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On Translation I: “On ne dit pas ‘de l’easy listening’”

Esther Allen and Matthew Reynolds

On Translation I






In a special series to mark the Oxonian Review’s focus on Translation, Esther Allen and Matthew Reynolds, two leading experts on translation, discuss the practice and the theories and debates which surround it. Their conversation was prompted by In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, a major new collection of essays co-edited by Allen, which brings together the perspectives of writers and translators including Haruki Murakami, Alice Kaplan, Peter Cole, Eliot Weinberger, Forrest Gander, Clare Cavanagh, David Bellos, and José Manuel Prieto.

In the first instalment, they discuss language and power—the drives of politics and advocacy that can lie behind translation, “foreignising” techniques, and whether English might be viewed as an inclusive language as well as a dominant one. And an intriguing new possibility emerges for the novels of Danielle Steele.

Matthew Reynolds: One focus of In Translation is the global dominance of English. “Today”, you write in the introduction,

the English-language translator occupies a particularly complex ethical position. To translate is to negotiate a fraught matrix of interactions. As a writer of the language of global power, the translator into English must remain ever aware of the power differential that tends to subsume cultural difference and subordinate it to a globally uniform, market-oriented monoculture […] At the same time, the failure to translate into English, the absence of translation, is clearly the most effective way of all to consolidate the global monoculture and exclude those who write and read in other languages.

In line with this emphasis, most of your contributors are translators into English. But a couple of them are not: Haruki Murakami, who is a prolific translator into Japanese as well as a distinguished novelist, and José Manuel Prieto, again a novelist, who translates from Russian into Spanish. Their contributions, you suggest, “invite further inquiry into cultures of translation that exist outside of English and may furnish alternate models for the further development of a translation culture within English.” I wondered if you might be willing to elaborate—or speculate—on what such alternatives might be? For example, do you think it is fair to say that the language-political commitments of a translator into another and less powerful language are likely to be the opposite of those of a translator into English? Do practices which, in translation into English, might be justified as “foreignising”, as “respectful of the other”, and as “introducing difference into the language” become means for increasing the dominance of English when the direction of translation is reversed? Or do you think it might be possible to arrive at an over-arching description of the ethics and politics of translation which can work in both situations?

Esther Allen: Though this only became clear to me after the essays we included were selected, there does appear to be consensus among several of our authors on a “foreignising” technique that consists in skilful incorporation of the original language—recourse to what Mikhael Bakhtin would call polyglossia. You’re very right to point out that there are a number of languages that view such polyglossia with alarm where English is concerned. I particularly enjoy the “Dire / Ne Pas Dire ” web page the Académie Française has created to keep French pure of les anglicismes ( Example: “On dit ‘de la musique de supermarché.’ On ne dit pas ‘de l’easy listening.’”

English has never much concerned itself with this sort of linguistic purity, and for good reason. I was initially mystified when I heard someone in Paris say, “Ce type-l√°, il est un people.” Then I got it: the association with a well known Anglophone celebrity magazine has made “people” come to signify celebrity or celebrity-oriented in France: la presse people is the tabloids, and les intellos gather to speak in concerned tones about la peoplisation of the media. As most linguists will tell you, meanings shift as words are adapted into new contexts and the real risk for any language lies in the cessation of this perpetual flux of transformation. A good part of English’s global force derives from its elasticity and inclusiveness, as the Académie Française would do well to note.

Maureen Freely’s illuminating contribution to our volume, “Misreading Orhan Pamuk”, tells of her arguments with Pamuk over including Turkish words “that an English speaker in Turkey would not think to translate […] words like börek, yali and meybane.” Pamuk fears this will render his work “ethnic” or “folkloric.” Meanwhile, börek is what I most often order at a favourite lunch spot in my neighbourhood in New York—and its owners are Israeli, not Turkish. Would it even occur to a translator from the Italian to render pizza as “cheese pie”? Globalisation means we live in a world of polyglossia and that’s nothing new. What’s different is that nowadays English is almost invariably an ingredient in that linguistic stew, wherever one might be. Translators from English aren’t going to alter that by purifying their translations of the language. Alice Kaplan’s essay memorably describes an impasse reached during the translation of her memoir French Lessons. Her French translator promised to make her “a real French girl”, when her book is precisely about a non-French person struggling to learn the language. In the end, the project was abandoned and Kaplan’s memoir has yet to appear in France.

As populations shift and intermingle, writers are increasingly likely to produce texts that are bilingual or multilingual. American English is strongly inflected with Spanish, which means, among other things, that U.S. Latino writers can and do intermingle both languages in their work to a substantial degree (as Forrest Gander notes in his essay on incorporating Spanish into English translations of Mexican poetry). One might imagine this would lead the translators who render U.S. Latino work into other languages, including Spanish, to maintain the internal polyglossia that is crucial to this entire body of writing; English’s status as the most common second language worldwide should make such an approach quite feasible. However, my Latino writer friends tell me that all too often their work is rendered in a linguistically homogenous way that defeats one of its most essential aims: to represent a multilingual world.

Still, your point is extremely pertinent: polyglossia means different things in different contexts. I’m told that nowadays in Holland, Germany and other Northern European countries, publishers will rush to bring out the translation well before a highly marketable English-language work appears in the original; once the English is out, people won’t buy the translation. Mastery of English is so widespread in some regions that one can imagine a future in which translations from English are deemed unnecessary and cease to exist. In that situation, I can readily imagine a translator adopting a radically domesticating approach, rendering a book into the most intimate, local forms of the target language, stripped of the slightest echo or trace of English—an approach that might make even a Danielle Steel novel interesting to read.

This series forms part of the Oxonian Review‘s special focus on Translation. This piece followed by On Translation II: The World and the Work.

Esther Allen has translated a number of books from Spanish and French including, most recently, José Manuel Prieto’s Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia. She is the editor of the International PEN/Institut Ramon Llull volume on translation and globalization To Be Translated or Not To Be (2007), and directed the Heim Translation Fund of PEN American Center for the first seven years of its existence. In 2006, the French government named her a Chevalier de l’ordre des arts et des lettres. She is an associate professor at Baruch College, City University of New York. She is co-editor, with Susan Bernofsky, of In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means (Columbia, 2013).

Matthew Reynolds teaches at St Anne’s College and in the English Faculty at the University of Oxford. He once laboured to revise an ageing translation of Manzoni’s I promessi sposi and felt he did more harm than good: his interest in translation has, since then, been more readerly than practical. His books of literary history, criticism and theory are The Realms of Verse 1830-1870, The Poetry of Translation: From Chaucer & Petrarch to Homer & Logue, and Likenesses: Translation, Illustration, Interpretation; his novels are Designs for a Happy Home and The World Was All Before Them. He co-ordinates New Grounds for Comparative Criticism, a research network based at Torch.