Traduced With Abandon: Translation and its Malcontents

Mark Polizzotti

Vol. 33, 2011


Translation—Theory and Practice: A Historical Reader. Edited by Daniel Weissbort and Astradur Eysteinsson. Oxford University Press 2006. 649 pp. $75.00
Edith Grossman. Why Translation Matters. Yale University Press 2010. 135 pp. $24.00
Emily Apter. The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature. Princeton University Press 2006. 298 pp. $26.95
Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation. Edited by Sandra Bermann and Michael Wood. Princeton University Press 2005. 413 pp. $29.95
Leila Aboulela. The Translator. Black Cat/Grove Atlantic 1999. 203 pp. $12.00
Vladimir Nabokov. Verses and Versions: Three Centuries of Russian Poetry. Edited by Brian Boyd and Stanislav Shvabrin Harcourt 2008. 441 pp. $40.00.
Gregory Rabassa. If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents. New Directions 2006. 189 pp. $14.95.
Mary Ann Caws. Surprised in Translation. University of Chicago Press 2006. 145 pp. $25.00
The Translator as Writer. Edited by Susan Bassnett and Peter Bush. Continuum 2006. 228 pp. $49.95
Franz Kafka. Amerika (The Man Who Disappeared). Translated by Michael Hofmann. New Directions 2004. 218 pp. $13.95.
Franz Kafka. Amerika: The Missing Person. Translated by Mark Harman. Schocken 2008. 299 pp. $25.00.


1. Babel Babble

The Tower of Babel, Peter Bruegel the Elder, 1563, oil on panel.

Scratch a translator deep enough—“enough” being about the thickness of printer’s ink—and you’ll find a frustrated theorist yearning to breathe free. Put a group of them together and you’ll likely end up with a smackdown that could put the WWE to shame. The old joke about academia, that the competition is so fierce because the stakes are so low, would hardly be inappropriate here. And with the much-ballyhooed paucity of published translations, a situation made still more calamitous by the recent economic slump and not-so-recent downgrading of our literary culture, one’s friendly rivals at the local PEN don’t seem quite so friendly anymore.

Traditionally, the translator’s task has been defined as the self-effacing recreation of another’s text—the celebrated demonstration ad absurdum being Borges’s Pierre Menard and his word-for-word replica of Don Quixote. There are, of course, translations that have become famous as such, from FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát to Pound’s Cathay, and widely recognized translators, such as Ralph Manheim, William Weaver, Gregory Rabassa, and Richard Howard, their renown sometimes greater than the author’s, their name on the title page a kind of anti-caveat for the wary emptor. (I should state at the outset that this essay mainly concerns North America, and that “translation” is primarily shorthand for “literary translation into English.”) More often than not, however, toilers in the translation fields, however talented, remain hidden to all but the eagle-eyed few, silent and invisible and ready to serve, like footmen at a soirée.

But silence isn’t so easy to maintain, and translators aren’t as self-effacing as one might think. Recreating another’s text is less a matter of following the original line by line—replacing each word with its nearest equivalent like so many floor tiles—than of conveying what’s between those lines. Every seamless transition from one idiom, one cultural context, one set of historical and popular assumptions into another, each of those fluid descriptive passages and snatches of natural- sounding dialogue, is the product of many weighed choices, of phrasings discarded, reinstated, and discarded again. Making something look effortless is hard work. It takes only a mildly botched or flatfooted translation to demonstrate how much decision and, yes, art go into an inspired one. Good translators, like the good authors they render, approach their efforts with a healthy dose of creativity and reflection. And as shown by a recent spate of books on the subject—ranging from scholarly anthologies and academic treatises to translators’ memoirs, proof-in-the-pudding volumes of foreign verse, and even a novel—there’s more involved than just bilingualism and a cozy relationship with the thesaurus. While a translator will always have to confront the nitty-gritty of, say, suggesting gendered nouns in a language that has none, more often than not he also has to grapple with a number of methodological, philosophical, and even ethical choices—and that, so to speak, is where the polyglot thickens.


Let’s start with the knee-jerk assumption that a successful translation aims to reproduce in another tongue what a given author said in the original. The first problem lies in defining those terms. Is “what the author said” the literal meaning? The connotations? The effect on the reader? The cultural, linguistic, or historical associations? The sonority of the language? All of the above? And how does one convey such things, especially when leaping between what might be two very distant branches of the linguistic tree?

As these questions suggest, translation in the best sense, far from being a rote exercise, is a constantly shifting game of evaluating priorities, combing through available resources, and drawing, like a Method actor, upon one’s own experience in order to voice the original author’s utterances believably. There is no one-size-fits-all answer: In the same work, one might encounter passages in which technical precision is paramount, others that underscore the music of the prose, and still others in which the comedy or pathos turns on a culture-specific reference. The outcome often rests on the translator’s abilities to recognize and confront each of these on its own terms—on having a sufficiently stocked toolkit and knowing how to use it.

Needless to say, not all translations require dazzling feats of linguistic legerdemain. Some works slip fairly handily into another tongue, and in rare instances the translation might even sound better than the original—a celebrated example being Goethe’s reported preference for his own Faust in Gérard de Nerval’s French. But for most texts, even the ostensibly “simple” ones, a successful translation is the product of much trial and error. In some cases, the “target” language simply has no direct equivalent, either in vocabulary or in mindset, and the solution must be reached circuitously.

Choices of word and tone aren’t all of it, of course. More fundamental, in that it influences the entire nature of the translation, is the question of whether one should ultimately side with the original or with the sometimes conflicting needs of its foreign-language recreation. The ticklish issue of where to pledge one’s fidelity tends to split translators into two camps: on the one side, those who feel that the author’s meaning and form, her syntactical and idiomatic peculiarities, must be scrupulously respected, even if it means doing violence to the target language’s conventions; and on the other those who argue that the translation must produce an effect on its audience similar to that produced by the original, which sometimes requires deviating from it in order to preserve its spirit or “flavor.”

This dispute goes back virtually as far as translation itself. At the turn of the millennium, Horace was already enjoining translators “not [to] seek to render word for word.” (In 1648 Sir John Denham echoed the sentiment when he praised Fanshawe’s translation of Guarini’s Pastor Fido for not following “That servile path… / Of tracing word by word, and line by line.”) Conversely, five centuries later, Boethius placed “uncorrupted truth” firmly over “the grace of a beautiful style.” Further muddying the waters are the agendas of those who write, promote, or publish translations. The scholar, for whom a translation is mainly a crib, will insist on as literal a rendition as possible, stylistic niceties be damned. But others have had different priorities. The Romans, for instance, had no qualms about freely adapting Greek speeches to fit the norms of good Latin, since these were valued largely as models for their own oratory. In recent centuries, it was not uncommon for a translator offended by some passage to bowdlerize it, and nowadays publishers routinely airbrush anything deemed too foreign so as to make their books more audience-friendly.

The locus classicus of the literalness-versus-liberty debate, at least in the Western canon, is biblical translation. In the beginning was the Word, which then had to be adapted for the prevailing audience. What we might call the first mass-market translation was made in the third century B.C., from the Hebrew (itself translated from the Aramaic) into Koine Greek. It was known as the Septuagint because it had purportedly been written in seventy-two days by seventy-two translators, who, though working independently, produced identical texts—a proof of divine intervention that left the Septuagint enviably immune to criticism and competition for, appropriately enough, the next seven hundred years. Given its heavenly provenance, the Septuagint was considered even more authoritative than its source—a translator’s dream—and it was the Greek, rather than the Hebrew, that served as the basis for subsequent Vulgate adaptations.

Not until the fourth century A.D. was the first overt challenge posed to the Septuagint’s canonical stature, when the future St. Jerome (Eusebius Hieronymus) undertook a new Latin translation based on the Hebrew and Aramaic source texts, bypassing the Greek. Though a devout servant of Scripture, Jerome also understood the virtues of style, and his remarks on the subject would not seem out of place on a contemporary translator’s laptop:

It is difficult…to keep in the translation the grace of something well said in the original…If I translate word for word, it sounds absurd; if from necessity, I change something in the word-order or in the language, I am seen to abdicate the responsibility of a translator…The difficulty of the task is attested to by the fact that the inspired volumes produced by the Septuagint translators have not kept their flavor in Greek…[The] Sacred Scripture seemed so rough and uncouth that educated people, not knowing that it had been translated from the Hebrew, looked at the surface instead of the real meat and were put off by the unprepossessing clothing of its style rather than finding the beautiful body underneath.

