Saturday, December 17, 2011

Preaching to the converted - Why Translation Matters*

I think, to the majority of the people who visit The Parrish Lantern, this is a question that even if it momentarily  flitted across their conscious mind - would seem so obvious, it must be rhetorical, and yet a post on a fellow bloggers site, made  me reconsider this question. Because of the way my country appears to be heading, the way to all intents and purposes our leaders(?) have chosen to isolate us from the greater European community, a fellow blogger – Tom (The Common Reader) was so appalled by their decision, he wrote a post decrying this horrendous situation, stating that he was a Europhile.  That because he as

a lover of European literature I have developed a sense of being “European”, sharing in the culture of Thomas Mann, Honoré de Balzac, Marcel Proust, Robert Walser, Gunther Grass, Magda Szabo and many others”.

This got me thinking about how we, lovers of World/ translated literature, may have a different aspect, an alternate viewpoint to those that do not read or that only read works by English language writers. how can you be insular, inward looking whilst your viewpoint is being shaped and moulded by a whole world of writers, if your vision of this planet is not only shaped by the writers of Europe but Asia, the Americas and all points in-between. If your understanding of a situation is derived from a combination of questions and answers posed and dissected, screamed out at a confused and hostile world by writers from all points of this globe, you rapidly learn that we have far more in common and share a whole lot more than there are differences. A quick look through the index of this blog made me realise that the majority of the books on The Parrish Lantern, started out their lives in a language different to the one I read them in, writers like – Roberto Bolano, Yukio Mishima, Italo Calvino, Deyan Enev, Pablo Neruda, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, Alois Hotschnig, Kobo Abe, Alessandro Baricco, Hans Fallada & many more, all of whom I read in a translated form.

Which brings me to this book “ Why Translation Matters” by Edith Grossman. In this book the writer/ translator stakes out her claim for the importance of translation and the role of the translator, she says in the introduction that:
“My intention is to stimulate a new consideration of an area of literature that is too often ignored, misunderstood or misrepresented. As the world seems to grow smaller and more interdependent and interconnected while at the same time, nations and peoples paradoxically become increasingly antagonistic to one another, translation has an important function to fulfil  that I believe must be cherished and nurtured. Translation not only plays its important traditional role as the means that allows us access to literature originally written in one of the countless languages we cannot read, but it also represents a concrete literary presence with the crucial capacity to ease and make more meaningful relationships to those with whom we may not have had a connection with before. Translation always helps us to know, to see from a different angle, to attribute new value to what once may have been unfamiliar. As nations and as individuals, we may have a critical need for that kind of understanding and insight. The alternative is unthinkable.”

Three of the four sections of this book are based on lectures the writer gave for the Yale university press (connected to the Whitney Centres Annual lecture series), only the final chapter on poetry was specifically written for this volume. This allows her to discuss her craft, to explain the finer points, the differences between rote work and the kind of translation where through an almost metamorphic alchemy an alternate form is created*, a subject she is more than qualified to discuss. Edith Grossman is an award-winning translator specializing in English versions of Spanish language books, she is considered to be one of the most important translators of Latin American fiction in the past century. She has translated the works of Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, Mayra Montero, Augusto Monterroso, Jaime Manrique, Julián Ríos and of Álvaro Mutis, and her translation of Cervantes, Don Quixote is now widely accepted as the standard text.

By allowing us to explore through literature the thoughts and feelings of people from different societies or from different points in time, we learn, savour through a kind of osmosis what once was strange, foreign which through this process becomes familiar, whilst experiencing at the same time life outside our own skins and with it our preconceptions and misconceptions. Translation expands and deepens our world and our consciousness of it in many ways.
Chad post from Three Percent (a resource for international literature at the university of Rochester) stated;

“And so we come back to the first question: why does translation matter, and to whom? I believe it matters for the same reason and in the same way literature matters – because it is crucial to our sense of ourselves as humans. The artistic impulse and the need for art in our species will not be denied.”

Which brings me back to my title “Preaching to the converted” and my conversation with Tom & whether it is true that by reading, and imbibing another nations literature you can come to a greater understanding of their society and  culture  whilst in the process becoming closer to that culture and less isolationist as individuals or nation states, this is the idea behind the book “Why Translation Matters” and also something I totally believe and feel I’ve experienced myself, through my love of literature.

I will now throw this over to who ever is reading this - Is the writer of this book and myself being particularly naive  about this subject or do you agree with this sentiment?

*One Hundred Years of Solitude translated by Gregory Rabassa, was declared by Gabriel García Márquez to be superior to his own Spanish original.


gina said...


