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On Translation II: The World and the Work

Esther Allen and Matthew Reynolds

On Translation I






In their continuing conversation about translation, Matthew Reynolds and Esther Allen discuss ways of thinking about the translator’s responsibilities, and the necessary negotiations with the languages and cultures within and between which a translator works.

Matthew Reynolds: The bipartite arrangement of the book (1. “The Translator in the World”; 2. “The Translator at Work”) suggests two ways of thinking about a translator’s effectiveness and responsibility. One way focuses on the effect that translation has on the receiving language and culture—whether it enriches and energises them. The other concentrates on the translator’s responsibility towards the source and the effect that translation might have on it (I was struck by Murakami’s remark—as translated by Ted Goossen—that “when a specific translation is imprinted too deeply on the minds of its readers for too long, it runs the risk of damaging the original”).

I can imagine arguing that these two sets of considerations are always in harmony: that when translators do the most justice to the source texts they also enrich the receiving cultures most effectively. But I can also imagine counter-arguments: somebody might say, for instance, that Browning’s Agamemnon of Aeschylus failed to enrich English as much as it might have done precisely because of Browning’s determination to be faithful to his source (according to his particular idea of fidelity). And yet I can conceive of objections to that view too. I wondered what you thought? Do the translator’s two commitments—to the receiving culture, and to the source—always harmonise? Or always conflict? Or is it sometimes one and sometimes the other? In which case, what makes the difference?

Esther Allen: That’s a marvellous question. And I’d say the answer is no: the translator’s two commitments, to target and to source, do not always harmonise. In his recent book The Pseudoscience Wars, Michael Grodin describes the 1946 translation of Russian agrobiologist Trofim Lysenko’s Heredity and its Variability by Theodosium Dobzhansky. Lysenko was an anti-Mendelian whose notions of environmentally acquired inheritance had become state-imposed dogma among Soviet biologists. Dobzhansky, a prominent figure in the history of evolutionary biology, had moved to the U.S. from Russia as a young man in 1927 and was concerned about the course subsequently taken by Soviet biology. In other words, Dobzhansky translated Lysenko precisely because Lysenko had it all wrong and Dobzhansky wanted to expose his theories to the wider world as a first step in defeating Soviet pseudo-science.

It reminds me of interpreters I used to see in action when I worked at the United Nations. Imagine being the interpreter for Muammar Gaddafi, Silvio Berlusconi, George Bush! You keep an absolute poker face and restate whatever the fearless leader is saying (though in the case of Bush it must often have been rather difficult to figure out what that might be). One of the primary factors helping you maintain that professionalism may well be your will to expose idiocies to an amused or appalled world. In that sense, translation is a form of citation, and we know that a simple citation can be the most damning weapon of all. One of our contributors, Eliot Weinberger, is celebrated for a series of articles published in the London Review of Books that consist almost entirely of citations from various Republican leaders and Bush Administration officials taken straight from the public record with almost no additional commentary. It’s very much the tactic of a translator: citation alone (or recontextualization, which amounts to the same thing) is statement enough.

Wrongheaded as allusions to it often are, the classic notion of a translator being a traitor—which another contributor, David Bellos, in his wonderful book Is That a Fish In Your Ear, traces back to a time when translators were literally slaves—contains a kernel of liberating truth. A translator’s primary allegiance is not necessarily to the source or the target. That’s why the political gesture of a translation is never identical to the political gesture of the original work; the two may be aligned but they may also be very much at odds, as in the cases I’ve mentioned earlier.

The essays in In Translation are mainly concerned with an ideal situation in which the translator has utmost respect for a source text and its culture and strives to be as ethical and skilled as he or she can be in the service of both that source and the target culture. Yet even in that situation, as I try to show in my contribution to the volume, translators have their own motives and their own will, which is both individual and structured by larger trends in the target culture. For example, no one could question Haruki Murakami’s enormous respect for and allegiance to the American authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Carver whom he translates with prolific energy. Yet what would Carver have made of the advertising banners for Murakami’s translation of one of his works that Ted Goossen once saw in the Kinokuniya bookstore in Shinjuku on which “Murakami’s name was placed above Carver’s and printed in larger characters”?

As your erudite and thought-provoking recent book{ The Poetry of Translation], in which I sense a spirit much akin to the one that motivated our anthology, points out, Browning’s Agamemnon of Aeschylus is a 19th-century counterpart to Nabokov’s Eugene Onegin, which seems to have been created to demonstrate that Pushkin’s “Encyclopedia of Russian life” cannot be translated. You note very tellingly that both authors reject even the word “translation”: while Browning claimed to “transcribe” the Agamemnon, Nabokov said he had “transposed” Onegin. (At a conference in Toronto this spring, a leading scholar of comparative literature spoke of “cross-cultural linguistic work”—and it took me a second to work out what he meant. Aversion to the term “translation” persists, apparently.) In Nikolai Gogol, Nabokov says outright that in order to read Gogol at all you must go to “the awful trouble of learning Russian.”

Shooing everyone off to Russian class is one way of maintaining allegiance to the source language; it may also be a way of reaffirming the unique superiority of one’s own reading. For of course even the dutiful soul who trots off to immerse himself in Russian is unlikely ever to bring to bear the depth of cultural resonance, the intimate, native connection to each word that Nabokov experienced when reading Gogol. In Translation advocates a different stance: rather than mourning the lost Gogol that only someone who’s studied Russian, or only a native speaker of Russian, or only Nabokov, or only one of Gogol’s own contemporaries, or only Gogol himself, could truly read, the essays in our book celebrate the Borgesian view that any literary work is a treasurehouse of potential latent meaning that is revealed in the endless process of its recreation by readers and translators across shifting historical and linguistic contexts.

Richard Sieburth’s account of translating the music of Maurice Scève’s dizains, as described in his contribution, “Ensemble discords”, quite superbly refutes the idea that a translation is irrelevant to anyone who can read the original. The skill and critical acumen in evidence in his translation and in the historic and artistic context that he establishes for it demonstrates that a translation can offer an interpretation, a reading and an understanding of a text that enhances its meaning even—perhaps especially—for those who are able to read the original. This is not news to anyone who’s studied classics, but it’s rather interesting to note just how far a number other fields in the humanities had until recently retreated from this view.

This series forms part of the Oxonian Review‘s special focus on Translation. This piece follows On Translation I: “On ne dit pas ‘de l’easy listeningand is followed by On Translation III: Nimrod’s Gibberish.

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.