Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Their Books Are Better: A Sermon


I don’t give a lot of importance to translation.

In my life as a reader I’ve always taken for granted that translated books constitute a crucial component of all my reading-related activities. Nor did I ever think that my little corner of the internet, constructed according to no criteria but my tastes, had a cosmopolitan flavor just because I’ve written about Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Imre Kertész, Mario Vargas Llosa, Václav Havel and Dario Fo. I haven’t done anything except write about the books I like.

But ever since I, an Anglophile Portuguese blogger who writes in English, have joined the blogosphere, I’ve discovered that because I read and write about translated books I’m actually an extraordinary reader. No one has ever told me this, much to my wounded pride, but I’ve surmised it from the uncanny importance translation has amongst book bloggers.

This preoccupation, or obsession, with translations and translated books was one of the first things I immediately noticed when I started chatting about books online several years ago. One of the first forums I joined was Book and Reader, a cozy community but not too adventurous in its tastes. Soon afterwards Stewart invited me to join his then newly-founded World Literature Forum, with a strong focus on foreign literature. This was the first time I realized how Anglo-American readers were poorly read in foreign books and how brave souls were trying to remedy that by promoting and starting discussions on those books. Some time later I was invited to join The Fictional Woods, which is even more aggressively obsessed with foreign literature. It was on those forums that I started observing certain ticks. For instance, I noticed that when discussing a translated an unwritten rule of etiquette dictated that the translator’s name always be mentioned. And until I joined these forums I didn’t realize what massive resistance ordinary readers put up against translated books in the Anglo-American world. I learned all the excuses, the main one being that translations can’t be trusted, that they tarnish the purity of the original. This excuse would be more convincing if thse defenders of purity showed any signs of wanting to learn foreign languages to appreciate the original text in all its virginal immaculateness. But this concern for purity, to the best of my knowledge, is never followed by a willingness to learn foreign languages. It became clear to me that those people were basically saying that they were never going to read foreign literature, because a) translations are untrustworthy, and b) no one is actually going to learn German just to read Franz Kafka. So the alternative is not to read Franz Kafka. However this distrust of translations has also turned translators into heroic figures, praised and adulated, granted interviews, and whose names become inseparable from the writers’: José Saramago? Margaret Jull Costa. The Russians? Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Polish Poetry? It can only be Clare Cavanagh. I’ll be damned if I know who translates Italo Calvino into Portuguese.

I mean no disrespect to these people, who perform an indispensable, critical job and on whom so much of my happiness lies. I just find the combative championing of translations by a small group of readers astonishing. In Portugal no one gives a hoot about it, perhaps incorrectly. A translated book is just a book and the translator is just someone who renders it into a language I can understand. And when two translations co-exist, no one nitpicks about the merits of one and the other. Translated books are such an integral part of the reading habits of the average reader here, few stop to acknowledge that someone actually translates these things, and reading non-Portuguese books is hardly a mark of sophistication or a taste that needs to be encouraged and nurtured by online articles and reading challenges. Like I wrote, we just take it for granted.

Until I became part of online book communities I didn’t realize what a big deal this was. But it’s really amazing the activity around it. Blogs are devoted to them, small publishers focus solely on them, awards are made just to reward them. Someone has even bothered to discover that translations only constitute three percent of all books published in the United States. Even though “that figure obviously represents more books than any one person could read in a year,” it just isn’t enough for them. And I do hope they can improve things. Considering that I read most of my books in English, the more I have to choose from the better.

Also until I became part of this milieu, I didn’t know why people should read translated books, I never gave the matter any thought; I saw it as the inevitable outcome of being a book lover. I used to think everyone read translated books. But I was wrong. Some people resist reading them, I was shocked to discover. But the truth is, after thinking about it, I still don’t know why anyone should read them. Ultimately, readers should only read what they want to read, and this effort to make everyone read obscure Hungarian writers sometimes looks too much like hype and marketing, something I instinctively recoil from in the same way I recoil from watching a movie everyone tells me is the greatest one since Citizen Kane. All this pressure can be so tyrannical and I fear it even runs the risk of alienating readers.

