Introduction: books about literary translation, by literary translators

My interest in translation began with its purely literary applications, hence the very first texts I consulted were the ones written by practicing translators, publishers, and writers. In this blog post, I will review six books where authors reflect on their own approaches to translation, whether or not there is such a thing as “theory of translation,” and the importance of translation as a sociocultural practice. One of the main unifying threads in these books is an understanding that a productive conversation about literary translation is only possible with the aid of specific linguistic examples drawn directly from the texts, examples that are then placed within temporal and audience context. The emphasis is definitely on feeling and doing.

Umberto Eco. Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation. Phoenix, 2004. Print.

The curious thing about Umberto Eco’s book is that he does exactly the opposite from what he sets out to do in the introduction. He does dedicate roughly the first half of the book on the concept of negotiation as it applies to “proper” (in Roman Jacobson’s terms) interlingual translation, but then veers off into the contested territories of writing/translating spaces (hypotyposis), pictures (ekphrasis), colors, intertextual irony, perfect languages, colors, transmutations, manipulations, and adaptations. This makes for an erudite, lucidly written, and occasionally inaccessible (there are no back translations of frequent passages in German, French, Spanish, and Italian) prose.

One thing that is consistent, however, is his insistence that “any theoretical work on translation must have plenty of examples” (2). In the book, these examples are normally drawn from Eco’s experiences working with translators who were commissioned to translate his fiction from the Italian and cover such challenges as finding an appropriate equivalent for an obscure Middle Ages Italian dialect, translating obscenities, archaisms, and literary references (so that they make sense to the target audience). And yet, reading about the specific examples drawn from Eco’s fiction is vaguely unsatisfying, perhaps because it is something akin to doing a crossword puzzle with an answer key conveniently included on the back of it. The only way to get better at translating is to struggle with these challenges on our own, in a case by case basis.

Apart from the fascinating discussion of the “social enigma of daltonism” (the color blind describe variations in shades using the same words we assign to objects of color) and Aymara (the “perfect” language of Bolivia and Peru that could be used to resolve the problems of computer translation), Eco’s training as a semiotician provides another interesting metaphor for translation. Citing the work of Hjelmslev in Prolegomena to a Theory of Language (1943), Eco explains that “two semantic systems can result in being mutually inaccessible, because they segment the content continuum in a different way” (22) and

the challenge of the translator, when two languages seem to have a different segmentation of the content continuum, is to make a reasonable conjecture about the content space covered by a homonym term in a given context (25).

Additionally, both the given historical moment and particular cultural milieu are important considerations when translating — no translation is strictly an interlingual transfer between two different languages. Eco seems to be suggesting (although he never says it outright) that the process of translation is one of a guessing game. We can never really know for certain what is hiding “behind” the original language, we can only guess — much like we can never truly see the part of the object hiding behind another one but only imagine, thanks to our neuroanatomy and space-depth perception, what it might be. Overall, Mouse or Rat? is a good introductory read on the subject of translation that goes beyond the merely literary approaches.

Edith Grossman. Why Translation Matters. Yale University Press, 2011.

In this book, which is a based on the eponymic lecture series give to the Yale undergraduates, Edith Grossman provides both an impassioned defense of translation in the 21st century and shares her own approach to the translation process, which is centered on the faculties of hearing and listening.

Without a doubt, her opening discussion of why it is necessary, in the current sociopolitical climate, to translate more books, can be of great import in any undergraduate literature classroom. Ditto for her impassioned defense of poetry as “the most intense, most highly charged, most artful and complex form of language we have” and poetry translation as “an act of rash bravado verging on the foolhardy” (93).  What interested me the most, however, was her description of translation process as

essentially auditory, something immediately available to other people, as opposed to a silent, solitary process. I think of the author’s voice and the sound of the text, then of my obligation to hear both as clearly and profoundly as possible, and finally of my equally pressing need to speak the piece in the second language (12).

This blending of the senses may mean, perhaps, a certain hybrid process that lines on the border between, to use Roman Jacobson’s terms, interlingual and intersemiotic translation. Rather than revive the hackneyed debate between content vs form, or literalism vs imitation, Grossman instead focuses on something that could be called, perhaps, an authenticity subjectively arrived at through immersing oneself sensually into a text. There is a similar sense of trust involved here as in Gregory Rabassa’s (see below) approach to the source text, a way to approach translation and a way to self-check the process once it gets on the way. Overall, this slim volume by Grossman is a great (even though highly personal) introduction to the field of contemporary translation.


Gregory Rabassa. If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, A Memoir. New York: New Directions, 2005. Print.

The memoir is a retrospective of Rabassa’s long and prolific career translating Latin American fiction, organized chronologically in short chapters, each covering his work with a different author. These reminiscences include his “discovery” of the author, the dynamics of their working relationship (or friendship), and examples (and solutions) to the translation problems particular to each text. Perhaps one of Rabassa’s most shocking admissions is that he rarely reads the original all the way through before beginning the translation. He advocates “following” the text, allowing one’s own nature to take its course (choosing the most logical solution), and cautions against overthinking:

My own experience in this matter has not been all that complex or worrisome. As I have said before, I follow the text, I let it lead me along, and a different and it is hoped proper style will emerge for each author. This bears out my thesis that a good translation is essentially a good reading; if we know how to read as we should we will be able to put down what we are reading into another language into our own.

