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Review of In Translation: Translators On Their Work and What It Means to Them

July 29, 2013
Tower of Babel

Tower of Babel

A long, long time ago in a land far, far away, the people of the world spoke the same language. It was fun. There was no hand gesturing, shouting, or shoulder shrugging when talking to foreigners. Rosetta Stone did not run ads along side their Facebook streams bragging that their customers would meet their perfect mate if only they spoke French. Everyone sat around and babbled about the books they wanted to read, and what bookshelves they should build to show off their signed first editions. It was paradise. Since they were accomplished construction workers as well as readers they thought, “As long as we’re building bookshelves, we might as well build a stairway to heaven. What better way to get to heaven than a stairway lined in books.” They began their books and mortar tower, and, oh my, it was beautiful. But one day God looked down and was pissed. “You self-serving heathens!” he shouted. In order to stop their evil collaborative ways, he gave them all different languages. Suddenly they could no longer understand each other, and the stairway was forgotten–although Led Zeppelin did have quite a run with it many years later. And so it was that translators came to be.

One Hundred Year of SolitudeThank heavens for translators! Imagine your life without Albert Camus, Marcel Proust, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Per Petterson, Leo Tolstoy, or Haruki Murakami. If there were no translators, you would never experience the joy of reading The Stranger, Swann’s Way, One Hundred Years of Solitude, I Curse the River of Time, Anna Karenina, or 1Q84.

Amazingly, translators are the Rodney Dangerfields of the literary world. Their station in life is to be largely invisible, garnering little respect or fame. Once in awhile a translator such as Murakami will be the talk of the town such as when he translated The Great Gatsby into Japanese. And, the literary world was all aflutter when Lydia Davis produced new versions of Swann’s Way and Madame Bovary. But those are the exceptions. I am in awe of translators. Most people probably don’t realize this, but translators are bi-lingual. I know! That never occurred to me either.

In TranslationSeriously though, translators are completely under-appreciated. That’s why I was very excited to hear that a book of essays was published in May by Columbia University Press called In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means. It’s a fascinating exploration into the nature and process of translating. I learned, among other things, what makes a translation great, and what a translator takes into consideration when tackling another author’s book.

Part One contains seven essays contained under the heading The Translators in the World. Part Two is The Translator at Work and has 11 essays. One of my favorites is Eliot Weinberger’s Anonymous Sources in which he says that “translators are the geeks of literature.”

Another was Catherine Porter’s essay Translation as Scholarship. At one point she talks about the invisibility of translators. She says that in a 2009 New York Times article featuring Europa Editions, a publishing house that markets foreign literature in translation, “Five authors and titles were cited for the article, but not one translator was mentioned; indeed, the word “translator” never appeared at all.”

The Great GatsbyMost translators are authors in their own right. Murakami has written a dozen novels and won numerous writing awards including the Franz Kafka Prize, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Jerusalem Prize, among others. In his essay, As Translator, as Novelist, which was translated by Ted Goossen, he talks about what The Great Gatsby means to him and why he thought he needed to produce yet another version of it in Japanese. He says, “I found that none of the translations I looked at satisfied me, regardless of their quality. Inevitably, I would think, ‘This feels a bit (or a lot!) different from the Gatsby I know.’” Later he says, “…I translated Gatsby at an extremely personal level. I wanted to make my long-standing image of Gatsby clear and concrete, so that readers could picture the distinct colors and contours of the novel and feel its textures. To do this, I strove to eliminate anything that was the slightest bit obscure or that might leave the reader feeling as if they had somehow missed something….I have always felt that translation is fundamentally an act of kindness.”

In Translation is a very engaging read. It’s also quite funny at times. I found a treasure trove of little-known facts and anecdotes about a world I knew little about.

About the Editors:

Esther Allen has twiced received fellowships from the NEA, was named a Chevalier de l”ordre des arts et des lettres in 2006, and was a Fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. She teaches at Baruch College.

Susan Bernofsky received the 2006 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize, the Herman Hesse Translation Prize, as well as awards and fellowships from the NEA, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Leon Levy Center for Biography, and the Lannan Foundation. She chairs the PEN Translation Committee and is the director of Literacy Translation at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.

Columbia University Press, 2013

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10 Comments
  1. Another great review of a book I’ve been sniffing and circling around. Now I’m convinced it needs to be on the TBR pile(s). Thanks, Diane!

  2. Thanks, E. And, thanks also for turning me on to Europa Editions last year!

  3. Yay for translators and yay also for bloggers who specialise in reading works of translation, I don’t where we would be without the likes of Winston’s Dad – reading and sharing the gems.

  4. Like you, I’m in awe of translators. The nuance of language, with its varying syntax, makes choosing ‘le mot juste’ a deliberate and I would think trying process. Capturing story while retaining that elusive thing known as a writer’s voice is a gift, and Edith Grossman has also written eloquently about this in ‘Why Translation Matters.’

  5. Claire and Deborah, this book was such an eye opener for me. It was so well done that it made what can be a very academic topic an extremely interesting read for anyone who cares about books. I can’t say enough good things about it. Will definitely check out Why Translation Matters now.

  6. John McNeese permalink

    Lori is going to be mad at you. Yet again you’ve introduced me to a book I would certainly have missed. I am going to buy it (and probably a bag full of other books) and try to sneak them by Lori- just to preserve the good relationship she has with you!!

  7. What an interesting and cleverly-written piece, Diane. You have piqued my interest in translation now.

    • Thanks so much for the compliment. It was fun to write this piece. If you read In Translation, I think you’ll be as surprised as I was to find out how fascinating the field of translation is.

  8. Can’t wait to pick this up. I’m a big fan of translators. When I read Faust, it made a huge difference which edition and which translator it was. I also adore Jane Hirshfield and almost went into translation because of her. I still have as my goal to translate a German text. Wonderful post.

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