivious to the tone of the work he’s translating. Carter notes that Hofstadter considers himself a “hot” translator (as opposed to a “cold” one on the scale he’s devised), “meaning that he likes to take quite a few liberties with the original text to make it more interesting,” and says that this often pulls him away from the “authorial vision” of the original. She quotes Hofstadter discussing his own translation:

In Chapter 13, Lucile is replying with indignation to a question Antoine has asked her. She thinks the answer is self-evident, and where Sagan has her say, “Bien entendu” (meaning literally “of course”), Westhoff has her say, “Of course.” That’s fair enough. My first inclination, however, was to go much further than this—namely, “Well, what do you think—is the Pope Catholic?”

Hofstadter was talked out of this option by his friends, but notes wistfully that by switching it out for “Well, what do you think?,” the temperature of his translation “fell from 100° to 75°.” Stodgy, faithful room temperature.

While Hofstadter is a bit too enchanted by his own puns for my taste — I’ll never forget the moment in his translation of Eugene Onegin when someone(s) “cast their nyets” — I am nonetheless bored by Carter’s insistence that he hew close to the original. I have no way of judging his version of Pushkin against the original, for example, but for me his translation ultimately failed because the incessant japery was tiresome, not because it was “unfaithful.” And I am content to let the translation stand or not on those terms, rather than demanding that Hofstadter honor, as Mike described it in a post a couple of months back, a standard approach to translation, and that he value and emphasize the same things as everybody else.

That sort of demand (for “faithfulness,” inevitably) largely springs, I think, from translators’ feeling that they should be producting a “definitive” translation, as if that were possible or even desirable. Hofstadter seems to be admirably free of that neurosis. While I certainly don’t blame translators for feeling that one of their roles is as ambassador for a work of literature, even for an entire language and culture, and that they should therefore strive to represent it accurately, I nevertheless wonder how much it also hamstrings translation and limits its creativity.

Orthofer finds Hofstadter’s essay more interesting, but doesn’t agree with him any more than Carter does. In fact, he goes further, calling himself “an ultra-literalist — with notable caveats — . . . who believes in the primacy of the (source) text.” (Ultra-literalist? He can’t really mean that, or he’d be headed into the realm of experimentation again.) He finds Hofstadter’s approach “outrageous” and, like Carter, is bemused by Hofstadter’s conviction that he’s going about things the best way possible.

Without having read the essay myself, ultimately I suspect I come down on the side of Hofstadter’s critics. I can’t see why prizing “hotness” above all things (especially one’s personal, subjective definition of it — Hofstadter may find his text “interesting,” and yet I have found his linguistic shenanigans repetitive and even boring) would be less crippling than prizing newness or shock value or . . . faithfulness — or any other single value to the exclusion of anything else. And Hofstadter has certainly shown himself to be somewhat tone-deaf when it comes to characters’ personalities or the mood of a narrative.

Still, even apart from being thrilled that a publisher moved forward with including in a work of translated literature a substantial piece of writing on the subject of translation, and regardless of what I think of his translations, I think  Hofstadter’s approach to the craft opens up space and makes possible a broader discussion of what translation might look like and what values it might embrace.


Mirrors & Masks, Spring 2009We are pleased to announce that the new issue of eXchanges, Mirrors & Masks, is now available online. It contains fiction, poetry, essays, and demented manifestos translated from Turkish, Bulgarian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic, Italian, and Latin, plus an interview with former eXchanges editor Becka McKay. Enjoy!

-the editors