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  • Why Translation Matters
    by Ellen | April 13th, 2010 |

    So, can a case be made for Translation as an Interstitial Art?

    I was struck by these quotes from Edith Grossman’s new book, Why Translation Matters (in poet & translator Richard Howard’s 4/11 review in NYTimes Book Review):

    So few [reviewers] have devised an intelligent way to review both the original and its translation within the space limitations imposed by the publication….

    [To academics,] Translators seem to be a familiar part of the natural landscape, so customary and commonplace that we run the risk of becoming invisible. This may be why many university English departments often declare a monopoly on the teaching of what they choose to call world literature or humanities. . . . I cannot quarrel with the inclusion of translations on any reading list, yet in the process foreign-language departments and their teachers of literature, the ones with real expertise in the works studied, are effectively snubbed. I have never been able to find the logic or coherence in that. Is there someone on a curriculum committee somewhere who does not know or cannot tell the difference between works in English and works in translation? The best face I can put on it is that the ironic disconnect may be an academic trait.

    And even by readers, common or otherwise: “Of all the interpretive arts, it is fascinating and puzzling to realize that only translation has to fend off the insidious, damaging question of whether or not it is, can be or should be possible.”

    finish line

    5 Responses to “Why Translation Matters”

    1. Johanna Vainikainen-Uusitalo Says:

      What an interesting question! I’m an English-to-Finnish translator. English is not my native language, so please forgive me if I make silly mistakes here trying to express my thoughts.

      Recently I saw somewhere a list of different kinds of artists, divided into two categories. The first one was, well, “artists” and it included authors, composers, painters etcetera. The second one was “art workers” or something to that effect, and it included among else dancers, performing musicians – and translators.

      Literary translation is indeed (if grudgingly) considered art in Finland today, and that is probably mostly thanks to Kersti Juva. She is the first translator ever to get the status of “Artist Professor” in Finland. Here’s her induction speech from October 2008 (translated into English by Jill Timbers):

      That said, often we translators are not even mentioned in book reviews! Or we are only mentioned if the reviewer finds something to complain… It’s a shame, really. My personal worst was a book that was third of a series, first one translated by me: “The author has finally perfected his dialogue into a diamond”. The reviewer of course had no idea how much work i had put into those different styles of speech, but he *might* have noted that the translator had changed – and if he compared the translations to the original texts he might have noted that the author’s style hadn’t changed that much!

      In the induction speech Kersti Juva says it’s like she dresses herself in the original text and mimics the movements and gestures of the author. I tend to think of my work through visual arts: often it resembles sculpting. The original work is the model, a living one or perhaps a bronze statue, and I’m carving a copy of it from the piece of stone or wood that is my first draft, the “raw translation”. Then again in a state of flow, it feels like I’m channeling the author like a medium would…

    2. Lawrence Schimel Says:

      I haven’t yet read the Grossman.

      But I think the interstitial nature of the translator comes from the fact that it runs counter to every other type of artistic performance (and I include the act of writing as a performative art) in that the widespread notion is that the translator is meant to be invisible, instead of counting herself as an (artistic) performer in her own right.

      That is, people discount the artistry involved in literary translation, usually from the misguided notion that translation is a mathematical exercise (and hence something even a computer or website like google could do) more than a creative one.

      Some of it is a lack of conscientiation, which is prevalent even among people in the book trade. (It is so common, especially here in Spain, for newspapers to write that “Publisher X has translated author Y into Spanish for the first time,” when of course it is not the publisher who is translating the book, but the overlooked figure of the translator, an individual, who is recreating in the target language the work of art.)

      In Spain at least, the copyright of a translation belongs to the translator and is subject to all the intellectual property laws like other written arts. It is licensed to a publisher, usually for specific editions, and any sublicenses require an additional contract or payment to the translator.

      Translators are also included in the payments from the copyright clearance center which apportions photocopy licensing on a collective scale in Spain (CEDRO).

