Monday, May 4, 2009

Not Lost

A New York Times piece on a Christopher Hampton's play 'The Philanthropist' ends with a wonderful reminder of how important translation is for literature and the arts:
I think translation is very underappreciated and under-rewarded. I feel quite strongly that translation is performing an incredibly valuable service for us all. As often as not, when you read a translated novel, you have to search to find the name of the translator. Of course the translator is the person who is directly mediating the language to you and giving you access to all these worlds that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to enter.
And of course, the first comment on the story says in a contemptuously backhanded agreement:
poetry is, of course, what is “lost in translation,” and good translators (like every good artist) knows that their work will inevitably fail to convey the full beauty and truth of the original (in the case of the artist, the original being the kernel of an idea for a work that is alway better than whatever gets made). but where would we be without wonderful translators like hampton, who give us worlds that would otherwise remain completely inaccessible? translation is an art — an interpretive art (like acting, directing, dancing, singing, playing an instrument) but an art nonetheless. here’s to translators!
Though the article was posted two weeks ago, I couldn't help but add my disgruntled .02:

Though another commenter quips Frost's famous derision of translating poetry, that it is what is lost in translation, I think this view is often misunderstood. I think he means is that great translation requires a great artist, a poet, to re-form the poetry in the new language. Those who think that translations are always and inescapably inferior and derivative tend to be rather limited in their view of what a translation can achieve. It's no surprise to anyone that there are losses in the translation of literature - sounds, rhymes, meters that simply have no equivalent in the target language. But most people who have not thought overmuch about the practice don't realize there are equal gains - in sound, rhyme, meter, and even, sometimes, in allusion and elsewhere.

This history of this inferior and derivative idea of translation actually comes from translating religious texts - that the original was sacred and divine and that any transference of it was necessarily inferior. We recognize now the crippling absurdity of that idea - especially since it came to bear when the Christian Bible was already in Latin, having been translated already.

Many of the greatest poets in recent history, Pablo Neruda for one, believed that translation could actually improve upon the original. And I think he was right - a great line from his most famous book, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, reads: "El amor es tan corto, el olvido es tan largo." It is much tighter in English: "Love is so short, forgetting is so long." The anaphora is clearer, the symmetry of phrasing emphasized by the loss of the articles, unnecessary in English.

The myopic view that a translation is necessarily inferior to an original work is what prevents translators from being recognized as artists, necessary for the success of global literature. It is what prevents translators from being fairly compensated for their work, and what prevents acknowledgment that without them we would have a very limited and sad reading world indeed.

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