It’s perhaps easy to preach simplicity and common sense in retrospect, bathed the golden glow of international recognition as the king of Latin American translation. I’d say that Rabassa’s book belongs in the “glamor memoir” subgenre — a literary version of Diana Vreelands D.V., with accomplishments so enormous and varied, so steeped in discipline and stringent work ethic, so as to seem effortless. However, even if Rabassa’s is blowing smoke here, his no-nonsense, just-do-it approach, old-boy approach to translation is also refreshing, largely because translation is often presented in other literature as an “impossible” task labored over by an unappreciated and underpaid translator.

Robert Wechsler. Performing Without a Stage: The art of literary translation. North Haven, CT: Catbird Press
, 1998. Kindle edition.
This book, written by the founder of Catbird Press and made available for free under the Creative Commons license, is obviously a labor of love. Wechsler, who is a practicing translator from the Czech, offers a good overview (both from the professional and publishing standpoint) of literary translation. He
  • examines one of the oldest issues in translation (fidelity) and proposes his own metaphor for negotiating between the source and target text (faithful bigamy, “with loyalties split”);
  • does a bit of namedropping (Gregory Rabassa instructs him on the proliferation of commas in Spanish);
  • criticizes the tendency towards “transparency” in translations published for the American market);
  • explains why classics are the safest translations for a publisher (in the public domain, with always a ready market);
  • inveighs at considerable length against the poor quality of translation reviews, which are more often than not written by non-translators without the knowledge of the original

Most valuable, when teaching a course on translation or composition, would be his advice on how to successfully evaluate a translation: “One important question for the reviewer to ask himself is, what does the book review’s audience want to know about a translation?” (250) Evaluating translation may become a productive exercise in any course on rhetoric, where the students are asked to juggle the concerns of the translator’s audience with the demands of the original. One solution to this, Wechsler suggests, is to recognize translation “for the interpretive performance and it is and approaching the original through the translation” (something that, he admits, is much easier to do with poetry) (253).

However, as the title suggests, Wechsler’s book is above all a vindication of the status of translator. He argues passionately for the recognition of translators as writers in their own right, discarding the outmoded Romantic notions of singular authorship and making the translator more visible (both in the text and public sphere). He is toughest, however, on the translators themselves:

being amateurs becomes a problem when [translators] act like amateurs, when they feel that doing the work is enough, that they have no responsibilities beyond the keyboard and the classroom, no obligation to promote their books or themselves.

In other words, in order to change the way the world looks at translators, translators (like performance artists) must have the chutzpah/cohones/яйца/des couilles  to confront the world.


Eliot Weinberger. Oranges and Peanuts for Sale. New York: New Directions, 2009. Print.

This collection of essays focuses not so much on the practical, but rather cultural, political, and philosophical aspects of literary translation, and poetry translation in particular. The questions Weinberger raises are important and resonant: Why is it that we think of translation as a practice fraught with problems? (A: It is because we compare it to the “original,” which may not exist) What is the role of of a poet in turbulent times? (A: Poets and translators must be active and not to submit to the status quo) Why is multiculturalism the worst thing for translation? (A: Because instead of true internationalism, it merely promotes domestic authors). The most gripping essays for me, however, are the ones where Weinberger traces long lines of influence between East and West (the translation of Ernest Fenollosa’s transcriptions of Tang dynasty poetry by Ezra Pound and the birth of imagism) and how this influence feeds back into the East (Gu Cheng’s modernist poetry). Translation becomes a vehicle for these influences to take hold and develop — a vehicle that does not just follow the unidirectional movement from the source to the original, but returns back to the source in new and surprising ways. This redefinition of translation seems to fit in well into what Weinberger calls “the Post-national writer,” a writer who writes across cultures, both modern and ancient ones, seeking out overlooked lines of kinship — an experiment that entails not only writing about the things that he or she knows well, but also about the things that are possible to imagine.


Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz. 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei. Kingston: Asphodel Press, 1987.

In this book Weinberger reviews 16 translations of a 1,2000-year-old poem by the Chinese Buddhist scholar Wang Wei. All translations were completed in the 20th century; 13 are into English, 2 into French, and 1 into Spanish. Along with the original quatrain in Chinese, its transliteration into English, and character-by-character translation, these make up the “19 ways” of looking at the same poem. In his reviews, Weinberger favors less literalist “reimaginings” of the poem over the more accurate academic renditions. He praises Octavio Paz for the “intuitions” that allowed him to convey the “forgotten meaning” of the original without deep knowledge of Chinese (in the manner of Ezra Pound’s imagistic experiments) and condemns the Eurocentric “improvements” made by other translators. Additionally, “Further comments” section by Octavio Paz is an excellent example of “translation notes” — a record of a translator’s struggles, revisions, and different renderings of the original text. Even though 19 Ways is clearly a subjective reading of the translations, the intelligence of Weinberger’s critique makes it an excellent reading in any course that focuses on the problems of poetry translation.

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One Response to Introduction: books about literary translation, by literary translators

  1. Pingback: The line that goes out for a walk | Just Yoking!

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