The literary landscape is verdant with unacknowledged legislators, none more unacknowledged than the translators of the world’s literary fiction. Well regarded masters of literary translation Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky, have assembled 18 essays by an impressive array of their peers, explicating and elucidating that task in In Translation On their Work and What it Means (Columbia University Press). You may not value world literature but you might stop and consider that even if you yourself don’t read literature in translation, some of your favorite authors have and do.
Lydia Davis, (translator of Swann’s Way and Madame Bovary )opines,
The essays in In Translation, exploring both the larger, complex questions of translation’s role and function in the world of literature and the more detailed, word-by-word dilemmas faced by every translator, are consistently stimulating, engaging, and eye-opening, not to speak of eloquent and occasionally even dramatic and/or funny. I came away from reading them with a host of new ideas and insights.
And here’s what Allan and Bernofsky offer about the impact of literary translation:
Against the hegemony of a singe language whose literature governed to an ever greater extent by marketing considerations, is exported across the globe, translators interpose joyful multiplicity and a richness of cultural content and linguistic interplay:they invite us to engage in a more genuinely cosmopolitan literary and cultural conversation. Translators are writers and curators of cultural interaction who transport us between linguistic spheres, making their languages listen as well as speak and transforming them into vehicles for a wide range of literary traditions.Such is the culture of translation this book seeks to advance
I also got to thinking about the notion of translation in the similar arena of song covers as I read Mark Kurlansky’s Ready For a Brand New Beat How ‘Dancing in the Street’ Became the Anthem for a Changing America. In this tome, Kurlansky holds up the gloriously wonderful Motown ditty against the scrim of the roiling 60’s and is a readable historical survey as well as insightful snapshot into the inner workings of Berry Gordy and Mowtown when it was truly Hitsville USA. The long lasting popularity of Dancing in the Streets by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas among other things let to a long list of covers some comically awful , some respectfully competent “translations” but none surpassing the ineffable joyfulness and uplift of the original.
Currently reading Skinner by Charlie Huston (Mulholland Books)