THE MOST ANONYMOUS AND ANGRY OF PROFESSIONS: Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky’s In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means

Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky (eds.), In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What it Means (Columbia University Press, 2013)

by Rebecca DeWald

When Dante and Virgil arrive at the ninth circle of hell, they meet famous traitors for whom this final circle is reserved. “Raphel mai amecche zabi almi” resounds here, the words of Nimrod, king of Babel. It was him who oversaw the building of its infamous Tower, that symbol of the origin of languages and, therefore,  of translation too. Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky explain in their introduction to In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What it Means that “Raphel mai amecche zabi almi” is the lost language of Babel, a fragment that Nimrod is doomed to repeat and that no one will ever understand, since the language surrounding this phrase has become extinct. The sentence, left untranslated in all versions of the Inferno, represents ultimate untranslatability, a complete loss of context and reference. The language itself is the perfect original, unshakeable, unalterable, because it is untranslatable, and because it originates in a time when there was no need for translation. It is pre-translation.

In Translation unites many famous translators and translation scholars who speak about their work and about the theoretical implications of what they do in essays and case studies, translators’ prefaces and commentaries on their work. Contributions are so varied that every reader – from those familiar with translation theory and translators’  working conditions to interested readers wanting to gain an insight into the profession and its analytical implications – will find something they haven’t read before. Allen and Bernofsky, both distinguished translators and theorists, have brought together some of the best-known practitioners and theoreticians in the field.

But how well-known are they? Besides Haruki Murakami, mainly known as an author, readers not used to checking the translator’s name when they begin reading a book in translation might not recognise many of the names here. One might have heard of David Bellos, author of the best-selling Is that a Fish in your Ear?, and maybe also Lawrence Venuti and Eliot Weinberger, though their influence is tightly linked to academic translation studies. How many know the literary works translated by them?

David Bellos manages what many translators struggle with: he writes popular books about translation. His essay in the collection deals with the paradox of domestication, of seemingly adapting a text to the reader’s expectation and knowledge and making the translation sound as smooth as possible. At the same time, he also addresses the paradox of foreignization, of making the reader aware that they are reading a translation, through the insertion of foreign-language words in italics, for example. He explains what makes these concepts paradoxical is that leaving words in a foreign language is an addition to the text and is therefore, in attempting to be “faithful” to the target audience, not faithful at all. The issue of fidelity is as old as translation itself, and does not prove very fruitful for discussing what happens to a text in translation and to its readers. Bellos explains in a concise but entertaining way the paradoxical constraints that are placed on the translator. And this essay makes it obvious why he is so successful: he isn’t angry.

Yet it’s no surprise that many translators are angry and that essays about translation often mention problems. The fact that 90% of literary reviews never mention the translator’s name (Weinberger, 26), that translation is “the most anonymous of professions” (28), and that the translator’s work is often neglected is good cause for frustration. It is even more important, then, to make translation accessible to a wider audience, as Bellos does, and to focus on “celebrating” translation, as Allen and Bernofsky encourage in their Introduction. Frustration is replaced by the joy of the multiplicity of languages and versions of texts, and the fun in puzzling over turns of phrases and solving translation riddles, which are often questions of style, much like any other form of writing.

An analysis of a translation’s historiography is one of the ways in which the frustration can be sidestepped and tired discussions around fidelity directed towards more analytically and theoretically fertile grounds. The historiography of translation – a Foucauldian genealogy, if you like – bypasses the “idea that there is a single ‘correct’ translation of any given phrase or literary passage,” a “unique and identical formulation” (100), as Allen underlines Bellos’ argument. Allen and Weinberger, both Latin Americanists, take this kind of historiographical approach though they stress different aspects of their research subject.

Allen makes a very valuable contribution to the collection in stressing the importance of translation for women writers: translation has long been a predominantly female profession, since anonymity worked in women’s favour, allowing them to participate in the literary scene, even if in secret, partly because the critic’s attribution of the creative genius could be easily bestowed upon the (male) author. An elevation of the status of translation to an exercise in creative writing – like in modernist translations – would hence be equal to an elevation of the work of women in literature.

Weinberger, avoiding fidelity as the “most overrated of a translation’s qualities” (24), analyses the US creative writing scene. He links an increased interest in translation in the US of the 1970s with anti-American resentments, which is repeated post-9/11 because of many an intellectual’s shame at being American thanks to the foreign and domestic policies of President George W. Bush. Weinberger asserts, however, that the change in the relationship between original writing and translation started much earlier, with modernism. Many authors created translations (first and foremost Ezra Pound – also mentioned in  favourable terms by Venuti) which did not adopt prevailing conventions and styles of the target culture, but whose goal it was to produce works of art, obeying their own aesthetic rules. It is no accident that Weinberger’s credo “Translation, above all, means change” (22) recalls Pound’s “make it new.” The origins of modern translation can be found in modernism. Or so they should be. Rather than following in a straight chronological line, developments in translation studies always seem to be delayed by a few decades – no surprise, considering that movements and ideas are proved and attested to by theorists and practitioners in different languages and cultural settings. What followed modernism in translation is not postmodernism, but a return to the debate around fidelity and a definition of the term “translation” itself, whether it should include cultural transpositions and recombinations or not. The modernist translation ideal, making a new work of art out of an already existing version, is still a marginal practice.

