TIR Forum on Literature and Translation

Translations have played an important part in the history of The Iowa Review, especially through the magazine's various affiliations with writers from around the globe who have visited Iowa City over the years, to read at Prairie Lights Bookstore, study or teach in the Writers' Workshop, participate in seminars and conferences, or in the International Writing Program or Summer Writing Festival, or because we've published their work and they have an inkling to meet us in person. Iowa is also the home of the oldest MFA program devoted to literary translation in the United States, a spin-off of the Workshop from the 1960s, guided for many years by Daniel Weissbort, long-time editor of Modern Poetry in Translation and translator of Joseph Brodsky, Nikolai Zabolotsky, and Claude Simon, among many others.

TIR's forum on literature and translation began in 2011 with an inaugural essay by translator and scholar Lawrence Venuti. This essay originated as a plenary lecture delivered to the annual conference of the American Literary Translators Association in October of 2010, where, to put it mildly, it caused a bit of a stir. The responses, from leading writers, translators, and scholars, appeared at brief intervals through the first part of 2012, along with comments from readers. While the comments section has now closed, the outlines of the debate are still evident in the published pieces

Paul Vangelisti's retrospective on poetry and translation also originated as an ALTA plenary, which may suggest something of a pattern, though the latest installment is of a different sort altogether: a rare interview-memoir, translated from the Romanian by Sean Cotter, by Michael Henry Heim, whose untimely death has left a great hole in the world of contemporary world literature.


Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky and Russia’s Belated Modernism
Jacob Emery

A Happy Babel
Michael Henry Heim

Assassins in Love: Poets as Translators
Paul Vangelisti


Towards a Translation Culture                                                                
Lawrence Venuti                                                                                  

Response to Mr. Venuti by Tim Parks
Mysteries of the Meta-Task

Response to Mr. Venuti by Luise von Flotow:
Upgrading the Downgraded

Response to Mr. Venuti by Sidney Wade:
Translation Art, Translation Theory

Response to Mr. Venuti by Russell Scott Valentino:
On Three Cultures: Workshop, Review, Translation

[Note: The comments area for this thread has closed.]


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Some background on the world of commercial translation

I am a translator, editor, and publisher of numerous translations. I believe the first text I translated was a poem by the German expressionist poet Ernst Stadler that had caught my fancy as a senior at Haverford College and that I published in the Haverford Bryn Mawr Review. I believe, to the best of my recollection, that paramount for me was that the poem came to exist as an American poem. Thence I translated one of Brecht's LEHRSTUECKE as part of my senior thesis. Accuracy as much as what I considered literary quality at the time were equally important. Then I did not translate anything until I started to work on my Master's Thesis at Stanford, Robert Musil's THE PORTUGUESE WOMAN, which I then published in a magazine that Fred Jameson and I had in the early 60s,Metamorphosis. That was hard work, at least a dozen drafts until I felt I got it right, and it is a novella where a life depends at one crucial moment on a single comma, a matter in whose respects I can still be nonchalant. At that point I was in New York, trying to stay as independent as possible, worked as an outside reader for numerous publishers and starting to translate, and to edit translations, e.g. of Uwe Johnson's A THIRD BOOK ABOUT ACHIM, an extraordinary text; Alexander Kluge's LEBENSLAEUFE, nearly as demanding, both authors now nearly entirely unknown, from whom American prose writers still have much to learn.

I am not sure if anyone but Robert Giroux, aside myself, at Farrar, Straus, where I found steadier employ, at that time, had a foreign language. However, translations were judged by the editors' sense whether it was readable, immediately accessible American. Thus the employ of the like of "the Winstons" and Ralph Mannheim who could be depended to deliver readable American texts in need, at most, of minimal editing. An exception to that rule in American publishing was Fred Jordan at Grove Press who made it a point to seek out translators who responded more originally to foreign language texts. At Farrar Straus I employed Christropher Middleton [Thinking about Christa Wolf], Michael Hamburger, Ruth and Mathew Mead, Christopher Home and myself for my edition of Nelly Sachs OH THE CHIMNEY—the 65 poems I did for that book wiped me out emotionally for half a year and I did not participate in the second selection of Sachs poems that Farrar, Straus published. I employed Michael Lebeck for two Hans Erich Nossack books, I played around with the Handke plays I had bought to see who might be the right translator for them, and found it to be so much verbal fun that I decided to do it myself [see: http://www.facebook.com/mike.roloff1?ref=name].

I much appreciate most of what Lawrece Venuti says, despite the fact that the ABC of Reading was also one of my early teachers, although I never thought it feasible to translate the great German poets of the middle ages, e.g. von der Vogelweide. I appreciate Venutis' dissatisfaction with what he describes as "impressionistic," which bothers me far more in the manner in which reviewing is conducted.

