Poet Jorie Graham once said, “It is the poet's dream to communicate. To say what we're really saying.” And if you think about how hard it is to truly come clean in your own sentence, your own work's paragraph, and then turn that into distilling another poet's communication, from another time, and another language—one which you might not even speak, you sort of have the craft of the translator. It is a psychological, historical, metaphysical, grammatical, sensual labyrinth of a relationship with another author that few have the passion to sustain, and the round table discussion at the Philoctetes Center in New York's swank Upper East Side was full of these people.
Peter Cole, MacArthur Fellow and literary-poet-around-town, Edie Grossman, responsible for Don Quixote's translation as we know it, Peter Constantine, publishing darling and go-to, quick-turnaround translator and Columbia-ite, Qui Xiaolong who was the first poet to successfully and commercially translate Yeats, Eliot and Freud into Chinese, and Johnathan Galassi, publishing legend, poet, and partially responsible for the recent Bolaño-mania, were all moderated by translation legend, Suzanne Jill Levine, who started translating Borges and Cortázar in the late sixties when South America and Mexico were booming into the public view. Levine opened up the roundtable asking, “Why were we drawn to translating?”
The conversation would stay here for two hours. Every author agreed, it was an individualized task. “The translator is working for someone else, this writer they've identified with.” Said Galassi. Edie Grossman, sipping her water and making no bones about past business disagreements with Galassi, seated to her left, said, “I've always felt a deep connection to the author.” “The love-making of being a translator,” said Cole. And Levine, noted foremother of the translation canon turned the conversation toward Xiaolong, fellow political wall-breaker. “There was a saying,” Xiaolong said: “China wants to realize modernization—But modernist literature was pretty much banned. Unless it had been spoken by Marx or Lenin, it wasn't to be translated. So, I picked up Freud.”
This had me wondering if the pull to become a translator comes from the same urgency to create original work. That is to say, are these people helping the author (sometimes from the grave) say something, or are they creating, themselves? Galassi said, “A work in translation is a way of doing poetry.” Are translators broadening political territories and blurring cultural differences, or are they just taking a walk though mimetic mind-strengthening work? Essentially, what I was hoping to hear was something to the effect of, “Translated works are just as good as works originally in English, it just takes longer to get them going, which is the only reason 200,000 books were published in English last year and 380 were published from other languages into English, and I do this to share great work with people who need it in English.”
What I heard instead, again and again, was that translating, was an individualized process, meaning that the translators at the table (save for Xiaolong and Levine) were really saying they were working through the works of another, not translating to help get beautiful literature out to the general public. This scared me, these people are the biggest in the biz, and here they are, admitting it's all about personal art, and money; they admitted money was a factor, not politics.
I thought, somebody bring me some hope, somebody tell me you're letting the author speak through you, not using the author, and then Edie Grossman said, “The narrative voice has to have a certain authority,” and I thought, we're back on track. Galassi smiled and took it a step further, opening the floor to a fight nobody wanted to touch, by saying, “There's an imperialist value involved, that we the editors know what this text should be.” To which Peter Cole responded by bringing it back to art, but generous art: “It's listening, a tone has been struck, and now I have to repeat that tone.”
And the sounds of millions of people chanting in the streets started ringing in my ears, people saying beautiful things, “Vive La France,” I imagined reporters sending information back from Vietnamese frontlines after interviewing townspeople, translating humanity so the world could know what was happening.
I thought, it might be a lone art, but it's sharing another artist's word with the world, and thank Jesus somebody's doing it. “I sometimes translate out loud,” said Edie, “Your eye forgives everything.” I imagined thousands of translators, up late at night, echoing to themselves, to the air, to the rest of us, works that had been written in the past, yet to be shared, doing it because they knew it must be done, because we are responsible for passing on the word, communication.
“The World of the Translator” was a roundtable discussion at The Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of the Imagination in New York City, held on January 17, 2009. For participant bios and more information visit the Philoctetes Center Website
Nicolle Elizabeth is a Brooklyn-based fiction writer, editor and observer. She won the 2007 National Outstanding Haiku contest and won't let anybody forget it.