Celebrating the Art and Spirit of Literary Translation NEA Style

Literary twists that produce joy in the reader can produce angst in the translator.

On 12 August 2014, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announced the recommended recipients of $300,000 in grants. Twenty translators were the beneficiaries of this funding, earmarked by the NEA “to support the new translation of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry from 12 different languages into English.”

The NEA has been supporting the important art of translation since 1981. During that time, it has offered 412 fellowships for translating literature from 86 countries, spanning 66 different languages.

This year, the NEA awards coincided with its publication of a delightful new book of essays devoted to celebrating the important role played by translated literature. The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Literature in Translation brings together 19 translators and supporters of translation work, reflecting on the practice of translation: a higher calling to which they share a passionate devotion.

The types of projects awarded this year offer a glimpse at the wide range of translation work the NEA supports. One fellowship is going to Jeffrey Yang of Beacon, New York, to help translate City Gate Open Up, a lyrical autobiography by poet Bei Dao, originally in Chinese. Another recipient is Niloufar Talebi of San Francisco, California, who will be working on a translation of the Persian-language works of Iranian writer and poet Ahmad Shamlou, a Nobel Prize nominee.

The Importance of Translation

In today’s educated, globalized world, lovers of international literature are easy to find. But while it’s easy to find people who appreciate literary masters – from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Hitomi Kanehara – how many share an equal appreciation for the translators who make our familiarity with these works possible?

The role of the translator is a central one that readers often don’t fully appreciate. In my own case, discovering the centrality of that role was provoked by 19th century Russian author Nikolai Chernyshevsky. I read his remarkable novel, What Is to Be Done? (credited with inspiring the pivotal revolutionary essay of the same title by Lenin, as well as many of the other Russian revolutionaries of the era) when I was in junior high school: an old, battered library copy of the translation by eminent leftist theoretician Benjamin Tucker (dating from the early ‘60s).

I spent years (in the pre-Amazon era) hunting for another copy for my own, and when I finally found one, almost shelled out the $40 for it (a fortune on an undergrad’s budget) until I began reading it. It read like an entirely different book! The tone, the style, the humour: everything was different! And then I took a second look, and realized the translator was different, too (this was the Michael Katz translation, dating from the late ‘80s). I continue to search for an affordable copy of the out-of-print Tucker translation.

I encountered another dimension of translation when I discovered the beautiful and insightful works of Japanese author Sue Sumii. A social activist and prolific writer, she penned a brilliant, seven-volume series titled The River with No Bridge, written over the course of an almost 30-year period. The series recounts life in early 20th century Japan (the saga follows a multi-generational community over several years) from the perspective of the Burakamin, a traditionally outcast caste whose experience and identity still provokes controversy in that country. Her novels were written as social protest, yet also provide beautiful and moving depictions of life and social relationships in the Burakumin communities.

When I found an English translation (translated by Susan Wilkinson) of Volume 1, I sped through it in no time, unable to put it down. Once I did put it down – to go online and order the remaining six volumes – I discovered to my horror they have not been translated. And worse yet: there are currently no plans to do so.

Controversies and Copies

The complexities of translation can prove bewildering at times, and even provoke political complications. Jay Rubin, literary scholar and one of the translators of Haruki Murakami’s work, relates an incredible incident in his splendid and fascinating book Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, an excellent and exhaustive literary appreciation of Murakami’s oeuvre. Rubin – who includes an extensive discussion on the challenges of translation – recounts a heated debate that arose in the German press over the sex scenes depicted in Murakami’s novel South of the Border, West of the Sun.

While critics were arguing whether they constituted sophisticated erotica or cheap pornography, a Japanese language professor intervened to say that it wasn’t really a fair debate to be having, since the German version of the novel had been translated from the English translation, instead of directly from the Japanese original. This, he suggested, created too great a degree of distance for the combatants to be attributing the quality of the work solely to Murakami. It also raised questions: there were fully capable Japanese-German translators, so why had it been translated from a translation?