The second part of the volume – as well as Emmerich’s study of Japanese literature in the first half – focuses on the practice of translation and is predominantly made up of case studies. Two of the most interesting ones, from Jason Grunebaum and Christi A. Merrill, discuss translations from Hindi, and Hindi and Rajasthani respectively. The former gives examples of the influence an imagined target audience has on the translation process: translating for an English-speaking audience in India, familiar with Hindi terms and traditions, might allow terms to be left in the original Hindi whereas an interested US reader might need a “thicker” translation, with more explanations, though without footnotes (Grunebaum explains the alienating effect glossaries have on readers). Merrill’s case study is a multilingual source text, half authored, half folk-tale. She shows how texts like these question the notion of a single authorship. Both case studies are examples of how to talk about the translator’s practice, which questions arise and the problems they encounter in their day-to-day work, while theorising the issues involved and, without becoming anecdotal. In stark contrast with this is Alice Kaplan’s contribution which is decidedly anecdotal in that it is almost a tirade against a translator who, in the author’s view, took too many liberties.. Accounts like these are very common and the purpose and reason for their retelling, other than making for small talk, is more than questionable for the profession.

This volume, then, also shows that great translators, who we might admire for their work or who have been honoured with awards – the contributing translators’ biographies read like an index of translation and creative writing awards – might pursue a rather questionable translation strategy and theory, one that seems to completely contradict the aim of the collection: to let translators enter the limelight and talk about and celebrate their work. Peter Cole, for example, makes the dubious suggestion that translators should rely on “instinct, not ideology” (11), as if the two could be separated and ideology was a choice, furthermore a choice only the translator could make, thereby disregarding the publishing and marketing context. The humility and obedience of a translator with regards to the original text and author, and Cavanagh’s verdict that “of course, translating poetry is impossible” (244), which oddly concludes the volume, seem to be rather old-fashioned virtues and in need of revision.

The collection shows the different approaches translators take to their work, which also includes many translators who don’t want to or don’t know how to talk about their work, without hiding behind the author. Venuti is right when he complains about translators’ commentaries which are often “too impressionistic” (187), a style which also pops up in the volume, possibly for lack of knowledge on how to reflect on one’s work and its effects. Richard Sieburth’s humble excuses are a case in point, as is José Manuel Prieto’s contribution, which offers a very interesting close reading of Osip Mandelstam’s ‘Epigram Against Stalin,’ similar to the first step a translator would take in rendering a poem in a different language. Prieto offers a detailed analysis and historical background of the source text but never even mentions his work as a translator of it. Haruki Murakami, in his work as translator – much less known than his work as author outside Japan – takes a similar approach in that he discusses his personal relationship with the text, The Great Gatsby, without being aware (or at least noting that he is) of translation theory and the effect of what he writes. While offering an interesting insight into the relationship a translator might have with a special text, this commentary does not go beyond a personal report. This is offered by Ted Goossen, translator of Murakami’s piece and essayist analysing the importance and impact of translation in Japan. He explains, for example, that “the founders of Japanese modern literature tended to be either scholars of Western literature or translators” (183) and that, in contrast with the English-speaking translation scene, the name “Murakami” as translator of volumes of American and English literature in Japanese boosts their sales, his name being printed on the cover in bigger font than Fitzgerald, Capote or Salinger. This is also why Murakami can get away with leaving “old sport” in English in a Japanese text, as opposed to the possibilities open to Japanese translations into English, as Goossen concludes: “For English readers, it appears, books need to be dubbed, not subtitled,” (186) which, it should be added, is maybe not as much the choice of the end user, but rather of a tradition of domesticating, non-modernist translation.

Bernofsky offers a different insight into the work of a translator, and explains in detail the steps she takes in drawing closer to a translation which is more than just “good enough.” Her account is also personal, in the sense that she explains her very own way of working, but it is far from being anecdotal. She explains the four drafts every one of her translations passes through, beginning with a rough first draft, which sites the linguistic field, includes multiple options of a term or phrase, to the third draft, which consists of a reading for sound, rhyme and style, and the revision and proofreading of the fourth draft. Every single one of her drafts explains the different fields of obligation translation is embedded in, from linguistic diversity and grammatical idiosyncrasies to cultural and contextual differences and auditory nuances. And they also bring out the learning process the translator herself is involved in and can benefit from. Bernofsky explains, in a Benjaminian fashion:

