Ars Prosaica

I’m in the production tunnel now and finding it difficult to comment on my work. This happened to dozens of my students at Iowa when they were in the midst of finishing translation MFA theses and were then expected to write something about them. This required a shift of thinking and approach that they had not been practicing. Translating is not writing about, and these two activities require different habits of mind. It takes work to break out of one and into the other. Anyway, that’s my excuse for the silence of the past several months here. I’m translating.

But this passage is worth quoting, as it says a lot about my author’s way of working. It comes near the end of the book (I have many more pages to go but am jumping around in my translation work because it feels right):

It is not worth changing the names. One should leave them intact and then arrange the destinies of one’s literary heroes, leading them along a high-mountain path between reality and the text, between the life they lived and the life that is to be narrated. But in such a way as to be more plausible than reality, and so that by means of the narrative a biography of the narrator will also be sensed. Everything is true and nothing need be true.

I have resorted to a bit of translationese here, eliminating a specific toponymic expression in favor of a general one: the high-mountain path in question is a specific mountain in Croatia, but as most readers would need to look up the name to get the reference, I think it is better this way. The notion of the true here is “istina” rather than “pravda,” which has its own issues, I know. I’m not sure I understand the necessary of the biography of the narrator generally, though in Jergovic’s work it is, I think, clear.

The Bizarre Task of the Translator

Janet Malcom’s “Socks” is the latest in the healthy or interminable (depending on your level of interest) debate regarding translations of nineteenth-century Russian fiction into English. The touchstone, yet again, is Anna Karenina, which I wrote about here some time ago on the occasion of a review by Masha Gessen. The primary target of Malcom’s essay is the translation and the stated approach of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonskaya, as well as the “obtrusive literalism” of Marian Schwartz’s more recent translation.

The essay’s basic argument and examples are consistent, and Malcom does a good job of specifying her aims in both reading AK and writing an evaluation of existing translations. When she characterizes herself as “the reader of simple wants, who only asks of a translation that it advance rather than impede his pleasure and understanding,” she makes clear a crucial sense that in order to say anything about any translation, one needs to imagine who it is intended for. Unfortunately, the dichotomy she suggests between this sort of “reader of simple wants” and the “more advanced (or masochistic) school [of readers] who want to know what the original was ‘like'” is far too simplistic. It also suggests a rather narrow parochialism that serves to reinforce rather than challenge the sort of cultural and linguistic complacency that more adventurous translations are intended to challenge. One also has to wonder what the reader’s “understanding” might amount to when it does not include an understanding of what the original text was like.

Malcom’s lack of understanding of this aspect of translation comes across most explicitly in her claim that Pevear’s notion (from a 2005 interview with David Remnick) that a translation into English should somehow enrich English is “a bizarre idea of the translator’s task.” The idea actually has a long and distinguished pedigree and has been used explicitly by translators in various times and places, more commonly in poetry circles, it is true, but not exclusively there.

Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of how the project of national language seems apropos here. Languages are characterized by forces that tend to pull them apart (like dialects, regionalisms, and slang) and those that tend to hold them together (like schools, newspapers, grammar handbooks). It is a healthy or interminable (depending on your level of interest) process, with the innovations of literature as one of the factors that have tended to create newness in language at key moments in a language’s history, and with literary translation as a factor in the innovations of literature. This idea might seem a little bizarre from the standpoint of “the reader of simple wants,” but it is one of the translation strategies always available to translators who are serious about their work as literature.

Translation and Rhetoric

And with the generous support of the National Endowment for the Humanities and Indiana University:

Call for Papers

Special Issue of POROI on Rhetoric and Translation

Guest Editor: Russell Scott Valentino, Indiana University

Rhetorical theorists since Aristotle have known that rhetoric is a temporally and spatially situated form of communication that forges (or fails to forge) a bond between a speaker and an audience through the use of commonplaces (topoi): canned formulas that can be varied to generate appropriate action and novel insights. The form of communication called translation offers fertile ground for rhetorical exploration. A good translator skillfully manipulates a receiving culture’s language and expressive modes, soliciting readers’ participation in worlds beyond their own.

Recognizing how infrequently the resources of rhetorical reflection have been brought to bear on the act and products of translation, POROI: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Analysis and Invention, is calling for papers for a Special Issue on rhetoric and translation.

Guest Editor Russell Scott Valentino, Chair of the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures at Indiana University and President of the American Literary Translators Association, will be joined by associate guest editors Jacob Emery, Assistant Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Indiana University; Sibelan Forrester, Professor of Russian at Swarthmore College; and Tomislav Kuzmanović, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Zadar, Croatia.

Anticipated publication date of the Special Issue is Summer 2016.

