From The New York Review of Books:
Is translation a discipline or a cause? A catalogue sent to me by a small American publisher begins by naming all the translators of the foreign titles the company is offering, inviting the reader to thank and celebrate the people who have made the English versions of these books possible.
I go to a university seminar on translation whose program is headed with a quotation from Paul Auster: “Translators are the shadow heroes of literature, the often forgotten instruments… who have enabled us to understand that we all, from every part of the world, live in one world.”
I go to a translation conference where the keynote speaker observes with satisfaction that the period when a speaker might show an example of translation, criticize it, and suggest his or her own supposedly better version—“the time of the ‘Translation Police’”—is thankfully over. Toward the end of the same conference, a revered pioneer of Translation Studies is pleased that “everything we have heard here makes a mockery of pedantic questions of fidelity and the old tendency to hierarchize some translations as good and some as bad.”
When a member of the “Translation Police” does show his face, he is rebuked. I open The New York Times and find an angry letter from a number of well-respected names in the translation community. They are attacking Benjamin Moser’s negative review of Kate Briggs’s recent book on translation, This Little Art. Moser had taken issue with Briggs’s remark that “we need translations. The world, the English-speaking world, needs translations. Clearly and urgently it does; we do.” He felt the claim needed qualification: Which translations, why? He was also unimpressed by Briggs’s enthusiasm for the first translator into English of Thomas Mann’s novels, Helen Lowe-Porter, whose German, it is generally agreed, had shortcomings that lead to there being a large number of mistakes in the English versions. Those writing the letter to the Timesdeplore Moser’s “simplistic and retrograde… insistence on accuracy.” Translation is a complex subject, they observe, and accuracy not such an easy issue to pin down.
Meanwhile, someone directs me to a translators’ online forum where a certain Tim Gutteridge, a British translator based in Spain, has suggested that criticizing a translation for plain errors is hardly a crime—language competence lies at the core of translation, does it not?—and is being scolded by colleagues who feel this is “unethical”; translators need support, not criticism. Reading the thread, it rather seems that they are policing him, and not vice versa. In any event, the issue is so keenly felt in the translation community these days that the editors of In Other Words, the twice-yearly publication of the British Centre for Literary Translation, have decided to dedicate a major article to the ethics of criticizing translations in their forthcoming January edition.
. . . .
You’ll never know exactly what a translator has done. He [or she] reads with maniacal attention to nuance and cultural implication, conscious of all the books that stand behind this one; then sets out to rewrite this impossibly complex thing in his [or her] own language, re-elaborating everything, changing everything in order that it remain the same, or as close as possible to [the translator’s] own experience of the original. In every sentence the most loyal respect must combine with the most resourceful inventiveness. Imagine shifting the Tower of Pisa into downtown Manhattan and convincing everyone it’s in the right place; that’s the scale of the task.
. . . .
Let us return to that catalogue thanking the publisher’s translators. It is true, of course, that a translator makes the English version of a foreign novel possible. However, thanks to copyright law, it is also true that a new translation will prevent the appearance of any other translations of the same book for a very long time. Once Don Bartlett has translated Knausgaard, or Ann Goldstein, Ferrante, or Lorin Stein, Houellebecq, English readers are not going to get a chance to read anyone else’s version for decades. If the book in question is to enter into our culture, our collective psyche, it is going to do so, for better or worse, through this first translation.
Even when we come to translations of works long out of copyright, their authors dead seventy years and more, the investment involved may be so considerable that only one shot at the book will be possible. After Farrar, Straus, and Giroux generously undertook to translate and publish all three thousand pages of the nineteenth-century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi’s tortuously difficult philosophical diary, the Zibaldone, it is hardly likely that another complete edition will appear in our lifetimes. Each translation is an opportunity, to be taken or missed. Thus a responsibility, for both publisher and translator.
Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books