“With each successive draft, the text draws closer to the ideal form it will inhabit when its transformation is complete. The process of repeatedly subtracting whatever isn’t working, replacing it with stronger material, is difficult to grasp, describe, and teach. In the end, it is a matter of learning to calibrate dissatisfaction, to judge when a sentence can still be improved on and when a solution – perfect or imperfect – should be left to stand. The best translators are particularly suspicious of the intermediate drafts of their work, of their own ability to produce “good enough” translations.” (229-230)

In Canto XXVI of the Inferno, before encountering Nimrod, Dante meets Adam. The language he speaks is different to Nimrod’s Babylonian phrase; as Adam explains it “was utterly extinct / before the followers of Nimrod turned their minds / to their unattainable ambition” (xv). Multilingualism, and therefore translation, precedes Babel. As one of the oldest professions, despite its anonymity, it continues to be a difficult business, as this collection illustrates with its various and at times contradictory opinions and approaches. But there is no reason to be angry about it; the fact that a translation is never “good enough”, is never perfect, just like any other text, should be a reason to celebrate diversity and challenges.

4 responses to “THE MOST ANONYMOUS AND ANGRY OF PROFESSIONS: Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky’s In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means”

  1. I found this review excellent; thank you. I agree with a great deal of the assessment as well. Prieto and Bellos contribute the most fascinating pieces, in my opinion, while Cole’s opening piece is frustratingly vague and jargon-laced. Overall a great volume.

  2. Very nice review – thanks. Two comments: first, to entirely agree that there is no such thing as ‘the perfect translation’ – such a thing is, in fact, meaningless. Comparing different translations of a much loved work is often a highly enjoyable exercise in itself, providing fascinating insights into the full complexity of language, meta-language and the very personal nature of our understanding, interpretation and appreciation of both. Second, to highlight the fact that most of the angry translators mentioned in the article are literary specialists. There are many of us backroom boys and girls who are quite happy to remain anonymous, engaged as we are on business/market-focused work that aims to promote or otherwise communicate about specific products or services. The satisfaction of such work lies in adequately meeting the objectives of the underlying communication – seeing, as it were, one’s client’s name in lights rather than one’s own. Oh, and earning a living in the process, of course… (the issue of angry technical/commercial translators is one that is covered in extensive detail elsewhere, and has less to do with recognition than with remuneration).

    1. Hello Bill!
      Thank you very much for your extensive comment. About your second point: I know that there will probably be translators who would rather remain anonymous, and I am not interested in “forcing” them to feature in bigger letters than their authors. However, also in light of your bracketed comment at the end and as a translator myself, I think much of the frustration of translator (commercial or not) does not only stem from a problem in remuneration, but also from a misunderstanding of what translators do, and what kind of work environment they need to do their job properly (I’m thinking here of context information, deadlines, a client’s availability to answer questions which they might not have anticipated). And I think this misunderstanding is, at least in part, due to the persistent invisibility of translators. By giving translators more of a public profile, I think the profession would meet more consideration and less ignorance.
      … I hope I am not falling into the cliché of the “angry translator” here myself, as I don’t think it’s in any way one side or the other’s fault. But there is still work to be done 🙂


      [views are mine and do not reflect the GRB’s as a whole]

      1. Ah, yes, here I’m entirely in agreement! It would be a Jolly Good Thing if people knew more about the profession – indeed, I’m sure you’d agree it would be a jolly good thing if people knew more about backroom professions generally – and raising the profile of translation as a profession is something I am always delighted to do. But if I may play devil’s advocate for a moment: in my experience, commercial translators can be surprisingly reticent about asking for precisely the kind of valuable information you detail in your reply, vital though it is to a proper understanding not only of the text qua text, but also of the client’s ultimate intentions for that text (i.e. the purpose the text is designed to fulfill, whether to market a product or service or explain how to use a device). Again in my experience, many commercial translators worry that by asking questions, they will make themselves look foolish/ignorant. But in actual fact, I find that clients are (almost) always delighted to respond to intelligent, thoughtful questions – especially when such questions highlight potential weaknesses in the source text (e.g. ambiguities, misspellings, actual errors etc.). I would emphasize the ‘intelligent, thoughtful’ bit there; daft, querulous questions don’t generally excite sympathy. And that’s when it’s important for ‘angry’ translators to put their (sometimes preemptive) anger aside and act as sober, professional service providers. This may sound obvious, but many (most) translators are freelancers working more or less in isolation. Preserving a sense of self-esteem and professional worth when one sends a lot of time in solitary confinement is surprisingly difficult, and accounts, I suspect, for at least some of the angry outbursts occasionally heard from members of the translation community. On the positive side, it also perhaps explains the impressively supportive attitudes demonstrated by colleagues in the profession towards each other and especially towards neophytes. Now that’s a very positive aspect of the profession that should also be publicised more widely!

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The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is an online journal which publishes critical reviews, essays and interviews as well as writing on translation. We accept work in any of the languages of Scotland – English, Gàidhlig and Scots.

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