Topics and approaches are open. Papers might concentrate on issues about translators, audiences, or texts. For example, translator introductions situate both works and their translators vis-à-vis the receiving culture, using appeals to authority, language expertise, and sometimes, empathic connection; re-translations require justification, often on the basis of timeliness (language gets old, politics change; rights become available); the construction of gender, race, and ethnicity in translated works is rife with questions that are rarely articulated in any explicit form; the reception of texts requires that audiences respond on the basis of translators’ work, but reception is also affected by powerful historical, political, cultural, and institutional forces; within the field of translation practice proper, familiar topics circulate with abandon—from invisibility to “theory,” the marking of dialogue, and the comma splice. The editors hope to receive submissions from a wide variety of scholars and artists. The length and style of submissions is open.

POROI is a peer-reviewed e-journal that appears twice a year under the auspices of the University of Iowa Project on Rhetoric of Inquiry. Its platform encourages papers of varying lengths and is friendly to incorporating visual and graphic materials.

Submissions may be made through the POROI journal portal at

The final date for submission is November 1, 2015.

Papers will be reviewed as received.

For further information contact:

Communication, Literature, Translation

A couple of readers of a recent post of mine objected to my claim that literature makes very little use of the common tools of interpersonal communication. I suspect this is a simple case of miscommunication, not a disagreement about principle.

Interpersonal communication makes use of a wide and rich spectrum of sensations, an extensive range of meaning-making tools. Consider proximity, as in how close you stand to someone; or volume, or pitch, or tone, or speed. You touch someone on the shoulder or take him by the lapel of his jacket. You breathe so he can smell your breath. You make eye contact, or look down, or over his shoulder, or raise your eyebrows, or snap your fingers, or shrug. You use words that don’t seem to mean anything at all like “you know,” or “I mean,” or “like,” as if you’re just affirming that there are two of you talking and you’re both living beings — yes, you’re alive, yes, I’m alive, here we are both alive, having this conversation. This list can go on.

Literature makes use of none of these, or rather when it uses any of these, it does so “on purpose.” Of course literature cannot help but be a form of communication, but it’s a remarkably narrow and rather deformed slice of it. As a result, by contrast to the various forms of natural language, it is characterized to a very high degree by artifice and convention.

This is what I mean when I write, “Translation combines interpretation and writing in really interesting ways, but it makes very little use of the common tools of interpersonal communication, especially when the author of one’s text has been dead for over a hundred years.” Okay, the hundred years comment is slightly facetious, but only slightly since death does have a tendency to make interpersonal communication difficult.

This narrow and hyper-conventionalized form of communication (literature) requires some very different interpretive skills than those used in everyday encounters. We internalize these pretty quickly when we begin to read and sometimes forget they’re there. But their presence jumps out again the moment we try to write literary texts, and this is true of translators as well. They might be able to read and understand a work as well as any native speaker, but when they try to create a new work in a different culture’s literature, they need to be able to manipulate not just everyday language but language amid the very specific conventions of literature in the receiving culture, and they need to be able to do so in ways that will be perceived by members of that culture as artistic without being artificial.

What form of expertise, then, would be most appropriate for judging the success or failure of a translated literary work? This is an important question, one that another reader has suggested is a fault in my argument: “A physicist who reviews a book on physics […] and discusses details that the lay reader has no way of checking is also making ‘an implicit argument from authority, which says listen to me because I know something you don’t.’ Isn’t that part of the point of reading reviews, to learn something from a reviewer who knows things you don’t? It would seem that the implication of your theory is either that books should never be reviewed by specialists or that such specialists should never refer to their specialist knowledge.” I see this criticism and begin to find it compelling, until this reader concludes, “I can’t for the life of me see how readers are poorly served by explaining ways in which translations misrepresent the original book.”

If we were discussing misrepresentations or outright semantic errors, then I would be on board. But that has not been the issue in these posts. Interpretive differences, like those that often surface in comparisons among multiple published translations of the same text, are not misrepresentations, they are interpretive differences. There is a monolithic quality to the “original book” in the comment above. The original book, original poem, original story, or play, or literary essay is not a unitary thing. It wasn’t even a unitary thing for the receiving culture at the time of its first appearance, and now we are recreating it for other audiences in other times and places. As a result, it grows and accumulates cultural resonances for new audiences, and its meaning grows. A big part of this growth happens in the rebirth we think of as translation. We might want an answer to questions such as which one of these is the “most accurate” or the “closest to the original,” but these kinds of questions are all based on a false assumption about the ontological nature of the source text, and about what translating that source text into another language might mean.

