Sunday, November 22, 2009

Reviewing Books in Translation

[Here's my response to Barbra Jane Reyes blog entry on the Harriet Blog (it gets me every time!) about reviewing books in translation:]

Hi Barbra Jane and Co,

Here's my advice: You review books of poetry in translation in a similar way you review other books of poetry: You try to figure out what's going on, what makes the poems tick, what they are concerned with, how they operate.

You want to acknowledge its status as translation, but that doesn't invalidate it as poetry in English.

Of course, you want to consider that it might not have the same context and goals as an American Poem, but then there is no One American Poem either, so that's useful to keep in mind when you review American poetry too.

It often helps to know something about the literary context of the work (which is often included in intros etc), but that is true of reviewing American poetry too.

Besides, I've seen reviews by people who know something about the context and it getting in the way of actually engaging with the text.

If you want to make a study of the translation, you obviously have to know the other language to some extent. These kinds of review are also useful, but that's only one kind of review.

The idea that this is the only useful review of a work in translation is very problematic for me: as if foreign works had no interest beyond scholarly knowledge and curiosity. We need the correct text in order to achieve Mastery!

The obsession with the "correct translation" is a really reactionary notion - based on the really reactionary idea of there being *one* original, presumably as interpreted by that highly problematic reader, the Ideal Reader. The Ideal Reader is never a foreigner, just as his Ideal Text is never a foreign text.

This makes me think of a really great piece Haryette Mullen read about reading as the non-intended reader. It's on the web somewhere.

I also want to note that the Action Books book of Finland-Swedish avant-garde poet Gunnar Björling ("the Gertrude Stein of Scandinavian Literature") was reviewed incredibly well in the fine journal Pleiades by someone (I'm sorry I can't remember his name) who did not know Swedish as far as I could tell. But it was really one of the best articles I've ever read about Björling's prosody/syntax, including all the scholarly articles written over some 80 years (and I've read pretty much everything ever written about him). Likewise, Lara Glenum's article about Aase Berg that we published on is one of the most perceptive articles about that Swedish poet. So it can definitely be done.

Jonathan Mayhew recently wrote a highly enjoyable, informative book about the translation of Lorca into English, but in it he argues that translation is "kitsch," that it's a second-hand experience, "apocryphal." As Lawrence Venuti pointed out in a recent review of that book, this is a profound misunderstanding of not just the way translation works, but the way literature works - that only the true scholar has access to the real text and all else is kitsch, a lie, "second hand." Well, I certainly don't feel that way, not about works in translation, or about works of American poetry. And I hope we haven't come to that as a literature - when only the certified scholar has access to the true text.

But then I've been living my entire adult life as a foreigner, a second-hand reader and writer of American poetry.



Blogger Max said...

And I hope we haven't come to that as a literature - when only the certified scholar has access to the true text.

(Sort of) not to be snarky, but doesn't the concentration of the literary world in academic institutions have something to do with this problem?

3:28 PM  
Blogger adams24 said...

I really like this post; I love that you--as a clearly excellent translator who does translate from a language which is your, I'm guessing, tho can't be sure, "originary" tongue--advocate that discourse regarding translation emphasize versions rather than master-pieces. For my MFA, I did a translation project with some parts of Navajo stories, and your musings on translation often served as a kind of talisman: I don't know Navajo--it's an extremely difficult language--and worked from an English version; my goal was to try and make a version which, unlike the English translation I used, pays attention to the sound profile of Navajo--no letter u etc, emphasis on the verb-centered nature of that language (there aren't many nouns in Navajo aka Dine (accent mark missing I believe); my advisor, editor of Interim, wanted to publish them but I said no because I can't quite get past how wildly not an authority I am on this topic; were it not for your generous views on translation I think I may have totally just forzen-up to the point of no attempt, or feeling totally miserable in the trying: instead the experiment was rewarding to perform, whether it has any real merit or not as far as a third person goes. I hope all's well!

Adam Strauss

4:38 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

That sounds like an amazing project, Adam.

Yes and No. I think a good education will empower people rather than make them feel nervous about mastery.


5:52 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

I like Venuti fine, but I think he misrepresented Mayhew's book. I recall you expressing ambivalence about Mayhew, though, so it may just be confirmation bias at work here.

Or maybe you've read Mayhew's book and have come to your own opinion.

6:49 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I did read Jonathan's book and briefly talked about it here. I liked it quite a bit, but I think there's that problematic element about it, which Jonathan actually acknowledges repeatedly in the book himself, if I remember correctly, an ambivalence about his own "correct interpretation" - and I think perhaps Venuti glosses over that ambivalence.