Theory means thinking about the text and is of course far more interesting and various when the text is ancient and has been translated variously into a variety of languages. Theory and practice go hand in hand. Perhaps the most thought I gave to a text  was to the translation of F.X. Kroetz early plays that existed in German in two versions, one in Kroetz's original Bavarian dialect and in standard German. I thought to enlist the Cormac McCarthy of the Appalachian THE ORCHARD KEEPER, but did not suceeed, and so I used what handle I had on African American ghetto language to create equivalents of the broken language in which Kroetz has his Bavarian country folk speak. I am not sure whether something along the lines of a "translation culture" exists anywhere, it evidently did I suppose during times of extensive Biblical translations.

As a member of the PEN translation committe I have a distinct recollection of that committee struggling over the commas of its own mission statement for some weeks, and the two publishers on that committee, Helen Wolf, rather  more experienced than I, and I at some point of the utter madness of these ditheres then looking balefully at each other at one at the same moment. Perhaps we were also thinking of the German expressionist poets famous formulation, "When I hear the word CULTURE, I reach for my revolver."

Translations will be judged on their own merits

I concur with the respondent above, who states, "Translated poetry must be read as freely as the original texts. Readers must be free to think and feel what they do on reading any poem..."

As the editor of a poetry website that takes submissions from amatuer poets across the globe, I often find myself in the unwitting role of "translator," albeit from English to English. I am loath to reject a submission of merit solely on the basis of the author's less-than-perfect grasp of the language. These writers are usually submitting pieces they have already translated themselves, or are just beginning to utilize English as a creative outlet.

I do my utmost to remain true to the writer's voice and intent, but there is little doubt that the piece has been transformed by the hand of a secondary author. As such, it will be judged by the readers on its own merits.

I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that this is a very important discussion.

Warmest regards.

Alan Loren

Chief Editor

My Word Wizard Alliteration Poems

Translation, a new revoltion!

It is said that, "translation" will pave the way for new revolution in the world after information technology. Knowing the significance and primordial of "translation, in shaping a country;s future, " Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India,  has set up - National Translation Mission (NTM) an initiative  to establish translation as an industry in general and, to facilitate higher education by making knowledge texts accessible to students and academics in regional languages of India in particular.

The idea of NTM came originally from Dr. Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India. It is stemmed from his statement: "how vital is the access to translated material for increasing access to knowledge in many critical areas and broadening and strengthening people’s participation in education and continuous learning.

NTM was set up with an immediate need to have a separate institution or mission to promote the cause of translation for education in India.

This is the high time that we should know, It is not just literature that gives knowledge, there are many other areas in Humanities, Social Sciences and Natural Sciences, where "translation" plays pivotal role as the medium of knowledge. Especially, in countries like India, where medium of instrution is language other than English, it is only through "translation" that education could be imparted.


Modern language translation is much easier to accomplish. When you start exploring comtemporary literature, you first have to grasp the terminology and the understanding from within the time it was written. The second phase would be to translate in contemporary, not that evident. Here on St Martin Island, most people do speak at least Dutch and English or French and English, with a good handling of the official modern language. Thus with good handling, but literature translation, hmmmmm.

Venuti on translation

Mr. Venuti protests too much. I do not quote Shakespeare to impose a 16th century theory of poetry on anyone, but merely to say what I mean. The "Editor X" who used Emily Dickinson'sdefinition of poetry was probably simply saying what he meant: that Venuti's translation of a poem didn't move him—he didn't feel that it was interesting enough to publish. The next editor, who wanted students to read the poems in his anthology without given theory clouding their own impressions, was not necessarily anti-theory but had a specific purpose for publishing poems in a certain way.

I agree with Mr. Venuti that translation is under-valued and generally ignored. I also agree that there is an unfortunate fear of translations among publishers in English-speaking countries; there is, however, no point in weeping over neglected academic theory, since only a few academic readers care about it. Translated poetry must be read as freely as the original texts. Readers must be free to think and feel what they do on reading any poem, whether they know it's translated or not. If Mr. Venuti feels he must translate words first and poetic quality second, I hope he has a good reason, but I don't want him to tell me about it ad nauseam.


I always start Venuti's pieces with excitement, thinking they'll be of interest to me, but well before the halfway mark I'm invariably skipping large chunks of them, more and more convinced, though I can't really say why, that he has just about everything exactly backwards and that he is writing for his fellow academics alone. For me, there is absolutely no reason that a translator, unless he is an academic seeking tenure or an appointment to a full professorship, should have to be able to write and speak with great theoretical sophistication about his work. And if this piece is an example of the desired sophistication, God forbid that he should! Nor do I think translators in countries where more translations are published have any less of a belletristic bent than do translators to English. Nowhere do I see any sort of cause-and-effect relationship between the theoretical sophistication of a country's literary translators and the dynamism of its market for translated books. So I don't think the greater theoretical sophistication of translators that Venuti seems to be wishing for here will do anything for the publication of actual translations; I don't think it will do anything to pull the practice of translating literature into English back from the brink of extinction. In fact, I wonder if it's not this kind of theorizing that's likely to give it the final push over the edge.

In short, given the alternative, I'm happy to remain in the ranks of Venuti's anti-intellectuals, dull though the blades we wield may be.

Interesting idea for a Forum

I am pleased to see this subject addressed -- translation is a critical part of contemporary literature.