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Saturday, April 2, 2016

More Belles Lettres

Venuti says:
The belletrism stretches back to the early twentieth century: it originated in modernist literary practices, particularly in the insertion of translations or adaptations in original compositions, but also in the polyglossia that characterizes many modernist texts, the use and quotation of foreign languages, whereby the reader is turned into a translator. These practices erased the distinctions that can usually be drawn between first- and second-order creations, permitting a translation or adaptation to be regarded as an original composition.
I don't think this is right. I think there is a long tradition of holding the translation to the standards of contemporary literary production. In other words, when Dryden translated Virgil, he was writing Dryden-type poetry. When Campion translated Catullus, he came up with a nice Campion poem:

My sweetest Lesbia, let us live and love;
And though the sager sort our deeds reprove,
Let us not weigh them. Heaven's great lamps do dive
Into their west, and straight again revive,
But soon as once is set our little light,
Then must we sleep one ever-during night.

This has a functionality for the poet: he can set this poem to music and sing it along with the lute.

What is new, I think, is translation that is not belletristic, that holds itself below the standards of what poetry ought to be (according to whatever taste prevails). Of course, no translator thinks they are doing this! The reason why this happens is that these are just not very good poets & translators.

One of the reasons for not being good is a kind of half-assed assimilation of sophisticated translation theory. This theory infects translation practices, as when a half-assed translator cites Benjamin in his introduction. You shouldn't even be citing Benjamin's task of the translator unless you understand it and how it relates to the translation you are doing.

***

One more thing that irritates me about Venuti's argument. He uses his own rejection as evidence. An editor said that his translation of a minor Catalan poet didn't blow his head away (citing Emily Dickinson.) "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.'" Well, no. These are kind of run-of-the-mill ekphrastic poems about Hopper. They are not wonderful, and in translation they aren't either. They are mildly interesting, that is all. For the editor to say, well, they didn't blow me away, is an honest response. It has nothing to do with the editor's supposed lack of translation-theory-sophistication.

Vent doesn't seem to realize that there are readers for whom poetry is this amazing transformative powerful thing, and that look for those effects even in translation. He call, quite explicitly for a different standard!
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? [emphasis added]
He digs the hole even deeper for himself, I feel:
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? How appropriate or fair is the application of that metaphor to translations of poems written by a Catalan man who works as a cultural editor for a Barcelona-based newspaper?
What does the fact that this poet is Catalan have to do with anything? Are Catalans incapable of writing great poetry? Does working at a newspaper make one incapable of mind-blowing art and poetry? Do we have to call Emily "self-absorbed"? Finally, is Venuti really so literal minded as that? Clearly the citation is meant to be a hyperbolic way of saying, nice but no thanks: the work you have translated is a bit underwhelming. It is cool that this Catalan poet wrote about an American painter, and that an American translator found it and brought it back to English. Other people published Venuti's translation of this work, and it all worked out fine. Why make someone's lack of enthusiasm symptomatic of something else?

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