Saturday, April 30, 2011

Two Good Thoughts on Translation

Two thoughts, both by the blogger Waggish. One that I'd never had before, that strikes me as at least partially right (and therefore important), on why translated literature receives so little attention (measured against English-language literature) -- in book reviews and the like: is the university that institutionalizes a real bias against translated literature. In the most prestigious universities, you study “English,” or else “comparative literature” in the original languages. There are very few opportunities to read translated literature; they are usually in cultural history classes, or else pet projects of professors that wouldn’t attract enough students otherwise. I don’t know if this attitude is present in most other countries, though I know it is England.
An attitude that makes no sense translated from class curricula to the reading habits of everyday readers -- but I think Waggish is right that that is a source of the attitude. (Partly because of the declining place of the reading of books in our culture, where it is increasingly experienced as something one just does (or at any rate primarily does) in college). At the same time, an attitude that does make some real sense for college-level classes, for reasons that Waggish brings up later in that same post -- an idea that is more familiar than the first-quoted one, but seems to me particularly well conveyed here:
But to echo Borges, what is lost is often miniscule compared to what is preserved. What you lose, however, is the authority to know exactly what was said, and what’s left is the uncertainty that one turn of phrase may or may not have a hidden resonance, that a language-specific idiom could not possibly communicate the same thing as whatever is in the original. The Quartet Encounters translations made this obvious, which in one sense was helpful. I had to treat them on the level of the abstract ideas, characters, and plots communicated imprecisely, not the specifics of the language. With few exceptions, I was not able to do this at university, and I appreciated the bald awkwardness of many of the translations, which pushed me away from the particulars of the words.
-- And since the particular of the words are so important in literary study, translations are ignored.

Important, yes: but surely not all important? Why not read more translated books in college-level classes -- not only in particular offerings of various foreign-language departments (classes on Dante or Russian literature and the like), but works from multiple languages, actually integrated with English-language novels?

(There is an exaggeration in the idea that one doesn't read translated literature at the college level -- but there's some truth in it, too, I think.)

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