Beyond Words: Translating the World
by Susan Ouriou
Reviewed by Maryanne Hannan
Edited by Susan Ouriou, Beyond Words: Translating the World brings together essays from literary translators whose commonality derive primarily from their participation in a summer residency at the Banff International Literary Translation Centre in Alberta, Canada over a span of several years. Resisting strict organization into the book's four sections, "Translating the World," "Translating Poetry," "The World of Translation," and "Translating Prose," the essays are as diverse as the authors. Such loose structure prevents the book from being easily used as a translating manual or a systematic text of historical and critical practice. That being said, Beyond Words is a set of working papers, in the best sense of those words. Contributors, unhampered by a rhetorical overlay, freely offer their personal quarrels and victories with the text and themselves, allowing readers to experience vicariously conference high points.
Contributors range from Juliana Borrero's poetic witness of "what it means to translate from the body" ("On Translating Aureole or The Missing Chapter or What It Means to Translate from the Body," p. 67) to Lazer Lederhender's intricate analysis of how "we cannot ultimately outmanoeuvre the intrinsic operations of translation as a medium" ("Translating Fictions: The Messenger was a Medium," p. 159) to Alexis Levitin's personal account of how he stumbled on a career allowing such satisfaction: "when you are hunting with all your instincts for le mot juste at four in the morning, that is the greatest pleasure of all, for you do not exist" ("The Translator's Life: From Chance to Transcendence," p. 58) and beyond.
Of the twenty-one essays collected, seven are written in either French or Spanish, with original text facing an English translation, all furnished by Ouriou, anthology editor and former director of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre. This arrangement provides a practical and enjoyable peek into some actual translation choices. By virtue of its design, the anthology is limited in terms of source language texts and even more so in target language texts, mainly the three languages used at the conference. A reader interested in African dialects or classical Greek texts will be disappointed, but sufficient forays into theoretical and practical issues of translation occur via the work of conference participants to satisfy.
Katharina Rout is one of the translators whose work involves lesser known traditions. She writes about translating contemporary German fiction into English, and more compellingly, about the challenge of translating Tuvan (Mongolian) chief Galsan Tschinag:
When Tschinag writes his people's stories, he translates: from oral experience into literacy, and from a Turkic language in which pitch matters... into a hissing Germanic language whose sounds are square and hard-edged like German brick houses. How can I hope to capture these layers in my English translations?
-- "Fragments of a Greater Language," p. 35
Raymundo Isidro Alavez also offers a fascinating account of his work, translating into his mother tongue, Hnahnu, classics from Mexican literature and beyond. Recognizing that "the spoken and written language is a fundamental agent for a culture's preservation" ("Why Translate into Hnahnu?", p. 29), he is committed to making his indigenous language available as a written text, preserving its roots, honoring its poetic quality and extending its reach even when the words are not readily available. Undaunted, he says the need to express that for which no word exists "leads me to create new terms from existing grammatical roots, finding in my own language the word's intonation, pushing the language even further to come up with original expressions" (p. 25).
Another supporter of "the preservation and development of indigenous literatures" ("Literary Translation into the Indigenous Languages of the Americas," p. 112), Enrique Servin Herrera opposes some efforts toward vocabulary expansion. He claims: "Coining new words to fill lexical asymmetries has been a widely used strategy among both translators and writers but has proven dangerous, and has frequently damaged more than helped the promotion of new indigenous literature" (p. 111). For Herrera, though, accepting some loan words and neologisms is a necessary evil, always with the caveat:
even if it sounds cliched, that languages are not parallel systems of signs that 'reflect' the world. Languages are, rather, independent -- or at least largely independent -- systems of interpreting the world.
-- p. 112
Regardless of their chosen languages, most translators face the same challenge, as expressed so directly by Medeine Tribenevicius, "to translate what is written, not what you think should have been written." ("Not Making It Up: the Translating Writer," p. 30). Hovering always over any translator is the fear of untranslatabilty, which Suzanne Jill Levine
addresses: "A translation will never be the text it imitates, which was written in another language, but it can be... a text illuminated and motivated by the original, realized in its next life, in translation" ("The Subversive Scribe," p. 88). She recommends we
set aside regretful talk of translation's shortcoming, secondariness or second sex -- or any other label which would lead to that deadly cul de sac the linguist and literary theorist Roman Jakobson, with his thick Russian accent, grimly dismissed as 'the dogma of untranslatability.'
