In her recently published Why Translation Matters, one of our finest translators, Edith Grossman, expands her three Yale talks to provide a fascinating look at her theory and praxis, while scolding the publishing world. My full review of Why Translation Matters is available at Cerise Press. Cerise Press is one of my favorite on-line publishers of poetry and fiction.
If translators operate in one of three basic modes, Grossman prefers the middle ground of the paraphrasts, translating so the reader “will perceive the text, emotionally and artistically, in a manner that parallels and corresponds to, the aesthetic experience of its first readers.” She has no use for either of the two extremes, literalists or imitators.
Implicitly endorsing this attention to the original is Burton Raffel, who in his notes on translating the prose portions of The Canterbury Tales, writes that “translation is not supposed either to worsen or improve what it tries to recreate. . . in the case of Chaucer’s prose the difficulty lies in avoiding improvement.”
Literalists include Vladimir Nabokov, whose Eugene Onegin Grossman and I both find unreadable. Another is Ted Hughes, whose Selected Translations includes among the prose pieces several interesting defenses of literal translation.
The most recent advocate of imitation I have encountered is Paul Schmidt, translating the wonderful, tragic early 20th-century Russian poets in Stray Dog Cabaret. “For me,” he writes, “translation is a performance. I mean that almost in the same way you’d say it about an actor’s performance.”
In fact he sounds like Stella Adler counseling actors when he writes that translating is “a matter of trying to think what’s in that person’s head, what was their life like, what elements in their life can you identify with in your own.”
Whichever of the three approaches we might prefer in general, Edith Grossman has done readers a tremendous service with her translations of Don Quixote and several Latin American writers. In an ideal world, foreign language writers would be available to us in more than one translation. Comparing translations of Dante’s Inferno or the Iliad proves that here is no single right way to translate. Variety allows us the richest pleasure and understanding.
I wish that poets would carefully read Edith Grossman’s detailed explanation of how she translates poetry, as she takes far more care in translating than many poets seem to take in composing. I am convinced that far too many contemporary poets are sloppy, self-indulgent (“privileging” the authenticity of the spontaneous first draft), averse to revision, and dismissive of musicality. Edith Grossman can teach all of us who write poetry a thing or two.