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post, Parrish. Of course, I am converted (I am a translator, that is), but I didn't feel preached to at all. Your post resonated with me. It is wonderful to find people that experience the same sense of cultural adventure. Isn't it extraordinary to see the world through another cultural lens. Upon Tom Cunliffe's recommendation I am now reading David Bellos' book, which definitely is very good, and my cousin who is also a translator has highly recommended Edith Grossman's book (next on my list).

Unknown said...

This is a wonderul post Gary. Sadly, you really are preaching to the converted (or the choir, as the Americans say!).

Of course, as I mention on Tom's Europhile post, that doesn't mean that I want to go native...

Violet said...

Translators have opened up whole other worlds for me, and I am truly grateful that I am able to read books that show me cultures and eras different from my own. How dull it would be to only ever see a reflection of my own cultural experience in the books I read.

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

Wonderful post, I could not agree more that translating works of literature is important.

I am worried about the developments that Cameron is taking with regard to Europe. I don't want us to end up isolated.

Tom Cunliffe said...

A brilliant thoughtful post - yes, reading does change people, usually for the better. This is a book I should get hold of for my shelves

Thanks for quoting me.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Gina,thanks for the affirmative, not sure if it's in agreement for the statement or for our naivety.

Hi Quirina , thanks for your comment & for the work you do, which allows me to read the stuff I do.

Hi Tony, hence the title, realised that people reading this would be members of the choir.Also appreciating a culture doesn't mean you deny your own, in fact it can add nuances to the appreciation of your own. thanks for the kind words.

Hi Violet, In agreement totally, my literary experience & thus my experience would be a lot narrower if not for translation.

Hi Sam, at the moment the Euro-sceptics may be in ascendency, but hopefully this will change with a greater understanding of our neighbours, thus the importance of translation.

Hi Tom and thanks for the inspiration,another you may be interested in is Chad Post's

Mel u said...

great perfectly written post-I have a copy of Grossman's translation of Don Q.-I hope to get to it in 2012-I read it 40 years ago in another edition-

Anonymous said...

I haven't read many translated titles but I agree with the points you raised - great post

Shelleyrae @ Book'd Out

Col (Col Reads) said...

I love translated titles, and I do feel like they can give me some insight into the way other people think. Not the same as living in a different location of course, but far less superficial than just vacationing someplace, for example. I am going to look at this book as a possible one to share with students doing international communication, so thanks, Parrish!

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Col, I hope it is suitable for your students, but it's more of a call to arms, than a study of translation,if that's what you're after this will be fine, for a more comprehensive book, try George Steiner's After Babel.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Mel, can't recall which Quixote, I read but it was a good few years ago, thanks for the comment.

Hi Shelleyrae,thanks for the comment. said...

Being an American, I love reading books from different cultures and countries. It broadens my view or expands my view of my initial perception or changes it all together. It would seem quite boring to read only books with one outlook or perspective when we live in a global literary market.

Anonymous said...

great post Gary I want read this at some point as you know I love translation and hope to up my game regards it next year ,all the best stu

@parridhlantern said...

HI, Lena, in total agreement with you.

Hi Stu, just keep up the good work & if you get your Kindle foe Xmas, check out

would make great additions to the discussion on translation.

Bellezza said...

Such an interesting post, Parrish. As a person who loves translated literature as much as you do, I often find myself wondering what I've missed that some idiot translator has left out. Even with the Bible, my most beloved of texts, I must trust that it was interpreted correctly in its translation. I wish that I could read Japanese...that is the one language I would love to know so that I could read the genre in its truest form. Without a go-between. I had so many years of French that I was able to read the New Testament, Le Petit Prince, and Candide all in French. It added greatly to the experience. Sadly, I don't think I'll ever learn Japanese to that extent. Perhaps the best I can hope for is to read Grossman's translation of Don Quixote. (It makes me wonder, too, how to manage Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, or In Search of Lost TIme, whichever title you prefer. I want to read it with Stu this year, but I'm not sure which translation to choose.)

@parridhlantern said...

The version I read years ago was," Remembrance of " The version "In search of is a revised edition, with its title a,more literal translation of Proust's Title

Totally in agreement concerning original language, used to speak & understand German, but about 15 years of no use & I can just about mumble my intent, also would love to learn Japanese.

James said...

Thanks for your thoughtful consideration of the meaning and importance of translation and reading. Like others who have commented I am in agreement and find the reference from Edith Grossman apropos. Having read her translation of Mutis I was even more impressed with her magnificent Cervantes. While I was raised on American and English literature I value the enrichment that literature in translation has brought me in more recent decades.

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