Sunday, December 12, 2010

What Works in Translation . . .

Stack of Translated Books
Photo by William P. O'Donnell
(Image from The New York Times)

In yesterday's entry, I alluded to the special problems that a literary critic encounters when interpreting poetry in translation. That assumes already that the literary critic will encounter poetry in translation, but one doesn't often come upon the stuff, outside of the big names and the classics.

In fact, as a recent New York Times article notes, Americans generally don't read much foreign literature in English translation. Some people want to change that. Speaking as one partner of a translating team (the other partner being my wife, Sun-Ae Hwang), I hope that they succeed, but they have a steep path ahead, as Larry Rohter implies in "Translation as Literary Ambassador" (New York Times, December 7, 2010):
Among foreign cultural institutes and publishers, the traditional American aversion to literature in translation is known as "the 3 percent problem."
That "3 percent" refers to translated literature's "minuscule share of the American book market." I'd known its market share was small, but I've now got its number. The forces of light are now on the side of us translators:
But now, hoping to increase their minuscule share of the American book market -- about 3 percent-- foreign governments and foundations, especially those on the margins of Europe, are taking matters into their own hands and plunging into the publishing fray in the United States.
Or are these the forces of heavy? Governments are getting involved, and they're rather weighty. A bigger heavy yet is also settling in:
Even the online bookselling behemoth has entered the field, with a new imprint for literature in translation called AmazonCrossing, which is sold online and in bookstores.
With Amazon getting involved, there must actually be a market. Translators still need support, though, because years of language learning, cultural immersion, and experience translating are usually required before a prospective translator is good enough to attempt literary translations. Again, there is now help for aspiring translators:
Government cultural institutes like the Institut Ramon Llull, which is dedicated to propagating the language and culture of Catalonia, in northeastern Spain, and the Korean Literature Translation Institute have also helped underwrite conferences and books on translation, and others are sponsoring trips to take American translators to their countries to acquaint them better with their culture and people.
Note the mention of the Korean Literature Translation Institute (KLTI). That's actually an overcorrection, for the institute is actually the Korea Literature Translation Institute. The correct version does sound rather odd, and gets 'corrected' about as often as Ewha Womans University gets 'corrected' to Ewha Women's University or my middle name "Jeffery" gets 'corrected' to "Jeffrey."

Anyway, I'm pleased that Rohter's article at least mentions the KLTI, for there's no mention of Asian literature in translation other than some from the Islamic world, i.e., "Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu," nothing at all from East Asia unless one counts Stig Saeterbakken's Siamese in the stack of books above.

Of course, Siamese, like the rest of the stack, is entirely European.

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At 7:19 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Yeah. Translation, and poetry translation especially, is a maze. The outcome can be very interesting, but I think that critics should never write essays based on translations--- On the other hand, should they avoid any poet whose language they don't know? "Questo รจ il problema" (the infamous Italian translation of "That is the question").

Yet, in certain cases, even free / twisted translations can be rich, useful, intriguing, powerful. I think e.g. of Lazzaro Papi's version (1811) of Paradise Lost: he deleted or modified all the verses which didn't fit the Catholic teachings, but his Italian PL text is superb. Or, the Psalms translated by Guido Ceronetti. Not to speak of St. Jerome's Bible.

Maybe the best way to show a poet that you love him is to betray him. In Purgatorio 22.40-41 in a key episode Dante provides a completely wrong translation of two verses in the Aeneid. Was he much less learned than our scholars would like him to? Was he joking? Or...

At 2:33 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Translations are great if done well, as you note, but no scholar can rely on one for close analysis, as I know that you agree.

Betray . . . translate . . . there's a wordplay there in French, isn't there?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:40 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I don't know that scholar, but I'm sure that the translating is an interesting process.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:56 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

the translating is an interesting process

yeah, especially if you have to pass from sci-fi to archaeology, as well as (in the recent past) from pigs in Iowa to world economy, from advertising to theology... and quickly.

As for the essay on St. Paul, the author is not strictly a scholar, rather a journalist and free researcher. The material he collects is very interesting, but sometimes his views on history are a bit 'too easy'. I had already translated his biography of Pius XII, a very thorny issue; but the outcome was so good that he himself asked for me as his italian translator for this new book. Thank God, meritocracy does exist somewhere.

At 5:18 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Odd, but your comment with the hyperlink to the book on St. Paul must have been deleted by Blogspot's anti-Spam software. I'd like to switch that stuff off, as I can handle spam on my own better than Blogspot can!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:33 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Hmm, it's happening too often. I will stop linking. Just copy-paste the URLs, letting the readers view the web pages on their own by re-copy-pasting them. One mouse operation added, nothing more, all in all.

At 5:35 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

It's a shame to lose that hyperlink function. I will see about turning off the anti-spam software. I certainly didn't request it.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:59 PM, Blogger Charles Montgomery said...

Two words...

"Wordpress you idiot!"

Ok, either three or four words, depending on how feel about "wordpress."

You should be getting a completely useless trackback in a bit...

At 7:35 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

What's a trackback?

Jeffery Hodges

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