Translation and Exile

Many metaphors for translation seem to imagine it as a kind of travel, a movement with baggage across some national, cultural, linguistic, and/or geographic boundaries, usually from an imagined foreign territory to one’s own home turf. In that foreign territory—so these metaphors often go—one discovered something or was given something, and in translating that something, one tries to carry it across from over there to right here, provide it a new home perhaps, new neighbors, if not a new life altogether.

This set of spatial relationships has created a very fertile ground for metaphors of translation, with some of the oldest tapping into the notion of the translatio, or transfer, of a saint’s relics from a site of discovery in the Ancient World to a newly created cathedral as part of a city’s myth of origin. St. Mark in Venice comes to mind, and that episode adds the intriguing idea of thievery to the mix, as two Venetians supposedly stole the remains from Alexandria in the 9th century, bringing them to the Lagoon as part of the official origin of the city. Translation and/as theft is a topic for another post.

I suspect these sorts of travel and new life metaphors, in the U.S. and perhaps the Americas in general, have been inflected somewhat by the notion of immigration. The roots are over there; we are transplanting things to this soil; there is rupture involved, great distances, perhaps some heartache, something like nostalgia for a lost past, regret, displacement. A lot like exile. But I want to ask what has been exiled exactly? The text itself? The translation is a new text, another text. The source is back safe at home and hasn’t gone anywhere at all. Or is the idea that its spirit somehow still exists latent in the translated version, despite the fact that all the words are different? Does a translated text evoke nostalgia for its own lost past or for some sort of ghost or doppelganger of itself? How else might translated works be thought of as exiles from their homes?

The problem I find in such notions has to do with a kind of instability at their center, which we tend to turn into certainty, definiteness, especially when we talk about that thing we always seem to talk about when we talk about translating: the original. Textual scholars, people who study the histories of individual works, from Homer’s Odyssey, to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, to the poems of Emily Dickenson, any serialized nineteenth-century novel, and so on, have developed a detailed and sophisticated apparatus for discussing how unstable and variable the genesis of any work actually turns out to be. As Karen Emmerich has rightly pointed out, all of that instability of the source disappears as soon as we start talking about translation. At that moment, the original becomes one thing, when it never was one thing—it was always a mixture of things, editorial versions, and authorial revisions, textual redactions, and second, third, fourth editions, and so on.

The unstable nature of the source also pertains to the metaphors used as the basis for talking about translation. Who this St. Mark actually was is not entirely clear; whether those stolen or “liberated” bones were actually his is even less clear; and what relationship the bones might have to the person, even if they were once located inside the body that was his, is probably the least clear thing of all. I want to ask, what do bones mean? What is their relationship to spirit, let alone soul? Don’t you have to invent a story, perhaps lots of stories, about them in order for them to mean something? And of course this pertains at least as much if not more to the stories of immigration to the new world, the sort that might evoke nostalgia, which in turn is based on stories about the old world, that dubious source once again, invented stories, interpretations that only come to look definitive when we translate them, turning them into “the original.”

So far I’ve only been referring to the source. Once I start thinking about the act of translation, things become even less stable. Say you have a source, just one, and you read it carefully, study it, look up all the words and references you might not have known, then what? It’s in your head in what form exactly? Presumably you’ve somehow made sense of it to yourself, which means you have an interpretation, at least an implicit one, and it’s sitting there in your head. Now what? Well, if you’re a translator and not merely a reader, you’re going to have to write all that down. And as we all know, things immediately start to change as soon as one begins to write. You start making little changes, interact with the author and/or a series of reference works, colleague-readers, maybe a group of workshop participants, an editor, a copyeditor, a teacher, a designer maybe, a marketing department maybe, and the book that results—we’re assuming you finish it despite all these distractions—turns out to be a mixture of many different people’s ideas, suggestions, agendas, theoretical engagements, as well as the conventions of editing, publishing, and literary production and consumption in the receiving culture.

After all this, it’s no wonder if the translation feels it is an exile! Or rather, if it feels like an exile. (These metaphors are never really adequate.) Not all translations, however, are like exiles in the same way. They are more akin to expatriates in this regard. Some expats wear an eternal mask of carefree nonchalance on the outside, but they are alone and yearning for home underneath. I would put Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin here. Others are completely happy in their new home, even more than that, they are happier than they were where they started out; they’ve found a new community of peers, not to mention readers, one they never had before. I would put Michael Henry Heim’s translation of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being in this category, or Barbara Wright’s translation of Queneau’s Exercises in Style.

Translation as an activity, I suspect, often makes translators feel like exiles, too. They travel to that other place, the place where the source lives, often physically and at a young enough age for it to be formative and transformational for them, and there they discover or are given something, and they try to bring it back with them. They try to give it to others, the whole thing, just as they experienced it because they want to share that experience. They accept it in a way into their heads, and sometimes their hearts, and then they try to write it down so others can take it into theirs. I won’t say that this is an impossible thing to do—that’s too simple.