A complicated matter! Murakami, who is himself a prolific translator (he has both written about translation as well as introduced Japanese audiences to many English writers through his own translation work), has described translation as “a kind of therapy for me”. In addressing the German controversy, it was pointed out in Rubin’s book that for practical purposes English is often the first and most laborious translation, with the resulting English version considered “the starting point for the journey of his works around the world.” But Murakami himself, with his usually quirky take on globalization, replied to this debate with “So what?”:

To tell you the truth, I kind of like re-translation. My tastes are a little weird anyway… I’m not so worried about the details at the level of linguistic expression; as long as the big things on the story level get through, that’s pretty much going to do the job. If the work itself has power, it will get past a few mistakes. Rather than worrying about the details, I’m just happy to have my work translated.

Such examples reveal the complexities involved in translation work. They also reveal the singular challenges faced by those who undertake the challenge of translating literature. And they demonstrate the importance of the NEA’s new collection, which shares the insights of translators and others who are involved in this work, reflecting on the art and craft of their important profession.

More Art than Science

In Art of Empathy, Gregory Pardlo points out that translators must convey not just words, but style: “The unique musicality each poet has – let’s call it style – is just as, if not more, important than what her poems ‘say’…if the lay reader is made conscious of the fact that she is reading a poem in translation, I will not have done my job.”

But how precisely to do that? The contributors to Art of Empathy provide a variety of useful examples and techniques that illustrate the complexity of this art. Pardlo discusses the Stephen Mitchell translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo, in which “a phrase like ‘wherein the eye-apples ripen’ simply refers to a dilating pupil. But its closest colloquial match in English might call to mind ‘the apple of my eye’ which, of course, is trite and schmaltzy. Mitchell foregoes the apple altogether and gives us ‘eyes like ripening fruit.’”

Similarly, he explains, Fernandez de Castro in translating Langston Hughes’ poem I, Too, Sing America, added an accent to the ‘e’ in America: a simple yet powerful mark which helped expand the range of ‘America’ from the US to the entirety of the Americas, rendering the poem more inclusive to the expanded audience.

Tiny gestures, but in the art of translation, ones that count.

For those who think (as I once did) that translation is a boring, onerous, scientific task — a sort of bureaucratic, technical literary mechanics — Art of Empathy exposes the much more joyful, beautiful and creative side to this art. Angela Rodel writes of translating Bulgarian authors into English: “The experience was and continues to be exhilarating – trying to find the right timbre for a short story, adding the perfect lexical ornament, trying to make the text itself sing, without changing the key entirely or tripping up the beat. For me, translation means hearing voices – allowing an author’s voice to sing through my own, letting Bulgarian rhythms echo inside English syllables, finding the right key that makes a piece of writing resonate.”

The joy and love these translators feel for their work is palpable.

Angst, Joy, and Creativity

Twists that produce joy in the reader can produce angst in the translator. An author uses a piece of slang in his text during a pivotal moment — a colloquialism that can have multiple and contradictory meanings — but then dies before a translator can ask which of the word’s many meanings he intended. A reader in the original language can revel in the ambiguity, enjoying the many possible meanings and interpretations of the phrase; it’s what makes language so delightful. But how does a translator express that in a language which might share no analogous phrase? How to convey this-is-what-they-probably-meant-to-say-but-it’s-deliberately-vague-and-could-mean-precisely-the-opposite? The meaning of entire texts can hinge on such momentous decisions.

“Translating is a kind of writing, of course,” says Natasha Wimmer, “but it’s also a kind of reading: a very, very slow kind of reading – possibly the slowest kind of reading in the world.”

Indeed, it may be that the act of translating transforms the role of a literary work in our society. Pierre Joris draws on poet/translator Leon Robel’s observation that “a text is the ensemble of all its significantly differing translations.” This renders the work of translation even more important; indeed implicates translators in the creative work of those they translate and in the inspiration those works provide to us as readers.

