For some, translation is the poor cousin of literature, fool’s gold or last resort, a necessary evil if not an outright travesty. For others, it is the royal road to cross-cultural understanding and literary enrichment. Translation skirts the boundaries between art and craft, originality and replication, altruism and commerce, even between genius and hack work. Vladimir Nabokov (himself a noted translator) tarred the pursuit as “A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter, / And profanation of the dead,” while writers such as Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Kenneth Rexroth, Ted Hughes, John Ashbery, Lydia Davis and Harry Mathews – not to mention Charles Baudelaire, Jorge Luis Borges, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, Paul Celan, Cesare Pavese, Yves Bonnefoy, Haruki Murakami and Peter Handke – have produced translations that are literary marvels in their own right. At a time when the globe is just a mouse click away; when authors such as Roberto Bolaño, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Patrick Modiano, Elena Ferrante, Stieg Larsson, Clarice Lispector, Umberto Eco and Marguerite Duras, to name only a few, have staked important claims in the American literary landscape; and when translation is recognized as being ever more relevant, it is remarkable how many misconceptions still cling to it.

Sympathy for the Traitor began in response to both those misconceptions and the increasingly abstract discourse that surrounds translation studies. My goal is to reframe the debate along more fruitful lines; to address the checkered reputation translation has acquired over centuries of literary, linguistic and philological scholarship; to share some of the problems and solutions I’ve discovered in the course of translating more than fifty books in nearly as many years; and to sensitize readers, both those with an informed interest and those with little notion at all, not only to the many components and challenges that go into translation but also to its central importance. The fact is, much of how we use language, how we think and structure our world, the news reports we read, the classics we study, are due to some form of translation. Without translation, we would know far less than we do, would not have encountered many of the texts we take for granted and that form the basis of our ‘national’ culture, and would have an even more parochial and isolated view of our place in the vast flow of humanity. More than anything, I hope to sketch a portrait of the art and craft of translation that will help readers see it less as a problem to be solved, more as (when done well) an achievement to be celebrated – or, as Goethe memorably put it in a letter to Thomas Carlyle, “one of the weightiest and worthiest affairs in the general concerns of the world.”

Can and should a translation ever improve upon the original? What makes some versions sing and others screech? And, ultimately, does translation matter, and if so, why?”

Rather than trying to provide definitive answers – which I don’t believe exist – I hope to bring the main questions into clearer focus: What is the ultimate goal of a translation? What does it mean to label a rendering ‘faithful’ or ‘unfaithful’, and how useful are those criteria? What are the translator’s ethical responsibilities toward the reader and toward the source text? Is something inevitably ‘lost’ in translation, and can something also be gained? Can and should a translation ever improve upon the original? What makes some versions sing and others screech? And, ultimately, does translation matter, and if so, why does it matter?

There are many adequate histories of translation, and this brief study does not claim to be one of them, though I do devote one chapter to a very selective historical overview. Similarly, I am not concerned with adaptations of works into other media, such as The Great Gatsby resurfacing as a pop song or À la recherché du temps perdu as a graphic novel. While there is an argument to be made for considering each of these a form of translation – as does Roman Jakobson, for instance – it would also have led us away from my primary focus. Translation even in the strictly linguistic sense is complex enough.

As an additional disclaimer, I should note that those looking for a flashy new theory need not bother reading any further: there are plenty of them out there, from the prescriptive to the prohibitive (not to mention the plainly abstruse), and I don’t intend to add to the noise. Consider this rather an ‘anti-theory’, or perhaps just a common-sense approach. I’m aware that common sense isn’t nearly as exciting as taking an extreme position. But having perused a number of extreme positions, I’ve found them not of much use when it comes to looking at what translation is – or, as the translator David Bellos puts it, what it does – and many of them aren’t even very exciting brain teasers.

My aim, instead, is to encourage you to think differently about translation, and to provide pointers on how to read not only translations per se but also the act of translation itself. Consider this book a manual and a manifesto – an unabashedly opinionated examination of what translation is and isn’t, and how it does or doesn’t work, from a pragmatic, philosophical, historical, ethical, aspirational, performative, economic, practical, polemical, interrogative and, I trust, resolutely unfashionable standpoint. I derive most of my examples and problematics from the English-speaking world, usually North America, and the word translation is primarily shorthand for literary translation, though I have also taken examples from other disciplines when appropriate. And while many instances come from my experience with French, the points they are illustrating are meant to apply to other languages as well.

Two guiding principles obtain throughout the discussion. The first is that translators are creative artists in their own right, on a par and in partnership with the author being translated. The renowned Spanish translator Gregory Rabassa has posited that the translator is “the ideal writer because all he has to do is write; plot, theme, characters and all the other essentials have already been provided, so he can just sit down and write his ass off.” While the position is by no means universally accepted, it provides a useful lens through which to gauge the importance, responsibilities and limitations of translation. The second principle is that translation is a practice. For all the many fascinating theoretical approaches one can take to the subject, I believe that ultimately it’s the end result that counts, the fruit of an activity.

Every new book requires its own rethinking of the problems at hand, and though certain guidelines might prove helpful, no theory or dogma can replace the translator’s work of grappling with the text on its own terms.”

In my four decades as an active translator, I’ve had the opportunity to work with everything from experimental fiction (undertaken when I was too young to know better) to mainstream thrillers, philosophy to technical manuals, biographies to poetry, art history to political analysis. I’ve encountered a number of challenges, and also quite a few instances of sheer luck. What these various efforts have taught me is that while certain basic questions recur time and time again – having to do with voice, approach, readership, the strictures one must observe and the liberties one can take – the answers are rarely the same from case to case. Every new book requires its own rethinking of the problems at hand, and though certain guidelines might prove helpful, no theory or dogma can replace the translator’s work of grappling with the text on its own terms, of devising an appropriate strategy. In other words, and despite the claims of many commentators from ancient times down to the present day, there is no magic, one-size-fits-all method. As in all writing, laws are made, broken and made again; with each new project we reinvent the proverbial wheel. If there is a ground rule of translation, it might simply be that there are no ground rules.

from the introduction to Sympathy for the Traitor (MIT Press, £17.99)


Mark_Polizzotti_420Mark Polizzotti has translated more than fifty books, including works by Patrick Modiano, Gustave Flaubert, Raymond Roussel, Marguerite Duras and Paul Virilio. Publisher and Editor-in-Chief at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he is also the author of Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton. Sympathy for the Traitor is out now from MIT Press.
Read more