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Edith Grossman on translation

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Yale University Press launched its “Why X Matters” series in 2010, each volume designed to present “a concise argument for the continuing relevance of an important person or idea”. So far the series contains volumes on the US Constitution, architecture, poetry, the Dreyfus affair, the philosopher Hannah Arendt, and the religious thinker Reinhold Niebuhr. It also contains a volume on translation published in 2010 and written by the American literary translator Edith Grossman, who has translated such writers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes. Strangely, this concise book left me with the impression that Grossman was not so much answering the question as to why translation matters, but also and perhaps especially the question as to why translation matters to her. This is not a bad thing, however. On the contrary. It’s precisely because it does matter to her that she makes a convincing case for translation in general.

After a brief introduction in which she explains how she got into literary translation, the first chapter sketches a picture of the relations between writers, translators and readers and establishes the central importance of translation. The second chapter concentrates on her approach to translating Cervantes’s Don Quixote: how she dealt (or not, as the case may be) with the centuries of scholarship behind the novel, or with the temporal distance separating her from Cervantes’s world, or the number of English translations that have been produced over the centuries (I was surprised to see that there were only 20 or thereabouts). The third and final chapter focuses on her translations of poetry and the particular difficulties involved in this exercise.

The book ends somewhat surprisingly with a “personal list of important translations” which covers authors from ancient Greece to today: from Sophocles and Homer to Dante and Cervantes, from Nietzsche to Dostoevsky, and from Rilke to the ubiquitous W.G. Sebald. It’s a surprising addition to the book, since it reads a bit like a list of canonical works with a lot of gaps in it. It’s surprising also because it somehow seems strange to have so many classic works of literature categorized as “translations” (instead of as “classics”, say). But then that is precisely the point of this book: to make us realize how essential translation is, how central it is in our world, even when we take it for granted and fail to see it for what it’s worth.


Written by Patrick Lennon

December 11, 2011 at 11:55 pm

David Bellos on translation

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Published a few months ago, David Bellos’s Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything (Particular Books, 2011) has received what must be considerable attention for a book on translation, and what’s more, the attention has, to the best of my knowledge, been overwhelmingly positive.

In this book, Bellos – the translator of Georges Perec and Romain Gary among others, and a professor of literature at Princeton – sets out, neither to tell readers how to translate or how he translates nor to tell us what translation is, but to understand “what translation does“. His is a bold attempt to paint a big picture, he says, by exploring “the role of translation in cultural, social and human issues of many kinds”.

It is indeed, as the subtitle suggests somewhat vaguely, an ambitious book. Bellos discusses and occasionally quotes from a wide range of languages, so wide a range, in fact, that one wonders how many of these languages Bellos actually really knows and how in turn he can write about them and their translations if he does not: from French to Finnish, from Chinese to Hebrew, from German to Turkish, from Latin to Tok Pisin which, you’ll be happy to learn, is the lingua franca of Papua New Guinea. I, for one, would not feel comfortable discussing them second-hand.

Besides the vast range of languages, Bellos also covers a wide range of topics touching on translation, but also on language and communication more generally: from comic strips to film subtitles, from computer-aided translation to the translation of legalese, from literary translation to the translation of humour, from the translation of news to that of the Bible. And the list does not stop there.

The book has 32 chapters spread out over some 340 pages, which gives little room to develop any of these topics in any detail. And that’s very much part of the problem: by choosing to cover so much, Bellos ultimately fails to cover anything satisfactorily. Hence the feeling also that the book is generally anecdotal, and that Bellos is more concerned with telling little anecdotes or stories. And this in turn is a pity since many of the topics he touches on are interesting in themselves, but dealt with too superficially. And it’s also a pity because he has translated many books by Perec and Gary as well as Fred Vargas and Ismail Kadare (yes, from French, and not Albanian, into English – he has an interesting piece on what he calls the “Englishing of Kadare” at the Complete Review), and so surely something drawing on his own experience would have been more enlightening about translation as a whole.

Lastly, about the title: I kept thinking it must be some vague attempt at humour, a deliberately poor English translation of one or other expression in another language, although it couldn’t have been French (but that in turn was bizarre since he translates from French, so why would he choose another language?…). As it turns out, it’s an inside joke for fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, in which a “Babel fish” is apparently an artificial device put in one’s ear to provide instantaneous translations. So there you have it – although I don’t really see the point of choosing a device that practices interpretation for the title of a book on translation… Soit, as they say.

Written by Patrick Lennon

November 25, 2011 at 3:18 pm

E-Culture Fair 2011

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The second and last day of the 2011 edition of the E-Culture Fair took place today, 17 November, in the Ethias Arena in Hasselt in Flanders. Organized by BAM (Flemish institute for visual, audiovisual and media art), the Flanders Music Centre, the VAi (Flemish Architecture Institute), and the VTi (Flemish Theatre Institute) in collaboration with the Flemish government, the event focused on highlighting the increasing interconnectedness of the fields of culture, creativity, research and technology. In doing so, it offered visitors a glimpse of what the (very near) future will look like. I took care of the translations from Dutch into English of the introductory texts in the catalogue (pictured below) as well as some proofreading of material related to the fair.

