walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Experts Don't Know Shit: Translations Edition

I'm working on a second post about AmazonCrossing (short form of what I'm going to say: AmazonCrossing's translations FROM English TO other languages appear to be overwhelmingly genre fiction so far, and That Matters), and along the way I'm trying to understand what kind of literary translation ecosystem existed before AmazonCrossing came along and Changed the World as Amazon is wont to do: how were works selected for translation, did they make money, were translators able to eke out an existence on literary translation or was this one of those Labor of Love/Rich Dilettante Hobby things. Etc.

I ran across a lot of interesting stuff that was highly variable in quality, and then I found this, which is LONG so I don't expect you to read it.


It's from 2008 and he is a hard core translation Nerd. If he's not on the spectrum, well, probably no one really is.

He starts off with a Frankfurt Book Fair story of a British guy and an Italian guy being confused about what "smart" meant in a toss off remark by the Brit. Obvs, it meant nice-looking and equally obvs, the Brit wasn't going to Get Into It with the Italian and so the "clever" interpretation was allowed to slide, leading Lawrence Venuti, in classic Asperger fashion, to conclude: "The conversation hardly inspired confidence about the current state of literary translation."

Oh, sigh.

The balance of the very long piece is about how works are selected for translation which was one of the things I was interested in. Venuti is very knowledgeable and produces a careful and compelling argument based on 20th century publishing history and experience. Shortly after the war, Stanley Unwin argued that a translation would need to sell most of 5K copies to justify the costs associated with the translation and publication. That time-and-place dependent estimate became an English-language market benchmark and authors whose first translated work did not meet that benchmark didn't get a second shot -- which meant that they didn't get an opportunity to build a readership for themselves or for other works in translation. The example he gives -- Paola Capriolo -- still isn't available in English widely. He then goes on to list "great works of modern literature" that sold dismally in translation for a really long while. From here, Venuti gets into why it's so tough to translate texts: "verbal texture" (so the sound and structure unique to the source language that's going to be hard or impossible to re-render in the target language), literary allusions that make sense to the source audience but not the target audience and then then something to do with the packaging of the book that I Find Really Confusing. Because these things travel poorly, when you or I read a translation, we're reading a different book.

Well, fucking duh. He then goes on to note that readers will make sense of the translation in terms of their own reading experience (duh) and That Is A Problem. Next, he notes what works _DO_ survive translation:

"Matilde Serao, who explored themes like illicit romance among aristocratic and middle-class women, the uneven cultural and economic development between North and South and the provinciality and poverty of her native Naples." Me, I'd love to read that -- that sounds like fun. But Venuti is a nerdy guy -- he's mostly interested in whether Serao could be used as a bridge to render accessible authors who "revised or abandoned naturalism ... devised innovative strategies to probe character psychology ... intriguing narrative innovations." (Side note: Venuti's theory about the success of _Mrs. Dalloway_: "Mrs. Dalloway was so successful, I suggest, because enough readers could understand and appreciate its experimental narrative." I think maybe the actual presence of a riveting story (stories) may have made a difference, and Venuti isn't giving any indication that the books he wished worked better in translation had any of that going on. Forward Momentum -- Narrative Thrust -- is Everything.

While Venuti's idea that any significant market in the US might be trained to want to read anything like Svevo is fairly entertaining in its own right, even more amusing is his proposal. He thinks that publishers should be working together to publish enough literature in translation so that someone reading in English could have the reading experience -- over time -- that a person in the source language would have had. Venuti is Not Stupid (not at all!): he knows that this project is unlikely to be successful.

"But publishers can coordinate their efforts, banding together to select a range of texts from a foreign culture and to publish translations of them. This sort of investment cannot insure critical and commercial success. But in the long run chances are that it will pay off handsomely by laying the foundations for an informed readership that will not feel inadequate before translations from a particular foreign language and will actually be eager to sample new texts from it. Readers as well as publishers have much to gain from a translation policy that is based on an incisive understanding of the translation process."

Look, I _get_ having a special interest. I really do. I will ride a fascinating, bright, shiny idea right into the ground, boring the people who love me to tears. (Instead, I blog! And then they can tl;dr and move along. Best of all possible worlds.) But I know better than to propose stuff like this. Silly!
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