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Saturday, May 20, 2017

Preface to New Book

This is pretty much first draft writing. I woke up and started to write this in my head before even getting out of bed. I showered, drank coffee, did a few kenken puzzles, then wrote for about an hour.  

In the spring of 2017, I began to look at translations of Antonio Machado, to see if I could study them in the way I had looked at Lorca in my 2009 book Apocryphal Lorca. Many of the usual suspects were involved in translating Machado, a poet who is Spain itself is more canonical and influential than Lorca himself. I quickly found more material on Machado than I needed for an article, yet I did not think another book that paralleled my earlier one, substituting one figure for the other, was a very imaginative idea. My next thought was to combine my analysis of Machdo with a critique of translations of César Vallejo that I had developed a few years earlier, and find perhaps some other interesting case studies in the American reception of Spanish language poetry in the twentieth century. I wanted to do a critique of Jerome Rothenberg's translation of Lorca's Suites as well. My curiosity about Longfellow's translations led me to ask myself who else had translated Spanish poetry in the 19th century, and I came across a half-buried tradition of ballad translations beginning in England the latter half of the 18th century and stretching forward to the Victorian era. 

At this point, I knew I had enough material to write a book. I also wanted to look at renaissance norms of translation through a Latin poem that had been rendered into Spanish by Quevedo, and by equally prominent poets in other European languages. My topic, then, would not be the reception of Spanish-language poetry in the English-speaking world, but shifting norms of verse translation in Europe and the Americas, linked to a defense of the figure of the poet-translator and a critique of some ideas put forward by the brilliant and influential theorist of translation Lawrence Venuti. My basic objection to Venuti is that he overgeneralizes, placing many theories of translation to which he objects in broad, unhelpful categories like "empiricism," "Belle Lettres," and the regime of "fluency." My approach is to reverse Venuti's emphasis on hermeneutics by looking at the poetics, aesthetics, and erotics of translation.  My guiding lights are Ezra Pound (a key figure for Venuti as well) and Jorge Luis Borges, who is a major theorist of translation as well as one of the main figures translated into English as part of the mid-century twentieth-century explosion of interest in Hispanic literatures. 

From Pound, I take a conception of translation as part of the poet's toolkit. Pound did not invent this idea, which I take to be present already in Latin poets, but he took it further. From Borges, I take three key idea that the audience for the translation can be radically different from the original audience, that the authority we accord to the original text over the translation is a metaphysical superstition, and that the translation can offer deliberate and accidental beauties that in theory could surpass the original.  

The hermeneutic tradition in translation theory that extends from Schleiermacher to Venuti is not to be scorned. Yet, for someone interested in reception, as I am, it has the disadvantage of turning its back on the reader.  Walter Benjamin's "The Task of the Translator," perhaps the most well-known essay in this tradition, famously begins by asserting that consideration of the receptor is never profitable in considering the work of art, and ends by asserting the interlinear translation of the scriptures as the ideal to which translation should aim. Against this explicitly sacralized poetics of translation, I propose a more  dynamic, vibrant, and skeptical view, one that takes into account the poet-translator's creative powers as well as the reader's variable responses.  

The critique of translation usually involves the side-by-side comparison of translation to original, with an assessment of what the translator has been able to carry over from the left hand page to the right. I will be doing some of this analysis here as well. Appiah describes "thick translation" as a translation that “that aims to be of use in literary teaching,” and I think that such a translation would need to preserve or reproduce the values that we ascribe to the original. Nevertheless, the truth is that such translation is surprisingly rare....     


1 comment:

Unknown said...

I'm thinking a poet translator, in the act of publishing, offers a jazz riff on a standard. Anyone can use a foreign language dictionary. I have to rely on the translator to chose words that reveal the meaning.