Found in Translation


By Jeff Bursey

In the 1980s, a conversation I was having with a professor of English deteriorated when I made the suggestion that translated works ought to be taught his students. Weren’t we always being consigned to an abyss of ignorance for not picking up on allusions to Ovid or Dante? Wouldn’t that just be exciting on its own? “We don’t do that because we’re a department of English!” he practically yelled. Move forward twenty-some years to another professor, at a different university, who stated that translations were something she’d never teach due to the fact that they weren’t the real work. Later, a respected poet commented that he couldn’t talk much on translated poetry because the poetry, as Frost said, was lost.

Award-winning and respected translator David Bellos has heard these and many more arguments against translation, as he details in Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything, a book that’s at times amusing, at times disheartening, and in all instances instructive and grounded in solid arguments that, to me, effectively refute the objections mentioned above. It’s perhaps for these reasons that it’s up for the National Book Critics Circle award, in the criticism category. Considering that the competition includes books by the fashionable Jonathan Lethem and the late Ellen Willis, his odds of winning on 8 March seem less than good. More importantly, I can’t believe that translated fiction suddenly matters much, particularly in the United States, as he makes clear:

Nearly 80 per cent of all translations done in all directions between these seven languages over a decade—103,000 out of 132,000—are translations from English. Conversely, barely more than eight per cent of all translations done in the same set are translations into English—whereas French and German between them are the receiving languages of 78 per cent of all translations.

Clearly English is today’s dominant language in the world: “…many serious books in English about history, science, literature and the arts cannot be commercially translated into Swedish, Danish, Norwegian or Dutch because interested readers in these communities read them in English already.” But this is not due to monetary or military strength. Instead, “book culture—and, within it, the culture of translation—is heavily concentrated in France, Germany, Britain and the USA.” The status of English today is akin to how Latin and French were, at various times, the primary languages for treaties, diplomacy, etiquette, religion, and culture. It’s likely English has about the same odds of being permanently in top place.

Book reviews of translated work help spread the word, but many review outlets will only choose a handful of foreign texts to highlight. Publishers dedicated to putting out such works—Archipelago, Dalkey Archive, Harvill Secker, and Twisted Spoon come to mind—are few, especially when it comes to literary works. Reviewers come in for justified criticism, since many of us don’t have the language skills required to declare, for instance, that something new out of Finland has been rendered into the appropriate English mode. “People who declare translations to be no substitute for the original imply that they possess the means to recognize and appreciate the real thing, that is to say, original composition as opposed to a translation.”

Bringing in examples such as Horace Walpole’s fake translation of an Italian novel titled, in English, The Castle of Otranto, and more recent works in French presented by Andreï Makine as translations of a French writer when they were his own works, indicate that readers of various levels of sophistication cannot tell a translation from a work written in their first language. We’re also aware that, as Bellos says, what sounds foreign “in a translation is necessarily an addition to the original,” and that having “Kafka sound German in English is perhaps the best a translator can do to communicate to the reader his or her own experience of reading the original.” However, excluding French, Spanish and German, “writing translations that preserve in the way they sound some trace of the work’s ‘authentic foreignness’ is only really applicable when the original is not very foreign at all.”

With reviewers of limited help, and few publishers presenting foreign works, then perhaps translation is best served in the classrooms of higher education. Not so:

It’s a curious paradox. The disparagement of translations emanates most powerfully from those very circles where the ability to translate (at least, in the technical sense) is most likely to be found. It is reinforced in many universities by departments of modern languages that grudgingly permit the teaching of literature in translation only if it’s restricted to a separate programme in comparative literature. Of course, their colleagues in history, English, philosophy, sociology, anthropology and even mathematics use translated works all the time. But modern language departments don’t seem to notice that at all.

Through various chapters that emphasize the essential and valuable role of translation in the European Union, international law, news transmission, and simultaneous interpretation, as well as those dealing with literal and oral translation, and translation machines, Bellos keeps returning to what I would call its noble goal: to ensure people can talk to and hear each other, as best one can. Where would we be without translation? Could we program electronics, assemble furniture, conduct business across the globe, and travel with some degree of safety (or knowledge of risk) without someone somewhere either translating the material we need, or able to understand more than one language? Everyone owes translators more respect and encouragement, and English-language reviewers could certainly afford to express more interest in books entering our ambit from a foreign language.

One of the objections against studying (if not actually reading) translated literary works is that, if put into English, it doesn’t get across what’s said in the original. Bellos agrees. “If you’re looking for the ineffable, stop here. It’s blindingly obvious. It’s not poetry, but community, that is lost in translation.” He has this to say on the essence of translation:

The truth of literary translation is that translated works are incommensurable with their source, just as literary works are incommensurable with each other, just as individual readings of novels and poems and plays can only be ‘measured’ in discussion with other readers. What translators do is find matches, not equivalences, for the units of which a work is made, in the hope and expectation that their sum will produce a new work that can serve overall as a substitute for the source.

Translators face a multifaceted challenge: to match the text they’re translating with the right words in the target-language without getting more of themselves down than the author, to be invisible but to have the occasional word or the atmosphere itself visibly ‘other,’ and then to hear their efforts described from a “small set of standard words of praise: fluent, witty, racy, accurate, brilliant, competent and stylish.” Without knowledge of the first language, a reviewer is left to his or her own feeble devices. Generally we can’t evaluate the smoothness or errors of a translation, though I recall reading the English translation (the only one I know about) of Yuri Dombrovsky’s The Faculty of Useless Knowledge and finding it to be filled with distracting Britishisms that kept me removed from the main body of this very Russian work. But in the future I can keep in mind these remarks of Bellos:

A translation can’t be right or wrong in the manner of a school quiz or a bank statement. A translation is more like a portrait in oils…. The mysterious abilities we have for recognizing good matches in the visual sphere lie near to what it takes to judge that a translation is good…. There’s no choice but to trust the translator. When it comes to speech and writing… people are an untrusting lot.

Throughout Is That a Fish in Your Ear? a reader is given much history and many ideas, new and familiar, expressed with a nice wit, and, sometimes, a warranted assertiveness. A number of myths are slain about the inadequacy of translation while cases are set out well supporting its benefits, and surveying its changing goals over the course of history. Bellos starts by defining the right questions to ask, and he makes his thorough way to a positive end that is a clarion call for more people to take translation seriously, and to become translators. This book is valuable for libraries and linguists (some may have disagreements with it), for readers of foreign works, and for any writer who has the hope (or a reasonable expectation) that some day their work will be in a language they don’t speak and who would like to know something about that transformative process.

David Bellos guides us through practical and philosophical thickets in an accessible style that, one hopes, will soften those who think like the professors and poet mentioned above, and those who approvingly quote Frost but miss the point of translation entirely. Incidentally Bellos notes that Frost’s adage can be found all over the Internet but has no identifiable source in the poet’s own work or interviews. He concludes on this point as follows: “Against the dubious adage that poetry is what is lost in translation we have to set the more easily demonstrable fact that, from many points of view, the history of Western poetry is the history of poetry in translation.”

Faber & Faber | 373 pages |  $36 | cloth | ISBN #978-0865478572

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Offshore Drilling: Reviews In Translation

Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is the author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His latest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that has appeared in various publications.