In Translation: An Interview with Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky

In the collection In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, edited by Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky and published in May 2013 by Columbia University Press, eighteen translators consider the parts they play in the works they translate.  Divided into two sections, “The Translator in the World,” and “The Translator at Work,” the pieces address both perennial issues of translation and the particular situation of foreign literature in the globalized world today. David Auerbach interviewed the editors in June 2013 by e-mail.

David Auerbach: Jorge Luis Borges wrote in "The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader," "The page that becomes immortal can traverse the fire of typographical errors, approximate translations, and inattentive or erroneous readings without losing its soul in the process. One cannot with impunity alter any line fabricated by Góngora (according to those who restore his texts), but Don Quixote wins posthumous battles against his translators and survives each and every careless version." Do you, as translators, feel a difference in the robustness of different literary works? Are there any writers you think of as genuinely incapable of being successfully translated?

Susan Bernofsky: Finnegans Wake is, in a sense, already its own translation, though it has now been translated into a number of languages (including several competing translations into German alone). The German writer I consider least translatable is Friedrich Hölderlin, because what is most thrilling about his work is the syntax—he puts his German words in the wrong order, in a way inspired by the syntactical flexibility of Greek, and does so in a way that is not random but brilliant: the words in this wrong order become luminous and resonant, and without this effect his lines seem flat, which makes any attempted translation a tall order indeed. I like Anthony Appiah’s remark that a translation should aim to capture that about a work that makes it worth teaching. Cervantes was a great prose stylist, as Edith Grossman’s immortal translation of Don Quixote has brought home to us, but I think what Borges means is that what he remembers of the Quixote is not the prose but the exploits. But I would argue that a lesser writer than Cervantes might not have succeeded in making these exploits so interesting to us that we still want to read about them hundreds of years later.

E. A.: Yes, absolutely. Borges’s point here, as I understand it, is that literary works primarily concerned with the nuances and intricacies of language itself, and the particular languages in which they happen to be written, don’t travel as well or as easily as narratives that are mainly plot-driven. Scholars of literary globalization often make the same point—and sometimes fear that writers may be deliberately avoiding a more resonantly ambiguous, original use of language in order to make their works more translatable. The translation of Góngora—and he has been translated, many times—requires either a lot of explication or a kind of recreation of the author’s stylistic concerns as applied to a different language. Another example is Georges Pérec’s La Disparition —a novel that omits the letter “e.” It gets rewritten by Gilbert Adair as A Void in a translation that’s far less concerned with conveying the narrative of La Disparition, such as it is, than with adhering to its elimination of the letter e—and in doing so, A Void achieves something even more difficult than the feat Pérec  pulled off in the original.

D.A: What criteria did you use in selecting the pieces? Is there any area that you wish you'd been able to cover better?

E.A.: We chose essays that offered valuable and potentially transformative insight into the process of translation and the role of the translator. Translation is a field that grapples with a lot of preconceived ideas and a lot of canned responses to those preconceived ideas, and then there are the theoretical debates which can become rather arid. We wanted to shift the course of that conversation in support of a renewed perception of the translator as a cultural curator and knowledge creator.

In retrospect, I wish we’d been able to include more about translation and technology, something about the ever-growing quantities of fan translation, fan subtitling, and volunteer translation on the Internet, for example, to give just one instance of new technologies that are creating new modes of translation. That said, we’re extremely pleased with the very wide net the anthology casts: its essays discuss more than a dozen languages and literary traditions, from Hindi to Polish, and offer a multidimensional perspective on translation that incorporates ethical, historical, linguistic, and political concerns, as well as issues of methodology and theory and much else.

S.B.: I’d add that we picked essays that are not only worth reading but worth teaching as well. I wrote a bit about this on my blog Translationista, which I’m linking here because the blog entry on the anthology includes a discount code and link to get the book at a 30% discount.

D.A.:The collection presents a number of implicit contrasts between translation approaches. Lawrence Venuti utilizes rap diction to translate Jacopone da Todi, while Susan talks about avoiding anachronistic coinages like "brinkmanship" in translating Walser. To what extent should translations reflect their own time rather than the time of the composition of the original work?

