Since getting a Ph.D. in translation studies is something I still idly consider from time to time, I was very interested to read B.J. Epstein’s description of her doctoral program in Wales. Coming from an M.F.A. program, however, which by definition focuses on the practice of literary translation, I find this statement incomprehensible:

I have met many people who study or work in the field of translation studies and yet have never translated and have no intention of doing so.

I’ve heard people say this before, and can’t really fathom it. Myself, I have no particular insights into moviemaking, despite having seen hundreds of films over the years . . .

-ar

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Margaret Schwartz, whose translations of Macedonio Fernández we published in an earlier issue of eXchanges, has been working on the Argentinian writer’s most famous work, The Museum of Eterna’s Novel, which will be published by Open Letter Books next January. The latest issue of The Quarterly Conversation includes an excerpt:

Horrible art and the accumulated glories of the past, which have always existed, are a result of the following: the sonorousness of language and the existence of a public; without this sonorousness, only thinking and creating would remain; without a clamoring public, art would not be drowned. Under these conditions, Literature would be pure art, and there would be many more beautiful works than there are at present: there would be three or four Cervantes, the Cervantes of the Quijote, without the stories, Quevedo the humorist and poet of passion, without the moralizing orator, various Gómez de la Sernas. We’ll be liberated from the likes of Calderón, the Prince of falsetto, from lack of feeling, which is poor taste itself; from the likes of Góngora, at least from time to time, with his exclamations of “Ay Fabio, o sorrow!” We’d have three Heines, each of sarcasm and sadness, or D’Annunzios to limitlessly versify passion. Happily, we would have only the first act of Faust, and in compensation various Poes, and various Bovaries—with their sad affliction of loveless appetite, despicable and bloody—and this other, lacerating absurdity: Hamlet’s lyric of sorrow, which convinces and breeds sympathy, despite the false psychologism of its source.

Good stuff! Congratulations, Margaret!

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Susan Bernofsky has a wonderful article in the Wall Street Journal in which she describes Donald Duck’s runaway popularity in Germany (including a group called the German Organization for Non-Commercial Followers of Pure Donaldism, or D.O.N.A.L.D.), and attributes it largely to the translator, Erika Fuchs, and her reworking — some might even say shameless improving — of the comic books. Whereas in English the language is straightforward and even plain, Fuchs made Donald a literary, philosophical duck, “a bird of art and letters,” as Bernofsky puts it, who quotes Schiller, Goethe, and Hölderlin.

Dr. Fuchs raised the diction level of Donald and his wealthy Uncle Scrooge (alias Dagobert Duck), who in German tend to speak in lofty tones using complex grammatical structures with a faintly archaic air, while Huey, Louie and Dewey (now called Tick, Trick and Track), sound slangier and much more youthful.

Fuchs applied alliteration liberally, as, for example, in Donald’s bored lament on the beach in “Lifeguard Daze.” In the English comic, he says: “I’d do anything to break this monotony!” The über-gloomy German version: “How dull, dismal and deathly sad! I’d do anything to make something happen.”

Fuchs also inserted political and ethical issues into the comics that were mostly absent in the original. Bernofsky describes, for example, what happened to The Golden Helmet, a childhood favorite of mine, which is about a treasure hunt for a legendary Viking helmet that conveys possession of the United States upon its owner. While the human (or duckly) lust for wealth and power certainly drive the plot of the English original — I recall Donald fantasizing about charging for breathing (“a sigh, a nickel; a gasp, a dime!”) — Fuchs makes the tale a metaphor for German nationalism:

In Dr. Fuchs’s rendition, Donald, his nephews and a museum curator race against a sinister figure who claims the helmet as his birthright without any proof—but each person who comes into contact with the helmet gets a “cold glitter” in his eyes, infected by the “bacteria of power,” and soon declares his intention to “seize power” and exert his “claim to rule.” Dr. Fuchs uses language that in German (“die Macht ergreifen”; “Herrscheranspruch”) strongly recalls standard phrases used to describe Hitler’s ascent to power.

The original English says nothing about glittering eyes or power but merely notes, “As the minutes drag past, a change comes over the tired curator.” Even the helmet itself, which in German Donald describes as a masterpiece of “Teutonic goldsmithery,” is anything but nationalistic in English: “Boys, isn’t this helmet a beauty?” is all he says. In an interview, Dr. Fuchs said she hoped that a child who “sees what power can do to people and how crazy it makes them” would be less susceptible to its siren song in later life.

-ar

James Marcus at Critical Mass has posted a summary of the results of their survey of members of the National Book Critics Circle that asked, “Which work in translation has had the most effect on your reading and writing?” As most of you have probably already surmised, a lot of the usual suspects — Camus, Mann, Proust, the Bible — appear in the results, and some of the respondents’ descriptions of the literature are compelling in and of themselves:

Camus’s style is spare and simple—a Gallic Hemingway, if Hemingway had done his writing, not just his drinking, in French. . . . L’Etranger, La Peste, and La Chute still stun me, like a pistol shot on a sunny beach.

What I noticed most, though (I know, I know, I am very predictable), was how infrequently readers mentioned the translator responsible for providing them with access to these stunning works of literature — or, assuming that all of them wrote at length about the translator, that it was those sections of their responses that were deemed least worthy of reproduction at Critical Mass. Of course there is occasional praise given to Moncrieff for his Proust, Singleton for his Dante, King James for his Jesus, and so on, but in fact the most effusive praise given to a translator is of the sort I find really upsetting:

“I guess the best measure of a translation,” he wrote, “as with any work of art, is that you don’t notice the work that went into it. It just is. So I had to think about this question a little. What translated work was so good that I never noticed that it was translated? That would be The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Kundera, who writes in Czech and in French, is concerned about the missed connections between human beings, the trap that our world has become. His prose comes across so clearly in English that it’s impossible to imagine it written in any other language.”

Not to be all Venuti or anything, but doesn’t “invisible” in this case just mean that the translator’s skill was on dazzling display? That Heim never misstepped, unlike even many authors, and that his performance should be appreciated as a display of grace and beauty as extremely visible — there it is, after all, right on the page — as a Baryshnikov routine. Others have objected to the positioning of “invisibility” as an ideal in translation, so perhaps this row doesn’t need to be hoed again, but it is still amazing to me that people can read a translation and feel that the translator has somehow stepped out of the way, allowed the author’s original words to somehow be transmitted unmediated (and even more extraordinary that they view this claim as a compliment). It’s not just a lack of recognition of translators’ achievements, it’s a fundamental misconception of what it means to read these canonical works in English.

-ar