by Johannes Goransson on Dec.28, 2010
I either protest or zone out whenever the debate at translation-related events shifts to the topic of how marginalized translation and translators are. First of all, I don’t think it’s entirely true everywhere; there seems to be a lot of hunger for good translations of poetry in the small press community, in my experience. Secondly, not all publicity is good publicity.
Tonight NPR’s All Things Considered opened a series on collaboration in the arts. Lo and behold, the first installment was about translation. My interest was piqued, but I only set myself up for disappointment. First off, the story wasn’t about collaborative translation, as I anticipated, but about translation as a sort of collaboration between an author and a translator. (Interestingly, though, the authors given as examples were long dead.)
Edith Grossman, the first interviewee and translator of Don Quixote, articulated a very straightforward and uncomplicated connection between the text and its author:
When Edith Grossman translates a book, she begins to feel a closeness to the author who wrote it. “The more talented the writer, the more open the door is into his or her mind,” she explains. […] “I dearly love him,” she says. “I would love to have a meal with him, I’d love to have a couple of drinks with him, to sit and chat and talk about literature and all the other things you talk about with someone you are really very fond of.”
Later on, she did return to speaking about the text, only to revert back to fantasizing about her man Cervantes:
The key to unlocking what the author intended, says Grossman, can always be found in the text itself.
“The text brings you in,” she explains. “I think one of the things that happens when you read carefully is that you feel as if you are looking at the world through the eyes of someone else.”
Lydia Davis, the translator of Madame Bovary (and, perhaps more importantly, of Proust and Blanchot), begged to differ, although NPR’s Lynn Neary didn’t realize there were two conflicting views:
Like Grossman, translator Lydia Davis also says the text is paramount. “It’s usually been a partnership between me and the text, rather than me and the original author,” Davis says.
After a promising start, though, Davis reached for the most atrocious of translation clichés (and let me also point out Neary’s curious distrust of the translator who is also a writer):
Davis […] is also known for her own writing. But Davis doesn’t think a translator should ever impose his or her own style on the translation. “I think that’s a tremendous betrayal of the author,” Davis says. “And so I am very used to keeping myself well in the background, and speaking in the voice and in the manner — as much as I can — of the original author.”
How do we explain that a translator of Davis’ caliber is capable of spewing out such a hackneyed platitude? She even uses the B-word. In reality, and to her credit as a translator, what Davis says she’s doing and what she’s actually doing are two different things, as even a small excerpt can attest. This disconnect between theory and practice is all too common in the centuries-long metatalk on translation.
If nothing else, the conversation needs a third voice. Someone who not only understands the complex relationship between the author as a function of the text and the author as a physical person, but can also speak competently on issues currently debated in translation theory. Here’s Jen Hofer, whose recent translations include sexoPUROsexoVELOZ and Septiembre by Mexican poet Dolores Dorantes and lip wolf by Mexican poet Laura Solórzano. The following excerpts come from Hofer’s essay Suspension of Belief: Some Thoughts on Translation as Subversive Speech.
Jen Hofer on translation as a reflexive practice:
Translation is sunspots: what we are seeing (or hearing or reading) is the obstruction and the thing (the word and the idea of words) itself as set off — contoured — illuminated — by the obstruction. The obstruction is the snag in language that foreign syntax or vocabulary or construction creates — a little sunspot in an otherwise smooth field of light — the outlines of which heighten our awareness of the spot, our awareness of the sun. That small strangeness that throws both the foreign and the familiar into relief so we see the thing seen, and also see our sight, our process of apprehension and assimilation.
On the fallacy of neutral style:
Contemporary American English is too often polluted by a monological megalomaniacal English-only xenophobic imperialism that seeks to impose — via “shock and awe” or “enduring freedom” or “extreme rendition” — a language of hegemonically-defined totality on the rest of the world. This English needs to have its ears boxed. Literally, English needs to learn to hear differently. And thus to speak differently, to think differently, to act differently.
On translation as transformation and the importance of the reader:
This is, I believe, the only way to consider translation of any sort, and even the translation which is communication: the same phrases spoken in exactly the same words do not mean the same things in different contexts, sounded through different bodies, at different moments. Communication can only exist in the space between two bodies or fields, between two intentions: the intention to be understood, the intention to understand. It is an act of trust, and any kind of singularly top-down or one-way utterance cannot be communication, but is instead imposition: leaflets dropped from fighter jets to bombard the populace with “information,” no chance of response, no chance of conversation.