Friday, February 22, 2008

The politics of translating

[The following is the text of Nick Benson’s presentation at ‘The Power and Politics of Translation,’ a panel discussion at the recent AWP (2/2/08); also on the panel were Natasha Sajé (Chair), Forrest Gander, Khaled Mattawa, James Kates, and Lisa Katz. Scroll down for text of the presentations by Lisa Katz and Forrest Gander in previous posts.]

As I was reading around lately with my mind on this panel, I came across this bit of text by Lawrence Venuti: “Translations position readers in domestic intelligibilities that are also ideological positions, ensembles of values, beliefs, and representations that further the interests of certain social groups over others.” As this quotation from Venuti’s The Scandals of Translation (NY: Routledge, 1998: 78) indicates, translation would seem to offer yet another rich site for polarizing debates. In this scenario, literary translators are just as good as anyone else at pushing the envelope, creating and toppling Babel, infringing upon and appropriating; they’re foreignisers or domesticators, academics or poeticizers, activists or originalists, and, just like everyone else, they give politics a bad name. Maybe this habit is somehow reassuringly familiar in its hard-wired, involuntary compulsiveness. Or maybe things aren’t quite as bad as all that, not ten years after Venuti wrote those remarks. One of the co-editors of Calque, the new literary journal that offers new translations each issue, closes the preface to the latest issue (Number 3, Nov. 2007) with these words: “This journal juxtaposes writers from distinct, even disparate literatures. Most are appearing for the first time in English. Others are being rewritten by translators with a critical vision different from that of their predecessors. The only aesthetic connecting them is one of multiplicity – in our case, a literature that loves adaptation, refraction, transgression. In translation, literature is always becoming something new. Calque hopes to illustrate this process.” I mention this editorial statement by Steve Dolph because it’s one of the latest signs that ‘the politics of translation’ − with its suggestion of competing camps, tribal boundaries, binary oppositions – looks in fact like a healthy body politic: that out there, among the publishers, the binaries or poles of literary translation are deliberately being given space to coexist, rather than being thought of as mutually exclusive.

Translators are well aware – maybe all too aware − of the fraught nature of their endeavor, and their prose (intro, afterword) is often marked by a startling and even embarrassingly frank discussion of merits, and a disavowal of grand ambition that is singular in the world of letters. Translators strike me as similar to anthropologists in their deep knowledge of their own hubris, with a sometimes paralyzing recognition of how context dictates worth and credibility. I like this statement by Ronald Knox, English translator of the classics, writing fifty-plus years ago: “The translator must do his best by using the speech that comes natural to him, fortified a little by those good old English words which are out of favour, but not obsolete. His style must be his own, his rhetoric and his emphasis must be that of his original. And always, at the back of his mind, he must imagine that he is the original. Can he hope, in any case, that his version will live? At least, if he does his work well, he will have the comfort of being pirated by his successors” (“On English Translation,” New England Review 25:1-2 [2004]: 112-25; 124). So, translators realize that their endeavor lives – for now. They know that it is in fact a wonder that their effort appears in your hands at all (more about this later).

When it comes to politics, though at times it would seem that translators are uniquely empowered, in fact there aren’t many with less power than translators, and (surprise) I’m disposed to think well of them. My mother was a translator in the Political Section of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow when I was a kid. Maybe my next-generational move toward literary translation is a logical evolutionary step: in a way, it’s an appropriation of agency, since I decide what I’ll translate, and whether it will be read at all.
So much for the political power of the literary translator.