S.B.: This is a crucial question that I’ve heard discussed in many different ways (sometimes with the help of Walter Benjamin’s “Task of the Translator”). In my view, translations that are too firmly rooted in the time of their own composition are liable to age quickly unless the translator is a powerful enough master of the language into which s/he is translating to produce a book with a great deal of intrinsic value as a work of that era. I don’t usually translate this way because I think that communicating something of the atmospheric feel of the original work involves giving a sense of how language was used at the time when it was written. So I’m always looking for ways to mark my translations as older with linguistic or rhetorical gestures, and strictly involve anachronisms unless this is part of a specific effect. Venuti is obviously engaging in a strong translation project here, where part of the point is to draw attention to the things a translator brings to a project, and I think that’s a really interesting approach. I like doing things like that, though generally with a less divergent set of texts.

D.A.: Catherine Porter speaks of the need for immersion in the intellectual milieu of the source texts. How important is it that a translator be bicultural as well as bilingual?

E.A.: Knowledge of a language and its culture go hand in hand, and the translator needs to be both bicultural and bilingual—in fact, a willingness to delve deep into the source culture is far more important than, say, perfect oral fluency in the source language. Catherine Porter’s essay responds very effectively to an odd notion you sometimes hear from people in the academic world to the effect that translation is somehow distinct from research, that translators are not researchers. But translators must have a deep knowledge of the culture a text emerges from, and they acquire that via research of various kinds. This is especially true when the culture has long since passed out of existence. When Peter Cole translates the medieval poetry of Hebrew Spain, his translations are both living poems and historically charged artifacts that he explicates and connects to their historical context via prefaces, footnotes and other contextual material. The amount of research that goes into it is vast. And this is a large element of what Cole, in the essay that launches the anthology, describes as the ethics of translation.

Bad translation happens when the translator doesn’t do that work but merely comes up with some vague counterpart to the words on the page without giving any thought to the cultural context the work they’re translating emerges from. A classic of modern Mexican literature was subjected to one of the worst translations I know of. The poor translator, lord knows how she was pressed into service, had clearly never so much as had lunch in a Mexican restaurant; she rendered tamales de manteca as “butter tamales.” “Butter” is indeed one of the definitions given for manteca when you look it up on wordref.com—but butter is not an ingredient in tamales!

D.A.: Do you think the increasing visibility of the translator will/should lead to changes in how translations are presented? Some of the issues discussed in the book include leaving words in the original language, heavier footnoting, etc. For example, I see Japanese honorifics quite often in current translations, whereas I hardly ever see them in older translations.

S.B.: I personally see this trend to “internationalize” writing as one of the few happy side effects of globalization: We’re more aware of certain cultural basics in an ever growing number of countries (even if it’s only thanks to manga in the case of Japan). The use of foreign concepts, titles, etc. in English can be orientalizing or inaccurate, but in most cases I think it is a welcome development. I’m very happy to be able to call the characters in my translations “Herr Müller” and “Frau Schmidt” rather than Mr. and Mrs.

D.A.: One recurrent theme is the increasing dominance of English as a worldwide lingua franca. David Bellos talks about other languages now contributing to the enrichment of English. Does this change what it means to translate into English, as opposed to translating into any other language?

E.A.: In her marvelous essay about translating Orhan Pamuk, Maureen Freely describes the particular care taken with the English translation of his work since (and this is the case for many texts written in less widely spoken languages such as Turkish and Japanese) the English becomes the basis for most of the book’s subsequent translations—in Pamuk’s case into more than sixty languages.

Given English’s current status, a translation into English is probably going to lead to translation into many other languages, whether or not these are based on the English translation. That gives those of us who translate into English an enlarged responsibility for the global circulation of literature—both to see to it that valuable work does get translated, and to translate it well. As Freely discovers, an English-language translator can also rapidly find herself in the role of intermediary, spokesperson or scapegoat for a writer during a firestorm that has spread across the vast Anglophone mediascape. And English isn’t the only language that plays a special role. My friend Chen Maipeng, head of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, is married to Anna Gustafsson Chen, Sweden’s foremost translator of Chinese literature, and thus a key figure in the view of Chinese literature formed by the Nobel Committee.

