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Adeste Fideles

Why Translation Matters

By Edith Grossman
Yale University Press, 2010

Wherever I Lie is Your Bed

Edited by Margaret Jull Costa and Marilyn Hacker
Center for the Art of Translation, 2010

Discussions of translations often end up as litanies of extreme choices: do you prioritize sound or sense? bring the writer to the reader (as if the author wrote in your own language) or the reader to the writer (as if reading the book in its original state)? and is translation itself even possible? Edith Grossman gamely takes on all these questions, among others, in her entry for Yale University Press’ “Why X Matters” series. While she is understandably impatient about needing to answer some of these questions at all—notably whether literature is translatable or not—there’s no false advertising here: Grossman really does set out to show why translation matters.

Three of the four sections of this slim book are based on lectures Grossman delivered at Yale, with only a final chapter (on poetry) specifically crafted for this volume. What’s lost from this arrangement is the organized drive of a book written as a whole; a number of repetitions slow the first half in particular, and the line of argumentation is neither very logical nor deliberate. However, what we get instead is worth the trade. Grossman proves to be a chatty and pragmatic guide, and when she gets worked up her voice thunders on the page. Instead of attempting to generate a singular system, she zeros in on capturing the experience of translation. This is not to say that she doesn’t rub elbows with a lot of theory. After all, anyone who has taken a stab at it themselves will quickly realize that translation is in some ways a series of negotiations. Again and again a translator must make decisions, and as the possibilities multiply exponentially, a set of parameters, guidelines, a code—in short, a theory—look pretty tempting to help lead the way out of such a morass.

Along the way, Grossman also provides forceful justifications for literature itself. In looking at what translation means for writers and readers, Grossman is both heartfelt and doggedly practical as she addresses the many reasons for bringing books into a new language. A sampling of these arguments include: if literature, in general, helps us understand both outer and inner worlds, writers from different countries expand these perspectives; publishing in English allows writers to sustain a career with audiences composed of the educated world elite, movie studios, Nobel prizes judges, and the biggest book market in the world (the US); and authors have always borrowed and been influenced by writers in other languages, so this injection of new ideas is vital to combating insularity and complacency and in building an understanding of the world. For this last point, Grossman gives on one historical example and traces a lineage from Cervantes to Faulkner to Garcia Marquez and on to a coterie of writers in English: Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo and Michael Chabon. Grossman doesn’t simplify as radically as I do here and she achieves a herculean task in justifying why all literature matters.

But Grossman’s most intriguing contribution is her search for the adequate metaphor for what translation is, as both a goal and an experience. Several times she paints the image of what it isn’t: a sheet of tracing paper laid over the original, the translator functioning as a dutiful second year language student laboriously transferring definitions from the dictionary to create an interlinear scan. Even more frequently, Grossman repeats the notion, borrowed from the German translator Ralph Manheim, that “translators are like actors who speak the lines as the author would if the author could speak English.” Or, in a variation on this theme, Grossman charmingly describes the rare “sweet spot, when I can begin to imagine that the author and I have started to speak together—never in unison, certainly, but in a kind of satisfying harmony. …The experience is exhilarating, symbiotic, certainly metaphorical, and absolutely crucial if I am to do what I am supposed to do—somehow get into the author’s head and behind the author’s eyes and re-create in English the writer’s linguistic perceptions of the world.”

Particularly in this second passage, as Grossman rummages around, grasping after the way to communicate what translation is (or should be) and what she as a translator does (or should do), it becomes clear that a description doesn’t naturally slide into our vocabulary. It’s not that her images aren’t striking or don’t capture her strong perspective, just that translation is something that can only be conveyed through metaphor. In this labor Grossman is not alone. Arthur Schopenhauer sought an analogy in music, writing, “the most nearly perfect translation will at best relate to the original in the same way that a musical piece relates to its transposition into another key.” Theologian and Plato translator Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher framed his ideals of translation in saying, “Who would not rather beget children who are in their parent’s image rather than bastards?”