But there is something fundamentally unstable with the basic terms here as well. As if translators were the same in one culture and at one point in their lives, as they are in another. We are barely the same when we move from one social role to the next in a single culture. It’s a bit ambitious to assume we might maintain even greater identity when moving across different ones, taking up different verbal and meaning making systems, socializing with different friends, using different gestures, tones of voice, experiencing a different pace of life itself. Why would we assume a work would mean the same thing to us there and here, even if we could somehow make it the same thing in both cultures? The instability of the source points to the instability of us, and if there is nostalgia for some lost source in this scenario, it might just as well be for our own past selves as for some supposed original text.

I have moved us from a spatial to a temporal metaphor, I realize, from exile in space to exile in time, and to the inevitable nostalgia that accompanies such displacement. It is not the way I usually think about translation; it does not make me happy to think about it in these terms. I prefer to focus on translation as being more about creation and gain than about transfer and loss. But nor do I think that it is wrong—the baggage you bring back with you from that other culture, that other life, is with you still; it has a weight to it even if it is immaterial, and it has a volume despite its lack of extension in space. Inside that volume are thoughts and ideas, experiences, and desires that are or were your own experiences of reading and understanding that culture and now this work comes to stand in for them, maybe just a little bit, maybe a lot. And they make it clear to you that you never completely came back from there, and also that you did, and as a translator you’ll never be either altogether there or altogether here again.


An Unfortunate Episode in the Rhetoric of Re-translation

Or, to be clear, it would be that thing in my title, if the book had been re-translated, but this is not really a re-translation, so mostly this is about editing. Unfortunately, the editor in this case, Mark Thompson, has chosen to position his work along the lines that are often reserved for the rhetoric of re-translation and certain forms of marketing of translations that appeal primarily to accuracy and authenticity. (I will refrain from putting these words in quotes but please imagine them there; this is about rhetoric and the ways we present claims about translation, translated texts, translators, and so on.)51LJpC-v39L

The claims typically suggest that the previous translation was seriously flawed and, as a result, created a wrong impression of the work in question, such that its reception was somehow skewed if not missed altogether. Then they imply that the current translation rights the wrongs of the earlier work, giving readers proper access to the original in a way that they were somehow denied it before. This is exactly the rhetoric Thompson uses to critique Heim’s work (in the second half of his talk).

I was curious to know what precise translation experience Thompson was basing the larger claims in his critique upon, but unfortunately I could not find any book translations by him, only a portion of Dubravka Ugresic’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, published in 2011. Of course there are very good editors of translations who have not translated entire books themselves, though I have not been able to find any other translations edited by Thompson either. Still, he has written an excellent biography of Danilo Kiš, the author of the book in question, so there’s no reason not to pay careful attention to his critique of a translation of that author’s work by someone else.

It does give one pause, however, when someone with little professional experience in the domain itself makes categorical statements about how translators “ought” to keep the exact tenses of the foreign language text in their English versions, or how they “should” repeat words whenever the author does. Actually, these are both rather naive over generalizations that most experienced translators and experienced editors of translation know to be so. They are as dependent upon context as any choices a translator might make, and it is simply not the case that all language cultures have the same levels of tolerance for repetition and tense variation, or that the verbal systems of different languages work the same way. Nor does back-translating in the manner he discusses clarify the process of creating the English version, e.g., finding another word in the source language that might have been used but wasn’t in order to make the claim that if the author had wanted to use that word, she or he could have, and therefore, the word used in the previous English version was the wrong one.

Listening to Thompson’s categorical assertions—which I sincerely hope are not written down in the introduction to this new edition—actually made me as irritated and angry as he claims to have felt about Heim and his translation (why he should be precisely “irritated” with Heim was not completely clear). Editing another person’s work is not the same as translating from scratch. This is important enough to write again. The very slight nod to the translator of the whole text, the one whose work he used as the basis of his revisions, came very late in Thompson’s comments and seemed rather grudging and almost an afterthought, especially by contrast to the litany of “deep flaws” he shares.

I have edited quite a few other people’s translations. It is possible to do so when you don’t have an expert grasp of the language of the source text. It is even possible to fine tune the translation in the process. But in such cases, the editor’s name does not go on the cover, at least not unless it is a scholarly edition of some sort and the editor in question has created a scholarly apparatus to accompany the text. Actually, the editor’s name is not generally mentioned anywhere in literary works, whether they are translated or not. This is the work of an editor. Moreover, even when I know what questions to ask where and which verbs or lines or articles might have diverged from a Spanish or German or Japanese (minus the articles) source, I know that translating the whole would be beyond me given my skills in these languages. This is because editing another person’s work is not the same as translating from scratch. It makes the collegial nature of editing all the more important.

The rhetoric of re-translation often formulates attempts to move its audience by means of a critique of a previous translation: it is “old,” “outdated,” “inaccurate,” and so on. These claims are familiar as attempts to justify the need for the new version. This is what is happening with Thompson’s discussion of his edited version of Heim’s translation as well, and some of his changes might in fact be improvements on the English version. I just wish it had been more graciously done. The very title of his talk is rather offensive, as if Heim was not concerned with doing justice to the authors’ whose work he translated and the works themselves. When Heim was called upon to revise other people’s translations, something that happened often, he did it without putting his name to it. Nor did he spell out all the things he disagreed with in the other person’s work publicly. This grace and discretion were marks of his work both as an editor and as a translator.

