Grossman: Why Translation Matters

All art, literary or otherwise, undergoes a process of translation between thought and language. I found in my notebook an old quotation from Daniel Herwitz:

Art becomes philosophy proper when the philosopher brings out its inner voice (which is the voice of the thinker) through a process of clarification/translation.

In her penetrating book Why Translation Matters, Edith Grossman, writes:

If writing literature is a transfer or transcription of internal experience and imaginative states into the external world, then even when authors and readers who speak the same language, writers are obliged to translate, to engage in the immense, utopian effort to transform the images and ideas flowing through their most intimate spaces into material, legible terms to which readers have access. And if this is so, the doubts and paradoxical questions that pursue translators must also arise for authors. Is their text an inevitable betrayal of the imagination and the creative impulse? Is what they do even possible? Can the written work ever be a perfect fit with that imaginative, creative original when two different languages, two realms of experience, can only approximate each other?

Grossman argues that the act of translating a book from one language to a second is comparable to the original process of creation. Translators are the unrecognised heroes of the literary world. Why Translation Matters is Grossman’s passionate polemic against publishers and critics disdain for translators.

I believe that serious professional translators, often in private, think of themselves-forgive me, I mean ourselves-as writers, no matter what else may cross our minds when we ponder the work we do, and I also believe we are correct to do so.

. . . .

And as Ralph Manheim, the great translator from German, so famously said, translators are like actors who speak the lines as the author would if the author could speak English. . . Whatever else it may be, transaltion in Manheim’s formulation is a kind of interpretive performance, bearing the same relationship to the original text as an actor’s work does to the script, the performing musician’s to the composition.

I like that analogy.

Chapters one and two present the core of Grossman’s proposition, including a fascinating account of her experience of translating Don Quixote. The final chapter looks at the decisions which must be made when translating poetry.

Grossman makes her case convincingly. As Thomas Bernhard has said about literary translation:

Doesn’t interest me at all, because a translation is a different book. It has nothing to do with the original at all. It’s a book by the person who translated it. I write in the German language. You get sent a copy of these books and either you like them or you don’t. If they have awful covers then they’re just annoying. And you flip through and that’s it. It has nothing in common with your own work, apart from the weirdly different title. Right? Because translation is impossible. A piece of music is played the same the world over, using the written notes, but a book would always have to be played in German, in my case. With my orchestra!

Ultimately, this position is indefensible, as Grossman argues:

Imagine how bereft we would be if only the fictional worlds we could explore, the only vicarious literary experiences we could have, were those written in languages we read easily. The deprivation would be indescribable. Depending on your linguistic accomplishments, this would mean you might never have the opportunity to read Homer or Sophocles or Sappho, Catullus or Virgil, Dante or Petrarch or Leopardi, Cervantes or Lope or Quevedo, Ronsard or Rabelais or Verlaine, Tolstoy or Chekhov, Goethe or Heine: even a cursory list of awe-inspiring writers s practically endless, though I have not even left western Europe or gone past the nineteenth century to compile it. Then try to imagine never experiencing any literature written in the countless other languages you  may not know: in my case, these would include Polish, Czech, German, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Turkish, Russian, and all the myriad languages of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. The mere idea creates a prospect that is intolerably, inconceivably bleak.

So, in preparing to read Don Quixote, am I to read Grossman or Cervantes?

[Thanks to Francis for the discovery of this book.]

Reality Hunger by David Shields

The debate is old but David Shields, in Reality Hunger, revives the argument against artifice in the novel. Forget conventional fiction is his manifesto, the energy in literature today is found in essays, memoirs, diaries and non-fiction. His book is a collage, constructed from a mixture of his own content and excerpts and quotations, very hip hop.

A major focus of Reality Hunger is appropriation and plagiarism and what those terms mean. I can hardly treat the topic deeply without engaging in it. That would be like writing a book about lying and not being permitted to lie in it. Or writing a book about destroying capitalism but being told it can’t be published because it might harm the publishing industry.

However, Random House lawyers determined that it was necessary for me to provide a complete list of citations; the list follows …

. . . . . . . .

If you would like to restore this book to the form in which I intended it to be read, simply grab a sharp pair of scissors or a razor blade or box cutter and remove pages 210-218 …

Part of the argument is persuasive. There is terrific vigour in writing that blurs the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. Ryszard Kapuscinski, Geoff Dyer, W. G. Sebald, and J. M. Coetzee create first-rate novels. The diaries, essays and letters of writers like Woolf, Chekhov, Gide, Musil, Beckett are amongst their finest creations.

The validity of Shield’s contention falls down, for me, on the premise that there is such a thing as a “standard” novel. I’m currently reading Zadie Smith’s essays (terrific by the way), in a discussion about Eliot and the Victorian novel she writes:

What is universal and timeless in literature is need – we continue to need  novelists who seem to know and feel, and move between these two modes of operation with wondrous fluidity. What is not universal or timeless, though is form. Forms, styles, structures – whatever word you prefer – should change like skirt lengths. They have to; otherwise we make a rule, a religion, of one form; we say. ‘This form here, this is what reality is like,’ and it pleases us to say that …

Thankfully the form continues to evolve. David Shields provides many examples of contemporary writers successfully moving the style of novels forward. But the need is for literature to contain multitudes. As much as I am enjoying Zadie Smith’s essays and read Reality Hunger with genuine enthusiasm, I relish the freedom to pick up The Brothers Karamazov, follow it with a David Markson, then segue into Cervantes. Too much reality gets old. Though I don’t entirely buy David Shield’s argument, the book is great fun to read, and there are some terrific quotations, as long as you haven’t taken a razor blade to the citations to know their origin.

Bloom on Castorp

Harold Bloom writing of one of my favourite novels Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain:

When I was a boy, first reading fiercely, some sixty years ago, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain was widely received as a work of modern fiction almost comparable to Joyce’s Ulysses and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

Bloom’s comparison recalls Nabokov’s disdain for central European modernism in an argument with Edmund Wilson, “How could you name that quack Mann in one breath with P. and J.?” Nabokov considered Mann one of those “puffed-up writers” that traded in “great ideas,” risking, of course, the criticism often made against Nabokov that in avoiding great ideas he was “all style and no substance. [Paragraph added November 2014.]

Bloom continues:

. . . I urge the reader not to refuse the pleasures of identification with favourite characters, any more than authors have been able to resist such pleasures. There are limits to my urging: Cervantes is not Don Quixote, Tolstoy (who loved her) is not Anna Karenina, and Philip Roth is not “Philip Roth (either of them!) in Operation Shylock.

And:

Why read? Because you can know, intimately, only a very few people, and perhaps you never know them at all. After reading The Magic Mountain you know Hans Castorp thoroughly, and he is greatly worth knowing.