Staying with this admittedly reductive point of view for the time being, one might ask whether the literary translator in fact gains some advantage from his marginal status. A review in the pages of the New York Times Book Review recently opened with some comments on the marginality of poetry in the States being to its poets’ advantage, since this marginality has ostensibly helped poets listen to themselves and to preserve their independence and originality. You could easily make the argument that such a statement in the New York Times constitutes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a case of the market dictating certain parameters. Maybe the point the reviewer was making about poets is better made about literary translators, all the more poignant since they weren’t even mentioned; let’s assume that their marginality is to their advantage, since their independence allows them to choose projects without concern for the marketplace. It sounds good, but anyone who has tried to publish work in translation knows that this unfettered independence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Although I don’t want anyone else to decide what to translate for me, I invite influence as a matter of course; Attilio Bertolucci was a suggestion by my Master’s advisor, and Palazzeschi was suggested to me by a publisher in the States. Even with these prompts or leads, my story of having gone through a dozen or so publishers before finding Parlor Press and their new poetry series, Free Verse, is not at all unusual. Along the way I received some very nice rejection letters – really! Looking back, it seems to me now that I needed the encouragement contained in a couple of those letters to keep on going. Still, I doubt I would have sent the manuscript to another press, if Parlor Press hadn’t taken it. I had resolved to move onto a new project and to spend that sort of psychic energy elsewhere. The translator needs patience, pragmatism, persistence − and computer skills, or the help of a magnanimous friend. The whole process, though, constitutes a kind of training wherein the translator refines his concept of what he’s doing. It forces one to create a kind of mission statement for the work of translation and the specific project. So right now I’m translating Aldo Palazzeschi’s book from 1910, L’incendiario (The Arsonist), a work originally published by F.T. Marinetti and the volume in which Palazzeschi uses onomatopoeia, slang, dialogue, and an apparently reckless free verse style to deflate the exaggerated self-regard of Italian poetry. I owe the NEA profound thanks for helping to support this work; it may not be easy to find an interested publisher, as a writer of the avant-garde a hundred years ago is more than likely still a writer of the avant-garde today.

My goal in this translation of Palazzeschi that I’m doing isn’t that unusual. In spite of the wide array of rhetoric used to describe and defend translations, it seems to me that all literary translations are attempts to come as close as possible, in the target language, to the same rapture/rupture that the original effected in its own time in its own language. It’s not entirely possible, there’s something curatorial in it, but there it is. I’d hypothesize that it is the rare literary translation these days that ‘gets in the way of’ or radically departs from the original − and those that do announce and explain their strategy in an introduction to their translation. And only in the rare case does the reader have to guess what the translator’s intention was, because there’s a sort of textual confession-box otherwise known as the ‘translator’s introduction,’ or sometimes an afterword, in which the translator recounts any exceptional translation problems and (provisional) solutions. (Of course, sometimes the problems win; only in rare cases does one hear why, but a happy exception is Dick Davis’s essay “On Not Translating Hafez” in NER 25:1-2 [2004]: 310-18. To read on this subject: the new book by Emily Apter, The Translation Zone).

It must have been the perfection of the device of translator’s intro, or perhaps its easy availability, that shamed or intimidated me into failing to construct much of a defense of my own translation of Bertolucci (Winter Journey, Parlor Press, 2005). I thought that some readers would be knowledgeable in both languages and would let me know where I strayed from the right road, if my effort was decent enough to warrant comment when I had erred. In fact there have been a few insightful and instructive pieces of advice to put to use in a revision, if it happens. Anyway, I thought it was more important at the time to emphasize Bertolucci’s connections to Italian and world literature than to justify my translation choices, and I think such an effort by a translator is always appreciated by readers (a book of poetry in translation with a skimpy introduction always seems a bit disappointing).

