THE ART OF TRANSLATION
To discuss the art of literary translation is to a large extent to mystify it if we disregard the unruly manner in which it has been practiced throughout history. For although writing between two different languages has always been integral part of national literatures and the exchanges between them, the most striking, the truly captivating thing about it is its variations rather than any single characteristic or aspect.
This cannot be overstressed. Even though we have grown accustomed to the fact that translation is today a field of academic study, no different than, say, applied linguistics or sociology, translating literature has always been perceived and practiced in a variety of manners and styles, following a variety of literary and writerly traditions. The very idea that an academic course could be an inlet into writing would strike even an early twentieth-century aspiring poet as absurd. Compare with the practice of Antoin Galland who translated liberally the Arabian Nights into French and into a ninetieth-century best-seller, the very man to whom we owe the notion of les belles infidèles; or with Mallarmé, or Chateaubriand who out of admiration for sublime forms and imagery found in the works of E. A. Poe and Milton respectively translated them to international notoriety.
Let us also remind ourselves that mastery of the foreign languages out of which these literati translated was not in the least a consideration. Translation in the whole of the nineteenth century in France, for instance, was being done entirely by established authors with a vivid interest in foreign literatures but with no linguistic training to speak of. Nor was it necessary back then to compare the source-text to the target-text in order to judge the quality of the translation, as seems to have become the norm in Eurocentric letters after the 1830s. As a matter of fact, it seems that the less 'professionally' - to be anachronistic - these authors translated, the more effective their work was. Not only did they translate - widely and eclectically for that matter - but they also prefaced their translations, wrote extended reviews and critical pieces and at times went out of their way to promote them ardently in the receiving culture. The history of translation and literature is full of instances of authors, reviewers and scholars who 'campaigned' for previously unknown foreign authors through translation: Voltaire for Hamlet, Hugo for Shakespeare, Kafka for Conrad, Zide for Taha Hussein, Giono for Melville, and the list goes on.
In other words, literary translation was for a very long time considered to be a literary workshop for writers of prose and poetry, a kind of a rite de passage and an invaluable exercise in literary writing. This type of translation puts the emphasis not so much on linguistic equivalence - as the modern perception would have it - but rather on eclectic affinities between the two writers in dialogue, the translated and the translating; on experimentation with forms, structures and creative devices that the foreign work makes explicit, and which would stretch the target-language usages and conventions once appropriated; finally, on discovering genres, traditions, narrating styles and voices and importing them to their own writing, both translational and non-non-translational. This is why influential writers from the likes of Goethe down to Pound, Paz and Nabokov, have insisted on the irreplaceable value of acknowledging the Other embodied in a foreign work to be translated. Without any doubt, literary writing is enriched in ways unimaginable were it to contend itself with resources found in national language and literature alone, were it not, that is to say, for the activity of translation.
The distinction between contemporary and past ideas about the art of literary translation does not need to polarise our understanding of it. Interestingly, the standardisation of literary translation we are experiencing today, which is so typical of the institutionalisation of translator training, led to a similar emphasis on the creative potential of translation, even though from a different path. Theory might be a large part of most Western-European translation curricula, still in need of some justification for some. But such an approach, cautious in establishing links with the past and ongoing debates on core issues of translation, has led to a renewed valorisation of the source-text.
Whether focussing on belles-lettres or applied and communicative approaches to translation, there is more consensus today about the need to maintain the foreign essence in form and content of the source-text. Foreignisation makes all the rage today for reasons that do not have only to do with the ideological stakes of emerging categories of the population which, although very much part of a society’s diverse pool of creative forces, were until recently eclipsed by history – women, ethnic minorities, gays. Foreignisation has become central to translation debates because it is seen as a means to fertilise the native literary ground. This potential might seem destructive in terms of conventional traditions but it is hugely enriching in terms of creativity and can only come forth in translation.
LITERARY TRANSLATION AS A PROFESSION
'What a splendid art! And what a sad profession!'
Georges Bizet, on music
Taking into account the common ground in approaches to literary translation that might seem and indeed are historically very different, it is useful to look at the untapped potential in contemporary translation apprenticeship. To be sure, linguistic mastery as a prerequisite for the profession goes hand in hand with market-led communicative ideals underpinning the design of applied translation studies today.
This state of affairs means that the focus is more on formal linguistic equivalence than on literary savvy and on a type of literary cosmopolitanism that, in its anarchy, has given us some unexpected literary insights and bodies of work from various peripheral cultures. Important works in Russian, Cuban, African and regional European languages, not to mention Latin and ancient Greek classics, were all made accessible to wider audiences, they were all made ‘literary’, thanks to the labours and insights of translators. They were travellers, readers and critics of foreign literatures before they were translators. In contrast, translators today are more often than not contracted to work on specific titles given by publishers instead of taking it upon themselves to introduce authors and works, ask for their translation and explain their importance, relevance and cultural background. The underpinning idea here is, in the words of one commentator, 'more correct doesn’t mean better loved'.
Being part of a literary school or a literary movement seeking inspiration in other languages, mentoring by seasoned writers, the tradition of literary salons, these are all types of apprenticeship which the history of literature makes evident. Dominant in the past, they have been disappearing as new cultures of reading and writing emerged in the wake of mass publishing markets. To some extent, these developments have kept translators from becoming what modern markets could really use today: translators as cultural mediators, as ambassadors of foreign literatures and cultures. In the manner of Valéry Larbaud or Bruce Chatwin, they can act as facilitators of cultural exchanges, or follow Marguerite Yourcenar’s example, whose advice to translators was to reconstruct the library of the author they were translating.
Past translation traditions, such as the Portuguese in nineteenth century, and even contemporary practices in languages of limited diffusion in Europe, illustrate how intertwined translation is with literature and criticism. Here, translational writing springs directly from experiences including the sudden illumination which comes from contact with unexpected forms and devices in foreign works, the rapture of such discoveries and the desire to communicate them. Forms of literary cooperation may include either groups of scholars working on a major work (aka 'gang translation'), such as the Bible or the English translation of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, 'a quarto mani', or a duo consisted of a linguist expert and a field expert, all suggest different ways of managing a translation project. These are crucial considerations as more and more people are trained today to become translators, but find themselves thrown into literature without having a broad-ranging understanding of it, nor the cosmopolitan curiosity necessary to appreciate the marvels of foreign literary traditions.
It is evident how important it is for translators to make the best of opportunities to delve deeper into the culture out of which they are translating, to indulge in literary flaneurism, to take advantage of all forms of socialising with fellow translators and writers in their first and second languages, to publicise and share their work experiences and insights. There is a wealth of means to achieve all this despite handed-down preconceptions about translator’s solitude.
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