Not surprisingly, Jerome’s version yielded a flavor quite different from what the flock had been used to; also not surprisingly, it soon awakened the suspicions of his fellow theologian Aurelius Augustinus (later St. Augustine), whose passion for ferreting out heresies suggests a medieval J. Edgar Hoover. Fearing a schism in the Faith, the future polemicist of City of God argued for maintaining strict orthodoxy based on a single, inalterable, unassailable document. “Honestly,” he wrote to Jerome, “I would rather you translate the Scriptures for us from the canonical texts which the seventy [sic] translators left us. For it will cause extreme difficulty if your translation is widely adopted: the Latin churches will then differ violently from the Greek churches.” Jerome approached translation with a poet’s ear; Augustine, with a bureaucrat’s eye. Their opposing stances make them, quite literally, the patron saints of an all-too-human debate that rages to this day.

Just how constant the terms of the debate have remained is made clear in Translation—Theory and Practice: A Historical Reader, edited by Daniel Weissbort and Astradur Eysteinsson. The book includes hundreds of statements by a Who’s Who of translation (including those just cited), arranged in chronological order from the early classical and biblical translators through to such twentieth century notables as Pound, Benjamin, Nabokov, Steiner, Rabassa, Hughes, and Heaney. Though a number of the editors’ contemporary choices smack of academic cronyism, Theory and Practice offers the most comprehensive overview available of the approaches translators have adopted from antiquity to the present—as well as a compelling illustration of the fact that “plus ça change…

Among other things, the book reveals the extent to which Jerome’s search for the “beautiful body” drew on a tradition already venerable in his time—that of Roman translations from Greek orators—and paved the way for later translators. One of his most illustrious followers, John Dryden, wrote in 1680, in a pronouncement now considered canonical:

[A] translator that would write with any force or spirit of an original must never dwell on the words of his author. He ought to possess himself entirely and perfectly comprehend the genius and sense of his author, the nature of the subject, and the terms of the art or subject treated of. And then he will express himself as justly, and with as much life, as if he wrote an original.

Dryden, himself something of a secular patron saint to translators (“When discussing the poet as translator, from time immemorial it has been the custom to start out by quoting Dryden,” Kenneth Rexroth started out his own discussion), is still considered by many the very model of rational good sense, for both his advocacy of empathetic flexibility and his caution to those who would read his guidelines as license to embroider. Nonetheless, many have taken issue with Dryden and his kind, such as the nineteenth-century critic R. H. Horne:

The only merit…in a translation is that of giving the words of an author in another language, as nearly by equivalents as possible…The instant a man says, “I will give the spirit of the author in the words that author would have used had he lived now, and written in this other language,” it is all over with the original. Translation, in such a case, becomes a mere cover for individual egotism and vanity.

Horne’s remarks fit into a controversy that came to a head in England shortly afterward, and that in many respects suggests the proverbial tempest in a teacup. Centering on rival translations of Homer by Matthew Arnold and the classics professor Francis W. Newman, it rehashed the same old debate over scholarly fidelity versus poetic effect, yet somehow managed to ignite a burning fervor in the literary circles of the day (those wacky Victorians). Still, what gives this particular tempest some import is not only that one can still hear echoes of it in contemporary translation theories but also that, at least in the Anglophone tradition, it helped lower the status of the translator in ways that make George Eliot’s dictum from that same period sound all too current: “A good translator is infinitely below the man who produces good original works,” she said (though she did magnanimously allow that he was “above the man who produces feeble original works”).


The root of the word translation, which first came into English usage in the twelfth century, means “to bear across,” specifically to carry a saint to heaven. So it is hardly surprising that the Bible should resurface time and again as the locus of conflict between, as the editors of Theory and Practice put it, “an attachment to Classical learning, which stresses intellectual flexibility, and the Judaeo-Christian emphasis on the unchanging law of God, embodied in a language which also cannot be changed.” In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther rendered the Bible into a radically simplified, “sweet and good” German that was accessible to the common man, but that for this very reason roused the ire of the Church fathers. The following century, King James I sponsored the renowned Authorized Version, which he intended as both stylistically beautiful, in the manner of Jerome, and, as Augustine had prescribed, authoritative enough to unite the Church under a single, standardized text—a new Septuagint, as it were.

Though the King James Bible has long been considered the gold standard of biblical diction and has had an incalculable effect on English language and letters, it is not without its detractors. As recently as 1995, the American academic Everett Fox explicitly rejected its verbal riches and produced a version directly based on the Hebrew that adheres strictly to the original’s syntax and eschews such “old friends” as Eve’s apple, and even the names Eve, Adam, and God (here called “YHWH”). Favoring exact word-for-word correspondences and “the particular rhetoric of the Hebrew” over the modern Anglophone reader’s enjoyment, Fox makes a virtue of unnatural phrasings, challenging his reader “to rethink what these ancient books are and what they mean.” Witness his version of the Tower of Babel (or “Bavel/Babble”) story: “Now all the earth was of one language and one set-of-words…They said, each man to his neighbor: Come-now! Let us bake bricks and let us burn them well-burnt!” Fox’s conceit is perhaps laudable, especially with regard to a work so familiar as to go unquestioned. But in consciously eschewing the seductions of the King James’s mellifluent prose, he subverts a primary aim of the Bible, as indeed of any religious manifesto: to attract adherents. As a reading experience, Fox’s Bible walks a fine line between intellectual challenge and distracting, even alienating, awkwardness, and all too often loses its balance. It’s as if we were being asked to experience God’s scrambling of human language even as we read about it.

The Babel episode, needless to say, is hardly an innocent choice, and indeed can be said to frame the entire translation debate. For God’s scattering of languages and peoples “over the face of all the earth,” while it effectively closes humanity’s doorway to the divine, simultaneously opens the window to a flowering of linguistic and cultural diversity that helps make life here below worth living. Like Baron Haussmann’s Paris boulevards, this diversity both forestalls the erecting of barricades that threaten vested authority and allows for an otherwise inconceivable circulation of ideas and sounds. Divine will and its subversion coexist in the same act of dispersal, and translation becomes both the bridge linking civilizations and a measure of the gulf separating them.

That the Bible continues to exert a linguistic fascination, despite its spiritual authority having lost much of its sheen, seems due to several facts. For one thing, unlike secular texts, it is virtually always read in translation. For another, the version in which one reads or hears the Bible as a child becomes a kind of de facto original, remaining so even when one grows old enough to know better. Finally, because many accept it as the divine Word, by a cognitive disconnect it becomes removed from notions of variant phrasings and external cultures. If there is a text that persistently transcends its own linguistic status, it is the Good Book—read, embraced, and followed even by those who abhor the very notion of multiculturalism and who look upon anything “foreign” with suspicion and contempt. The translator Edith Grossman, in her recent apologia Why Translation Matters, cites a Southern bumper sticker that captures all the unwitting humor of such an isolationist stance: “If English Was Good Enough For Jesus, It’s Good Enough For Me.”


2. Translation of Culture, Culture of Translation

Translation in the modern, humanistic sense began in the West around the fourteenth century, as the long-neglected classical tradition gained new currency. The first treatise on translation per se, and no doubt the first secular attempt to set ground rules for it, was The Way to Translate Well from One Language into Another (1540) by the French printer and scholar Étienne Dolet. Satisfied with neither the slavish literalness nor the freewheeling adaptation characteristic of medieval translations, Dolet identified five key “musts” for any worthy practitioner: a perfect understanding of the author’s original work, a thorough command of both source and target languages, avoidance of word-for-word transposition (“which demonstrates nothing but the translator’s ignorance”), accessible rather than obscure syntax, and a sense of style. All this seems fairly commonsensical and would probably be endorsed by most translators even today. Regardless, in 1546 Dolet was found guilty of heresy for a version of Plato that presumably followed these same precepts, and was hanged and burned at the stake—making him, as the academic James S. Holmes notes, both translation’s first theorist and its first martyr. (But hardly the last, as the senseless stabbing of Salman Rushdie’s Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi made all too plain.)

