A Translation Smorgasbord

April 25, 2009

That end-of-semester chaotic etc. is upon us, but there have been some worthy and interesting translation happenings that deserve some mention:

– First, the Suzane Adam/Becka McKay reading at the University of Iowa, cosponsored by eXchanges, which was a delightful evening with delightful people.

– Also, U. of Iowa professor and translator Russell Valentino — who is also the man behind Autumn Hill Books, which published Adam’s Laundry last year — has written the first of what is sure to be a thoughtful series on translation and education for Words Without Borders:

Some translation scholars see the question of placing or not placing translators’ names on the covers of books as a sort of teaching moment for the general reading public, envisioned as myriad Ma Fergusons willfully ignoring the fact that Jesus didn’t speak, nor Tolstoy nor Dante write, in English. It may be such a moment, but even so it is a terribly minor one, misplaced, I would argue, in the retail bookstore, and in any case unlikely to have much consequence when pursued in isolation. The relative neglect of translation in the educational system is the larger and much more fecund teaching territory I would like to focus on, by suggesting key domains in which engaging translations—reading them and writing them—can serve a fundamentally transformative role in people’s reading practices in general, both inside and outside the classroom.

– In Semana, a wonderful profile of translator Anne McLean:

“Those of us who have been very lucky to have been translated by her end up with the embarassing impression that she makes our books better. Anne is, so far I know, the best that can happen in England to those of us who write in Spanish.”

(Via The Literary Saloon.)

– In the New York Times, Christopher Hampton discusses translation:

I think translation is very underappreciated and under-rewarded. I feel quite strongly that translation is performing an incredibly valuable service for us all. As often as not, when you read a translated novel, you have to search to find the name of the translator. Of course the translator is the person who is directly mediating the language to you and giving you access to all these worlds that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to enter.

(Via Beyond Words.)

– In an interview in Columbia’s Spectacle, William Gass comments on translation in the United States:

We don’t translate enough.  That part is true.  But we are getting better.  And we don’t buy translations.  That indicates our provinciality.

Unfortunately, his response gets a little incoherent after that. Turns out it’s actually the Europeans who are insular. Except for Robbe-Grillet, maybe? Hard to tell.



In the Telegraph, Tony Briggs considers the place of Edward FitzGerald’s once-beloved Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and laments how far it has fallen. He suggests a number of possible reasons for its dismissal by the “literary establishment”:

Has the poem proved too popular for its own good? Is it perhaps lightweight doggerel quickly seen through by experts? Does its origin (in translation) invalidate it as an independent work? Is The Rubaiyat affected by the way poetry is taught nowadays, with a ban on learning anything by heart?

He rejects all of these reasons, however, suggesting instead that the popularity of the verses in the first decades after their publication in 1859 — I memorized a few stanzas myself, as a child — has doomed them to obscurity, since “the academic world tends to be suspicious of anything that is widely enjoyed.” This seems to me a rather facile reason; Dickens and Shakespeare have suffered no such fate, although I suppose Briggs might argue that their work is of a genius surpassing FitzGerald’s, and thus exonerated from accusations of accessible mediocrity. Still, the popularity argument is a dubious one for me because it neatly lets the poetry itself off the hook. There is absolutely nothing about the stuff’s quality or content or cultural project or anything else, apparently, that would push FitzGerald’s work into obscurity.

This may be the undue weight of my well-ground ax pulling me in a predictable direction, but I do think the third question — “Does its origin (in translation) invalidate it as an independent work?” — also deserves some consideration. As Briggs notes, “For decades the poem was bedevilled by the question of translation. FitzGerald was castigated for having distorted the original verses through ignorance.” This sort of portrayal would inevitably influence our cultural memory of a work’s role. And anyway, what other work of translation have we welcomed into the English-language canon, besides maybe the Bible (the exception that proves all rules, it seems)? Keats may have attempted to induct Chapman’s Homer into the English-language poetic canon, but I’ve never encountered Homer studied as poetry in English.

FitzGerald’s verses start out at a disadvantage because of their status as translations, however liberal, and are then “bedevilled” by claims that on top of that they are bad translations. Given these handicaps, I hardly think that if even Briggs, the poem’s great defender, calls FitzGerald a poet “of the second rank,” the Rubaiyat would be a shoo-in to the English-language canon.


In the New York Times, James Longenbach reviews Greek poet Constantine Cavafy’s Collected Poems, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn and published by Knopf. So often in mainstream reviews of international literature, translation itself is only discussed in any depth in instances where multiple translations exist and can be compared. Longenbach sees in Mendelsohn’s translation an illuminating new reading of Cavafy’s work:

Earlier translators have, to varying degrees, rightly emphasized the prosaic flatness of Cavafy’s language; the flatness is crucial to the emotional power of the poems, since it prevents their irony from seeming caustic, their longing from seeming nostalgic. But as Mendelsohn shows, Cavafy’s language was in subtle ways more artificial than we’ve understood.

I can’t speak to whether Mendelsohn is actually revealing something in Cavafy’s language or instead contributing something of his own, and I don’t know whether Longenbach has the background to gauge that, either. But that’s one of the things that’s useful about multiple translations: they can free us from a sense of slavish obligation to the original text, in which a translator, especially one working with a heretofore untranslated work, often feels a responsibility to provide a version as “accurate” and “faithful” as possible to represent the original before an audience with no access to it. But that is a social and cultural sense of responsibility, not a literary one — I would argue, at least for the moment — and does not have to guide our approach to a work of literature.

