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On Translation


The greatest theatrical, literary and musical works are magnetic - they continually attract reinterpretation and modernization. Mozart's 220 year old Don Giovanni has been updated with bra and panty clad choristers, Shakespeare's 400 year old A Midsummernight's Dream, with rock and roll. Aristophanes' plays have been slangified to Hell and back, and Dante's Commedia has turned up in every literary style from terza rima to no rima at all.


Which brings me to literary translators and that easy Italian pun, traduttore/traditore, by which the world knows us. Toss the term into Google and it turns up a web site that declares, "Translator, you're a traitor!"

True, no translation can reproduce the full vitality, power, subtlety and excitement of an original work. And true too, there are bad translations. But faulty as translations can be, imagine, if you can, a world in which the Bible had remained Hebrew and the New Testament Greek.


Most writers in foreign languages don't worry about treason. Dead writers, of course can't complain. But living writers without best selling clout, do not live in dread of being betrayed by a translator, particularly if the translation is going to be into English. Ask any translator into English, from any language, about the unsolicited manuscripts and appeals for translation he or she receives. Further, there is Booker Prize winner, Ismail Kadare, who writes in Albanian. His works are translated into French, then retranslated into English. When awarded the British prize in 2005, Kadare was asked to choose one or more translators to receive the ancillary L15,000 translator's prize. He named only David Bellos his "retranslator" from French to English. So much for treason squared. Most reviewers of translated books don't worry about treason, either. In fact they don't seem to know that translators exist. They rarely mention translators' names and generally report on translated books as if their texts were born in English. In fact book reviewers seem completely unaware that any but certain well marketed translations, a "new" Proust, Kafka, or Tolstoy were written in foreign languages. It is generally suggested to reviewers that a translated work ought to read "naturally and smoothly." While it is true that an English translation of a foreign work should read as if the author were a native speaker of English, this standard lulls reviewers into thinking that smoothly flowing prose is indicative of a "faithful" rendition of the foreign author's words. Yet without reading the original work, no reviewer can be sure that a translator has not gentrified or bowdlerized the original text. Writing in The Guardian, Adam Thirlwel cites "excellent translations" of Tolstoy's War and Peace by Constance Garnett Rosemary Edmonds, and Louise and Aylmer Maude. But the recent spate of new translations of the novel, have called the fidelity of these translations, particularly of Garnett's into question. We now know that while "sitting in the garden throwing off reams of her marvelous translations," Garnett was blithely discarding difficult passages, and cleaning up unsavory masculine dialogue. Yet it is her first rendering of the doings of the Rostov family that made them beloved to us, Each of us brings our personal values, backgrounds and tastes to every experience, including reading. It is not possible for all people to understand any particular text in the same way. Up in the higher echelons of culture, diverse judgments and reactions can seem amazingly and exasperatingly cockeyed. Tolstoy found Shakespeare's works, "insignificant and empty." Rebecca West found Tolstoy's intellect wanting. Vladimir Nabokov denounced Constance Garnett's Victorian versions of Tolstoy "a complete disaster." Yet he produced so literal a translation of Pushkin's Eugen Onegin that Edmund Wilson considered it devoid of poetry. We literary translators may be the only persons in the world who read a work with as much attention to each word, each punctuation mark, as the original author, but we too, bring our own values, tastes and backgrounds to a work. Like directors, actors, musicians, we start out with what we're given - notes on a staff, words on a page. When we discover passion, beauty, cosmic or comic pleasures in an unknown work; when we find grace, poetry, depths previously overlooked in a well known work, we feel not only a desire, but a responsibility to bring these to public attention. When I judged the Poggioli translation awards almost every manuscript submitted was begun by a translator armed with nothing more than faith in and love for the chosen material, and a dream of publication. The same is true of applicants to the National Endowment for the Arts, and other translation granting institutions. But while these awards and grants help subsidize worthwhile translation efforts, they do not guarantee publication. Publishers do not scan the list of award recipients to offer them contracts. Rather translators seeking publication of an unknown author must in their own time and at their own expense, undertake the tedious, expensive and frustrating activity of submitting their work to publishers. Letters go unanswered. Manuscripts are held for months, even years and may be altogether lost. "Translators, not publishers," says Esther Allen, director of the Columbia Translation Center, and herself a noted translator, "are the ones who keep on pushing until a project finally comes out in English." How long can that take? For my first published translation of a Massimo Bontempelli novel, I can personally attest to twenty years. Does my translation transmit Bontempelli's prose perfectly? Likely not to every Italian reader's satisfaction. But neither did I betray him. If his work proves interesting and important to future generations, there will be other translations to bring insights into his style, views, even vocabulary that I may have failed to bring to light. In the hundred and forty years of its existence War and Peace has been translated into English twelve times. It would be satisfying to think that with every new translation, every catching up with contemporary scholarship and contemporary speech, with renewed scrutiny of every word and thought in any writer's works, we come closer to a perfect and agreed upon understanding of their creators' message to us. But that doesn't happen. Not even the God's ten commandments have been that lucky!. So do we or don't we commit treason? We do not. As we have through the centuries, we uncover, interpret, and reinterpret to the best of our abilities, and as closely as two languages will permit, the work of brilliant, pedantic, hateful, loving, disturbing, soothing writers, poets and thinkers, so that readers, no matter how distant in time and space from them, can taste the wealth of their offerings. And that's what it is to you!


A version of this essay appeared in The Boston Globe