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• Literary translation is an odd art. It consists of a
person sitting at a desk, writing literature that is
not his, that has someone else’s name on it, that
has already been written. Yet literary translation
is an art. What makes it so odd an art is that
physically a translator does exactly the same
thing as a writer
• If an actor did the same thing as a playwright,
a dancer did the same thing as a composer, or
a singer did the same thing as a song writer,
no one would think much of what they do
either. The translator’s problem is that he is a
performer without a stage, a performer who,
when all his work is done, has something that
looks just like the original, just like a play or a
song or a composition, nothing but ink on a
• Like a musician, a literary translator takes
someone else’s composition and performs it in
his own special way. Just as a musician
embodies someone else’s notes by moving his
body or throat, a translator embodies
someone else’s thoughts and images by
writing in another language. The biggest
difference isn’t really that the musician
produces air movements while the translator
produces yet more words;
• it is that a musical composition is intended to
be translated into body and throat
movements, while a work of literature is not
intended to be translated into another
language. Thus, although it is practically
invisible, the translator’s art is the more
problematic one.
• And it is also the more responsible one,
because while every musician knows that his
performance is simply one of many, often one
of thousands, by that musician and by others,
the translator knows that his performance
may be the only one, at least the only one of
his generation, and that he will not have the
opportunity either to improve on it or to try a
different approach.
• And while the translator is shouldering this
responsibility and forcing literary works into
forms they were never intended to take, no one
can see his difficult performance. Except where
he slips up. In fact, he is praised primarily for not
being seen. Even when we listen to an album, we
can imagine the musician bowing or blowing, but
nothing comes to mind when we think of a
translator translating, nothing more than what
we imagine an author is doing.
• Which isn’t much. The Czech writer Karel
Capek wrote of what he did when he wrote,
“even if I were to sit on the porch with my
work, I don’t think a single boy would come
and watch my fingers to see how a writer’s
business is done.
The problem with the translator’s interpretation
that it does not only take the form of the
original text, but it doesn’t even depart from
the content, the way a literary critic’s
interpretation does.
• Due to the literary translator’s odd situation,
he is not very well respected. He is expected
to submit to his authors and always be faithful
to them, never make mistakes, work on a
piecemeal basis, and accept bottom billing at
• He is not considered an artist at all, neither a
creator nor a performer, but rather a
craftsman. And he is generally considered a
poor and unimportant one. His work is
scarcely mentioned in reviews, and almost
never critiqued. His art is
• rarely taught inside or outside universities, his
interpretations are rarely given credence in
academia, and his thoughts and life story are not
considered worthy of publication. He performs
not with hopes of fame, fortune, or applause, but
rather out of love, out of a sense of sharing what
he loves and loving what he does.
• We tend to think of the literary translator as
someone who’s good with languages. Which is
like saying a musician is someone who’s good
with notes. Of course he is, but being good
with notes won’t make you a good musician;
it’s just one of the requirements. In fact, some
of the great jazz musicians never learned to
read music; and there are great translations
by poets who didn’t know the original
To play music, you have to be able to play an
instrument, and you have to be sensitive to
noise and understand what combinations of
notes mean and are. Similarly, a translator has
to be able to read as well as a critic and write
as well as a writer.
• John Dryden said it best back in the
seventeenth century:“the true reason why we
have so few versions which are tolerable[is
that] there are so few who have all the talents
which are requisite for translation, and that
there is so little praise and so small
encouragement for so considerable a part of
learning.”* Notmuch
Yet Pushkin called the translator a “courier of the
human spirit,”* and Goethe called literary
translation “one of the most important and
dignified enterprises in the general commerce of
the world.” Well, this isn’t really what they said,
but this is how their words have been translated
into English.
On the other hand, translators have been called
plagiarizers, looters of other cultures,
collaborators to colonialism, traitors,
betrayers. They betray their people, their
language, the original work, themselves. And
all for seven cents a word, if they’re lucky.
Whether dignified or traitorous, translators are
at least considered modest, especially for
artists. What could be more modest than
submitting yourself to someone else’s vision,
characters, style, imagery, even sense of
Translators bring something to art that in many
other times and cultures has been its core, its
central aspect: devotion, service. Yet what could
be more boastful than saying that you are
capable of writing a work as great as what you so
admire, say, a French (or Japanese) play the equal
of King Lear
The invisible performance of translation is hard
to describe. So translators have come up with
all sorts of metaphors and similes for it. The
translator is “like a sculptor who tries to
recreate the work of a painter,” Anne Dacier
wrote in the introduction to her 1699French
translation of the Iliad.
• In translating poetry, wrote Petrus Danielus
Huetius, a seventeenth-century French bishop
and educator, "the most important rule is to
preserve the meter and the syntax, so that the
poet can be shown to his new audience like a
tree whose leaves have been removed by the
rigors of winter, while the branches, the roots,
and the trunk can still be seen.”
Translators have for centuries used the
metaphor of pouring wine from one bottle
into another. Rosemarie Waldrop, an
American translator from French, has taken
this image one step further: “Translation is
more like wrenching a soul from its body and
luring it into a different one.”
More recently and scientifically, the American translator •
fromSpanish Margaret Sayers Peden constructed a complex
metaphor outof an ice cube: “I like to think of the original work as
an ice cube.During the process of translation the cube is melted.
While in itsliquid state, every molecule changes place; none
remains in itsoriginal relationship to the others. Then begins the
process of forming the work in a second langauge. Molecules
escape, newmolecules are poured in to fill the spaces, but the lines
of moldingand mending are virtually invisible. The work exists in the
secondlanguage as a new ice cube—different, but to all
appearances thesame.”* And then there is the metaphor metaphor
of GregoryRabassa, an American translator from Spanish and
Portuguese: “alllanguages are metaphor, and translation, instead of
a verticalmetaphor, is a horizontal metaphor.”