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What Is a Translator?

Published in Issue 51

Into English: Poems, Translations, Commentaries (eds. Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer). Graywolf Press. $20.00, 256pp.
Translation is a life shared.
—João Guimarães Rosa

It’s become something of an article of faith that English-language readers are more eager than ever to devour literature in translation, and as the famous (but now outdated) three percent figure suggests, sometimes the only way to go is up. Much ink has been spilled in attempts to determine what is at the root of this world literature renaissance, and wishful thinking might suggest it’s that, as readers, Americans have simply become a whole lot more sophisticated and cosmopolitan in outlook. It’s a comforting thought, certainly, but not one borne out by sales figures, and anyone who’s spent more than two minutes in publishing also knows that while previous periods of soaring interest in literatures written beyond our shores may have been spurred on by attempts to understand cultures beyond our own (even this much is in doubt), this latest wave is, at least in part, as much a phenomenon of late-stage capitalism as of high-mindedness. Publishing international writers is now a no-brainer even in houses that haven’t traditionally published much in translation at all. It’s ever more rare to come across a recent college graduate who hasn’t spent a semester abroad, and yet there’s nothing to suggest that the increasing ease with which we move across borders (assuming we’re not one of myriad ostracized groups) has led us to engage more meaningfully with cultures beyond our own. But we like to feel that we are doing so, perhaps in the same way we watch the cinematic adaptation out of the sense that it will give us an idea of what the book is about. On the other hand, the new generation of independent publishing houses dedicated to literature in translation does attest to higher ideals in some corners.
Whatever the case, the real cause for rejoicing in this latest resurgence of interest in literature written elsewhere is the attention finally being paid translators. But the aforementioned misapprehensions about the processes that make such a thing as world literature even possible ultimately lead us to another, more complicated question: What is a translator?
Are translators, to borrow a phrase from Paulo Rónai, “modest intermediaries in the relay of someone else’s messages,” or are they, as is increasingly averred, co-authors? (It’s worth noting that Rónai, a Hungarian Jew who arrived in Rio de Janeiro in 1941, did actually believe translators to be co-creators. The care he demonstrated in his own work suggests he was in a unique situation to judge: the translation of Balzac’s The Human Comedy into Brazilian Portuguese, which he supervised, has been called the best translation of the French writer’s oeuvre into any language. He is a fundamental figure in twentieth-century Brazil’s intellectual milieu.) Perhaps the encomium Paul Auster has bestowed on translators gets straight to the point: they are “shadow heroes,” a designation which assumes they are destined to see the fruits of their labor overlooked.
Perhaps our confusion over what a translator is stems from our collective confusion about what it is a translator does. Walter Benjamin’s seminal 1921 essay “The Task of the Translator,” which appeared as a preface to his own translation of Baudelaire’s Tableux parisiens, remains a touchpoint for most translators today. In it, Benjamin asserts that “[t]he task of the translator consists in finding that intended effect [Intention] upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original.” From this general statement, what Benjamin does make clear is that we’re never talking about simply transmitting information—if this our chief preoccupation, as Benjamin himself asserts, this creates one type of bad translation. With his celebrated example of the German Brot and the French pain, he also notes that a mere one-to-one correspondence between languages is also elusive, since on both a practical and an abstract level, Brot means something very different to a German than pain does to a Frenchman. Suddenly the rather mundane task of the translator no longer seems so dull.
Some fifty-four years after Benjamin, the enigma of translation would bring George Steiner to approach the question more thoroughly (nearly some 500 pages more thoroughly). Steiner opens his treatise by reminding us of the sort of translation we must do even when reading texts in our own language, noting that the notions of mutability and counterfeit, to be found in Chaucer and Shakespeare, respectively, are not ours; to our ears they would suggest an ability to change or to print false currency (to appeal to just one accepted definition of each), but earlier readers would have taken them to quite clearly refer to lovers’ inconstancy. Further, Stein says, every language undergoes periods of ossification and contraction, when their malleability and ability to accommodate lexical or syntactical novelty wanes. Whether in Benjamin’s day or ours, translation involves a level of calibration and calculation that is much more difficult to pin down than a dictionary definition. Not to mention the peculiar use of language in a particular place, or among different age groups—the variations on this theme are endless.
Dedicated readers of literature in translation have no doubt noticed the rash of re-translations lately, Homer’s Odyssey and Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz being just two recent examples. At least in part, this is because, as both Steiner and Benjamin note, our language becomes old just as we do. This is as much a factor in retranslations as the perceived correction of errors by previous translators.
Any discussion of what a translator is and what it is a translator does inevitably brings us to a crucial question with an elusive answer: What makes for a good translation? Perhaps it should come as no surprise that as general consciousness around the act of translation as grown, we’ve become preoccupied with doing what we do with every other category of literature: pin a ribbon on it. The recent announcement that the National Book Foundation was reviving its award for translated literature brought new urgency to this quandary for which everyone and no one seem simultaneously to have the answer. (Questions about the award too abound: will the National Book Foundation adopt an adjudication process like that of the American Literary Translators Association, which provides the jury of its annual National Translation Award with evaluations of finalists’ work by expert readers, or will it adopt a process closer to that of the decade-old Best Translated Book Award, whose jurors rely entirely on the English text in choosing winners?)