There’s really no intrinsic reason to read translated books. The whole literature of one’s country can keep one busy for a lifetime. Reading them just to have contact with other cultures is a flimsy excuse when one can do that much better through non-fiction. I mean, War and Peace is a sublime novel (I’m only 800 pages into it, but sublime is the only word to describe it), but perhaps a rigorous history book about Napoleon’s campaigns in Russia will shed more light into the matter than the over-wrought and dramatic plots of a novelist

I wonder if translations aren’t essentially more important to other writers. Certainly no translation captures the original, or surpasses it (Borges would disagree), but the alternative, as Milan Kundera puts it, is not to read. So a translation is better than nothing. The truth is, literature would have stagnated without translations. Kundera first read Gargantua and Pantagruel in Czech, before he learned French, and that book has influenced the entirety of his career. If writers waited to learn foreign languages before they read anything, they’d do very little reading, or none at all. No one can be expected to learn Hungarian, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Arab, Chinese, Czech, Spanish in a single lifetime. And no self-respectable writer, aware of his duties, ever embarked on such folly just to keep up with world literature. Writers have better things to do than learn foreign languages – they have books to write, and books to read so they can write books. Laurence Sterne discovered Cervantes thanks to Tobia Smollett’s translation of Don Quixote. Both James Joyce and Virginia Woolf had to settle with Constance Garnett’s crude translations of the Russians, who were incredibly influential on them nonetheless. Franz Kafka read Dickens in Czech, or German. Dostoevsky read Dickens in French. Poe only became important after he was translated into French. The importance of The Arabian Nights in the West is due to its French and English translations. Nietzsche read Dostoevsky in French. George Bernard Shaw read Ibsen thanks to William Archer’s English translations. Gabriel García Márquez read Kafka in Spanish, a translation by Borges no less. And of course, only but a few have read Homer and the ancient Greek playwrights in the original. Indeed The Bible, the most influential book in Western literature, has seldom been read in the original. The King James edition has been the preferred version of English writers for centuries now. If writers didn’t read translations, it’s likely literature would remain stagnant and unbearably dull. Incapable of being challenged, of being influenced, of discovering new ideas and new forms, of stealing from their betters, it’s a mystery how literature would advance at all. Great writers have changed literature by admitting that other countries have better books to read. They borrowed, they copied, they stole the ideas of others for their own purposes, and they didn’t stop to worry about the quality of the translations.

But this is perhaps only of relevance to writers. No reader has to do what they do; no reader has to worry about the history of literature since Homer, nor does he have to know the writer’s influences, the innovations of his foreign peers, nor where literature is heading to. Those who do just have a different level of involvement with literature. I speak for myself. I studied literature, graduated in English literature, and even though I’m out of academia, literature remains too great a part of my personality not to wonder about these questions. I like to emulate my favorite writers, so for me it only makes sense to read translations. I see reading translations as a sign of humility, of not being afraid to say that other countries have better books than mine. I would go mad if I only had Portuguese novels to read, and plays and poetry. (1) I do wish I could say that every Portuguese novel is as good as anything Eça de Queiroz and José Saramago (I’m still on the fence about Lobo Antunes) ever wrote but that’s just not true. A list of national novels can’t satisfy my thirst for greatness, for masterpieces.

Reading translated books is a matter of humility, yes. If reading has taught me anything, it’s that the world is too complex for categories. To decide which countries have the best writers, the best poets, the best essayists is pure chauvinism, and contrary to the central force of good literature, which ridicules sweeping generalizations, obliterates hierarchies, destroys frontiers, confuses rather than clarifies national cultures. Every country has its masterpieces, but as great as Gulliver’s Travels may be, the Irish don’t have The Divine Comedy; and as great as that may be, the Italians don’t have Crime and Punishment; and as great as that may be, the Russians don’t have The Castle; and as great as that may be, the Czechs don’t have Don Quixote; and as great as that may be, the Spaniards don’t have Fictions; and as great as that may be, the Argentineans don’t have Pedro Páramo; and as great as that may be, the Mexicans don’t have The Sound and the Fury; and as great as that may be, Americans don’t have The Book of Disquiet; and as great as that may be, the Portuguese don’t have The Man Without Qualities; and as great as that may be, the Austrians don’t have The Third Policeman.

The reader of translations humbly understands what a privilege it is to gain access into the greatest minds the world has ever produced. Readers who want to read, will read in whatever way they can. Readers who want to complain, hide behind the purity of the original text. I pity the reader who thinks he’s wiser than Laurence Sterne for not reading Cervantes in translation. Nor do I believe a child has ever felt disinclined to read Jules Verne, Emilio Salgari or Tove Jansson to protect their purity. (2) Writers and children know why we read – for pleasure. Everything else is academic. The purity of the text certainly matters in the class room but not in the living room.

Those who believe the original text is purer incur in the sin of arrogance. They think that it better prepares them, that it offers them a special key to understand the genius behind the masterpiece. But masterpieces are masterpieces exactly because they never exhaust their secrets, their meanings, because they cannot be fully comprehended. Reading in the original is to translation what the Hubble telescope is to a pair of binoculars – one can certainly see further and clearer, but only a little bit more. Every masterpiece is a masterpiece because we can never fully understand it. Considering that a century later, Ulysses still baffles readers, it’s obvious English by itself isn’t sufficient to understand it. Only an arrogant reader thinks that access to a foreign language will allow him to completely, definitively apprehend the totality of the meaning of the text, to understand every nuance, every iota of meaning a Cervantes, a Tolstoy, a Dostoevsky, a Mann, a Borges has poured into the text. The humble reader worries only about understanding whatever he can, and is satisfied that a translation, imperfect as it may be, get him closer to that goal than no translation.

