19 June 2012

Translations are what they are

[Tyler Malone]: I recently attended the PEN World Voices Festival’s panel on translation, and I’m curious from your perspective, what goes into a good translation? It’s a precarious thing. There’s so many things a translator must attempt to carry across. So what are the criteria you use to judge a translation?

[Chad Post]: This is such a tough thing to unpack. And every attempt to explain it just leads to more and more and more questions and comments. Keeping it simple, yet enigmatic, a translation should capture the special something, the overarching “style” of an author’s prose and structure, that makes an individual book unique.

TM: Part of the panel discussion focused on whether the general public, or at least general readers, wanted to know that something was translated. This seems very important to the Open Letter project. One of the panelists suggested it was better not to highlight the translator’s name, and especially not to put it on the cover, because readers generally want to believe that what they are getting is straight from the author, not something filtered through another person. I have a hard time figuring out where I stand on this line of reasoning. I think the speaker may unfortunately be correct, in a way, that readers (and society in general) are obsessed with the idea of one man/woman, one genius, behind a text, and so from a financial standpoint, the less you highlight that “these aren’t the actual words of the writer you think you’re reading,” the more people might be apt to read. But at the same time, this sort of taboo about translation is puzzling and frustrating. Can’t we just appreciate literature in translation as literature in translation and love it in spite of whatever complications the whole practice brings to the table? What are your thoughts?

CP: We don’t live in 19th Century Germany. Let’s try applying this logic to another art form for a second: “I don’t like movies that include the name of the screenwriter and director on the DVD box. Viewers want to believe that this piece of art came straight from the actors.” That’s a dumb example, but I think it’s a dumb argument. We live in an era of overwhelming amounts of information. In most every situation we want to know more, or at least know where we can go to get to know more. In what other situation do we like having some piece of information–one that can add to, or inform, or not, our experience–withheld from us in hopes that a corporation can increase its profits? Not to make this political or anti-corporate, but I feel like that argument is based in the long-standing belief of corporate publishers that their readers are retarded. And that’s insulting. The whole argument is insulting. Sorry, but fuck that.

From an interview with Open Letter publisher Chad Post at PMc Magazine (via Three Percent). The panel referred to here, the one organized during the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, is the one we linked to before (Youtube). I'm also dismayed by the panelist's (Lorin Stein) suggestion not to put the translator's name on the book cover.

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