David Bellos’s contribution makes a very strong case for the way languages are constantly contributing to each other’s enrichment; that’s a big part of what translators achieve and one of many reasons why translation is so important (and why Freely is right when she resists Pamuk’s opposition to including Turkish words like börek in her translation).

The editors of Publishers Weekly invited me to contribute this short piece in response to the idea of “untranslatability.” I was initially somewhat taken aback when I saw the headline they gave it:  “Why Does Language Always Change?” But then I realized that yes, translation is one answer to that question: a rather good answer.

D.A.: The book brings up two overlapping conceptions of foreignness: cultural and linguistic. English itself now exists in many drastically different cultural milieus and dialects. Do you think of yourselves as translating into a particular cultural dialect of English?

E.A.: Jason Grunebaum’s piece about finding the right English for a translation from Hindi provides some valuable insights into this issue. He weighs the very different uses of language, contextual knowledge, and preconceptions of two hypothetical readers of his translation of Uday Prakash’s Girl With a Golden Parasolone in India, the other in the U.S.—then resolves to translate the novel in a way that works for both. (And indeed, his translation was published by Penguin India and by Yale University Press.) The solution of a less locally targeted translation worked in that case, but it isn’t always the way to go.  People are becoming more and more interested in incorporating local usages into translations; translators from Argentina to Australia are claiming their right to translate books into the voices of their own regions.  (The Australian translator Julie Rose once very memorably translated a slang expression for bra used by disaffected teenagers in the Parisian banlieu with the Aussie “over-the-shoulder-boulder-holder.”)  In the case of Portuguese, it’s become common for books to undergo two entirely separate translations: one for Portugal, one for Brazil.

An occasional silly pastime of translation reviewers in the US and the UK consists in locating Americanisms (in the UK)  or Anglicisms (in the US) and deploring them, regardless of context. Clearly some people still believe that the translator must be a neutral medium through which a book’s meaning and voice pass entirely  unchanged—not a view that will hold up under even the slightest scrutiny. Obviously if a book is set in Britain or the U.S. it’s important for the language of the translation to convey that: it would be absurd to have an Alabama gas station attendant saying  “cor blimey.”  But even there you have to take a more nuanced look.  A few years ago I ran across a review in a U.S. paper that took Michael Hofmann, I think it was, to task for including Anglicisms such as “bumf” in a translation of Kafka’s Amerika. But Kafka very famously never came to America and his book represents an entirely imagined European projection. It makes perfect sense for the translator to underscore that by opting for a very British English. Each text requires a different voice, a different English: it’s up to the translator to create that.

D.A.: You speak of "Nabokovian linguistic purists who turn up their noses at translations" in the introduction. Despite his purism, Nabokov himself did a fine translation himself of Lermontov's Hero of Our Time and pointed my adolescent self to Steegmuller's Madame Bovary and Guerney's Dead Souls with his enthusiastic recommendations. Can you elaborate on Nabokov’s position and how it reflects on the difficulties of translation?

SB: I read all these same books as a kid on Nabokov’s recommendation. We were referring to the position he represented in his translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and his call for “footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers” to explain every last bit and jot that gets lost in the translation. Obviously this isn’t the only mode of responding to translation that he knew. Onegin can be seen as a refusal to translate, a surrender before the task seen as impossible. Since he decided that Pushkin’s riches would not survive the translation process he gave us instead a translation plus notes combination that serves as an incredibly detailed gloss on the poem. Most sorts of translation I enjoy involve a bit more willingness to compromise, a bit more tranquility in resignation. Yes, it’s true that a translation usually can’t capture every last feature of a text, but translators can often do surprisingly well, and often new layers of meaning are added in the translation project, leaving us with more of a zero-sum product than Nabokov believed possible.