THE BLOG
06/28/2013 11:24 am ET | Updated Aug 28, 2013

When You Can't Read the Original, There's Always.... In Translation

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What (and how much) gets lost in translation? How does the translator operate the difficult task of rendering an author's words and stylistic choices into often completely different languages? How do politics, aesthetics and culture influence and affect translation? The answer to these and other fascinating questions are presented in this new anthology of diverse and enlightening essays by some of the world's leading writers and translators including Haruki Murakami, José Manuel Prieto, Eliot Weinberger, Peter Cole and David Bellos. Readers may be surprised to find out for example that translation has alternately been considered a sign of divine grace for its exactitude (as in the Greek biblical translation known as the Septuagint), or instead punishable by death for changes deemed to be unacceptable or sacrilegious. The Italian witticism "Traduttore, Traditore" ("Translator, traitor") sums up the historical view of translation as a subversive or treacherous practice.

The anthology is intelligently edited by Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky and also presents pieces on and literary history that will be of interest to the general reader as well. In one of her two essays here ("The Will to Translate: Four Episodes in a Local History of Global Cultural Exchange") Allen, a noted translator of Spanish and French and a tenured professor at Baruch College, ties in the history of English language translation of Latin American texts to President Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy in fascinating ways.

Allen's co-editor Susan Bernofsky, perhaps the world's most noted German-English translator also makes a sensible contribution with her essay on translating Walser: "Translation and the Art of Revision." In it, she reviews her own process of translation in some detail: Bernofsky admits to producing no less than four edits of any text. Maureen Freely's essay on translating Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk amidst threats from the so-called Turkish "deep state" is enlightening for the politics involved as well as the difficult linguistic choices she has made over the years. Perhaps the most playful read comes at the end of the anthology in the form of Clare Cavanagh's witty essay "The Art of Losing: Polish Poetry in Translation."

Cavanagh introduces Elizabeth Bishop's villanelle One Art and its translation or "re-creation" into Polish by her sometimes co-translator Stanislaw Baranscak as a starting point for an extended commentary on the necessary "losses" and creative metamorphoses that the translator must employ in order to create any noteworthy new text. Good translations it turns out are almost never entirely "faithful to the original" -- the whole art form can turn in fact on knowing instead when to move away from an original and seemingly immutable sentence structure or etymological choice -- it's the translator's own artistic license, one might say.

There's a little bit for everyone to enjoy when reading In Translation. If you have ever wondered exactly what a translator does beyond the obvious (i.e. translate): what choices he/she must make, how he or she chooses between one word form or phrasing rather than another, but also how translators often resolve (or not) often difficult relationships with editors, writers and even readers at times, then you are most likely to find this a most useful volume. Granted, these types of questions may not keep the average American up late at night, but they are fascinating nonetheless.


In Translation, Edited by Esther Allen and Susan Bernoksky, Columbia University Press, New York, 2013 is available at: here

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