As language falls short, perhaps it is apt that Grossman saves her real rhetorical flourishes to lambaste those who make their bread and butter from finding words to talk about writing: book reviewers. And boy does she ever! Both those who have reviewed her translations and those who haven’t receive her ire, and she finds among both groups critics who illustrate a couple fundamental fallacies that undermine the public’s understanding of translation.

First, Grossman turns to Benjamin Schwarz, the literary editor of The Atlantic, who in 2004 explained the magazine’s decision to cover very few translated books:

We tend to focus on prose-style in our assessment of fiction. It’s obviously far more difficult to do so when reviewing literature in translation, because both the reviewer and the reader of the book encounter not the author’s writing but the translator’s rendering of it. Hence we run fewer pieces on translated works.

Implicit in this is the idea that the translation isn’t a work of literature, only the original text (the “tracing paper” fallacy). A second underlying assumption—echoed by reviewers who claim they can’t review translated books because they don’t speak the original language and thus aren’t able to verify the accuracy of the translation—is part two of what Grossman deplores: the idea that the translator is mechanically copying a dictionary’s definitions, not making creative choices of her own, and so a reviewer’s comments can only come as a sort of glorified fact-check. Grossman then turns to a 2007 review of Cuban writer Mayra Montero’s Dancing to “Almendra”:

Montero’s story was originally written in Spanish but has been translated by Edith Grossman for English readers. Fortunately the translation doesn’t seem to have taken anything away from the beautiful style in which the book is written.

The crucial word here is “seem”: the only conclusion we can arrive at is that the reviewer has in fact not read Montero’s work in the original and thus the “beautiful style” that Grossman has managed to preserve is based only on reading the “beautiful style” of the translation. From other examples, it is clear that this isn’t an isolated idea; in assessments of translations, all successes in writing are frequently attributed to the author, all failures to the translator.

Finally, woe to the reviewer who describes Grossman’s work in a single adverb: “This book, ably translated by Edith Grossman…” or the even more despicable “seamlessly.” What these reviewers have in common (in addition to a dismissive attitude toward a translator’s contributions to a text) is the implied belief that an ideal translation of a work—an agglomeration of every “correct” translation choice into a Platonic form—exists somewhere out there in the ether. A translator, then, must simply follow the path to it without making a misstep anywhere along the way. You can see why Grossman doesn’t find this idea very appealing. But the critical tendency to casually dismiss the role of the translator is indicative of a deeper nervousness critics and readers share in the presence of a translation. The conception is that there is something pure about the original state of a book that can only be muddied or diluted when touched by extra hands. Reading translations obliges you to think much more about the behind-the-scenes process of working with words, and to grant a nuanced notion of authorship, both of which can seem uncomfortably at odds with the romantic notion of an isolated genius, scribbling away in her garret alone.

(It’s not only in translation that such an idea can lead to trouble. Currently, readers and reviewers are torn between choosing which of Raymond Carver’s stories are the “real” stories: the more expansive, hopeful, and conversational drafts that he originally wrote, or the bleak and concise versions that resulted from Gordon Lish’s editing. The irresolvable discomfort lies in the fact that there are two competing ideals here: the iconic voice Carver’s readers have grown accustomed to and that has influenced generations of writers following him, and the voice of Carver’s original drafts. With the disconnect between the two, the public has been forced to confront the nuts-and-bolts process rarely spoken of, and which may at first seem as disillusioning as the work of passing legislation. Moreover, in between the two extremes—an unedited manuscript and a rewritten story—lies broad middle ground. Every edited book sits in it, and perhaps there is no possible line discernable between what is someone’s “own” and what isn’t.)

Edith Grossman (photo from Bookforum)

Thinking about the literally infinite options available to a writer—of words, sentences, paragraphs chapters; cuts and additions; syntax and order; dialogue and paraphrase; not only what is included but every possible moment that something isn’t—brings my head to the brink of explosion. Unlike other types of literature, translation makes this process hard to forget. What translation shares with other areas, though, is that just as an original writer’s role isn’t to build up and whittle away their text until it conforms to Platonic ideal, neither is a translator simply carving away in an attempt to reveal the idealized version sitting behind the text.