    3. Johanna Vainikainen-Uusitalo Says:

      Lawrence wrote:

      But I think the interstitial nature of the translator comes from the
      fact that it runs counter to every other type of artistic performance
      (and I include the act of writing as a performative art) in that the
      widespread notion is that the translator is meant to be invisible,
      instead of counting herself as an (artistic) performer in her own

      Lol! Contrary to what you may think after my last post , I don’t go around flaunting myself as an “Artist”, really… :-)

      And there are some translators (I’m thinking about a certain long-dead Finnish poet here) who may cross the invisible lines and put too much of themselves into the translation. Interpreting it, changing it so it is more their creation than the original one. Shakespeare and some other classics like the Odyssey come to mind as examples.

      Film is considered as an art form today (or should it be “movies”, or “cinema”?). But who is the artist in the film-making process? It depends! The director? Not all movie directors are grand auteurs; sometimes the producer is the one with the Vision, and directors are just hired to do their job. Some of the other professionals involved may be called artists too – like the best of the cutters and the lightning wizards, choreographers, costumers etc etc. And the actors then, are they artists on their own rights or just puppets doing what they’re told? It depends, but there may be real craftmanship, or even “artistry” in many levels that an ordinary movie-goer doesn’t ever realize. Lots of invisible ones working for the common goal. Just like us translators.

      Perhaps we might see ourselves as movie makers, working together with the editors, proofreaders, graphics (or what are they called again? those who do the layout), cover artists, even printers. Most of us invisible, except the Author who is the auteur with the original story, tone, characters… the Vision.


    4. Patrick Marcel Says:

      There’s a bit of that, yes.

      It is an activity in-between. Umberto Eco said in his latest essay that it was a matter of give-and-take, a sort of bargaining with the author in order to reach the best possible result. The book is called in French DIRE PRESQUE LA MÊME CHOSE: “saying almost the same thing”. It has to be some kind of art, though, because it is a rather specialized and idiosyncratic give-and-take, something computers are as yet unable to accomplish properly — and I’d be amazed if they could do it soon, since not all *people* can do it, either. And one is not really an artist, because one is just shaping differently — though faithfully, one hopes — a piece of art that comes from somebody else. There is invention in our work, and ingeniousness, sometimes, and craft, but the impetus comes from elsewhere.

      It’s a funny old work.

      And yes, at the same time, you have to disappear, indeed. You have to turn into the perfect troll: to snatch the beautiful baby from the cradle, yet to leave in its stead a changeling that will fool the original parents and everyone in its new environment.

      Johanna mentions how translators are overlooked by reviewers. In a way, I take that neglect as a compliment. Usually, translations are only brought up when the prose seems clunky to the reader: “bad translation” is the verdict, though it might be an excellent translation of a clunky text. Which means you have to improve the original prose or be blamed for being true. Most reviewers have no idea of the actual worth of a translation, which they consider good so long as they have a pleasant reading experience, with no syntactic snags to jar them out of it. How many reviewers, do you think, actually compare the original text with the translation, in order to assess its quality? It might happen in poetry, where it’s easier to compare a poem and its translation side by side, but that’s it.

      I’ve received an award for my translation on a book which just happened to be an excellent novel which wowed the readers that year, and I’ve been passed over for one translation which I felt would have deserved it so much more, but, I’m sure of it, was neglected by the award people because of a arduous first chapter which turned them away.

    5. Gili Says:

      I have had several occasions to discuss translation with groups of children and teenagers. They think I’ve come to discuss Harry Potter with them, and I sneakily introduce the topics that interest me. It’s a bit amazing to watch these kids think about issues of translation for the very first time. They start off by asking questions like, “why does it take so long”, “why can’t you just have a computer do it”, move on to “How does J.K.Rowling know your translation is any good” and “which language has the best Harry Potter translation”, and end up with questions as abstract as “can we every really read the real Harry Potter without knowing English” or “is every single word in the translation a riddle with several different meanings” – all real questions I’ve been asked by kids. My favorite question, from a girl probably about 9 years old, was “Do you translate in your own style or in the style of J.K. Rowling”. That lead to some very interesting discussion.

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