There’s no reason then not to read translations. But I also can’t prove why anyone should read translations. For me it’s an article of faith. The common reader is certainly not obliged to read translations, but if he loves books, there’s no reason not to. I can’t explain why reading only American novels is a sin to the reader who enjoys them anymore than I can explain why reading only crime or horror novels is ridiculous to their fans. I just have this suspicion, this feeling, this deep-seated conviction that a reader is a much poorer and incomplete person without them. Translations don’t make demands on us, they don’t cost more or require harder work. They’re well-written, entertaining and quite good. They’ve been the lynchpin of literature since the Romans started translating the Greeks. An activity with such a long history has to be important.

But it’s the reader who has to decide why.

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1) I jest, obviously: Portuguese poetry is the best in the world, and anyone who wastes his time reading John Ashbery, Seamus Heaney, Adam Zagajewski, and James Merrill instead of learning the language of Camões is a fool. A damned fool!

2) Do children still read these books nowadays?

8 comments:

  1. much to mull here, much I agree with, but ...
    "There’s really no intrinsic reason to read translated books. The whole literature of one’s country can keep one busy for a lifetime. Reading them just to have contact with other cultures is a flimsy excuse when one can do that much better through non-fiction."
    More than just a quibble with this: understanding one's own culture doesn't stop at the border. ("He who knows but one people does not know any; he who knows but one religion and one culture, does not know any." --Lev Sternberg) And fiction supplies a different sort of representation of culture (not merely aesthetic) which captures aspects and places them in contexts not served by nonfiction. (And to the opener, there's no intrinsic reason to read books, there's enough movies and TV shows to keep one busy for a lifetime. If you call that living.)

    Oh, yes, I'm rigorous about acknowledging the translator, in part a quality thang, in part for a labor of love often unrewarded (it ain't the big bucks); not a fetish (as with the 'originality' of the original language).

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    1. )More than just a quibble with this: understanding one's own culture doesn't stop at the border. (...) And fiction supplies a different sort of representation of culture (not merely aesthetic) which captures aspects and places them in contexts not served by nonfiction.

      I agree, of course. Don't take my words as dogma. What I fear, however, is that this line of thought runs the risk of turning literature into a mere pedagogic tool, an InterRail card. Literature deals with specific knowledges of the human existence, but it has to be complemented with other readings, other experiences.

      And to the opener, there's no intrinsic reason to read books, there's enough movies and TV shows to keep one busy for a lifetime. If you call that living.

      Ah, see, there's the attitude! Why not a person who prefers to keep himself busy by traveling around the world? Or visiting museums? Or volunteering in Africa? Or playing chess? What is it about books that makes them intrinsically superior to these other forms of using one's lifetime?

      If you ask me, a chronic book reader, "are books the most important thing in the world?" I say yes, obviously, I'm beyond a cure. But that's just me.

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  2. Miguel - This is a great and insightful post! You raise lots of really good points and questions. Of course I read translated books. Not to do so would be very limiting. There is much to learn from the literature of languages other then my native English. However, I would rather read them in the original form.

    Ironically I just repled to one of your posts on my blog with a comment about reading Jose Saramago in untranslated form before I had this seen your post here!

    I actually have been considering brushing up on my Italian in order to give Dante a shot in Italian.

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    1. There is much to learn from the literature of languages other then my native English. However, I would rather read them in the original form.

      Of course, anyone who knows foreign languages should use them to read books. I after all avoid reading English books in Portuguese.

      I'm really talking to the mythical reader who worries about the purity of languages as an excuse to not read translations but then doesn't bother to learn them. There's something hypocritical about them.

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  3. As the comment above notes, much to mull here. What a stimulating post and launch-pad for discussion - and corrective. I have read translations I thought were poor (Sigrid Unset’s Kristin Lavransdatter in the English translation prior to Tiina Nunnally is a frequently cited example). And, having made the effort to learn another language (French), I have read books in the original and in translation to compare, and have found odd, dubious, and even hilariously wrong translation decisions. So I appreciate (at least when I’m conscious of it) what a good translator can do. But you make a crucial point; I’ll steal a line from Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and affirm that assuming even a poor translation won’t be enlightening or gratifying or perhaps even life-changing “shows a lack of respect for the reader.”