An example: The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground uses the word “wicked,” where other translations have “spiteful” or “nasty.” Asking which of these words is the most accurate without engaging in a thorough examination and commentary of the entire translated work in the receiving culture mistakes both the nature of the source and the interpretive and creative processes at the heart of translation. The fact is that all these words are possible translations of the word “zloi,” which in effect contains and suggests aspects of them all. This individual lexical item, which occasions a choice in the receiving culture, could become a fascinating inroad to the whole text as part of an extended analysis, but reducing its polyvalence in the service of an interpretation whose ultimate goal were to pronounce judgment on the quality of the whole translation would be a mistake, as would believing such an interpreter’s authority were somehow sacrosanct because she or he happened to be able to read the word zloi and those surrounding it in the source text.

To be clear, I am excluding outright errors (where the translator has clearly not understood the source language) and deliberate manipulation (where the translator has willfully made the text into something else, e.g., an updated version of The Inferno replete with contemporary figures in their appropriate circles of hell). This is not a discussion of misrepresentation. As a result, no one is being called in to tell us what is the “true” or “most accurate” or “authentic” or “ideal,” because this monolithic, unitary, most accurate version does not exist anywhere in reality. And this is the source of much confusion where judgments about translations are concerned. Thinking that it does exist would be like thinking that there is one correct interpretation of any artistic work and that you could write that version down somehow, capturing the entirety of it in other words than those in which it was first expressed. The irony of ironies of such a mistaken conception is that the supposed original itself doesn’t come into existence (in the mind) until someone creates a translation.

I’ve been writing exclusively about the problems associated with reviewing translated literature in this particular manner, on the basis of this kind of implied or explicit expertise, rather than suggesting better ways to do it. Like most criticism delivered without alternatives, this has invited all sorts of imaginary alternatives “implied” by my criticism, of the sort, “Your theory would seem to imply that….” This post is already long, so in a future one I’ll provide an example or two of how reviews of translated works for a general reading public can help to expand our understanding of translation, translated works, and the work of the translators who make them.

Prehistoric Times

Alyson Waters has a fantastic translation of Eric Chevillard’s Prehistoric Times, which was published a couple of years back by Archipelago Books. I liked it so much that I reviewed it. Here is the first paragraph:

“Under the influence of having just completed this book—and let me note at the outset that the influence is hard to resist—I feel like I could starprehistorictimes2t just about anywhere in reviewing it, so why not a footnote. There is just one in the book, but what a footnote, extending over two pages, explicative, digressive, apt, entertaining, and, best of all, delivered in the voice of the translator, Alyson Waters. We can say more (since, too impatient to wait for the French book to arrive in the mail, I wrote to the translator to ask): what in the world could the author have written in French that would translate so well into such a translator’s note? Answer: nothing at all! Or next to nothing. The author merely opens a window in his text (here in Waters’s translation): ‘Professor Glatt gave me the clef that opens the gate, for I am not a man to write clé when it is possible to write clef, even if in so doing I compel the translators of my tale to slow down—and I trust they see no malevolence where none intended; I would gladly let them have a full page to express this slight difference in leisurely, creative circumambages that will even further delay me taking up my post….’ His sentence goes on, as do many in this exquisitely prolix little book, but this is where the footnote marker is placed, so let’s stop where Waters’ footnote begins in order to consider its context and what she accomplishes in writing it.”

Okay, that’s enough. If I quote more, I could be infringing on copyright, which makes me very afraid. You can read the rest here! if you’re interested.ForeignWords

I should note that this is not the first time that Waters has taken my breath away by her work. Her translation of Vassilis Alexakis’s Foreign Words was just the second book that Autumn Hill Books published. I think it is still one of the very best.

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.

Crossing Seven Silences (in two parts): 1

I am tempted by phrases such as the silence of ignorance, and the silence of hatred, but ignorance is so very rarely silent, and hatred even less so.

I am also tempted—let’s get these all out at the start—by the definite article, that “the” that would suggest these silences are the silences, the only ones or almost. A little thing, but a grand temptation, I admire its nuance and power, as when you hold open your palm with two pencils and say, take the pencil. Not the only, not quite, because obviously there are two. Just the.

I admit to an impish curiosity at what a Russian or a Japanese translator might make of this distinction, those languagess-ja-pond-a_edited-1 having no articles at all, let alone any definite ones. Take pencil. Take pencils. Take one pencil. Take one pencil we’ve been talking about. Take one I want you to take. One I’m looking at more intently. One I have in my mind. One we both know is right to take. Take either pencil. Take any pencil.

I am reminded of the sound of water at the end of Matsuo Basho’s famous poem about the frog leaping into an old pond, which is just water in Japanese, mizu, but this is obviously the mizu here, not just mizu, because mizu does not make a sound unless it moves—the silence of land and the silence of water are land and water—and this particular mizu moves because a frog just jumped in. (I also thought the country of my birth was mostly brown until, at the age of twenty-eight, I drove from Los Angeles to Virginia one June, and discovered it mostly green, and far noisier than I had thought, what with all the buzzing and humming.)