Upgrading the Downgraded
Lawrence Venuti makes a very valid point: literary translation into English is not a booming business these days. Few indeed could hope to earn a living from being only an English literary translator. Literary translation has, therefore, become the domain of people who pursue it on a part-time basis—summers, evenings, Sunday afternoons—and largely for pleasure: learned folks, professors, literati. They translate writers whose work they personally know, select, and enjoy; seldom are they commissioned to translate anything more.
Venuti also describes the process well: he has encountered the work of his Catalan poet, decides to translate it, presumably in his time off, since publishing translations does not “count” as a valid scholarly activity in today’s English-speaking universities, and then he tries to place the poems here and there in the hope of later, perhaps, persuading a publisher to do an entire collection. We have all been through this. It is frustrating because we are excited about the work we wish to share, and the rejection letters, if they are even received, are disappointing, the scant reviews and slow sales of the translations even more depressing. I experienced such scenarios trying to get U.S. and British publishers to take an interest in Herta Müller, the current Nobel Laureate, in the late 1990s.
But this is our choice: we love translating, we love the play with words across cultures and languages, we love the puzzle of understanding and interpreting that other sensibility and its twists and turns and making it available in our own idiom. We can be enthusiastic teachers and disseminators of foreign cultural work.
The problems arise when we expect our compatriots to take an interest, or worse, when we set ourselves up as grandly altruistic pedagogues who resolutely seek to break down the “insularity and complacency of English hegemonic culture” by fearlessly introducing foreign cultural traditions, trends, and names for the enjoyment and “enlightenment” of other members of our society. This discourse, which comes precisely from that other life many of us lead as noisy academics, is perturbing and distasteful. In academia, we are successful and can garner attention; paradoxically, “translation studies” in English is a burgeoning field, with the MLA even devoting a recent congress to the topic, while translation itself is hardly flourishing. As translators, then, we are failures, and it piques our pride when the attention we easily attract in academia does not transfer to the domain of actual literature—much like the translator/scholars Venuti attacks for their “belletristic” approach. In my view, both the “enlightenment” and the “belletristic” discourses on translation stem from the hurt pride and “ressentiment” experienced by powerful and productive minds, highly-educated, cultivated, literary, and multilingual people, whose talents and interests find almost no echo in today’s English-speaking worlds, where the numbers of informed and interested readers are not on the increase.
In fact, literary translation in English is not really a profession. It is a leisure activity. And although it requires considerable knowledge, patience, and multi-linguistic finesse, and although it involves dealing with every single word in a text—even the meaningfulness of punctuation marks (and making reasoned decisions on them)—it is underpaid and undervalued. Small wonder that some of its practitioners have taken refuge in what Venuti calls “belletrism.” There is little else at stake.
Brower’s collection On Translation, which Venuti cites on several occasions in his article, is a good example of the belletristic space where such translators could—fifty years ago—flaunt their erudition, commenting on the minute details of various English versions of an ancient Greek play (or as in Venuti’s more recent Borges example, niggling over small textual differences), thereby parading their knowledge—and revealing, in the process, a surprising dismissiveness toward their own work. Is it decadence or a kind of inverse snobbery when a translator/scholar and literary specialist begins one such belletristic text on his own work of translation as follows: “This study starts from a remark which a great teacher of Greek was fond of repeating to his classes. ‘A translation,’ he would say, ‘is like a stewed strawberry.’ Everyone familiar with translations and stewed strawberries will appreciate the perfect justice of this criticism.” (Brower, “Seven Agamemnons” 1959). I imagine the gentleman holding up a flaccid brownish-red stewed strawberry between two prim fingertips for all to consider.
While I do not appreciate the “perfect justice” of this remark, I suggest that this depreciative attitude and other related views that proliferate in Brower’s collection (the Muirs’ article on translating Kafka is surreal for its final comments on “the German sentence”) come from this embattled position where publicly ineffective and neglected translator/scholars pay clever and snooty lip service to the general culture and the general reader, all the while basking in the golden light of a dying art in these now almost unreadable texts. Venuti presents them as somehow responsible for the degradation of English literary translation, but I think they are symptoms of the problem rather than sources of it.
One final observation may further underline the decadence of the current situation: because English literary translation is not a profession, and because so many translators work at their leisure, they seldom discuss money or deadlines. How much they earn per word, per page, or per letter (including punctuation), or in royalties, is not a topic; nor are questions of time pressure. The annual meetings of ALTA (American Literary Translators’ Association) to my knowledge have no forum that addresses these points. In Canada, things are only slightly different. In Europe, on the other hand, such professional questions are constants at translators’ annual meetings, with the Norwegians a few years ago even deciding on work-to-rule: in order to exert pressure on publishers, they refused to submit digitized versions of their translations and turned in only hard copy, an unthinkable tactic in the English-speaking world.