Some are threatened by the free dissemination of ideas that translation brings. Others, even with the best of intentions, enlist translation as a foot soldier in imperial campaigns of cultural expansion. When we acknowledge Shakespeare’s debt to Golding’s Ovid, or Keats’s to Chapman’s Homer, or George Bernard Shaw’s (or Katherine Mansfield’s, or Raymond Carver’s) to Constance Garnett’s Chekhov, we may intend to honor the original, but we’re also emphasizing its benefit to our culture. In antiquity, translators acted as scholarly merchants, importing intellectual goods from older cultures (such as the Bible and the Greek tragedies) to foster learning in their own. Even St. Jerome, the early proponent of liberalism in translation, believed that the “translator considers thought content a prisoner which he transplants into his own language with the prerogative of a conqueror.”

To some extent one is tempted to say, with a Gallic shrug, et alors? There’s nothing inherently wrong with diversifying one’s culture—indeed, without such dynamic interchanges, societies wither and die. Moreover, to the degree that it promotes cross-cultural understanding, translation can help make the alien Other less alien, help foster dialogue rather than the border-caulking discourse of hidebound protectionists. And examples abound of authors writing in “minor” languages who have reaped intellectual and financial rewards from having their works thrust into “major” ones.

But there is a more sinister side to this as well, explored in depth in two recent books, The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature by Emily Apter and Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation, edited by Sandra Bermann and Michael Wood. As Apter sees it, translation, while facilitating communication, can simultaneously act as an “agent of language extinction,” condemning “minority tongues to obsolescence, even as it fosters access to the cultural heritage of ‘small’ literatures.” In other words, in a kind of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” paradox, the more languages like English, Russian, or Chinese gain market share, partly through absorbing the productions of minority cultures like so many corporate acquisitions, the more these minority productions are threatened with irrelevance, forced to push their way onto the world stage via translation (which ultimately redefines and reshapes them) or else fall off the grid entirely. One need only think of the Celtic languages and the honorable though perhaps futile attempts to preserve them. Increasingly, the literature and folklore of such languages live on only through translation into mainstream tongues, while the original versions slowly die out or, as with Sanskrit, become the exclusive province of scholars.

What, you might ask, does all this have to do with the process of ferrying a work between linguistic shores? The answer, stemming from translation’s ability not only to unite but also to appropriate, is that our ever more interconnected societies demand unprecedented attention to both the benefits of and the ethical quandaries raised by cross-cultural (and cross-linguistic) exchange. As Bermann writes, “In a world where individual nation-states are increasingly enmeshed in financial and information networks, where multiple linguistic and national identities can inhabit a single state’s borders or exceed them in vast diasporas, where globalization has its serious—and often violent—discontents, and where terrorism and war transform distrust into destruction, language and translation play central, if often unacknowledged, roles.” Otherwise put, translation has become too serious a business to be left to dusty pedants and poets pondering their Grecian urns.

Indeed, just when you thought it was safe to read a translation without having to reenact the Punic War between strict adherence and stylistic charm, current generations of academics have revived the conflict in a meaner, harsher, more politicized form. For many of these theorists, translation into major Western languages is an act of aggression against the language (and culture) being translated. They often champion “foreignizing” translations that intentionally flout the conventions of the target language to retain those of the source. The translator Lawrence Venuti, one of the more outspoken proponents of this school, attacks the notion of fluency in translation as “a discursive sleight of hand” that imposes on the work such “English-language” values as “easy readability, transparent discourse, and the illusion of authorial presence.” For Venuti, “the violence of translation resides in its very purpose and activity: the reconstitution of the foreign text in accordance with values, beliefs and representations that pre-exist it in the target language…[ constituting] an imperialist appropriation of foreign cultures for domestic agendas.” To counter this, he plumps for an approach that accentuates cultural dissimilarities, doing “right abroad” by doing “wrong at home, deviating from native norms to stage an alien reading experience.

Venuti’s argument is that translation must not be used to homogenize other cultural viewpoints, which in itself is fair enough: There is something queasy-making about having to pledge allegiance to a language or culture that aggressively asserts its will to primacy, its desire to exclude those who won’t get with the lingo. But as with many polemics, this one wilts under its own heat. The problem lies not with fluid or intelligible translations per se, but rather with ones that pretend they aren’t translations at all, or that make changes dictated by the translator’s (or publisher’s, or audience’s) own biases when these are at odds with the author’s intent. There is a large middle ground between “naturalizing” a work so drastically that it becomes denatured and preserving its foreign flavor to the point of serving up gibberish. Imagining the sort of translation Venuti seems to favor, one can’t help thinking of that New Yorker cartoon in which a visibly woebegone translator asks his seething author, “Do you not be happy with me as the translator of the books of you?”

No doubt history is filled with examples of translators who have brought their cultural prejudices heavily to bear. Sometimes the work has suffered for it, as when, in the sixteenth century, Sir Thomas Elyot baldly omitted several passages of Isocrates, “partly for that it is strange from the experience or usage of this present time.” But on occasion these prejudices have yielded idiosyncratic masterpieces. The reputation of Edward FitzGerald, once celebrated for his Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, has suffered somewhat among contemporary translators for this oft-quoted comment: “It is an amusement to me to take what Liberties I like with these Persians, who (as I think) are not Poets enough to frighten one from such excursions, and who really do want a little Art to shape them.” But this sounds less smug when set alongside another of FitzGerald’s credos: “To keep Life in the Work (as Drama must) the Translator (however inferior to his Original) must re-cast that original into his own Likeness, more or less: the less like his original, so much the worse: but still, the live Dog better than the dead Lion.”

In other words, a translation endowed with the breath of life should be considered an independent literary creation, to be read on its own merits—a new creation based on another work rather than its pale shadow or exegesis. Naturally, there are fundamental differences between an original and its translation. The original derives from a particular sensibility, as well as a set of cultural and historical givens, which the translation can mimic but cannot replicate. Rather than seeking to enshrine this sensibility and these givens, the best translations recognize the original as a dynamic generator of a reading experience, which can be mirrored by a parallel reading experience—ideally just as satisfying—in another language and context.

To speak of my own work as a translator for a moment: My goal has always been to offer Anglophone readers the best representation of the work that I can, retaining the quirks and personality of the original but also making sure the translation affords literary pleasure in English—even if it sometimes means deviating from the strict confines of that original. This does not mean trampling heedlessly over the foreign author’s work, imposing my own tastes and preferences, nor does it mean (as certain academic critics might say) shoehorning it into my culture’s values and expectations. What it does mean is being sufficiently attuned to each nuance to divine where the author was trying to go, and even to make the necessary course adjustments when—in my estimation—he or she drifted. “The worst mistake a translator can commit,” warns William Weaver, “is to reassure himself by saying ‘that’s what it says in the original,’ and renouncing the struggle to do his best.” To present a work as appropriately as possible, to reveal “the beautiful body underneath,” takes sensitivity, empathy, attentiveness, and tact. But it also takes the conviction that one’s translation is worth judging on its own merits (and flaws), that it includes a certain number of those moments of pure, intuitive brilliance that constitute the joys of literature.

No doubt such an attitude will provoke indignant guffaws from those who value above all the writer’s individuality, the unique ideas expressed, the new emotions wrenched from the reader, the unprecedented social and political aperçus. How, one might ask, can I possibly equate inventing characters out of thin air, or weaving together strands of plot, or composing verses sweeter than honey, with mere thesaurus-grubbing? This is a good question, and I don’t mean to overstate my case. It’s true that having to create something out of nothing is not among the translator’s tasks. Many take this as proof of the author’s superiority over the translator, but translators sometimes beg to differ. “The translator,” suggests Gregory Rabassa, “could be called the ideal writer because all he has to do is write; plot, theme, characters, and all the other essentials have already been provided, so he can just sit down and write his ass off.” With due respect to the creative impetus, the simple, tautological fact is that all writing is at bottom a function of language. Making the reader laugh or cry, and the way of making this happen, ultimately depends not only on the writer’s imagination but also, and perhaps even more, on his ability—be it deliberate or instinctive—to manipulate words and sounds. In that regard, the translator is up against the same challenges, and must bring to bear the same resources, as the author he is translating. In translating as in writing, our medium is words—words exotic or plain, common or recondite, that in their virtually infinite combinations form the mental pictures we see, the cadences we hear; that will or will not produce a replica of our thoughts that is accurate and, more importantly, convincing.


