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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

"Towards a Culture of Translation"

This article keeps using the word belletristic as a kind of insult, almost a curse-word. But of course literary translations is part of belles lettres by definition. It is not primarily a branch of literary theory. The culture of translation for which Venuti calls is defined in his terms, not in the terms of the common run of actual translators, whose interests he seems to be defending, but whom he denigrates as untheoretical.

I always get suspicious when someone uses the rejection of his own work as evidence of a larger problem, as Venuti does here. I have had translations rejected too, but I would never think to draw conclusions from that about the state of the art / culture as a whole.
After an editor with whom I was acquainted had rejected some poems, I questioned the decision. I didn’t expect the rejection to be reconsidered. No, I rather wanted to force the magazine to do what magazines rarely do: to make explicit the standards by which it judged the translations, or if not this particular submission, then translations in general. Editor X was kind enough to reply, explaining that the poems “didn’t make us feel as if the tops of our heads were taken off.” I pressed further: had Editor X ever considered that translations, by their very nature, should be judged differently from original compositions in English, or that the standard might include but should nonetheless differ from a visceral reaction that is evidently rooted in a homegrown sensibility? After all, Emily Dickinson was being quoted at me. Editor X thought my view novel and promised to give it some thought, but the conversation stopped there.

Yet I could have taken it much further. Should an English translation of a twenty-first-century Catalan poet, I would have asked, be judged according to a concept of poetry formulated by a nineteenth-century poet in the United States? Why should we hold a poet who writes in a minor language and whose literature is underrepresented in English to a standard articulated by a poet who, after a shaky initial reception, now occupies an unshakeable position in the canon of American literature? Are the values enshrined in that canon inimical to Catalan and possibly other foreign poetries? Can a poem that took the top off the head of a reclusive, self-absorbed woman in nineteenth-century New England do the same to an anglophone reader today?
I don't actually think that translations should be judged by a different standard than original poems. I belong to a belletristic tradition of poet-translators who would reject that double-standard, which is in fact pernicious. Isn't that why people hold translators in such contempt? They want to have it both ways: have their work valued as original, while being held to a much lower standard. After all, it is only a translation! Venuti also objects to the quotation of Emily, calling her "self-absorbed." (!) There is nothing about Catalan poetry that would make it less likely to cause a strong visceral reaction. What the editor meant was that these poems, in translation at least, failed to make a strong impression. I've had that problem too, with poems that I thought were strong in the original, and which I also translated well, in my opinion, but which failed to impress a few editors. I just moved on, because you can't force someone to have the same reaction you think you would have had. Translation takes place in the "domestic" realm, for people who cannot read the original, so of course "home grown" standards will enter into the judgment. How could they not?

I've learned from Venuti, but he also irritates me.


Vance Maverick said...

Pretending to misunderstand the editor's comment (which plainly meant "I didn't like it", not "Dickinson wouldn't have liked it") is irritating. Ending with a rhetorical question which anticipates a No, but to which the answer is plainly Yes, suggests he let his own irritation get the better of his intelligence.

Jonathan said...

Yes. That is irritating. I should have indicated that the paragraph doesn't end there. That's just where I cut it off arbitrarily.

If I said a poem didn't knock my socks off, you wouldn't say. "But what about a culture that wears no socks?"

Clearly a poem that impressed Emily might impress me too.

Andrew Shields said...

One is irritated by Venuti because of that flurry of bullying questions. It becomes pure rhetoric there, no real questions, and the last one you quote is just the final bit of bullying.

profacero said...

Venuti is like an engineer or something. He says he wants things to be theoretical but really he wants them to be mechanical ... this is my impression from some other things he has written.

Jonathan said...

I was disappointed he didn't like my book more. I think that "mechanical" aspect comes from his insistence on only one theory of translation and his painting of everything else with a broad brush.