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WE ASKED A GROUP OF NINE TRANSLATORS, SCHOLARS, AND POETS TO COMMENT ON RECENT TRANSLATIONS AND WORK IN TRANSLATION THEORY.

Heather McHugh, professor of creative writing at the University of Washington at Seattle and the author of Hinge & Sign: Poems 19681993 (Wesleyan, 1994).

"Richard Howard, who for decades has done us incalculable service in translating difficult but indispensable French texts, deserves a heap more credit than he gets. (A good translator undergoes a self-annihilation: Even the best readers, finding glories in the work, will tend to credit the writer before the translator.) Howard's translation of E.M. Cioran's Short History of Decay (Quartet, 1990) alone should have won him our lifelong literary gratitude. Of recent translations, none is more exciting than View With a Grain of Sand (Harcourt, 1995), by Nobel prize winner Wislawa Szymborska. One simply cannot praise enough the way in which Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh have rendered Szymborska's ranges of revelry and rue, her intellectual exactitudes and spiritual flash, her compound of profundity and skepticism, her swoops of scale from star to cell--even her way with words, her wit. The book is a gift not only from, but to, the poet herself."

Michael Henry Heim, professor of Slavic literatures at UCLA and translator of George Konrad, The Melancholy of Rebirth: Essays from Post-Communist Central Europe, 19891994 (Harcourt, 1996).

"For years George Steiner's After Babel (Oxford, 1976) has been the standard history of translation theory, brilliantly demonstrating how varying views of the craft of translation have partaken of the intellectual currents of their times. Since its appearance, however, the intellectual currents of our time have spawned a vital new field, translation studies, which prides itself on factoring social aspects into formerly 'pure' issues--speculating, for instance, about why the powers that be choose certain works and even whole literatures for translation over others. Lawrence Venuti's The Translator's Invisibility: A History of Translation (Routledge, 1995) acutely revises translation history under headings like 'Canon,' 'Nation,' and 'Dissidence,' while Rachel May's The Translator in the Text: On Reading Russian Literature in English (Northwestern, 1994) explains how the translations we read color our view of Russian texts and, in the end, of Russian literature itself."

Lawrence Venuti, professor of English at Temple University and the author of The Translator's Invisibility: A History of Translation (Routledge, 1995). Current research in translation studies, observes Venuti, "is split into opposing approaches: one aiming to construct an empirical science of translation, the other emphasizing the cultural and political values in translation theory and practice." Venuti prefers the latter approach because it "can provoke new thinking about culture, new ways of writing cultural history, and, eventually, new translation strategies." He adds: "Check out Michael Cronin's Translating Ireland: Translation, Languages, Culture (Cork University Press, 1996), a thousand-year history of the diverse roles played by translation in forming Irish cultural traditions and national identities. Cronin demonstrates how translation studies can transform debates about identity politics by exposing the plurilingualism of every culture. For Cronin, translation lies at the heart of the postcolonial condition, revealing hierarchical power relations and producing hybrid languages of resistance and innovation."

Barbara Bray, a writer living in Paris and the translator of Alain Bosquet, A Russian Mother (Holmes & Meier, 1996).

Bray looks forward to savoring The Encyclopedia of Literary Translation (Fitzroy Dearborn, forthcoming), edited by Olive Classe, which surveys the theory and practice of literary translation into English. "Addressed to students and teachers at all levels, the Encyclopedia reflects the current ferment of interest in a territory hitherto relatively unmapped but vital to intercultural communications, past, present, and future. English versions of texts by authors from Aeschylus to Kenzaburo Oe are discussed. General topics range from children's literature through feminist translation theory to translation norms. Surveys of the history of translation into English from a given language provide an account of each language's special characteristics and resources and major differences from English."

Serge Gavronsky, professor of French at Barnard College and the author of Toward a New Poetics: Contemporary Writing in France (California, 1994).