Any discussion of the ethics of translation necessarily includes the politics of publishing, and on this topic translators tend, for once, to be in consensus. While they may fight tooth and nail about methodology, with remarkably few exceptions they fall into lockstep on a set of basic complaints: Far too few translations are published in English (by current estimates, in the U.S. and U.K. only 2-3 % of the books published each year are translations); most editors are venal chaps who avoid translations like the plague because they’re perceived as poor sellers; when editors do publish translations, they tend to bowdlerize them and smooth out their difficulties to make them more marketable; among published translations, a disproportionate number are from prominent Western languages, while the rest get short shrift. As with any such charges, these contain their share of truth and exaggeration. The main Western European languages (French in particular) do account for the lion’s share of English-language translations, and the Anglophone publishing industry does tend to neglect what lies beyond its backyard. But there are editors who regularly publish translations, who combat the indifference or skepticism of their colleagues, and who labor to win these books the attention they deserve.

Then there are such toe-blasting proposals as Lawrence Venuti’s push for foreignization, which he deems “highly desirable today, a strategic intervention in the current state of world affairs.” Translations already suffer in this country from the assumption that their concerns, references, and form make them impenetrable to the American mind. Does Venuti really think offering up even less approachable translations will help? Even leaving aside such twaddle, publishing translations is an uphill endeavor. The literary marketplace is as unpredictable as any other, and no one can really say why an Irène Némirovsky or an Umberto Eco, a Roberto Bolaño or a Stieg Larsson, breaks through and a (insert your favorite unread writer here) doesn’t, or why the long shot suddenly takes off while the surefire bestseller flops. The thrill and the danger of publishing is that one never knows in advance, and a good editor will launch each of her books into the world with the same level of hope, energy, and conviction, regardless of original language, even though most of them never recoup their costs, let alone make a profit. As the man said, publishing is a great way to wind up with a small fortune, provided you start with a large one.

As both a translator and a publisher committed to translations, I’d be delighted to see more translations published, and to be offered more books to translate. But I also have to recognize that many foreign works proposed for translation, including many that do find their way into print, don’t merit the effort. Granted, one man’s meat is another man’s pablum, but as a reader I’m probably as close to the target demographic as any editor could wish, and even I find it hard to get excited about most of the offerings—so just try foisting them on your average Nora Roberts or Dan Brown fan (though arguably The Da Vinci Code wouldn’t exist without The Name of the Rose, English version). Which is why complaints about the crass mercantilism of publishers, or about hegemonic imperatives proscribing certain languages from translation, often have a whiff of the ivory tower about them. You can translate all the proscribed languages you like: The biggest obstacle is not government pressure or editorial spinelessness, but a lack of reader interest, coupled with an ever-dwindling stockpile of reviews that would ignite that interest. And before we condemn too shrilly the intellectual lethargy of John Q. Reading-Public, we translators and culturati would do well to heal ourselves. Some years ago, at an American Literary Translators’ Association colloquium, I asked how many in the audience had purchased a translated book in the past year; a very small percentage of hands (2–3 %?) shot up.

To continue playing devil’s advocate, I would add that many of the pro-translation panels and other boosting efforts, however well-intentioned, give off the sense that reading foreign literature is not so much a pleasure as a duty, something good for you like medicine, and just as foul-tasting. There is an unpleasantly preachy tone to many arguments for translation from “strange” cultures. “Little could be more relevant to the United States or to other nations in the contemporary world than the range of texts in need of translation,” writes Sandra Bermann. “More and better translations of non-English texts could, for instance, clearly help the Anglo-American reader to engage literary worlds and historical cultures that are not her own.” Yes, but who said the reader wants to engage? And what makes these texts purportedly in “need of translation” more relevant to even a reasonably cultured American than professional, personal, and financial pressures, or than the plethora of other cultural events vying for her attention? Similarly, Edith Grossman states flat out that “publishing houses in the United States and the United Kingdom have an ethical and cultural responsibility to foster literature in translation.” A responsibility to whom? Such admonitions generally fall on closed ears because they carry an undertone of street-corner proselytizing, anathema even to sympathetic listeners, and because they fail to address the deeply ingrained streak of insularity in the American makeup. Because of this insularity, it is all too easy for the public at large, and the critical and publishing establishment in its wake, to dismiss non-English books, even beautifully translated, as “too foreign,” “too cold,” “too hot,” “too other.” Simply ignoring this fact or raging against it won’t make it go away.

This otherness lies at the heart of Leila Aboulela’s novel The Translator, which serves as a case study in how cultural assumptions can give even open-minded readers pause. Though written in English, it shares many of the unfamiliar characteristics often ascribed to translated novels. The heroine, Sammar, like the author a Sudanese Muslim, works as an Arabic translator at a university in Scotland, notably for a Scottish Islamist named Rae. As Sammar and Rae pass from friendship to love, a conflict arises between her devout faith and his agnosticism: Rae admires Islam intellectually but refuses to embrace it spiritually. Sammar, losing hope, returns to Sudan to start a new life. So far, this is only a slightly different spin on the familiar topos of true love’s course never running smooth. But where a Western author might conclude with the protagonists learning to overcome their differences or sadly parting, Aboulela ends The Translator with Rae converting to Islam and moving to Sudan to marry Sammar. “The rush of this new knowledge, the feeling of being lifted up…For she was being honoured now, she was being rewarded. All alone, a miracle for no one else to acknowledge but her.” Rather than the language, it is the novel’s underlying assumptions—the unquestioned rightness of Rae’s decision; the equation of the West with the past and Islam with the future (“The hotel was Parnassus32.qxp:Parnassus 32 4/14/11 10:33 AM Page 18 Traduced with Abandon • 19 built by the British in colonial times. It once glittered and ruled. Now it was a crumbling sleepy place, tolerant of rats and with showers that didn’t work”)—that mark it as foreign, a kind of translation within its own source text, an incursion of disparity into the Green Zone of English prose. Perhaps the biggest giveaway is Sammar’s reflection, almost an aside, that “the difference between Western liberalism and Islam was that the centre of one was freedom and the other justice.” How does one even begin to bridge such a fundamental divide?

One could object, with some justification, that a great work transcends these disparities: To paraphrase the ad for Levy’s rye bread, you don’t have to be Jewish—or Czech—to love Kafka. But can you love him as much? Culture is perhaps the hardest element to translate. Beyond any linguistic acrobatics the work requires or references demanding of explication, there are ambient givens that refuse to be ferried across. The American anthropologist Laura Bohannan faced such a situation when she tried to paraphrase Hamlet for a tribe of West African bush people. Convinced that “human nature is pretty much the same the whole world over,” Bohannan chose Hamlet as a reliable universal archetype. But at practically every sentence, her listeners interrupted with objections and interpolations wholly outside her frame of reference:

“Polonius [Bohannan narrates] insisted that Hamlet was mad because he had been forbidden to see Ophelia, whom he loved.”

“Why,” inquired a bewildered voice, “should anyone bewitch Hamlet on that account?”

“Bewitch him?”

“Yes, only witchcraft can make anyone mad”…

“Laertes [she later resumes] came back for his father’s funeral. The great chief told him Hamlet had killed Polonius. Laertes swore to kill Hamlet because of this, and because his sister Ophelia, hearing her father had been killed by the man she loved, went mad and drowned in the river.”

“Have you already forgotten what we told you?” The old man was reproachful. “One cannot take vengeance on a madman; Hamlet killed Polonius in his madness. As for the girl, she not only went mad, she was drowned. Only witches can make people drown. Water itself can’t hurt anything. It is merely something one drinks and bathes in…[Laertes therefore] killed his sister by witchcraft, drowning her so he could secretly sell her body to the witches.”

Finally, losing patience with Bohannan’s “errors,” the tribal elder takes over the narration altogether, concluding, “Sometime you must tell us some more stories of your country. We, who are elders, will instruct you in their true meaning, so that when you return to your own land your elders will see that you have not been sitting in the bush, but among those who know things and who have taught you wisdom.”