I was intrigued by Mike’s earlier argument that it is not works of literature we are protecting with our demands for fidelity, but instead a translation tradition that has prized it. Not that fidelity vs. infidelity is an innovative point of debate within the field of translation, but I think there is still more that could be discussed and pushed further.

Back to the Cavafy, at any rate: Longenbach judges it a rousing success.

Mendelsohn thinks like a poet, which is to say he inhabits the meaning of language through its movement. Listen to his translation of the famous concluding lines of “The God Abandons Antony”:

Like one who’s long prepared, like someone brave,
as befits a man who’s been blessed with a city like this,
go without faltering toward the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the entreaties and the whining of a coward,
to the sounds — a final entertainment —
to the exquisite instruments of that initiate crew,
and bid farewell to her, to Alexandria, whom you are losing.

The final line embodies the fortitude the poem recommends. While the preceding lines falter, breaking the syntax into edgy pieces, the final line is syntactically complete. As a result, the poem does not pronounce but arrives at its wisdom, making it happen to us. It is an event on the page.


Laundry, by Suzane Adam, tr. Becka Mara McKay

Laundry by Suzane Adam, tr. Becka Mara McKay

Prizewinning Israeli novelist Suzane Adam and translator Becka Mara McKay will be embarking on a cross-country tour in celebration of the publication of McKay’s translation of Adam’s first novel to appear in English, Laundry, published last fall by Iowa City’s Autumn Hill Books.

One of their stops will be in Iowa City on the 21st of April, when they will give a reading at Shambaugh House on the University of Iowa campus. eXchanges is pleased to announce our co-sponsorship of the event, along with Autumn Hill Books; the university’s International Writing Program, School of Art and Art History, Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature, and International Programs; Words Without Borders; and the Israeli Consulate in New York.

Other events will be readings in Minneapolis, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Riverside, as well as the “Women Translating Women” panel at the Center for Literary Translation in New York on the 29th.

McKay got an M.F.A. in translation at Iowa and was the editor of eXchanges for several years, so we are very excited to participate in this event. Laundry is also a book close to our heart. You can read thoughtful reviews of it at Three Percent and at Words Without Borders, which also has an excerpt.

Please come by Shambaugh House on April 21st if you’re in the area. We are offering delicious food, wonderful literature, and scintillating company, starting at 7 p.m.

The “No Word for X” claim that I mentioned in my last post (and so thoroughly explored by Language Log) showed up less than 24 hours later in an article by Manfred Ertel in Business Week, “Greece on Verge of Bankruptcy”:

In Greek, there is no direct translation for the verb “save” in a monetary sense. And that is precisely the way the Greeks live.

In reading the entrails of the Greek language, I find that their cultural downfall was also foretold in their invention of “hedonism.”


No Word for . . .

April 7, 2009

The Language Log has a post compiling links to all its past discussions of the “No Word for X” phenomenon, in which someone claims that some concept is impossible to express in another language because the language has no word for it (and thus, naturally, translation is once more proven to be a fool’s errand and a lost cause). It seems to me absurd and reductive to announce that because a single word does not exist in a language, the concept doesn’t exist in the culture — I imagine it’s safe to assume that we wouldn’t have adopted schadenfreude into English if we hadn’t felt an emotion that was usefully described by the German word. And indeed, that is the Language Log’s project in these posts: to deconstruct the layers of misleading argumentation and erroneous assumptions in these statements.

Or take the point Mark recently made about the complete lack of dedicated vocabulary (so far) for “the processes, categories or roles involved in academic outsourcing.” He seems to be right. But does that mean I cannot describe what goes on when students cheat in my Unix course? How about “student who paid someone to write a piece of code for him so he could pass his programming course” for student academic outsourcers? Or how about using “student academic outsourcers”? Or “snivelling little cheating weasels”?

(from a post in November 2004)

And since language is so inextricably linked to culture, they often find themselves combating some hideous cultural claims:

A particularly damaging example of the No word for X fallacy is one that one hears here in Northwestern Canada. Many of the Athabascan languages of Canada have a word for “thank you” that is borrowed from French merci. In Carrier it is [mʌsi]. This fact has suggested to the ignorant that these languages previously had no word for “thank you”, from which they draw the further conclusion that their speakers had no concept of gratitude. Such a people, of course, must have been sub-human savages. The conclusion is that it’s a good thing that white people came to rescue them from their degraded traditional way of life.

(from a post in May 2006)

It’s great to get links to all these posts in one place, and they make for some fascinating reading.


Welcome back, Gabo!

April 5, 2009

Looks like we’re going to have to wait a while to find out what will happen to Latin American literature after García Márquez retires. The Literary Saloon links to a couple of different articles in which the Colombian novelist indignantly states that reports of his retirement have been greatly exaggerated. Considering how many times the novelist has been unwittingly retired against his will over the years, it’s amazing that people took this latest announcement so seriously. At any rate, the new generation of Colombian writers will apparently have to languish in obscurity a while longer.