I like a fairly commodious idea of translation as a scrolling work in progress, in which the scroll is the space of the mejdan, the piazza, or maybe the Corso in which one feels free to go forth and back continuously refining and revising, enjoying the paradoxically public confidences of the streets. In his essay “Spacey Rooms: A Note on Translating ‘Lamentation on Ur,’” Tom Sleigh remarks that “If we think of ourselves as language islands in an archipelago that is all the languages of the world, and of the sea surrounding us as the universal drive toward language – what certain linguists call ‘deep structure’ – then translation is the attempt to experience that structure through the alienating medium, the at first incomprehensible strangeness, of another tongue” (Interview with a Ghost. St. Paul: Graywolf, 2006: 64). So the notion of translation as an open society is an appealing one, and it works across time as well as space; later in the essay just cited, Sleigh explains that translation is a sort of triple threat: it is an alienation machine, time machine, and projection machine (72). As I was thinking about this, Borges reminded me – I was listening to a CD of one of his Norton Lectures – that the word ‘threat’ originally meant ‘an angry mob’ (Borges cites the example of its use in the first lines of Beowulf). So now, behind each individual translation project, I see an impatient mob of translation projects. But I also see the December ’07 issue of Harper’s, in which there are excerpts from an essay by Auden, translated from the French by Richard Howard (“The Mental Kitchen” in 'Readings,' pp. 19-22; since published by Princeton UP in The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose, Volume III, 1949-1955). We only have this essay by Auden due to the fact that it was translated into French and published by a journal in France, since there’s no trace left of its English original. This is just one recent instance of translation matter-of-factly yet magically transcending the limits of language and time, if not politics, lent greater poignancy by the essay’s title: “De Droit et de Gauche” – ‘Of The Right and The Left.’

I’ll close with some words of incitement from Eliot Weinberger, from his essay “Mislaid in Translation”; he was making the point that translation allows new voices to be heard and allows new writing to happen. “Translation is not a means for allowing the foreign to speak. The foreign has already spoken, they don’t need us. But we need them, if we are not to end up repeating the same things to ourselves. Translation is one of the ways that lets us listen. It expands the range of possibilities of what we, right now, can hear. From listening, we learn to speak. Translation expands what we can write. Which in turn expands what we can hear. Translation is a necessity, not an accessory” (‘Mislaid in Translation’ (1993), Written Reaction, 160-167; 167). Have these words been heeded? Have publishers recognized this necessity? Judging by the exhibits in the Book Fair at the AWP, the answer would appear to be a resounding ‘Yes.’ And yet consider that it is only a generous estimate that 3% of all books published in the United States are works in translation (as reported by the University of Rochester’s journal 3%, among other sources).

A quick & partial survey of necessary (re)discoveries in twentieth-century Italian poetry: Giorgio Orelli is an Italian poet from the Canton Ticino, Switzerland, born in 1921, whose work I’ve only seen in old anthologies in the States. Valerio Magrelli is widely considered one of the most important Italian poets writing now; worth seeking out is the outstanding Anthony Molino translation, The Contagion of Matter (Holmes & Meier, 2000). Molino is also the translator of the poet Lucio Mariani, whose work is very well represented in the selected poems, Echoes of Memory (Wesleyan UP, 2003). As far as I know, still to have volumes translated are the intriguing writers Cesare Vivaldi (b. 1925; wrote mostly in Ligurian dialect) and Giancarlo Marmori (b. 1926, also Ligurian). Recommended reading: recent translations of Vittorio Sereni by Peter Robinson and Marcus Perryman; of Luciano Erba by Peter Robinson; of Andrea Zanzotto, edited by Patrick Barron; and of Antonia Pozzi by Lawrence Venuti. I'm hunting for a copy of Lucia Re and Paul Vangelisti’s translation of War Variations, a 1964 volume of poetry by Amelia Rosselli (1930-1996), published by Sun & Moon in 1995, as well as her volume Sleep: Poems in English (1953-1966). Silvia Bre won last year’s Viareggio Prize for her third volume of poetry, entitled Marmo (Marble), a volume of superbly controlled intensity. In the ‘90s, Sun & Moon Press turned out two bilingual anthologies of twentieth-century Italian poetry, I novissimi: Poetry for the Sixties and The Promised Land: Italian Poetry After 1975, both of which should be sought out. And Geoffrey Brock, the translator of Disaffections, an essential collection of Cesare Pavese’s poetry, is currently assembling an anthology of twentieth-century Italian poetry.

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