“Culture” is of course a catchall term, signifying not a uniform entity but a multitude of experiences. And words resonate differently from one country to the next. “Dog,” in whichever language, signifies Canis familiaris, but associatively the dog means something different to an Englishman, a Frenchman, and a Chinese. Gregory Rabassa has remarked that if you ask a New Yorker what kind of bug Gregor Samsa metamorphosed into, “the inevitable answer will be a giant cockroach, the insect of record in his city,” even though Kafka’s term, Ungeziefer, means simply “vermin.” Similarly, the Russian translator Richard Lourie laments that the term “communal apartment” in English “conjures up an image of a Berkeley, California kitchen, where hippies with headbands are cooking brown rice, whereas the Russian term [kommunalka] evokes a series of vast brown rooms with a family living in each, sharing a small kitchen where the atmosphere is dense with everything that cannot be said.” And sometimes the miscommunication goes beyond speech. Nation, Language, and Ethics tells of an American professor in Japan who believed from his colleagues’ comments that they had just settled a campus strike, only to realize later that the opposite was true. “You understood all the words correctly,” he was told, “but you did not understand the silences between them.”


3. Verse and Controverse

If the Bible provided scholarly translation with the primary battleground for its holy wars, the bone of contention among humanists has long been poetry. Poetry—precisely “what is lost in translation,” according to Robert Frost’s pithy, much-quoted, overly simplistic gibe—remains for many the ultimate test of a translator’s mettle, not only because its technical features and concision leave little room for error, but also because the genre has long held an unassailable position at the crest of the literary hill. (Until the seventeenth century, those spoiling for a fight about translation had as their choices the sacred texts or classical poetry; literary prose in the modern sense barely existed, and in any case was strictly infra dig.)

For many poets, especially formalists, translation is the great bane: They dread that some clunky wordsmith will either run roughshod over their meter and rhyme or else adhere to them so doggedly that the airborne original becomes a leaden, earthbound thing. “The prose writer, the novelist, the philosopher, can be translated, and often are, without too much damage,” Paul Valéry advanced rather snottily, but “a true poet is strictly untranslatable.” Anna Akhmatova put it more ghoulishly: “For a poet, translating is like devouring one’s own brains.” And yet it has often been poets themselves who have produced the most beautiful and enduring translations, in some cases ones so intensely personal as to break through the constraints that would limit them. “The great translations,” observed Kenneth Rexroth, “survive into our time because…the translator’s act of identification was so complete that he spoke with the veridical force of his own utterance, conscious of communicating directly to his own audience.” Such translations soar beyond strict considerations of form—considerations that have long dominated the debate over whether poetry is or is not translatable, and that ultimately mire it in technicalities.

In 1992, the scholar Douglas Robinson, reaching back to the ur-debate between saints, traced out two distinct lineages: one “impersonal, perfectionist, and systematic,” descended from Augustine, the other a series of “mavericks,” such as Pound, Robert Lowell, and Nabokov, descended from Jerome. As Robinson noted, “one of the great temptations of mainstream Western translatology” has been to eliminate these “quirky, crotchety hotheads” from the gene pool. Pound in particular has long been a target, above all for his versions of classical Chinese poems in Cathay. The fact that Pound knew “less than nothing of Chinese” (in the words of Rexroth, who nevertheless deemed Cathay his finest work), and relied instead on Ernest Fenollosa’s notes and his own instincts, has drawn scornful harrumphs from a century’s worth of professors, but no doubt it also accounts in large part for the moving delicacy of his renderings. Pound himself made no claim to fidelity—we are, after all, talking about the man who named a Confucian protagonist “Hep-Cat Chung” and gave Sextus Propertius a Frigidaire—preferring instead to concentrate not on “what a man sez, but wot he means.” Let the pedants yowl: Many are they who feel he captured the spirit of Li Po and Confucius far more closely and gracefully than the rows of scholars hewing to their ideograms.

Equally controversial is Lowell’s Imitations, a book that has been dividing people since its publication fifty years ago. Stating from the outset that he has “dropped lines, moved lines, moved stanzas, changed images and altered meter and intent,” Lowell defends his approach to translation on the grounds that what he calls the more “reliable” method “gets the literal meaning but misses the tone, and…in poetry tone is of course everything.”

As it happens, both poets had a go at Rimbaud’s “Au cabaret vert,” and it is interesting to compare the results. In a more literal version (by Wallace Fowlie, whose translations epitomize the “reliable” sort Lowell kicks against), the poem reads:

For a week my boots had been torn

By the pebbles on the roads. I was getting into Charleroi.

—At the Cabaret-Vert: I asked for bread

And butter, and for ham that would be half chilled.


Happy, I stretched out my legs under the green

Table. I looked at the very naïve subjects

Of the wallpaper.—And it was lovely,

When the girl with huge tits and lively eyes,


—She’s not one to be afraid of a kiss!—

Laughing brought me bread and butter,

Warm ham, in a colored plate…

Lowell, less concerned with scene-setting than with Rimbaud’s youthful bravado—his tone—strikes a more casual note by introducing bits of slang not found in the original:

For eight days I had been knocking my boots

on the road stones. I was entering Charleroi.

At the Green Cabaret, I called for ham,

half cold, and a large helping of tartines.


Happy, I kicked my shoes off, cooled my feet

under the table, green like the room, and laughed

at the naïve Belgian pictures on the wall.

But it was terrific when the house-girl


with her earth-mother tits and come-on eyes—

no Snow Queen having cat-fits at a kiss—

brought me tarts and ham on a colored plate…

Pound, finally, emphasizes Rimbaud’s teenage impatience by stripping the poem to its essentials, while nonetheless preserving flashes of a rhyme scheme:

Wearing out my shoes, 8th day

On the bad roads, I got into Charleroi.

Bread, butter, at the Green Cabaret

And the ham half cold.


Got my legs stretched out

And was looking at the simple tapestries,

Very nice when the gal with the big bubs

And lively eyes,


Not one to be scared of a kiss and more,

Brought the butter and bread with a grin

And the luke-warm ham on a colored plate…

By shedding syllables like so much scurf, Pound’s version stresses the sense of urgency, even in repose, that characterizes Rimbaud’s road songs. The language here is reduced almost to shorthand—a far cry from the original’s alexandrines, and yet appropriate: If Rimbaud were alive today, he might very well write rock songs (think Jim Carroll or Patti Smith) instead of sonnets.

But is it translation? At the other end of the spectrum waits the glowering visage of the self-styled “Vladimir Adamant Nabokov,” the dean of non-deviationists, swishing his Augustinian hick’ry stick at rascally Hieronymites like Pound and Lowell. “We must dismiss, once and for all the conventional notion that a translation ‘should read smoothly’ and ‘should not sound like a translation,’” he wrote in 1958. “In point of fact, any translation that does not sound like a translation is bound to be inexact upon inspection; while, on the other hand, the only virtue of a good translation is faithfulness and completeness.” In his poem “On Translating ‘Eugene Onegin’,” Nabokov skewered “this pathetic business of translating”:

What is translation? On a platter

A poet’s pale and glaring head,

A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter,

And profanation of the dead…

He then went on to identify the three deadly sins of translation: ignorance, omission, and, worst of all, “vilely beautifying” a masterpiece to suit public taste—“a crime, to be punished by the stocks, as plagiarists were in the shoebuckle days.”

Nabokov’s reputation as modern translation’s most stiff-necked schoolmarm was not earned lightly, and rests on such inflexible pronouncements as “The clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase” and “I want translations with copious footnotes, footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers to the top of this or that page so as to leave only the gleam of one textual line between commentary and eternity.” These prescriptions and proscriptions were published in 1955, as a preamble to Nabokov’s translation of Eugene Onegin, the “greatest poem in the Russian language,” on which he labored for decades and which he eventually published in 1964 (with a revised edition following in 1975) in no fewer than four volumes, including twelve hundred pages of commentary. (With characteristic brilliance, Nabokov lampooned his own approach in the concurrently written Pale Fire.) His foreword seems designed to scare off those looking for a smooth, easy read: “To my ideal of literalism I sacrificed everything (elegance, euphony, clarity, good taste, modern usage, and even grammar) that the dainty mimic prizes higher than truth.”

