Quixotes, not Quixote

October 25, 2008

The excellent piece One Master, Many Cervantes offers the following, rarely found praise of literary translation:

“While Russian readers have only one Tolstoy, we in English have a plethora. Which of the two languages is richer in its Tolstoyan tradition? On one hand, the original words are set forever. On the other, all of the translations are guesses. But, in the modern world, translation is a necessary, unavoidable task, and, when in the dark, most people are fine with a guess.

After all, we live in the age of relativism. There are no absolute truths. And while an original text has the advantage of being the source, the endless copies it generates are forms of interpretation, which is, in the end, what literature is about.”

Herein lies, I think, one of the best selling points of postmodern relativism – the way in which pluralization contributes to our rethinking about concepts, texts, languages, as both inherently and potentially multiple. Stavans’s discussion of the Quixote brings out, in Borgesian fashion, the performative aspect of translation.


One Response to “Quixotes, not Quixote”

  1. Russell Says:

    This is actually very much a Tolstoyan thought. The truth of a historical event is the sum total of the subjective experiences of it. Reading War and Peace gives a sense of a multitude of perspectives trained on one and the same set of apparently objective circumstances. The facts change in the telling, not because anyone is lying but because people find themselves drawn on by the expectations of their listeners, the conventions of the genre in which they are narrating, the narrative pressures of seeing themselves as the heroes and heroines of their own stories. People tend to think of Tolstoy as a rigid and somewhat naive realist. Nothing could be farther from the truth. He is the Claude Lanzmann of 19th century novelists. Having many versions of his work seems especially fitting.

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