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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