Yet his stance was not always so pugnacious, and it is a kinder, gentler Nabokov who peeps out of Verses and Versions, a new anthology of his poetry translations. Nabokov had, in fact, produced many rhymed and metered translations until the 1950s—when, perhaps not coincidentally, he stopped writing prose in Russian and switched to English. Among the pleasures of Verses and Versions, ironically enough, is a partial early translation of Onegin from 1945, in which Nabokov indulged in the same “crimes” that he would later prosecute so acidly:

Diana’s bosom, Flora’s dimple

are very charming, I agree—

but there’s a greater charm, less simple,

—the instep of Terpsichore.

By prophesying to the eye

a prize with which no prize can vie

‘tis a fair token and a snare

for swarms of daydreams…

By the time he published his final version of Onegin thirty years later, he had recast the same passage as:

Diana’s bosom, Flora’s cheeks,

are charming, dear friends!

However, the little foot of Terpsichore

is for me in some way more charming.

By prophesying to the gaze

an unpriced recompense,

with token beauty it attracts

the willful swarm of longings…

Nabokov justified this sea change on the grounds that Pushkin’s rhyme, rhythm, and allusions can be brought over only by means of the most exact transcription, buttressed with copious annotations. As a result, his revised Onegin offers less an artistic experience than a “Tell, don’t show” exercise. Not only has this version been bleached of its earlier cousin’s élan and been made to sound more like an afterdinner speech than a great Russian epic, but there seems to be little gained by way of “completeness of meaning,” the putative reason for such sacrifices. What Nabokov does afford, with his painstaking annotations, is a deeper understanding of Pushkin’s creative process. But what we lose in this translation is, precisely, the poetry.


4. Field Notes

Every translator’s story about getting into the business seems to involve some measure of serendipity, and mine is no exception. Thirty-odd years ago, a set of improbable circumstances placed me a mere whiskey’s breadth from the French novelist Maurice Roche. I was seventeen at the time, faking my way through university courses in Paris. Roche was around fifty, a well-known figure associated with the fashionable Tel Quel group, which included some of the day’s most hotly discussed writers. His latest novel, CodeX, had been on the syllabus of one of my courses. Roche himself had just addressed the class, and now here I was face-to-face with him, a Real Live Author.

For those too young to remember, Tel Quel was a journal that more or less dominated French intellectual life in the Sixties and Seventies. Its editors included Philippe Sollers, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, and especially Roland Barthes, who at the time was France’s leading public thinker. The books published under the journal’s eponymous imprint—mainly theory or fiction, and often a mix of the two—were known to be difficult, written in deliberately challenging language. They even looked intimidating, uniformly issued in stark white covers with a sober brown border. Buying one of them made you feel like you were committing an obscure revolutionary act or somehow breaking the law; it was as if you needed to give the store clerk the secret handshake and smuggle the volatile tome out under your coat. Then again, at seventeen I tended to romanticize these things.

CodeX fully justified my sense of exhilaration and trepidation. Its concatenation of word games, cultural arcana, pictograms, references to everything from Rabelais to Joyce to recent headlines, foreign words, portmanteau words, invented words, and typographical hi jinks was enough to give you vertigo, and pushed the limits of reader tolerance. Some sentences had words superimposed, causing them to bifurcate (as in the example below). An entire section of the novel was based on Mozart’s Requiem, with the Latin text transposed into French words that sounded the same but created their own, separate, comic narrative. I was no babe in the avant-garde woods, but I hadn’t a clue what to make of this. And as I dutifully struggled my way through Roche’s bewildering parade of puns, assonances, and triple- and quadruple-entendres, I could only shake my head in wonder at how utterly untranslatable it all seemed. Yet here I was, sitting across a café table from the author following his class visit. The mutual friend who’d brought us there had gone to make a phone call, and I could think of no better ice-breaker than, “Gee, Mr. Roche, it sure would be interesting to translate your novel into English!” Instead of the expected silence or polite brush-off, my blurted offer was met with bright-eyed enthusiasm, and over the next two years I translated both CodeX (poorly) and (with a bit more success) Roche’s first novel, Compact.

What were some of these challenges? Here’s a sample from CodeX:

prenant son

Don Juan                  pied, troudbalisant en qué-quête d’absolu

au petit

—et levant le coude à la santé de veuve poignante:


(les queues en l’air sont pour la main droite)

This I gamely attempted to translate as follows:

steady on his

Don Juan                feet, groping about in cock-quest of the absolute

with cold

—and bending an elbow to the health of Miss Palmer:


(upright stems are played with the right hand)

If I wanted to go easy on myself, I’d say that enough of the meaning and wordplay come through to keep this from being a complete disaster. Still, dissatisfactions fester. “Steady on his feet” is not the same as “prenant son pied”—meaning both “to enjoy greatly” and “to come,” in the sexual sense—but I needed to preserve the shared final word. (Alternately, I could have gone with “getting his kicks” and tried to find another “kicks” expression for the bottom half.) “Veuve poignante” (“poignant widow”) is a play on both “veuve poignet” (literally, “the Widow Wrist,” slang for masturbation) and “la veuve” (slang for the guillotine); “Miss Palmer,” though it gets the hand in, relies on italics for an overtone of self-abuse. You get the picture.

Roche’s Compact posed a different set of challenges. The novel consists of seven distinct narratives, each assigned a specific typeface (bold, italic, small caps, etc.) that corresponds to a specific person (I, you, he, one, it) and a specific tense (past, present, future, conditional). These have then been hacked up and spliced together like bits of audiotape to form a new, composite narrative, even as each retains its own integrity and continuity. Which means that Compact can be read either straight through, following the interweaving strands as they occur, or one narrative at a time. I sometimes felt that I was dealing with one of those Tristan Tzara poems made out of random newspaper clippings, or one of the Beats’ cut-ups, except that I had to make each fragment match a corresponding one later in the text, while trying to convey Roche’s carefully orchestrated rhythm and syntax.

Because of how Compact is constructed, but also because of Roche’s love of wordplay, literary references, and so on, at times I had to adapt more than translate. For instance, the novel’s main protagonist is a blind man who lives in a garret and is prey to unwelcome visitors, including a young American woman whose speech is a mix of Anglicisms and the kind of heavily accented French that one hears in cafés throughout the Latin Quarter. Seeing no direct way to retain this effect, I turned the “Americaine” (pronounced à la Jean Seberg) into a “Frrrench girl,” her comic intonation and foreign mannerisms intact. Was this the best solution? All I can say is, it’s the one that made the most sense to me, based on my reading not only of the novel but also of Roche as a writer, of his sensibility, of the note he was trying to sound. I’m pleased to say that it found favor with various readers and reviewers, as well as with Roche himself. No doubt another translator would have arrived at a different solution. As so often, there is no right answer, only a series of choices to be made.


Two recent memoirs, If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents by Gregory Rabassa and Surprised in Translation by Mary Ann Caws, along with Grossman’s Why Translation Matters, seem to signal a change in attitude toward translation and translators: Whereas early volumes on the subject, such as Reuben A. Brower’s groundbreaking anthology On Translation (1959), often began with the question “Why a book on translation?” followed by a defense of their own validity, more recent books suffer no such qualms, and the fact that three professional translators can place their musings with mainstream publishers is a clear indicator that hardly anyone asks that question anymore.

Rabassa, whose translations of García Márquez, Cortázar, Vargas Llosa, and others helped to bring the Latin American “boom” to the U.S., is humorous and avuncular in tone. Where many of his fellows are reticent, he is forthright and almost swaggering in his claims for the importance of the translator. Despite his profound respect for his authors, he refuses to see himself as their subordinate; his assumed stance is that of collaborator if not co-author, one who grapples with the same materiality of language, the same problems of expression. And while If This Be Treason offers few guidelines for practicing translators, and fewer still for those who like to fold practice into theoretical origami (“I leave strategy to the theorists as I confine myself to tactics,” Rabassa writes), it provides at least the illusion of a close-up glimpse of a master at work.

I found especially fascinating his remarks on the famous opening of One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo” (“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice”). “There are variant possibilities,” Rabassa notes:

Había de could have been would (How much wood can a woodchuck chuck?), but I think was to has a better feeling to it. I chose remember over recall because I feel that it conveys a deeper memory. Remote might have aroused thoughts of such inappropriate things as remote control and robots. Also, I liked distant when used with time…The real problem for choice was with conocer and I have come to know that my selection has set a great many Professors Horrendo all aflutter…The word seen straight means to know a person or thing for the first time, to be familiar with something. What is happening here is a first-time meeting, or learning. It can also mean to know something more deeply than saber, to know from experience. García Márquez has used the Spanish word here with all its connotations. But to know ice just won’t do in English. It implies, “How do you do, ice?” It could be “to experience ice.” The first is foolish, the second is silly. When you get to know something for the first time, you’ve discovered it.