In NY later this week (for a man and a woman)

I’ll be participating in The University of Rochester’s Reading the Word series this Thursday for the launch of The Man Between. Man_Between-front_largeThen to NYU’s Jordan Center on Friday afternoon for a presentation drawn from The Woman in the Window.

Here are the details:

Event No. 1: Michael Henry Heim was one of the greatest literary translators, and translation advocates, of the 20th century. His impact – on the study of translation, the funding of translation, the introduction of the phrase “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” into English – is immense, varied, and inspirational. Come hear the editors – Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, and Russell Scott Valentino – of The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim & A Life in Translation talk about this exciting new book, the many contributions within, Mike himself, and the art of literary translation.

Thursday  |  April 2, 2015  |  5:00 p.m.
Welles-Brown Room  |  Rush Rhees Library
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY 14627

And Event No. 2: The Woman in the Window: Commerce, Consensual Fantasy, and the Quest for Masculine Character from Dostoevsky to NabokovThe Woman in the Window

Valentino’s lecture rests upon notions of how the traditional virtue ethic, grounded in property-based conceptions of masculine heroism, was eventually displaced by a new commercial ethic that rested upon consensual fantasy. The new economic world destabilized traditional Russian notions of virtue and posed a central question that Russian authors have struggled to answer since the early nineteenth century: How could a self-interested commercial man be incorporated into the Russian context as a socially valuable masculine character?

With examples drawn from the works of Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pasternak, and Nabokov, Valentino argues that Russian authors worked through this question via their depictions of mixed-up men, charting a range of masculine character types thrown off stride by the new commercially inflected world: those who embrace blind confidence, those who are split with doubt or guilt, and those who look for an ideal of steadfastness and purity to keep themselves afloat – a woman in a window.

Start: April 3, 2015 3:00 pm

Venue: NYU Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia

Phone: 212.992.6575

Address: 19 University Place, 2nd FloorNew York, NY10003

Hope to see you there (or there)!

The Man Between the Woman in the Window

Man_Between-front_largeOne of the reasons The Woman in the Window took so long to finish is that I was always working on other things at the same time. I think all seven of the books I’ve translated came out during the time I was writing WiW, suggesting that it might be a very good thing for my translation work to start on another long book project! (Why this is so I’m not exactly sure, but I’ve made a mental note and plan to verify at the first opportunity.)

I’m not going to list the many other projects that germinated and in some instances matured during the same period–it helps me to think of this as a period–because doing so would probably make me feel tired, but one project has the opposite effect. It makes me feel warm and inspired, and it is a volume I co-edited on the life and work of Michael Henry Heim, which is called The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim & a Life in Translation.

Heim was my teacher at UCLA, a dear friend, and an academic father for me and many others. He served as a role model translator and public intellectual. His English title for Milan Kundera’s book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a title he fought for against the wishes of the American publisher and the author, serves as the basis for this blog’s subtitle. My variation is just one of hundreds that are currently searchable online, a fact that Sean Cotter, one of the co-editors for the book, has written about at Words without Borders.

Sean and our other co-editor, Esther Allen, put a lot of work into the book, and whatever success it might have is due to their efforts, and of course those of our publisher, the indefatigable Chad Post at Open Letter Books, who first wrote about the project at Three Percent. It will come out, like WiW in October of this year. (I don’t think it is possible to plan to have two books come out in the same month at two different publishers, one beginning with “The Woman…,” the other with “The Man…,” but if there’s a publicist reading this who might find it a happy coincidence, please feel free to drop me a line.)

There will be multiple launches, which are in the works–one at the annual ALTA conference in November, another in New York in, we think, April. Possibly another before that, also in NY, in December. This is a book for anyone who likes to read books about how books are born, especially books that were not born in English until someone like Heim worked his magic.


Oh, I do, I do like books. One of my favorite scenes: the narrator of Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude (in Michael Henry Heim’s English translation) contemplating the prospect of being killed by the mass of literature that hangs above his bed tumbling down upon him in his sleep. This is not my fantasy! But it is a fascinating, compelling image, being swallowed up by one’s passion, the thing that has been consuming one already in effect since the age of, what, eleven? a precocious 8? a tardy 17? It’s never too late to be consumed! You can always look forward to the avalanche coming down upon your head in the future. Perhaps this was the inspiration for the paper blob commercial from the 1980s, though I don’t understand why they needed the Alexander Nevsky theme music.

I’ve written a new book! It took me a long time, like twelve years or so. I actually finished it almost two years ago. This, I think, is a very good thing. I wouldn’t have wanted the book I finished almost two years ago to come out fast. It would have been too soon. I’ll be blogging about it here, along with some other stuff.