When it came to judging the quality of a translation, Borges expounded on the theme in his celebrated essay “The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights.” Differently from some other purported evaluations of translations (see this New Yorker piece on Deborah Smith’s translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian; Smith’s response can be found in the Los Angeles Review of Books and is worth reading for its patient explanation of how she approached the text), Borges does the reader the favor of telling us what it is he thinks is most deserving of the attention of readers of the classic tales. What makes it a particularly rewarding text—and a staple of every diligent novice translator’s diet—is that Borges compares the various English translations against the first-ever translation of The Thousand and One Nights, by the French Arabist Jean Antoine Galland, and also to one another. (In just one example of the wit that makes this text such a satisfying read, Borges tells us Galland came upon an Arabic copy of the Nights in Istanbul, together with “a supplementry Maronite whose memory was no less inspired than Scheherazade’s.”) Borges spends most of his essay assessing the different choices taken by Galland, Edward Lane, Richard Burton—where one tempered the ribaldry of the original, he tells us, another sought to recover every last ounce of it. Borges demonstrates the very complicated conscious and unconscious operations, influenced by one’s education, morality, social class, biography, and so forth, that come to bear on a translation.
Borges’s compatriot (if not contemporary) Marcelo Cohen, in an essay entitled “Nueva batallas por la propiedad de la lengua” (which can be read in Frances Riddle’s translation in the April 2018 issue of Words without Borders) takes another look at the question of evaluating translations through the prism of his own experience as an exile in Spain during the Dirty War years. Noting his belief—adopted from Burroughs—that because language is the ultimate form of social control, our language we choose is of utmost importance, Cohen recounts the Spanish publishing industry’s push to elide writers’ style and idiosyncrasies in the translations they published. “The Spanish and I said very different things using almost the same words,” Cohen writes. The implications of this reality for evaluating translations are wide-reaching.
It is into this rich milieu that Into English steps. The book consists of an anthology of translated poetry accompanied by commentary by some of today’s most respected translators. The conceit is simple: editors Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer ask translators and critics select several translations of a favorite poem and then analyze each translator’s choices vis-à-vis the challenges or resistances that each poems presents. Contributors repeat this operation over the course of 25 poems ranging from Leopardi to Basho, Celan to Sappho. As might well be expected with an undertaking of this scope and ambition, the results are varied. The gems, however, gleam ever so bright, among them the commentaries of Karen Emmerich, Willis Barnstone, Susan Stewart, and Sidney Wade, respectively, on poems by Sappho, San Juan de la Cruz, Giacomo Leopardi, and Yahya Kemal Beyatlı. These commentaries take the reader into each poet’s linguistic, literary, and thematic environment, necessary to any pretense for a substantive evaluation, and then try to determine the logic behind each translator’s choices.
Karen Emmerich leads off the book with her commentary on Sappho’s Fragments 98a and 98b, which date to the third century BCE. Hers is a careful reflection on the challenges before Anne Carson, Willis Barnstone, and Mary Barnard, whose translations—spanning fifty-four years—she aims to disentangle. Emmerich gets to the heart of the problem almost immediately: Sappho “is one of the most famous poets about whom we know virtually nothing,” and yet she “has become a continual site of return for those who seek an origin of sorts: the first female poet, the original lesbian, the originator of a poetry in which the self and the word are one.” This contradiction complicates a common strategy among translators (and serious readers generally), that of seeking clues to thorny passages in writer’s work by resorting to the same’s biography, a strategy that is not without its own pitfalls. (To those who think the mythology that has grown up around the figure of Sappho is a case applicable only to her and few other poets of antiquity, we need only remind them that a similar lore has sprung up around Clarice Lispector, informing the way recent retranslations of her work have been received, if not exercising influence on the way in which it has been translated.)
Emmerich details one of the central conundrums facing translators of Sappho: to retain the fragmentary nature of the Greek poet’s fragments in translation or to translate them as a single unified poem. Barnard and Barnstone choose the latter options, whereas Carson uses brackets and spacing to gesture toward the Greek original. Where Carson’s approach might seem more “authentic” to some, Emmerich detects a potential problem: Carson’s organization of the poem in what Emmerich calls a “word-for-word” manner “suggest[s] to readers that this Greek text is the Greek text, and that her translation is as accurate and noninterventionist as one could hope.” And in spite of the fragmentation, Carson’s translation is “sense-generating” where the Greek is not. Barnstone, Emmerich tells us, translates each fragment as a separate, whole poem, inserting “connective tissue” where necessary to create meaning. Meanwhile, Emmerich notes, Barnard’s decision to bring the two fragments into a single poem gives it all the hallmarks of a modernist poem—from hanging indents to frequent occasions of enjambment—and it is Barnard who “seems most wiling to actively imagine the work of the translator as a form of editorial work that is both backward- and forward-looking.” Emmerich’s examination of Barnard’s translation is one of the most insightful passages of the book, and her characterization of Barnard’s aim also recalls Nicholas Moore’s variations on the poems in Baudelaire’s Spleen, rendered by Moore in the voices of H. D. to Bob Dylan.