-- p. 30
Strong talk. A similar well-known charge that no anthology on literary translation can ignore is the often-repeated argument traduttore, traditore
, that is, translator: traitor!
As a former Latin teacher, I used to tell students that on the continuum from literal to literary, I wanted them way down at the literal end; so literal, in fact, that it was no longer English. "Go back to the Latin," I would urge them. "After you understand the meaning, forget your translation and read the Latin again." "The fun is in the original," I'd preach. Deeply satisfying as this approach is, it obviously restricts the amount of material a reader would have access to.
So however traitorous, we need to translate. As Patricia Godbout points out,
translators carry out the social and intellectual act of importance... that of bringing a new text from the excentric position of an outsider to a field into the national language's field to become part of the capital of texts and references composing that field.
-- "The Double Consciousness of Translations," p. 97
Translations are overwhelmingly valuable, necessary culture-building. According to paulo da costa, "There is an inherent acceptance that no translator can possibly speak on behalf of another without missing or adding variables to the equation of understanding; therefore approximation is a condition of engagement" ("translating text, translating self," p. 115). He speaks personally for a more literal approach: "I see merit in not reshaping the music of an original text to the rhythm of a target language" ("The Music of Translation," p. 15). Further, he says he is "a reader who appreciates the strangeness conveyed in the sound and structure of a foreign text."
On the other end of the spectrum, Andre Gabastou wishes all young translators "be free of the shackles restraining translation, namely that the translated text must be faithful to the original" ("How to Jettison a Surfeit of Theory," p. 123). Edith Grossman
writes "that my primary obligation as a literary translator is to re-create for the reader in English the experience of the reader in Spanish" ("Translating Don Quixote," p. 134). Also inhabiting the literary end of the continuum, Francoise Roy takes up practical matters such as the number of monosyllables and particles in French, the possibility of omitting a subject in Spanish, what she calls "the rich ambiguity characteristic of Spanish to the filigreed precision of French" ("Poetry Translation: Mission Impossible or a Question of Skill?" p. 83). She endorses sonority, rather than strangeness in the target text, with translators "reproducing meaning with non-cacophonous sounds that play with rhythm and lead to an engaging sonority in the target language" (p. 79).
With the idea of consonance, Carmen Lenero finds an antidote to traduttore, traditore
by "adding a second voice to the poem's diction and even a second line as counterpoint...; in other words, proposing a new musicality that intertwines with the original musicality of the poem, its counterpart" ("Seeking a Twin Voice: Translating and Singing Lorna Crozier's Poems," p. 51). When all is said and done, however, Katherine Silver
provides a best-case scenario for translators:
Translators must find some kind of satisfaction in relative equivalencies and imperfect solutions, or quit... There is a 'place' I as a translator inhabit with increasing comfort and ease, a place that allows me to affirm, always conscious of the paradox, that the untranslatable -- the poetry -- is the only thing worth translating at all.
-- "The Erotic Place of Translation," p. 11
The contributors cited, and those who were not, generously share how they court the "poetry" of the text and why they do it. At the book's outset, Sara Fruner asks us to consider "how unsubstantial a line there is between translators and writers" (p. 4). Helene Rioux
widens the circle: "The reader is another translator, adding his or her own experience and understanding of the words to the author's, and so on in an infinite chain of metamorphosis ("Translation: Music, Ethics," p. 139). Yes! And in that spirit, the essays in Beyond Words: Translating the World
bring together translators, writers and serious readers, all lovers of the word, philologists to the core. Maryanne Hannan's poems, reviews and essays have appeared in many literary journals, including Stand, Magma and upstreet. A contributing editor for Cerise Press, she lives in upstate New York.
This review was first published in Cerise Press.