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Allen, Esther and Bernofsky, Susan (eds)(2013). In Translation: Translators on their work and what it means.

New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 288, $29.50 ISBN 978-0231159692.

In opposition to the popular view that translation must always involve loss, Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky present their entertaining and informative volume as a celebration of what is ‘found’ in translation. This collection of wide-ranging essays (mostly previously published elsewhere) discusses various aspects of the translator’s art and the translation world. The book focuses on literary translation, but its insights can be applied to other forms of translation, for example, the idea that the original text is, in fact, “enriched by the new meanings that are engendered as it enters new contexts” (xviii). The authors state their intention as “to underscore the significance of the translator and translation in the English-speaking world” (xx) and also include also two essays written in languages other than English and published in translation.

The book is divided into two parts: “The Translator in the World,” and “The Translator at Work.” Part one includes, amongst its seven articles, contributions by Eliot Weinberger, David Bellos, Michael Emmerich, and Catherine Porter. This review is constrained by reasons of space to only mentioning selected articles in the collection.

Eliot Weinberger, in his essay Anonymous Sources, looks at attitudes to translation as a “problematic necessity” often experienced by those of us working in the profession. He argues eloquently that translation can be seen as “liberating” the target language, as works read in translation are somehow freed from the norms and constraints of the target language literature. Weinberger argues that seeing translation as problematic arises from the idea of equivalence, and that, as all readings are “a translation into one’s own experience and knowledge” (22), it is unnecessary to expect translations to be equivalent to their source texts, a view, of course, popular amongst many translation theorists.

David Bellos, in his piece Fictions of the Foreign: The Paradox of Foreign-Soundingness, focuses on the issue of preserving the ‘foreign’ in translation. He discusses various strategies including inventing nonsense language which has the rhythms of the source language, and leaving source language items in the translation in an attempt to retain the ‘otherness’ of the source text. He advocates the latter strategy, whilst accepting that this is easier when source and target languages are closely related. 

Catherine Porter writes on translation as scholarship and looks at the status of translators in the literary world, drawing conclusions which can equally be applied to the wider context of translation.

Moving onto the second part of the book entitled “The Translator at Work,” Maureen Freely’s account of translating Orhan Pamuk gives the reader an unusual insight into the political considerations of translating. Freely describes not only general political issues concerning the Turkish language, but also the continuing role of the translator when a book or author assumes greater political significance after publication. Like Bellos, her strategy for conveying the foreignness of Pamuk’s characters is to leave some source language words untranslated, in this case she chooses to leave in English anything that English speakers living in Turkey would not translate.

This article is followed by a detailed commentary by José Manuel Prieto on the translation of a classic Russian poem (Epigram Against Stalin by Osip Mandelstam) into Spanish. The article itself was translated into English by Esther Allen.

Jason Grunebaum writes about the difficulty of lexical choices when translating Hindi, due to the fact that most Hindi speakers also speak English. In investigating this, he uses the effective device of sketching a thumbnail portrait of two imagined readers. The first is based in Delhi and reads mostly in English but is equally at home in Hindi or Panjabi, and presents him with the same issues as Maureen Freely’s putative reader above, i.e. whether to translate Hindi words which the reader would not translate in everyday speech. The other reader is based in Chicago but has a personal knowledge of and interest in South Asian culture. In thinking about which reader to address, the translator must consider political and commercial implications including which choice will lead to bigger sales, and which will advance the source culture. Grunebaum attempts to address both readers and demonstrates this with various examples.  

There follows a related pair of articles: Haruki Murakami on the translator as novelist, translated by Ted Goossen, and Ted Goossen on translating Murakami. Murakami’s engaging essay discusses the translation of classic literature, in particular The Great Gatsby, starting the issue of prior translations. He argues that translations have a “best before” date, and contextualises the seminal novella whilst expounding his personal reasons for wanting to translate it. Here, too, we find a discussion of the strategy of leaving lexical items in the source language, in this case the phrase “old sport.”

Ted Goossen explains in his short article that translator/novelists are common in Japan, and that, partly as a consequence of this, translators have a higher status there than in most of the rest of the world, being considered as, if not more, important than the authors. Goossen observes that Scott Fitzgerald and Murakami have similar prose rhythms so Murakami is well placed to translate the classic work. He also comments that Murakami is only enabled to leave the phrase “old sport” in English because Japanese readers will have some knowledge of English language and culture, echoing the view of David Bellos. Goossen, on the other hand, as a translator of Murakami into English has no such luxury. “For English readers, it appears, books need to be dubbed, not subtitled” (186).

In his contribution, Lawrence Venuti asks whether cross-cultural understanding is possible in literary translation. He offers a critique of the translation strategy of Ezra Pound, who when translating archaic poetry, advocated using a “calculated recontextualisation” by choosing an analogous form in the source literature. Venuti goes on to offer a commentary on three translations of two poems by Jacopone da Todi, including his own translations, foregrounding the strategies influenced by the end purpose of the translations and the effect of these strategies.
Lastly, Clare Cavanagh on The Art of Losing: Polish Poetry and Translation brings us full circle to the stated aim of the book. Focusing on poetry, she equates the creative force that drives some people to write poetry with the impulse some people have to translate it. Arguing that losses and gains are intertwined and inevitably linked, she illustrates her points with two commentaries: the first on an English poem translated into Polish, the second on a Polish poem translated in the other direction. Both poems deal with loss, and Cavanagh uses her analysis to elaborate on loss and gain in the mechanics of translation, using examples to illustrate “lyric joy through apparent failure.”

The essays in this volume are thoughtful and engaging descriptions of a wide range of translators’ and scholars’ experiences, supported by the relevant translation theory, and are, for the most part, presented with plentiful examples which admirably illustrate the points being made in each case. This is a book which will appeal to both scholars and general readers alike and whose chapters strike a good balance between being academic and readable.

Lindsay Bywood, University College London