Susan Stewart’s look at translation of eighteenth-century Italian writer Giacomo Leopardi’s “L’infinito,” in translations by Kenneth Rexroth, Jonathan Galassi, and Eamon Grennan, is also worth special attention. From the influence of post-Copernican astronomy on Leopardi’s poetry (retained only in Galassi’s translation, according to Stewart) to wordplay that combines the concrete and the abstract, to the importance of Leopardi’s “key terms,” Stewart opens up the poem and delivers a satisfying experience not unlike finally understanding the tenets of orchestration that finally allow one to understand what it is that makes a favorite piece of music so sublime.
Giving a similar tableau of the task of the translator, Willis Barnstone, taking his turn as judge and executioner, looks at translations of sixteenth-century Spanish poet San Juan de la Cruz, Carmelite monk and “poet of paradox.” Though we may tend to think that the enigmatic figure we so often attribute to poets dates back only to the original poètes maudits—Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Valéry—Barnstone tells us that San Juan claimed that the experiences behind his poems—which certainly broke the bounds of the pious life—came as a result of mystical knowledge. (Do I sense a double-entendre?) Drawing parallels with the poetry of Keats and Milton, particularly where such comparisons pertain to the use of ecclesiastical language to describe erotic experience, Barnstone gives readers to understand the dimension of the task before any translator of San Juan, and so exemplifies the ideal of translator-critic.
While Barnstone exemplifies the translator-critic, Sidney Wade proves herself translator-ambassador par excellence with her look at Yahya Kemal Beyatlı’s poem “Night.” In analyzing her own co-translation with Yurdanur Salman and two other renditions by Roger Finch and Bernard Lewis, Wade provides readers with an informed appreciation of the competing priorities that face a translator through her careful scrutiny of the various linguistic challenges arising from languages as disparate as are English and Turkish. Where Lewis prizes the compact line (using even fewer syllables per line than the already taut original), Finch opts for a longer but no less strict line; Wade herself, noting the original’s own variance, sacrifices slavish consistency for “the deep lyricism of the original music.” It is, interestingly enough, the two most extreme examples—Lewis’s economy in comparison with Wade and Salman’s lyric ideal—that seem most successful here. In identifying certain liberties taken with the literal meaning of the text in all three translations, Wade explains that differences in cultural tolerance of ambiguity—in other words, readers’ expectations of just how much they’ll have to figure out for themselves—often led her (and Finch) to try to fill in the logical gaps left by the Turkish text. Her commentary is the perfect companion to Emmerich’s in that it helps us imagine in yet another way the role of “translator as editor.”
If after reaching the end of Into English a reader finds herself a bit wistful for the presence of more translations of contemporary poets, she most certainly won’t be alone. As co-editor Collins explains in her introduction to this anthology, the very task laid before contributors—to find multiple translations of a single poem and compare them—contained an often unavoidable bias: in order to find several good translations that would lend themselves to insightful analysis, contributors often had to resort to translations from poets and from languages that have generally been well-represented in English translation. A future volume, one imagines, might commission multiple translations of poems by contemporary poets, though such translations would almost certainly eliminate, in part, analyses like those advocated by Borges and Steiner, in which one seeks a survey of available translations and gauges their ability to hold over time. And yet, other riches await.
It is also likely that by omitting even short biographical notes on the authors of the poems whose work is being discussed, this anthology is fated to become very much a book for dedicated aficionados. It is not a volume that just any reader (or novice translator) might open to immediate benefit from the knowledge distilled. There are two rather clear beneficiaries, however: serious students of literary translation and critics who aspire to review works of world literature. In recent years, the conversation among translation advocates has moved toward how to improve the sensitivity and care with which critics assess work in translation, and one of this anthology’s most important contributions might be in mapping out a way forward.
Any critic would do well to consult it.
Eric M. B. Becker is editor of Words without Borders. An award-winning journalist and literary translator, he is the recipient of a 2014 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant. He has translated the work of numerous Brazilian writers, including 2016 Nobel nominee Lygia Fagundes Telles, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Noemi Jaffe, Alice Sant’anna, and 2015 Jabuti Prize winner Carol Rodrigues. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Freeman’s, and World Literature Today, among other publications. In 2016, he was the recipient of a Fulbright grant to travel to Rio de Janeiro to translate Brazilian literature and edited PEN America’s Glossolalia anthology of Brazilian women writers with Mirna Queiroz.
Published in Issue 51

"Critics are by no means the end of the law. Do not think all is over with you because you articles are rejected. It may be that the editor has his drawer full, or that he does not know enough to appreciate you, or you have not gained a reputation, or he is not in a mood to be pleased. A critic's judgment is like that of any intelligent person. If he has experience, he is capable of judging whether a book will sell. That is all. (Junior editor, Harper's Bazaar, 1866)"
Lavina Goodell

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