(I’ve been sitting on these thoughts for some time, pending more precise, perfected phrasing that might give them greater clarity, but as they dovetail somewhat with Lucas Klein’s recent, lucid, and considered reflections on reviewing translation, especially his concern that foreign work be evaluated in a domestic context, I thought I’d post them anyway, because hey, what’s a blog if not a place for rough drafts?)
I have never much liked the idea of literary translation as performance. The comparison, usually musical, is unimpeachable at heart: a performance is an individual rendition of an existing score, as is a translation of a text. (Rendition, we say, to avoid using that slippery and too closely related word, interpretation.) I am too literal-minded, however, and like my metaphors to map better. The score is the original text, the composer the author, and the performer the translator. So far, so good. The piece as performed—not as written—is the translation, and here I begin to run into trouble.
The idea has obvious merits. It allows for, and even goes some way toward explaining, the variety of translations that may arise from the same material. To do so, it prizes expressiveness. Translation is artistic, subjective, even personal. If we hold that the translator’s highest good is sympathy to spirit over letter, then like a performer, the translator’s dual duties are fidelity and enchantment: in bringing out the essential qualities of a piece, to make it captivating for a public that either does not read music or has no access to the score before hearing it played (in both cases, like most of the readership in a country where a translation is published). In this scheme, musical notation is the source language—but how reductive, really, for what language is so universal and invariable? There is no wrong way, beyond the merely technical, to read music—but there are many wrong ways to play it.
The performance differs from the original in the tools at a performer’s disposal: vicissitudes of tempo, emphasis, intonation, volume, exploited within some elastic yet definitely bounded allowances of taste and tradition. Perhaps the source language is something more ethereal then, something approaching a cultural-historical understanding. But mustn’t a translator also possess such understanding in addition to understanding the source language? And doesn’t any understanding, whether of language or context, reside like apperceptions of enchantment or essential qualities, in the translator’s mind? It seems this metaphor leaves out language—not necessarily by dint of prioritizing performer and performance, but nevertheless—and in doing so, leaves out much of what distinguishes translation as an activity: the negotiation between two systems.
And what, in the reverse mapping, is a musical instrument? A score often stipulates the instrument, or is even composed with it in mind, for instruments, like languages, have their particularities; no source material stipulates any eventual target language. If a translator’s instrument is language, what is left for the original language to be? If an instrument is some externalization of what a performer brings to a piece, what part of the understandings listed above does a translator externalize? An instrument is hardly a typewriter or a bilingual dictionary. If the only kind of performance to accurately map translation is an attempt to play music meant for one instrument on another, then what was once metaphor quickly becomes tautology.
Lest it seem I am bullying a straw man, let me lay out the greater debate. If translations are to be reviewed—that is, if world literature is to be popularized and read, covered and made part of American literary conversation—there must be a way for readers of only English to evaluate translations. Perhaps, goes the murmur, this way could be founded on a controlling metaphor that would alter our traditional understanding of the activity of translation.
One such traditional understanding is translation as close reading, and this is where the idea of performance was leading us. A translation is a map of the translator’s comprehension of a given text. Like all readers, the translator takes active part in the construction of the text, that imaginative revival from desiccate ink and paper, but the translator is that reader who leaves behind a record of that participation, a deposition of reading against which discrepancies may be checked. (By whom? Other readers who come to encounter the original event, I suppose.) Reading is one step short of performance, but the reading must exist before it, and vitally, what both metaphors share is an emphasis on the interpretive, that sphere circumscribing all translation activity.
I am often plagued by the idea, as I begin to gather a larger stable of authors, that some inevitable continuity of voice or, more damning yet, syntax, unites them in English where none does in French. Certainly similarities of theme and subject matter are brought out where they might have remained unremarked. Borges has claimed that writers invent their own forerunners; this to me partly refers to the clarity of hindsight but also the quality of pantheon. These writers are sometimes linked, in English, by as arbitrary a tie as my interest, but the act of grouping them invites comparison, associations. And then there is my predilection for fantasy, tantamount to a brand, housing them all.
Worse yet than this forced bedfellowing, I fear that no matter how closely I hew to each writer’s style and idiolect, they are all ultimately constrained by my sense of what English as a language can and should do, first formed in my own childhood, which informs my own writing as well. It is as noble to call this the sort of thing consciousness of the translation act ideally works toward deconstructing as it is difficult to be perceptive about an activity whose motions are practiced under deadline, or processed at a level where higher questions are not engaged, or have sunken beneath notice to the stratum of habit.
The issue here, of course, is the scope of the translator’s role in what has long been considered a mechanical operation. Call it a prejudice, but it persists to this day: just as translation can be handled by machine, so the right and wrong of translation is really rather banal, a matter of facts rather than interpretation. Interpretation, in fact, is where one usually goes wrong: the exception to the rule of fact is literary translation, which has a reputation as, if not a failure, then at least a hopeless task. (Such hopelessness may go long way toward explaining its thanklessness.) Literary translations are most often referred to in terms of loss, whether what is lost is puns, poetry, local flavor, cultural reference, essence… some je ne sais quoi. I need not quote to prove this. The translation is the failed equivalent: it is a failure to do something which should, we obstinately believe, be simple and obvious, or else impossible. I submit that here the certainty of loss, which could be constructive, or like many unreachable goals, even noble, has instead become cliché, a starting assumption rather than an eventuality, and uninspiring, unproductive as a result. It is an unexamined way of disparaging translation, by disparaging an idea of the act rather than the act. It is an example of lazy thought. And in this case, the core notion has unfortunately been abused as an instrument rather than observation. Which in this country is to say, an excuse not to translate at all: less “fail better” than “why bother?”