7:25 AM  
Blogger Michael Peverett said...

I've done both kinds of review - obvously you tend to talk about different things depending on what sorts of relevant expertise you can draw on. Faithfulness to the original language is a problematic notion, especially with poetry, but the relation of translation to source is always interesting and investigating it is one natural way of reading the translation. With poetry in particular, it's likely that quite a few of the people who buy a translation of eg. an Arabic poet will know a bit of Arabic and will carry out their own cross-comparisons.

4:49 AM  
Blogger Vance Maverick said...

Jonathan Mayhew recently wrote a highly enjoyable, informative book about the translation of Lorca into English, but in it he argues that translation is "kitsch," that it's a second-hand experience, "apocryphal."

I don't think that's a reasonable summary of his argument, or even of his subject. He doesn't really articulate a theory of translation, and that's a weakness (possibly, of course, an unavoidable weakness). But that's OK, for this book at least, because he's interested in Lorca's afterlife in American poetry, just as valid a subject as, say, Hart Crane's. True, he discusses translation, but he has to, because his subjects knew Lorca mainly through translation. He judges many of the translations harshly (persuasively I think, though again without a clear framework), but not all. The "apocrypha" are things like Spicer's Lorca, and the "kitsch" is stuff like Robert Bly.

3:38 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

That's not THE argument of his book, but it's certainly an assumption; But like I said in reply to Jordan, that isn't the main gist of his argument.

My main point throughout my discussions about kitsch - and you may not have seen any previous post - is to critique a mode of criticism that uses the notion of kitsch, a deeply problematic way of dismissing art.


4:14 PM  
Blogger Vance Maverick said...

Fair enough. But it's still plain wrong to say he says, at all, that "translation is 'kitsch'" -- what he's dismissing with that dubious word is a vein of imitations of Lorca, mostly not translations.

4:59 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


This is precisely the problem: dismissing works for being "imitations." Of course I think there's more to it than them being "imitations." For them to be vain imitations, there must be a true original. As I said before, Jonathandoesn't really go there, in fact if I remember correctly he repeatedly says that he also has a "version." Nonetheless in order to dimiss something as kitsch, there has to be a true originaly; and to posit such an idea of a poem is catastrophically wrong. Part of what's so interesting about translation is how it calls into question academic notions of the true original. Academics can't deal with translation for this reason: they can't positthe true original. Etc. This is a misunderstanding not only of how translation works but how poetry works.


5:56 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I also want to repeat that I really liked Jonathan's book because it took a historically broad approach to understanding translations - not just was it faithful or adulterous etc. And it's because he took this broad view that this kind of dicussion arises. However, I feel he punted back to the safety of the original when the actual history shows how fascinating and interesting the life of poetry is as it crosses boundaries and interpretations.


5:58 PM  
Blogger Vance Maverick said...

You're being a bit slippery (and as long as we're dissing "academics", you're the one with the degree in literature, not me). But I think we're pretty close here. Mayhew does have a problem with aesthetic judgment -- specifically, how to ground it rhetorically. I mostly share his tastes, but I don't think he does a good job arguing for them. He would like to say what's wrong with Robert Bly, but doesn't even give many examples. So to quarrel, as I was trying to, over where the slur of "kitsch" is deployed, is beside the point.

In any case, M is not opposed to translation as such -- consider his respect for the Hughes translations of Lorca.

8:29 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Yes, perhaps it was a poorly formulated sentence.

Yes, I liked the Langston Hughes chapter quite a bit too. That was really fascinating.


12:15 PM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

If I can get in on this, since I was mentioned. There does exist a Lorquian kitsch, even in writers I otherwise admire, so there has to be a way of dealing with it. I don't think you even have to be a specialist reader to see this: if you look at the quotes I have from Sorrentino, for example. I think I do distinguish between things that are and are not in this category, or between poets more or less self-conscious about this element. Venuti taking umbrage at the word "apocryphal" was really astonishing to me, since I celebrate the apocryphal in my book. In some sense the apocryphal--in Spicer, for example-- can be the opposite of kitsch.

At the same time, Venuti does have a point about me protecting academic turf. I plead guilty there. Of course I'd want to turn it around and say that's what allowed me certain insights not otherwise available.

I have a post at the Arcade blog in which I try to answer Venuti. As far as Johannes being ambivalent toward me to some extent, that doesn't bother me in the least. That just makes anything nice he has to say about my book just sound all that much more sincere. After all, he's not saying it just because he is predisposed toward me, because he isn't.

9:31 AM  

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