Written by Patrick Lennon

November 17, 2011 at 11:47 pm

Nadja in French, and Nadja in English

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It is a well-known fact of course that something gets lost when you read a work in translation, but sometimes the loss can be greater than expected. Take André Breton’s Nadja, for instance. To the best of my knowledge, the only English translation available is the one by Richard Howard. It was initially published in 1960 and is still published today by, I think, at least two publishers: Penguin and Atlantic Books. The Penguin edition (pictured below right) dates from 1999 and includes an introduction by Mark Polizzotti. Howard’s translation, however, is of the first edition of Nadja, which was published in 1928, long before Breton brought out his second, revised edition in 1964. Strangely enough, this fact is not mentioned on the front or back covers of the Penguin edition, although Polizzotti does mention it in his introduction, albeit in a footnote. I haven’t ever read the two works closely, but the second edition notably includes an “avant-dire”, a preface of sorts, in which Breton evokes his use of photographic illustrations in the book, of which there are indeed more in the later edition.

Written by Patrick Lennon

November 8, 2011 at 11:58 pm

The Craft of Translation

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Edited by John Biguenet and Rainer Schulte, The Craft of Translation is a collection of essays on literary translation that covers a wide range of texts (theatre, fiction, poetry, epic) over a long period of time (from the eleventh to the twentieth centuries) and a no less vast range of countries (from South America to Japan).

The essays were all written by literary translators who have tackled major writers past and present, and although not all their names may be familiar, some at least are worth mentioning alongside some of the authors they have worked on: Gregory Rabassa – Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargos Llosa, Juan Goytisolo; Margaret Sayers Peden – Isabel Allende, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes; Donald Frame – Voltaire and Molière; William Weaver – Italo Calvino, Alberto Moravia, Primo Levi; Christopher Middleton – Goethe, Nietzsche, Robert Walser, Paul Celan; Edward Seidensticker – Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji.

The volume is interesting because it gives a quite detailed and well-illustrated overview of the translation process in practice. And indeed, despite the differences in genre and source language, the volume is quite coherent, since all these translators face a number of similar problems, such as how to convey the sounds of a particular language, or how to translate curses and oaths, or how to render local expression and idiom in English. The risks involved in collaborative translations are also evoked by one essayist, who notes that his Americanisms did not mix well with the Britishisms of his fellow translator. The question is also raised by a translator of poetry as to whether his voice should show or, on the contrary, be mute. This issue ties in with the question as to the extent to which the translator should retain a sense of differentness in his translation. Last but not least, the very issue of translatability is raised repeatedly: while one essayist calculates the relative feasibility of a translation before starting on a job, another suggests that the translation of a poem should always be followed by a blank page for the ideal translation, which, of course, always remains out of reach.

Published in 1989 by the University of Chicago Press in their series “Guides to Writing, Editing and Publishing”, this volume is labelled “Reference / Literary Criticism”, and quite rightly so. Indeed, it emerges clearly from these essays that these translators are engaged in literary interpretation that is far from superficial, and their readings of the original works can teach us much.

John Biguenet & Rainer Schulte's The Craft of Translation

Written by Patrick Lennon

October 31, 2011 at 11:16 pm

Christian Dotremont’s Salute to Denmark

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An exhibition on the work of the Belgian poet and artist Christian Dotremont (1922-1979) opens today, 28 October 2011, at the Carl-Henning Pedersen & Else Alfelts Museum in Herning, Denmark. Dotremont, one of the founders of Cobra and the driving force behind the group, was drawn to Denmark from a very young age and visited the country many times during his lifetime. He first went there in 1948 with the Danish painter Asger Jorn, with whom he created the first word-paintings. Dotremont would later create his famous logograms.

The exhibition runs until 26 February 2012. The catalogue, pictured below, includes my translations (from French) of the article “Dotremont in the Land of Nja” and of the biography. I also translated titles of his works and other short texts used in the exhibition.

J.M. Coetzee, writer and translator

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I think it’s fair to say that the (two-time) Booker Prize-winner and (one-time) Nobel Prize-winner J.M. Coetzee is better known for his novels and essays than for his translations. In fact, I’m not even really sure I knew that Coetzee had done some translations until I discovered one of these works quite by a chance in a second-hand bookshop some time ago.

The book in question is A Posthumous Confession, a translation – “from the Netherlandic”, readers are told – of  Een nagelaten bekentenis (1896), by the Dutch novelist Marcellus Emants (1848-1923). Coetzee’s translation was released in 1975 as volume 7 in the quaintly named “Library of Netherlandic Literature” edited by the no less quaintly named Egbert Krispyn and published by Twayne: Coetzee’s name is visible in the bottom right-hand corner of the front cover (pictured below left). By a strange coincidence, I see that the novel was reissued earlier this year by New York Review Books, with an introduction by Coetzee, dating, however, from the mid eighties (pictured below right).

A Posthumous Confession is not Coetzee’s only translation. He has also translated from Afrikaans The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Wilma Stockenström: it was first published by Jonathan Ball in Johannesburg in 1983 and by Faber in London in 1984. It was reissued by the South African publisher Human & Rousseau in March of last year. And in 2003, Coetzee brought out a volume of Dutch poetry, Landscape with Rowers: Poetry from the Netherlands, in a bilingual edition published by Princeton University Press.

For readers who are well acquainted with Coetzee’s fiction and who have enough knowledge of Dutch (and perhaps Afrikaans) to read these works in the original, it must be interesting to go over his translations to try to discover stylistic and perhaps thematic overlappings between his own work as a novelist and the works he chose to translate. Indeed, more so than in any other type of translation, here readers really are left wondering who they are in fact reading, whose voice it is they are listening to, whether that of the original author, or that of the translator.

Written by Patrick Lennon

October 18, 2011 at 9:53 pm