    Edith Grossman argues in her book Why Translation Matters for greater acknowledgment and recognition of translators. Since reading her book, I’ve made it a point to credit the translator, because why not? As you point out, they make it possible for us to enter worlds and worlds. Our debt to them is enormous, and their professionalism deserves our respect. Still, I recall a commercial on American television 20 years ago – advertising what, I do not know – but it showed various laborers adding their signatures to their work, such as the guy repainting the lane stripes on the road signing his name onto it. It’s a nice idea – sure, take pride in your work – but on those increasing rare occasions when I read a translated book where the translator’s name is nowhere to be found, I can momentarily find in it a refreshing note of humility and a quiet, deferential, respectful nod to the author (more likely, that has nothing to do with it, and some crass editor has just taken the translator’s work for granted).

    I’ve read many interviews where translators offer up “rules” they follow, with talk of immersion in the writer’s culture, faithfulness to the original, etc. But some of the translations I’ve enjoyed the most are those that have violated such rules. I’m thinking of the translation of my favorite “obscure Hungarian writer” Miklós Bánffy, and Patrick Thursfield ‘s admission that he and his co-translator Katalin Bánffy omitted some passages, simplified others, took liberties that would appall some purists (their effort won the Oxford Weidenfeld prize nonetheless). I’m also thinking of Ezra Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” one of my favorite poems, translated without Pound’s knowing Chinese or Chinese culture inside and out. I don’t have to know how faithful Pound was being to the original to know that I’m reading a great poem.

    Anyway, as I said, a stimulating post, with lots more to explore, such as the question: why has translation suddenly moved to center stage?

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    1. And, having made the effort to learn another language (French), I have read books in the original and in translation to compare, and have found odd, dubious, and even hilariously wrong translation decisions.

      Oh yes, I've disliked many novels and I suspect that it had to do with the translation. You can tell when a translation is bad, it feels awkward. I notice that when I read Ismail Kadare in Portuguese, who's translated from French, translated from Albanian! But the alternative is not to read, and a lot of Kadare's greatness still shines through: I still can laugh with his books, feel moved by them, be intellectually stimulated by them.

      but on those increasing rare occasions when I read a translated book where the translator’s name is nowhere to be found, I can momentarily find in it a refreshing note of humility and a quiet, deferential, respectful nod to the author (more likely, that has nothing to do with it, and some crass editor has just taken the translator’s work for granted).

      Oh, I think the translator's name should always be on the book. I don't dispute that, it's a still matter of decency, professionalism and recognizing the translator's work. A translator shouldn't feel humble about that. I was merely observing this tick of always putting their name in reviews of translated books. I don't have anything against, even if I don't do it, I just find it interesting culturally speaking.

      why has translation suddenly moved to center stage?

      I don't know if it has; I wonder if it's not just that we're closer to this matter and thus notice it more. I know several online book places where translations aren't given much prominence. Of course I hope they keep coming out, a lot of my reading depends on them!

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  4. Great post.

    The Portuguese indifference to the art of translation is incorrect, yes. I like how translator Donald Frame puts it; he calls translation:

    "an art, though a very modest minor one, since it requires constant choice by the translator among the author’s values and devices as he seeks to recapture them in his own language and finds he can rarely if ever recapture them at all. Clearly it belongs far below good literary creation, and below good literary analysis, but I think it demands much of the same sensitivity shared by many booklovers whose gifts for good creation or analysis may be modest or non-existent."

    So once I begin thinking about the art or at least craft of translation all sorts of interesting ideas pop up, although I have had more fun playing around with translated poetry - comparing translations, comparing the translation to the original - than with prose (marvelous examples like Scott mentions are more common in verse).

    That link goes to post #2 in my week on Edith Grossman's badly argued book. She dearly wants there to be an ethical imperative to read translations, but of course there is not, as you clearly say here.

    Nevertheless, the excuses not to read translation are equally bad, as bad as the excuses to avoid poetry or dislike jazz. Yet no one should feel any obligation to read poetry or listen to jazz.

    At least part of the defensiveness you see is based on the real U.S. phenomenon of the collapse of book coverage in large-circulation magazines and newspapers. Coverage of translated books was disproportionately reduced, and the big publishers have also lost some of their interest. So the small fry - small presses, blogs, translators - are fighting back to the extent that they can.

    I've loved the Tolstoy series & will perhaps eventually have a comment or two on them.

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  5. So the small fry - small presses, blogs, translators - are fighting back to the extent that they can.

    And I love this militancy in the English world, it's so unlike things on our shore, where we've become complacent about translations, I fear. I'm disturbed there's no László Krasznahorkai or Peter Nadas yet in Portuguese.

    I think you're too hard on yourselves, speaking of the whole English publishing/reading community. Using my limited outsider perspective, I'd say you're doing a great job. There are dozens of writers I've only read because they're translated into English. But that's perhaps a topic for a future post.

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