Reading these memoirs, as well as anthologies such as The Translator as Writer, edited by Susan Bassnett and Peter Bush, or Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet’s The Craft of Translation from 1989, one notices how often certain preoccupations recur. Many translators stress the endless temptation to keep revising, even after publication. Several insist on the importance of linguistic “compensation,” the notion that if an effect can’t be achieved where the original places it then it should be squeezed in somewhere else, while others bring up the unpredictable share of subjectivity that goes into any rendering. “On Thursday, translating Moravia, he may write ‘maybe,’” quips William Weaver, “and on Friday, translating Manzoni, he may write ‘perhaps.’” And though these books have their quota of wails and gnashing of teeth—translators, it seems, have always been a complaining lot—they also include many celebrations of the joy of engaging so intimately and creatively with an admired work.

Amid the thrills and spills are a number of practical questions as well. Should one read the source text before undertaking its translation? An incredulous “Of course!” might seem to be the only possible answer, and yet translators sometimes choose to approach their assignments like blind dates—Rabassa, for instance, openly confesses to giving books their first reading while translating them. Cavalier or lazy as it may seem, this approach has its benefits: While strolling about backstage can help interpret the play, it can also lessen the sense of surprise that comes with fresh discovery. Another question often raised: Is it a help or a hindrance to be friends with the author? Caws notes the delicacy of trying to disagree with her headstrong friend René Char when translating his poems, and Edmund Keeley recalls that while George Seferis scrupulously avoided meddling, “his sometimes heavy shadow was always behind us in our work, or so I felt. And just to remind us that his English wasn’t all that bad, the poet would occasionally send a postcard from his latest diplomatic outpost…correcting this or that mistranslation of a word or phrase.” In my case, most of the living authors I’ve translated have maintained a benevolent and trusting distance, available when needed but otherwise unobtrusive. The one instance when I did feel hampered was in translating Flaubert, whose ghost I could sense hovering over my shoulder, shaking his walrus moustache at my every mot injuste.

One question that comes up with surprising infrequency is that of source-language fluency. Needless to say, it is crucial to understand minutely what one is translating—otherwise, one might end up rendering (to borrow one of Nabokov’s examples) the phrase “bien-être général” not as “overall well-being” but as “it’s good to be a general.” But comfort with the source does not guarantee felicitous results in the target. We could fill barrels (to be then rolled off cliffs) with scholars who can identify every hue and shade of a foreign tongue yet lack the stylistic facility in their own to recreate these subtleties.

There are many examples to be cited, one of the more famous involving, once again, Homer, who has given the Bible a run for its money in generating such controversies. In the early 1700s, the classicist Richard Bentley dismissed Alexander Pope’s sprightly rendering of the Iliad with the oft-quoted putdown “a very pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer,” then proposed in its place a version so dust-dry that Homer himself would have gagged to death. More than a hundred years later, Dante Gabriel Rossetti defended translators such as Pope on the grounds that “literality of rendering is altogether secondary” and that “a good poem [must] not be turned into a bad one.” Yet while Pope’s translation, as Rossetti recognized, is clearly superior as literature, its virtues are not unimpeachable. The criteria of “good” or “bad” not only lie with the beholder but also change with the times. Pope’s Iliad suited an audience with a taste for flowery language and heroic couplets, but—much as I hate to credit a pedant like Bentley—I would wager that those who still read it today enjoy it less as a representation of Homer than as a prime example of Pope.

Which brings us to the periodic need for new translations. Time is the enemy of all perishable products, and books are no exception. As ages pass and literary fashions evolve, so too do readers’ expectations. Pope’s Homer has since been replaced by Lattimore’s, Fitzgerald’s, Fagles’s, and so on. We can still read Shakespeare’s sonnets in the language he used to write them, but to translate his contemporary Montaigne into that language would sound ludicrous (or like a pastiche of John Florio). The more time goes by, the further removed we become from the context of the original, and the more adaptation and annotation are required to bring it to life for a contemporary audience. By the same token, however, the more resources have accrued to the new translator, from hindsight to the latest research to precursors’ hits and misses. And in some instances the passage of years is necessary to fully reveal the original. One can argue that Rimbaud’s modernity didn’t fully emerge until the counterculture movement of the Sixties lent credence to his attitudes, and that recent translations capture his tone more convincingly than did, for instance, Louise Varèse’s in the Forties. Something similar can be said of Flaubert. In retranslating Bouvard and Pécuchet, I discovered the twenty-first-century quality of its prose and perspective, which seemed to me reflected in none of the previous versions. As someone living in a world where Beckett and Raymond Queneau, Jim Jarmusch and Seinfeld, are fixtures of the landscape, I found that Flaubert’s comic morality play, with its deadpan affect and cynical take on human motivations, was speaking in a thoroughly modern idiom. Accordingly, in establishing a voice for the book I decided to take my cue from the contemporary French novelist Jean Echenoz, whose work I’d previously translated and whose sensibility and tone seem to me much akin to Flaubert’s in general, and to the Flaubert of Bouvard and Pécuchet in particular.

Two new translations of Kafka’s unfinished novel Amerika, by Michael Hofmann and Mark Harman, take as their impetus the 1983 publication of the restored German manuscript. Both translations offer Anglophone readers the novel just as Kafka left it, before Max Brod did his posthumous tailoring, which was preserved by the first English translators, Willa and Edwin Muir. Both of these new versions also return to Kafka’s working title, Der Verschollene (rendered as The Man Who Disappeared by Hofmann and The Missing Person by Harman) and, as in the 1983 German edition, reinstate several unfinished passages. Finally, both seek to recreate the jaggedness of Kafka’s prose, his willed contrast between naturalness and theatricality—an effect particularly pronounced in Amerika, which concerns the Felliniesque misadventures in the New World of one Karl Rossmann. (These include, in fact, an episode in a vast, open-air “nature theater.”) There is a stagy stiffness to the narrative and the characters’ speech that leaves the translator caught between the desire to preserve and the danger of appearing inept. Following Brod’s lead, the Muirs airbrushed much of this stiffness out, along with Kafka’s unkempt syntax and factual slips, such as his mention of a bridge linking Manhattan not to Brooklyn but to Boston. They had their reasons, of course: Publishing their translation only fourteen years after Kafka’s death, they were seeking to introduce an author barely known to the English-speaking world, just as Brod had done for German readers a mere decade before. Hofmann and Harman, on the other hand, have the luxury of translating a writer who has since become among the world’s most famous, and this gives them the freedom to render Amerika with all its imperfections gloriously intact. Simply put, their Kafka no longer has anything to prove.

Still, there is something to be said for those older translations, however flawed, that have grafted themselves onto our experience of a given work through circumstance or ingrained familiarity, and that refuse to be shouldered aside even by younger, better-endowed contenders. E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman,” the tale of the student Nathanael’s fatal obsession with a doll and its maker, has spawned several English translations, but none so affecting in my view as a slightly ungainly version published in 1963 by Michael Bullock. Though dotted with awkward phrasings (“I say, Mama, who is this naughty Sandman who always drives us away from Papa?”), Bullock’s “Sandman” somehow brings home the horror and degradation of Nathanael’s infatuation with the lifeless Olympia, his dealings with the baneful Coppelius, and his ultimate dementia in a way that no other translation has managed. Similarly, despite its technically superior successors, I admit to a lingering fondness for the old Muir translation of Kafka’s The Trial (1937). “Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.” There are, no doubt, more natural and contemporary ways to express this: Recent translations have replaced the earlier verb with more natural-sounding synonyms such as “slandered” or “spread lies about.” But what could spell betrayal and defamation, in all their moral and legalistic obscenity, better than fusty old “traduced”? It just sounds more Kafkaesque. Such filaments, often unheeded by the reader, perhaps also by the translator, weave the matrix in which moments of magic flourish, lingering in the mind years after one encounters them, even after the rest of the work has darkened into forgetfulness.


