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World Literature, Fluency, and Translation

In a recent blog entry in the New York Review of Books website, Tim Parks, a translator of Italian, wrote an incisive article called “Translating in the Dark” about some of the many problems and issues involved with translation.  I was struck by some of his statements about the humanist desire to make all literature, from everywhere in the world accessible. 

So why is it imperative that we believe in World Literature? It seems we must imagine that no literary expression or experience is ultimately unavailable to us; the single individual is not so conditioned by his own language, culture and literature as not to be able to experience all other literatures; and the individual author likewise can be appreciated all over the globe. It is on this premise that all international literary prizes, of which there are now so many, depend. The zeitgeist demands that we gloss over everything that makes a local or national culture rich and deep, in order to believe in global transmission. There must be no limitation.

I have no quarrel with the aspiration, or all the intriguing translation/imitation processes it encourages. My sole objection would be that it is unwise to lose sight of the reality that cultures are immensely complex and different and that this belief in World Literature could actually create a situation where we become more parochial and bound in our own culture, bringing other work into it in a process of mere assimilation and deluding ourselves that, because it sounds attractive in our own language, we are close to the foreign experience.

Interestingly, however, at the end of Parks’ entry, he champions a kind of fluent, poetic translation, albeit one that is done by a scholar as providing one of the best glimpses of the original text.  A translation, he implies, should be fluent, honed with a poetic sensibility, yet fully informed by a thorough knowledge of the original.  Certainly, that makes a good deal of sense. 

Lawrence Venuti, however, points out in his famous book The Scandals of Translation that all translation is necessarily domesticizing, and he counsels readers to see the ways in which a text is being reshaped to fit the expectations and hopes of the target audience, thus changing or diluting the foreign experience.  Interestingly, Venuti comes to the opposite conclusion as Parks.  He agrees that a translator must have a complete, scholarly view of the work and the particular place that it fits into its moment in time.  The translator must see the ways that the original author differs from other texts in the original language in order to see his or her unique contributions, and the translator should try to bring out those unique qualities in the translation.  Venuti counsels the translator to resist the urge, whenever possible, to render texts in a method that is transparent and completely fluent, since it tends to obscure those “minoritizing” elements of the original.  Certainly, such tendencies towards fluency tend to pummel so that it fits into the target culture’s stereotypical notions of what the literature of the source culture should sound like.  They create a false sense of what world literature looks like.

Indeed, a translator should have a scholarly, thorough knowledge of the background of the text in order to make the most informed choices about how to render specific passages, ideas, or tropes.  That knowledge often helps the translator make choices about the degree of “fluency” or “smoothness” in the translation. 

My personal rule of thumb in translating Japanese literature, a lot of poetry in particular, has been to think about how “fluent” the original sounds to the audience reading it in the source language.  If the original is quirky and wierd, highlighting or defamiliarizing language, then certainly an overly fluent translation seems like the wrong way to go.  Similarly, a text that sounds poetic, fluid, and melodious in the original language should not be rendered into a translation that is angular, experimental, and radical, if the goal of the translation is to represent the original. 

Sometimes, poets like Ezra Pound have had a different agenda at work in translating—trying to change ideas about language or literature within the target culture, so they diverge radically from these principles, but if they do so, they should do so knowingly.  In most cases, however, the translator should try to find a similar register to the original, finding similar ways to represent the unique qualities of the text—the ways it is “different” from others.  This seemingly paradoxical kind of activity is, in fact, quite possible, and I think it is what makes a good translation good.  In short, a fluent translation is not always the best translation, and it takes a lot of guts for readers and reviewers to recognize that.  

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