Edward Gauvin draws an analogy with photographers (and other new media workers), who were once seen as merely technicians who clicked a button: now they’re seen as creative producers in their own right. “The translator is… a literature worker, and as such deserves respect, guarantees of safer working conditions, and certain basic rights for the formerly invisible and illicit.”

Indeed, can translation change our world? These inspired translators have no doubt of that. Susan Harris, editorial director of Words Without Borders, points out that peace, tolerance and understanding – especially across cultures – can be facilitated by immersing oneself in another “culture from within” – and good translation allows this. It allows the reader to see things “from a human perspective” beyond that of one’s own immediate language and culture.

Even journalism, she points out, is an act of translation, where journalists tell us what’s happening in the world, but framed through their own interpretation and frames of meaning. Rather than relying exclusively on news reports and journalism to understand what is happening in the world, she suggests, we ought to immerse ourselves in world literature, which can provide an equally – if not more – important insight into other cultures, other places, other systems of meaning and thinking and understanding. “The inability to read foreign languages, and the corresponding lack of access to literature written in anything but English… reflects our insularity and isolation, and perpetuates our restricted knowledge of the rest of the world.”

We may not all be able to learn other languages, but we can certainly try to access the literature of other languages.

Of course, only a fraction of such literature is available to English speakers. Chad Post discusses the “three percent problem” – the oft-cited figure refers to the percentage of books published annually in the United States which are translations. This is, of course, only a tiny fraction of all the books out there – meaning that unilingual English-speakers are only able to tap into the smallest portion of world literature. Post discusses the estimate and where it comes from, but ultimately points out that yes, while it may be small, and while we ought to do more to support the work of translation and try to increase it, we should also celebrate the work that is being done and the people who are doing it.

The average American reads four books a year, and 517 pieces of translated fiction and poetry came out last year alone. Lamenting the low percentage “reinforces the idea that it’s difficult to find literature in translation, which is a blatant lie… so let’s quit fretting over a number and instead rejoice in all that has been made available to us.”

Art of Empathy does precisely that: it’s an act of celebration, which honours and rejoices in the work of these translators and the broader efforts that they represent.

Touching the Soul

If translation helps to bring humanity closer to each other, is there a spiritual side to translating as well? Johanna Warren appears to think so. She writes that translation, in a broad sense, “…is essential to the spiritual evolution of our species. Our stubborn fixation on the perception that I am separate from you and humans are separate from all other life on Earth has set us up for both individual misery and global catastrophe… What translation can do for us, and what we so desperately need at this juncture in human history, is to radically increase our empathic capacities; to learn, or perhaps relearn, how to listen…”

Hearing the voices of translators speaking so openly and honestly truly has the potential to affect how we engage with translated literature — and with each other. It also underscores the importance of diversifying our reading lists to ensure we include not only our own linguistic culture’s best-sellers (and cult classics), but also a healthy sampling of literature in translation.

One of the delightful aspects of this short collection is the additional world of reading that it opens up. Each contributor was asked to list their three favourite works or recommendations for books-in-translation, and most of them offer extensive annotated notes explaining the reasons for their choices. The result was that I came away from this book with a shortlist of additional ‘must-read’ selections to keep an eye out for.

Art of Empathy is a short read, but a powerful and inspiring one. It’s a worthy gesture for the NEA to complement the announcement of its awards with a delightfully beautiful read that reveals how truly invaluable the funding of literary translation is. It calls on us to reposition our orientation toward literature in translation, and to recognize the reading of translated works not as merely a quirky hobby, but as central to our development as literate, empathic citizens of the world, and to the dynamic vitality of our own literary cultures.

For, as Natasha Wimmer puts it: “Translation may momentarily render the foreign text thinner, but it also reminds us of the richness of fiction, of the many possible readings it permits and encourages.”

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Above: Multi-coloured books image from Shutterstock.com.

RATING 9 / 10