In theory, there are reasons galore why translation is impossible, a pale shadow, “Cheate bread.” There will always be some transgression, some betrayal of the original text. The sixteenth-century Italian wag who coined the adage “traduttore, traditore” (“translator, traitor”) hit the mark more squarely than he knew, for his zinger loses much of its zing in translation. And yet among the most solid citizens of “our” literature—works that are now in our cultural bloodstream, regardless of national origin—quite a few arrived as immigrants. Translation might be impossible in principle, but in practice it seems to manage just fine.

I’ll admit that, as a translator myself, I have little patience with tortured theoretical objections, or with abstruse formulations seemingly designed to tickle the fancies of grad students, such as this assertion by James S. Holmes in his article “Describing Literary Translations”: “It is clear that the repertory must not only be quite complete, but also complex enough in structure to accommodate a number of parametric axes. Among these a major one, of course, is the axis microstructure-mesostructure-macrostructure (from grapheme/morpheme via lexeme, sentence, and suprasentential units to text)…” I also have little use for such whimsies as one scholar’s proposal that, for instance, the English noun “soul” be translated by the French adjective “soûl” (“drunk”)—an interesting Oulipian exercise but not much help to the reader—or for the self-congratulatory showboating of someone like Clive Scott. In The Translator as Writer, Scott has his way with Apollinaire’s unrequited-love poem “Annie,” the first two stanzas of which read in the original French as follows:

Sur la côte du Texas

Entre Mobile et Galveston il y a

Un grand jardin tout plein de roses

Il contient aussi une villa

Qui est une grande rose


Une femme se promène souvent

Dans le jardin toute seule

Et quand je passe sur la route bordée de tilleuls

Nous nous regardons…

Here’s a fairly straightforward translation:

On the Texas coast

Between Mobile and Galveston there is

A huge garden full of roses

And a villa therein

Which is a giant rose


Oftentime a woman walks

Through that garden on her own

And when I happen by on that linden-bordered street

Our eyes meet…

And here’s Scott’s version:


La mer,         


Comme tu tremblais!

Comme tu te serrais contre moi!

On aurait dit que tu me prenais pour un…

               Le transistor s’est arrêté.


M-O-B-I-L-E         and         Galvestonthere’s

a                              large                       garden

brimming with                  roses


a                          villa, too,             itself

a                                                      giantrose


a                          WomanWalks

Quite alone

saturday evening post saturday evening post saturday evening post

/ satur

and whenIpassbyon the limetreelinedroad WE

Look at each other…

Having “recourse…to a certain centrifugality of layout and to vertical syntagmatic decoys,” Scott proposes that his “halting, tentative” version performs “the existential predicament explored by the poem”—which is all well and good but, as Richard Bentley might have said, he must not call it Apollinaire. The fake intimacy of the interjected French lines, like the soundtrack of some PBS-standard foreign flick (replete with anachronistic transistor radio), clashes with the scene’s outside-looking-in wistfulness. Apart from which, the poem does quite enough existential soul- (or soûl-) searching without the typographical pyrotechnics, thank you very much.

This is not to say that translators should avoid imaginative leaps and stick to the grid. Far from it: The field is wide open, and there’s ample room for the translator’s personality to coexist, cohabit, even commingle with the author’s. I would even submit that this kind of fusion is necessary if the translation is to have any personality at all. In the best of cases, author and translator enter into a two-way engagement, conspiring to yield a translation with all the effect and staying power of the original. This engagement might take the form of literal collaboration, or might be purely imaginary: Kenneth Rexroth, discussing his translations of Sappho, speaks of “sympathy—the ability to project into Sappho’s experience and then to transmit it back into one’s own idiom with maximum viability.”

I recently translated Linda Lê’s The Three Fates, a French-language novel about Vietnamese expatriates by a French-Vietnamese woman I’ve never met and whose background and sensibility differ greatly from my own. (Nabokov would have disqualified me right off the bat on the grounds that a translator “should be of the same sex as his author.”) More than anything, I sought to recreate the sinuous, assonant, etymologically savvy, and very frayed nature of her language by letting myself be carried on its particular tone and rhythms, for in these lie the novel’s essence. Like other adoptive Francophones—Beckett and Ionesco come to mind—Lê approaches her new tongue as one might a beloved but curious object, twisting and turning it in all directions, admiring its contours but nonetheless wanting to see what happens when it gets wrenched out of shape. In translating her work, I was forced to do the same with my own language. As with Maurice Roche’s, but more subtly, Lê’s prose demanded active participation, which at times led me to adapt as much as recreate. In some passages, for example, she takes a common idiom—such as “feuille de choux,” referring to a cheap tabloid or “gutter rag”—and runs with it, stretching it out through pages of extended metaphor. For this, I tried to work the literal meaning of the expression, “cabbage leaf,” as naturally as possible into my translation, so that it could then be “planted,” “watered,” and “fertilized” as needed. To give another example, a cheap suit is described as being of a “couleur vite passée” (“quickly outdated color”). This I decided to translate as “colors that ran out of fashion,” emphasizing the tawdriness of the garment by suggesting its inability even to hold its tint. In still another passage, a rich tourist goes out on the town in Saigon with a female escort, characterized as “une fine liane,” a slender “climbing vine” or “creeper.” Both of these words convey perfectly well the slinky clinginess of the B-girl hanging onto her “Lord Jim,” but I opted instead for “liana,” which, though less common in English, has the lilting and humanizing sonority of a woman’s forename.

This is where intuition takes over from dictionary work, where individualism stakes its claim. The opposite of such idiosyncrasy—the ultimate in Augustinian conformity—is machine translation. Translation devices were initially conceived as aids to simultaneous interpretation—the first patent for one, based on an idea by the Boston department-store tycoon Edward Filene, was taken out in 1926—and gained prominence in 1945, when they were used at the Nuremberg trials. They were inevitably crude, capable of rendering legalistic formulas but deaf to all subtlety and subtext. More recently, however, researchers at several universities, most notably Cambridge, have come up with software and search engines capable of producing truly viable translations.

The dream of self-generating translation is an old one, and goes hand in hand with such Babel-reversing universal languages as Johann Martin Schleyer’s Volapük (1879) and Ludwig Zamenhof’s Esperanto (1887). In the 1950s, the linguist Anthony G. Oettinger, in a paper forbiddingly titled “Automatic (Transference, Translation, Remittance, Shunting),” predicted that machines would eventually relieve translators of their “tedious routine manual and mental labors,” and trumpeted the “mass-production…assembly line” benefits of such an approach. Nor would it be of use only in a technical or business context, for it would be alert to polysemy: Whenever it encountered a word with multiple meanings, it would group them in parentheses (as in Oettinger’s title) for the human operator to choose between. “An editor presented with the original text [of a novel] and a translated version prepared by an automatic dictionary would be free to devote his attention to historical and literary context, to nuance, to style,” Oettinger exults. “It would remain only to select, combine, and season to taste.” Translation Helper—just add water.

We fossils who preserve a quaint fondness for notions such as individual style can take heart from the fact that these gadgets remain unperfected. Not long ago, while working on a business translation project that involved editing a machine-produced draft, I routinely encountered such howlers as “fraise” rendered not as “drill bit,” as the passage required, but by the more common “strawberry”—as in “nails, screws, hinges, strawberries…” It would have been faster and more efficient to translate from scratch. More to the point, the incident illustrates why, when it comes to translation—as opposed to, say, chess—computers will have a hard time keeping up with humans for at least a little while longer. Perhaps the most encouraging such example, and the one most often pinned to translators’ bulletin boards, is the attempt by a Japanese computer some years ago to render the saying “Out of sight, out of mind.” With mechanical aplomb, it spat out what to its circuits must have seemed a perfectly sound analogue: “Confined to an insane asylum.”


AUTHOR’S NOTE: Portions of this essay were adapted from a lecture given at UCLA in January 2008. Other volumes consulted include On Translation, ed. Reuben A. Brower (1959), The Craft and Context of Translation, ed. William Arrowsmith and Roger Shattuck (1961), Robert Lowell’s Imitations (1961) and Ezra Pound’s Translations (1963), Kenneth Rexroth’s essays in World Outside the Window (1987), and the anthologies The Craft of Translation (1989) and Theories of Translation (1992), both ed. Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet.


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