Might this mean that the experience of reading a translation is distinct from books originally written in English? Grossman relays one recommendation that a new genre of translation be created:

It has been suggested to me by an academic friend who is not a translator but is an indefatigable critic, editor and reader, that translation may well be an entirely separate genre, independent of poetry, fiction, or drama, and that the next great push in literary studies should probably be to conceptualize and formulate the missing critical vocabulary. That is to say, it is certainly possible that translations may tend to be overlooked or even disparaged by reviewers, critics, and editors because they simply do not know what to make of them, in theory or in actuality.

Grossman doesn’t weigh in on this suggestion of a separate genre, but one can only imagine that if it were sectioned off in the bookstore and review pages, translation would be even further marginalized. Tearing translations out of context, lumping Homer, Basho and Proust together, runs counter to the way readers read and writers write, the way ideas enter a culture’s consciousness, the way the Renaissance revitalized European culture as classical texts safeguarded in the Middle East and North Africa became newly available again through translation, the way Cervantes influenced Faulkner who influenced Garcia Marquez who influenced Toni Morrison. Far better would be to get over our timidity and put the translator’s name on the cover—and understand his or her contribution to the book—instead of pretending that a translated novel isn’t a novel.

And yet Grossman recognizes that a particularly unorthodox relationship exists in a translation:

The undeniable reality is that the work becomes the translator’s (while simultaneously and mysteriously somehow remaining the work of the original author’s) as we transmute it into a second language. Perhaps transmute is the wrong verb; what we do is not an act of magic, like altering base metals into precious ones, but the result of a series of creative decisions and imaginative acts of criticism.

She goes on to detail the manifold considerations—of register, sound, rhythm, meaning and suggestion of vocabulary, cultural context, the cumulative effect of all at once, and of any shifts in this pattern throughout—a translator must pay to the original; and then she must think of her own language, with its own separate history, rhythm, clichés, allusions and so forth. (Something that has always struck me is that the first frustration of translation is a foreign word without an exact parallel, the second is all the words in English without a parallel in the other language.) Grossman, like so many before her, appeals to “fidelity” as the guiding term for a translator in negotiating between the two (Grossman, though, puts a rather uniquely contractual spin on the matter: “a mindless, literalist translation would constitute a serious breach of contract. There isn’t a self-respecting publisher in the world who would not reject a manuscript framed in this way. It is not acceptable, readable, or faithful, as the letters of agreement demand, though it certainly may have its own perverse originality”). While almost every translator ever has differentiated between fidelity and literalism and come down as a firm proponent of the former (Vladimir Nabokov being a notable exception), just what exactly “fidelity” means on the page is not straightforward.

Grossman’s metaphors are her way of approaching a description of fidelity (as is her explanation of several specific choices she has made in translating contemporary and golden age poetry), because a definition is elusive. The irony is that translation has more theory written about it than you’d think for a type of book that notoriously constitutes only 3 percent of books published in the United States. Grossman quotes from a surprisingly large number of her predecessors in the field—Walter Benjamin, Jose Ortega y Gasset, Vladimir Nabokov, among the bunch—for such a slim and conversational book. And yet, their ideas haven’t trickled down into the public conversation in a substantive, non-abstruse way. Grossman’s chatty, combative proselytizing may, we can hope, have more success, since overcoming discomforts with translation will make for a public with a greater ability to think intelligently about questions of authorship in all areas of literature.

If we are convinced that translation does indeed matter, and that in the US today there is an embarrassing lack of it, how can it be supported without being bundled off into its own genre? The virtue of Wherever I Lie is Your Bed, the recent anthology of poetry and prose from the Center for the Art of Translation, is that it talks explicitly about how two writers’ hands shape a finished product—it brings the behind-the-scenes work eloquently to the forefront. Part of their Two Lines series, this volume has both the signature oblong pages (alas, not designed for the subway reader-rider) and ample introductions to every selection by its translator.

Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed does not hang together all that well (in part, perhaps, because it treats translation as a genre). It is organized around the theme of home and its boundaries, roots and uprootedness, yet the selections whip around the world and across decades, through all sorts of styles of both prose and poetry, placing new translations of more familiar voices (Gunter Grass, Inger Christensen, Adonis) alongside the little-known (Andrej Glusgold, Anna Szabo, Rogelio Riveron). Despite the translators’ earnest efforts to situate each author within his or her particular literary tradition, the structure of the book itself stands in their way; only in the final pages, in the focus on Palestinian poetry, is there any sort of glimpse of historical progression, the range of textures another language has in English, the accretion of a vocabulary of cultural referents and images—all necessary precursors to an understanding of the continuity and rupture that each poet’s voice represents. The very necessity of such one-stop-shopping goes to show how little attention readers have paid to translated work.

Kurdistani poet Sherko Bekes

Even so, there’s a great deal that’s invaluable in this collection, and reading it gives an acute appreciation for a number of the problems that translators must wrestle with to achieve Grossman’s touchstone of fidelity. One such obstacle is the fact that languages and national literatures have varied conventions, so as a piece of writing is brought from one into another it can’t help but have a different effect. Sherko Bekes is the author of a book-length poem, “Butterfly Valley,” written in wake of the Iraqi attacks on his native Kurdistan. The excerpt from Choman Hardi’s translation in Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed begins:

Where do you come from? They ask me—
the question transfiguring into a blackberry
that prompts my voice to bleed.
For the thousandth time, I name my flower

Hardi explains in his introduction that metaphor, simile, and vivid imagery are more common in contemporary Kurdish poetry than English poetry, and in English the way metaphor stretches so deeply that the line between the target of the metaphor and the image drawn by it becomes blurred is undeniably challenging. This is a complicated portrait of transformation, although it can be unpacked: there is a sinuous feeling of movement as the question becomes a berry and is then all bracketed into the mention of the berry, then the berry shifts from object to subject; this movement happens again, as the voice is first acted upon and then acts (albeit as an infinitive); and all this snaking back and forth is ultimately fruitless, leading yet again to the same place: the speaker of the poem returning to his flower—his landscape, his home.

Hardi shows an exceptionally deft hand at bringing metaphors into English without forcing or belaboring them. Take for instance a scene at a bar, where men and women, “…swayed / to the rabbiting of music and lyrics.” “Rabbiting” is a risky but successful coinage: it’s efficient without feeling awkward, and it incorporates an odd insight in a remarkably whole-cloth English way.

The reader may protest that although this is striking and beautiful, it isn’t the equivalent of reading the original Kurdish. That is of course true, but what is Hardi to do—omit the metaphors? While this would be faithful on one point (the frequency of the device in the respective languages), it would obviously be insufficiently faithful on many others. As John Felstiner, the remarkable Neruda translator, said of the process, “Get the letter and you miss the spirit, which is everything in poetry; or get the spirit and you miss the letter, which is everything in poetry.” Of course he goes on to call these “false dilemmas,” but what he and all others who introduce such extremes are struggling with is the question of what does the poem consist of: images, rhythm, words, word order, a feeling, an experience? Is there even some “essence” of a poem at all? This is another quandary not unique to translation. Consider Hamlet: even in English, how many interpretations have been staged? Some may be provocative, some may be wrong, but behind them all, is a “true” Hamlet lurking, or are there unlimited iterations that overlap in some hard-to-describe way? A good translator—a faithful translator—weighs the manifold features and prioritizes and reprioritizes them at every shifting moment of the poem. Ideally, an awareness of and engagement with the choices a translator makes can shed light onto what is most meaningful about the original.

In addition to the question of the essence of the material, there also remains the slippery question of the essence of different languages. Might a work be transformed not in translation but by being translated? Jorge Luis Borges often mentioned his deep relationship to English: the great Argentinian author did much of his reading not only of English literature, but in English itself. As a result, his translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni described how Borges’ own writing in Spanish is strongly influenced by English, from word order to verb tense, so di Giovanni says, “I listen to a sentence of his and I can hear an English sentence beneath it…. He has revitalized the [Spanish] language. … In a way, since English made Borges and since he is giving Spanish an English cast, he fulfills himself in English, his work become more itself in English.” Part of the reason his writing falls easily into our language is because the transgressive elements of his language are less experimental. Does this make him less interesting? Or could it make him a better writer in English than in Spanish? If so, and if he himself still writes in Spanish and relies on a translator to achieve this success, what should be attributed to the translator in the process?

Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish

Such inquiries are provoked on nearly every page of Wherever I Lie is Your Bed. Mahmoud Darwish’s “Rita’s Winter” is an hallucinatory love poem, inspired by a Jewish Israeli lover the Palestinian poet once had. In Fady Joudah’s translation, long lyric lines and a syntax that seems to lap back on itself (“will you take me with you: I would / become the ring of your barefoot heart”) elegantly capture a mood of bewilderment, longing and surreality. Much of the imagery here too is metaphoric, which suggests a deep inarticulability of the experience—both the bafflement of love and the transgression of the relationship between a Palestinian man and Israeli woman:

sleep with one hand around echo and the other
scattering the solitude of the forests
sleep between the pistachio shirt and the lemon seat
like a mare upon the banners of her wedding night …
The neighing has quieted
the beehives in our blood have quieted, but was Rita
here, and were we together?

Note that among everything else that pulls a reader into interpretive participation, these comparisons draw from the landscape: pistachios, lemons, beehives. Other passages reference more objects that readers will connect with the Middle East: “…why should I depart anew / as long as I have grapes and memory…” or “…her nails light up the salt / in my blood…” For this embattled couple, there are metaphors betokening war and violence: “…my language is shrapnel”; “the horses are in suicide.” Then there’s the beautiful, “But I broke my childhood, mother, and came out a woman nourishing her breast / with the lover’s mouth…” How precise is the shift in Joudah’s translation from the simultaneously homey and technical “nourishing” and the definite article of “the lover” to the sneaky, witty twist of the breast being nourished by the mouth. It is hard to despair of what we might be missing out on in the original when all the elements of the translated poem—its subject, images, and rhythm—work in such superb concert.

Of course, trying to control what the emotional resonances are in a poem with too tight a fist will never be successful. This not a quandary afflicting translation alone: it has been suggested that Shakespeare be translated into modern English (as Grossman did from Spanish in her Don Quixote). The argument goes that Shakespearean translators have brought the Bard into their own languages so that he can be understood without footnotes—which, as any high school student puzzling over the biting of thumbs and the word “collier,” will appreciate is not quite the case for English speakers. On the other hand, his plays have not lost their power over those of us with an imperfect understanding of every allusion to Elizabethan culture. A more modern example might be Holden Caulfield: I’m sure his voice doesn’t sounds to me the way it did to a teenager in 1951, but I imagine a teenager reading The Catcher in the Rye today will also finding different things to appreciate than I did. The context of literature changes not only through space (either linguistic or geographic) but also time (historical and in the life of the reader). Ultimately, this amplification of resonances is one of the significant contributions of translation.

That said, recondite cultural traditions, unknown to people in other countries, can have a way of bedeviling translators aiming for fidelity. In the preface to another selection from Wherever I Lie is Your Bed, Anthea Bell confesses she struggled with a line in Rogelio Riveron’s story until she discovered that in Cuba, when someone is in distress they sprinkle water on the neck rather than apply a damp washcloth as one might here. What, then, is the most faithful way to translate this in the story: exchanging the reference for its American equivalent, explaining the change in a brief footnote, or leaving it as is, and relying on context to provide the meaning for this unexpected act? Bell chooses the third option, and I think she chooses wisely: the scene retains its original sense, even if it doesn’t communicate the normalcy of the action.

In her translation of Kirmen Uribe’s Basque poem “The Words That Died in the War,” we see Elizabth Macklin makes a different choice. Uribe’s sweet, nostalgic poem addresses the evolution of Basque language and culture, since during General Franco’s dictatorship speaking Basque was illegal. In those years:

Nouns died.
Katamixarra, the word our grandmother used for
urtxintxa, squirrel, for instance. The children would just say
ardilli, “squirrel,” from that time on.