For the fact is, as with many impossible activities (Freud’s top three were to govern, to teach, and to cure), people have rather obstinately gone on doing them. Necessity, but perhaps also proximity and curiosity have made translation a basic fact of European literary culture. The sheer number of translations forces a rather workmanlike approach on the act and perceptions of it. If these translations are riddled with errors, perhaps then they are riddled with errors. So be it. But in each case something now exists that did not before, which increases accessibility to boot. Notions of loss should all be judged against this.
It is easy to see why translators like the metaphor of performance. It puts the translator front and center. If ever there were a more historical aggrieved group of literary professionals, one more disgruntled, I have yet to encounter them. And the translator in literature is always a damnable figure, shorthand for alienation (presumably from the creative spirit), some form of artistic frustration short of teaching. The translator is faulted when not derivative enough, but denied literary credibility for not being original. Indeed, the issue of creativity in translation overlaps those of influence and plagiarism, places society avoids, for fear of being lost in the mist. An old saw of translation is that a book’s virtues are attributed to the author, and its awkwardness blamed on the translator. The translation is that which cannot, must not, be creative. And the translation is the one performance from which the performer is traditionally meant to disappear. Having performed a task that is at once mechanical yet impossible, they are asked to efface themselves.
The interest in “world literature”, or “literature in translation”—which, heterogeneous as it sounds, amounts to its own category under the market logic of late publishing—has turned a spotlight on the members of this unsung profession. Potential reviewers are faced with several choices. Review the book on its own merits, without reference to the fact of its translatedness. Why not? For fear of some public stigma toward translated works, publishers often downplay the fact of translation in marketing such books, when they do not leave the translator’s name altogether. But hiding the fact of translation will not make it go away; perhaps what needs addressing is this attitude of inherent “difficulty” in a translation, which is tied to loss. Translations are difficult because they are mediated. We Americans who love the real thing, who are hung up on first times, don’t know when and if we’re getting it in a translation. And so a tradition has developed of nodding to the fact of translation. If we round up the usual adjectival suspects we see “fluent”, “fluid”, “colloquial”, “serviceable”—these are a few of the more specific ones, before we get to vague accolades like “stunning”. If the reviewer knows the foreign original, he or she may make a point of quibbling with a few word choices. All of this, I submit, is beside the point when not of astounding pettiness.
I am often taken aback at the eagerness and fervor with which authors whose work I have published in English greet me, a gratitude that seems generally disproportionate to my services. A short story in this or that literary journal is hardly even a foot in the door. And I am ashamed, not only for how little I’ve done to deserve their thanks, but for the hope that English, the gateway language, commands. For better or for worse, the current global hegemony of English has made it the door to opportunity. French publishers marketing books at international rights fairs have sample chapters translated into English, knowing that Korean and Greek editors alike will be able to evaluate them on that basis.
When the attributes of a language are discussed—what it can and can’t do, where it excels or falls short—these are usually formal, but perhaps they should also be cultural, contextual. If we considered each language its own medium, in a media theory sense, then an undeniable property of contemporary English is its broadcast ability, its accessibility. Making it into English is, for many foreign writers, like having your novel optioned by Hollywood.
Adaptation is the trade, if not the art form of our time. The idea of a work as IP has made migration across media commonplace. The existence of source material is never denied, but often irrelevant. Creative credit has shifted to the people working in the medium in question, whether it be movies, TV, video games, or comics (though the migration is usually in the other direction, even the movie tie-in novel is making a comeback, albeit nostalgia-driven and irony-drenched). Adaptation is perhaps acknowledged as a skill because the different demands of each platform are so readily apparent. While reviews once focused on the source material, or the adaptation in relation to it, adaptation is now so common that there has been a marked shift toward considering the adaptation on its own merits. However true, in many cases, that “the book was better,” perhaps the paradigm shift should be embraced, at least in the case of translation, where claiming the original was “better” is even less useful a proposition.
If we are to think of language as a medium, then we must consider the strengths of English as a language, and how or whether a given translation has exploited or espoused them. Does it work in English? Does it stand alone? Does it try to do what English can’t, and merely show the language’s weaknesses? Why bring it into English? The movie of a novel is compared more often with like movies than like novels; perhaps the English translation of a novel will be compared with like novels in English rather than like novels in the original language. Which is to favor a certain assimilationist pragmatism over the traditional attempt to situate a novel in its original national context.
The performance metaphor seeks to redress the natural inferiority of translation. It advances at once the ideas of creativity and fallibility (perhaps inevitably contingent). It makes the translator visible, and forces reluctant readers to contend with the fact that (though I suspect reader reluctance is more publisher reluctance). But I do not think it answers the need it was originally meant to: to give reviewers new tools, or a framework, with which to discuss translation. Perhaps now, with a new understanding of the translator, we can move toward a new understanding of the activity itself, one in which language finds its metaphorical counterpart.