"Bilingual poetry publications invite a reader to play at being a Ping-Pong referee and smugly, smilingly, call the translator to task. There is, however, a more pleasurable option: simply focusing on the translation and admiring the perfection of the English language, which is what I did when reading Samuel Beckett's translations in Alain Bosquet's No More Me (Daedalus, 1995), edited by Roger Little. Under Beckett's command, 'Mon oranger n'aime pas mes genoux' becomes 'My orange trees my knees displease.' And 'Verbe muqueuses!' becomes 'Mucous membraned Word!' Such poetic license was encouraged by the prolific Bosquet, who wrote, 'I give every one of my words its liberty' and, to make matters even easier, fancied himself a poet who 'replaces dogs with unicorns.' What a field day for Bosquet translators, a group that has included such talents as Beckett, Louis Zukofsky, and Lawrence Durrell, among others."

Carol Volk, a writer living in New York and the translator of Patrick Chamoiseau, Childhood (Nebraska, forthcoming).

"In 'The Sentence' in Testaments Betrayed (HarperCollins, 1995), Milan Kundera scrutinizes multiple translations of a single Kafka passage. Pointing to consistent patterns of error, such as the replacing of intentionally repetitive words with synonyms, Kundera demonstrates that deviations from standard usage often constitute an author's stylistic essence and shouldn't be smoothed over. Bravely, Kundera confronts a key dilemma for translators: whether to maintain strict fidelity to the author (assuming that's possible) or opt for greater fluidity for the reader. It's a problem for which every translator must ultimately reach a compromise--and no matter what the decision, the copy editor will often make the final call in favor of readability. Though Kundera's blanket condemnations of all translators are unfair, his sympathies are well placed. He writes: 'What can the translator get credit for? For fidelity to the author's style? That's exactly what readers in the translator's country have no way of judging.'"

Pierre Joris, professor of English at SUNY-Albany and the translator of Paul Celan, Breathturn (Sun & Moon, 1995).

"Bottom-line politics and editorial timidity have made trade publishers allergic to experimental writing in translation. Thankfully, small independent presses, often poet-run, have taken up the slack. Exact Change of Cambridge, Massachusetts, recently published Antonin Artaud's major late writings as Watchfiends and Rack Screams: Works from the Final Period, 1945-1948 (1995). The volume is edited and superbly translated (a twenty-year labor of love!) by Clayton Eshleman with Bernard Bador. Another vital poet-translator-publisher is Rosmarie Waldrop, who has created an annual series of current German writing in English translation, Dicthen, published by her Burning Deck Press of Providence, Rhode Island. Issues 1 and 2 offer her excellent translations of Frederike Mayrocker's Heiligenanstalt and Elke Erb's Mountains in Berlin."

Carol Maier, professor of Spanish at Kent State University and the co-editor of Between Languages and Cultures: Translation and Cross-Cultural Texts (Pittsburgh, 1995).

"Discussions about translation often focus on the accuracy of the final product," says Maier. For an alternative, she has turned to books that "concern the effect of translation and the potentially rewarding yet dangerous interrogation of identity that translation can trigger. Some fiction writers are apparently more willing than translators or translation theorists to speculate about translation's tendency to throw them off-balance as they shuttle between languages and cultures. Novels such as Lydia Davis's The End of the Story (Farrar, 1995), Barbara Wilson's Gaudi Afternoon (Seal, 1990), and Banana Yoshimotos's N.P. (Grove, 1994), translated by Ann Sherif, offer intimate portraits of translators that prompt a reader to ponder the effect translation can have on one's understanding of originality, gender, and nationality."

William Weaver, professor of Language and Literature at Bard College and the translator of Umberto Eco, The Island of the Day Before (Harcourt, 1995). Weaver recommends Donald Keene's On Familiar Terms: A Lifetime Across Cultures (Kodansha America, 1996), "an extraordinary book, not exactly an autobiography, but rather, as the subtitle clarifies, 'a lifetime across cultures.' Keene, an unparalleled translator and historian of Japanese literatures, in telling the story of his gradual discovery of his vocation with witty clarity, provides an affecting, precise description of what it's like to be a translator. Translating, if practiced seriously, goes far beyond mere linguistic transferal; and Keene conveys the intellectual satisfactions of finding exactly the right word (when you're lucky) and, more broadly, rendering a book written in one's beloved acquired language into one's equally beloved native language. For me, reading Keene was an uncanny experience. I seemed to be reading my own story, with 'Japan' and 'Japanese' replacing 'Italy' and 'Italian.' Geographically and culturally, Keene and I have been immersed in discrete worlds, but we seem to have reached the same destination."

--John Palattella

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