Two of Macklin’s decisions are in particular relief here—not only the inclusion both the Basque and the English to make the meaning decipherable (though it helps to know, as she explains in her introduction, that “ardilli” is the Basque pronunciation of the Spanish “ardilla”), but, based on my matching of the various squirrel words in her translation against the original Basque text, she has also reordered their occurrence to progress from the grandmother’s squirrel to today’s. The way each word for squirrel literally replaces the other in the chronology of the poem, as it has historically with the relentless drive of time, is very effective. Much of the tension of the poem, in English at least, comes from the structure: the language itself has a chattiness to it that thrives from being worked in this imposed direction. But in this case, it required a break from the original. In a translator’s quest for fidelity—or perhaps success—how far is too far for them to go? And how far is not far enough?

While such questions are a nagging concern for translators, they can be a boon for attentive readers. In D.S. Carne-Ross’s introduction to Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of The Odyssey, he writes, “a great translator can occasionally lend his greater original author a helping hand, as Laurence Binyon does when he writes “thwart winds” for Dante’s ‘contrari venti’”. Di Giovanni translated Borges’ work after the Argentinian went blind. Every day di Giovanni would read a sentence in Spanish and then his rough translation, they would discuss all the nuances of meaning, and then di Giovanni would go off and shape a final version alone. He said this process—and the close relationship and full license he had from Borges—gave him great liberty in making elastic accommodations for his English poems and stories. In Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed, Breon Mitchell describes a slightly less elaborate collaboration with Gunter Grass, who called a conference for all his translators for the 50th anniversary of The Tin Drum, which was being retranslated into many languages. They discussed common quandaries and Grass told them that, in all languages, he wanted a few features of the original emphasized: Oskar’s use of the superlative, distinctions between dialects, and a sound preserved in long passages of the prose that Grass illustrated by reading aloud. Mitchell’s work on the first chapter does indeed have an odder, breathier musicality than the classic Ralph Manheim translation. Hear how, even as the dependent clauses expand and nearly bury the subject of the sentence, the angularity of the consonant sounds and the near-awkward repetitions resonate like a voice:

Before the upturned and inwardly tilted soles of her boots, flaring up asthmatically from time to time and sending a flat layer of troubled smoke across the slightly tilted crust of the soil, smoldered a potato-top fire.

In all of these cases, the translator worked with an agreeable, living author with whom they could discuss choices and receive permissions for particular licenses they took in the quest for fidelity. But, of course, it’s often impossible to consult the original writer (Cervantes has been particularly reluctant to return phone calls)—nor is it necessary. While any way of coming closer to a real understanding of the work is helpful, the second step of crafting the translated text calls for as much inspiration as any other type of writing (Grossman talks of being visited by the Muse) and the original author can be of little help here. The question of permission is a complicated one—a good translator only looks to make leaps in order better represent the book being translated. Fidelity, after all, is about the attempt to avoid dead-eared, lead-footed literalness (which could be described as “unchanged”) and capture the music and magic of the original instead.

So as much as there is a shift in the underlying notion of authorship—and a complication from our idea of the source of creativity—in translation, there is also an ethical (and, as Grossman would have it, contractual) relationship to the original text. This fact was underscored by the case of a translation “hoax” perpetrated by a still anonymous poet who published several supposed translations of a Hiroshima-bombing survivor’s experimental poetry in significant literary magazines. When it was revealed that neither poet nor translator had ever existed, the outcry and sense of betrayal was as extreme (though not quite as widespread) as the Oprah Winfrey-James Frey memoir debacle. Yet despite this necessary dependence of a translator on the original text, recognizing that their writing is an art, and not an act of imperfect duplication, is the key to opening ourselves to vast new worlds of literature.

Why Translation Matters is somewhat of a breakthrough in how all this is talked about, if it doesn’t always cut into new ground of what is said about translation. It is, in the end, a passionate introduction, and a real argument for why there needs to be more conversation–of the sort raised in Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed. And when our reading and wrestling with the details of translation moves from mere slivers in an anthology to full-length, broad-platform books, and from translators’ notes to the pages (or websites) of book reviews, it will be better for all readers, writers, and lovers of the written word.

Krista Ingebretson lives in Brooklyn, works in publishing, and translates poems, which have been published in magazines including BOMB, ecopoetics, and Denver Quarterly.

One Comment »

  • J. Kates says:

    I invite those who are interested in this and who, like the reviewer, are not yet members of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) to join that organization and explore more fully the mainstreams and bayous of translation.

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