Most Influential Literature in Translation?

May 7, 2009

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.



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