As a translator and scholar of modern Greek literature, and now as a professor of comparative literature, I am what André Lefevere would call (not without some degree of irony) a “professional reader.” Both in and out of the academic world, I’ve met countless other readers who have consumed astonishing amounts of literature in translation—often much more than they give themselves credit for, since the fact that a particular text is a translation not infrequently escapes the reader’s notice or attention. As a graduate student I taught a year-long “great books” course that was required for all first-year undergraduates at my institution. By the end of these students’ first year of college, a good two or three feet of bookshelf space in dorm rooms all over campus would be sagging under the weight of translations: Richmond Lattimore’s Iliad, Odyssey, and Oresteia, Robin Waterfield’s Herodotus, Rex Warner’s Thucydides, Alan Mandelbaum’s Virgil and Dante, Edith Grossman’s Don Quixote, Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky’s Crime and Punishment, to name only a handful of the works we read. Along with the other grad students and faculty members who taught this course, I attended weekly meetings at which invited speakers helped us contextualize our assigned readings and think about how to approach these texts in the classroom. The fact that students and instructors alike were reading in translation was occasionally mentioned, but only in passing, and almost always as an unfortunate reality: we would lament the “loss” of some aspect of whatever masterpiece of world literature we were discussing, or contest the translator’s choice of a particular word or phrase, and then move on to the supposedly more crucial and satisfying work of interpreting content, as if the content of a work could somehow be separated from the particularities of the language that gave it shape.
This is not news, of course—or at least not to anyone likely to be reading this essay. Most of us who frequent this website are already fully aware of the undervaluation of translation as a creative and scholarly endeavor, of the privileging of the original at the translation’s expense, of the discomfort even we—we translators, we scholars of literature, we avid readers of literature in translation—feel when attempting to discuss translations as translations, particularly translations from languages we do not happen to know. The issue I want to discuss here is a somewhat different one, and has less to do with the status of translation than with the status of “originals” as such. What is an original, anyhow, and where does it come from? If translation is, among other things, a process by which plain old works of literature are transformed into the “originals” of the derivative works we call “translations,” what precisely does that process entail?
I want to argue here that originals are not given but made, and that translators are often party to that making. This assertion runs counter to the prevailing assumption about how translation works, an assumption implicit in so many of those weekly meetings in which we considered the use of dialect in Lysistrata or unpacked the meaning of Raskolnikov’s surname, and that also shapes discussions of translations, from Stieg Larsson to Haruki Murakami to Franz Kafka to Homer or Aeschylus, on the subway, at dinner parties, and in the popular press. According to this assumption, the process of translation goes something like this: the translator takes a pre-existing text in a foreign language, a text we call an “original,” and tries to replicate or reproduce it in another language. We’re glad she makes this attempt, we’re grateful to her for doing so, but we’re also sometimes disappointed by her work, or disappointed by the fundamental fact that no translation will ever offer us the original itself, which is what we’d really rather be reading. There are good translations and less good ones, but none can ever be perfect. The original, by contrast, is perfect—perfect by definition, perfect as in perfect tense: it is a text that has been composed, a solid, fixed, finished, unchanging sequence of words that serves as the foundation not only for innumerable readers’ encounters with it in the language in which it was written, but also for a series of more-or-less “faithful” renditions in other languages, too.
That is the assumption. Yet it has rarely, if ever, been my experience of an “original,” either as a translator or as a reader and teacher of translations made by others. The titles on the syllabus of the “great books” course I taught are an obvious case in point, since works by long-dead authors are notoriously unstable in their textual makeup, and arrive to us in a range of multiply mediated forms. At times, as with the Homeric epics, “original” texts have been more or less firmly established by centuries of scribal and scholarly tradition or convention. At other times, however, a translator might be called upon to “fix” (as in “stabilize,” rather than “correct”) a text in the process of translating it—that is, to choose or otherwise mediate between existing versions of an “original.” A work like the Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance, which exists in countless fragments spanning several centuries, written in a handful of languages on innumerable clay tablets used for writing practice by scribes, has been presented in a number of forms, ranging from Andrew George’s translation of his own meticulous transcriptions of a particular set of tablets, complete with markings for missing or interpolated text, to Stephen Mitchell’s smooth, plot-oriented version, based on previous translations by a number of scholars (including George), with no indication either of the particular provenance of his “original” nor of its essentially fragmentary nature. The choice of which edition-in-translation to read—a choice educators so often make on their students’ behalf—has a dramatic effect on the range of possible experiences a reader will have.
And it’s not just ancient works that present us with difficulties of this sort. What, after all, do we translate when we translate an unfinished novel by Franz Kafka, or the poems of Emily Dickinson, bristling with variants? If works such as these have sparked scholarly debate concerning how they should be presented even within the language of their “original” composition, how does the added layer of translation complicate these discussions? If translation and editing are, again in André Lefevere’s terms, both forms of “rewriting” that mediate readers’ encounters with works of literature, might it make sense, at least under certain circumstances, to think of translation as editing of a certain kind?
Read the second part of Karen Emmerich's essay here.
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