What are the links between literary translation and politics? Do literary translators have obligations in the political sphere? If you wanted more questions than answers, then this weekend’s annual conference of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin was the place for you. The conference offered, as the program booklet put it, an important start to conversations about “the many, often unnoticed ways that literary translation and politics broadly conceived are interconnected.”
For one, there is the translator’s fraught role as curator. One of the recipients of this year’s ALTA travel fellowship, Alice Guthrie, referred to herself as a “gatekeeper and amplifier” of certain narratives, seeing it as a political choice to make a certain author visible. On the panel entitled “Strange Bedfellows: Translating Current Events” (Full Disclosure: I was on the panel), poet and translator Patricia Davis said she believes in “giving those who have been silenced and who have important things to say a chance to be heard in English.” In this context, translation is not a passive act of transmission. It is an act in response to perceived injustices, or a lack of representation, or a challenge to existing perspectives.
What about the content of the literature being translated? During the Q&A for the “Political Correctness in Translation” panel, Czech translator Alex Zucker explained that disagreeing with a text doesn’t mean he wouldn’t translate it. He certainly doesn’t work with violent hate speech, but if a text is simply misguided or ignorant but not hurtful, he would still consider translating it.
Panelist Esther Allen pointed out that works aren’t always translated out of love or personal convictions. There are certainly instances when something is translated to show how wrong it is (like Mein Kampf, for example).
Another layer of complication is that translators may be materially interested parties, as Katherine Young put it. Translators might want to sell books, get published, advance their careers, etc. What if they do this on the backs of “bad” books?
The political correctness panel talked about how much tolerance readers have for material that might be deemed offensive or problematic in the receiving culture and/or language. Panelist Roger Sedarat said that when introducing a new voice that hasn't been brought into English before, he is cautious and selective. But members of the literary canon—authors who are a known entity—can survive, even if some of their writing is pegged as offensive. If enough of an author’s body of work has been translated, their messy contradictions might be more palateable to new audiences. Panelist Christopher Schafenacker gave the example of Garcia Lorca’s Poet in New York—previous translators have chosen to translate maricas as “faggots” instead of “perverts” to render some of Lorca’s internalized homophobia. Newer authors might need context through a translator’s note or other “paratext,” as moderator Alta L. Price called it. Otherwise new readers might not want to access the work if they find offensive material in it.
Panelists talked about whether or not to resist the urge to “fix” authors when they say something problematic. While there was no universal agreement on this issue, everybody grimaced at the example of Coleman Barks’s translations of Sufi mystic Rumi. According to an article at the Poetry Foundation, Barks “takes out references to God and replaces them with ‘love.’ As he explained in the introduction to his 2001 collection of poems, The Soul of Rumi, ‘I avoid God-words, not altogether, but wherever I can, because they seem to take away the freshness of experience and put it inside a specific system.’”
During the political correctness panel, an audience member brought up the question of how much of the writer's extra-literary persona translators need to capture. What if writers have behaviors or beliefs off the page that the translator disagrees with? Is that enough reason not to translate them? Some felt strongly that translators should not cherry pick, but translate the good and the bad of any given author.
Considering all these complicated problems, Katherine Young asked on the “Strange Bedfellows” panel whether translators need some code of ethics (like lawyers or journalists might have). The general response was no—there are too many exceptions, like the ones mentioned above, in which translators might engage with an otherwise problematic text. Instead translators need an internal compass, one that gauges the social/cultural/political context of the work being translated alongside their own moral convictions.
And that context can change over time. When accepting the National Translation Award for his co-translations of Alexander Vvedensky’s Soviet-era avant-garde poems, Matvei Yankelevich reminded the audience that Vvedensky strongly influenced contemporary feminist punk collective Pussy Riot, something Yankelevich could never have anticipated when he began translating Vvedesky in the 1990s. (In her trial’s closing statement, Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova talked explicitly about the literary pursuits of Vvedensky and his colleagues, “realized at the cost of their lives.”) Works can take on another life, and literary translation can be generative for writers and artists, but also for activists and organizers.
In the end, there are no easy answers. Christopher Merrill’s keynote address insisted that “being attuned to the political can reveal a new layer of meaning” and that “translators must be acquainted with . . . well . . . everything.”
No one walked away from the weekend with a clear set of instructions for negotiating politics and translation, but the weekend served as potent reminder of the consequences of ignoring political context.