Ammiel Alcalay Recommends Translating Responsibly

My CUNY colleague Ammiel Alcalay recently came back to Queens College from his current home base at the CUNY Graduate Center to read in tandem with the glorious poet (and now novelist) Eileen Myles. Ammiel translates from both the Hebrew and the Bosnian as well as being a poet, essayist and scholar. In the Q&A after the reading, Ammiel made some points in reference to his translations of Bosnian poet Semezdin Mehmedinović—author of Sarajevo Blues and Nine Alexandrias—that are worth recording here. For one thing, he spoke of Mehmedinović’s poetry as being singularly translatable because it’s so solidly image-based and relies on a straightforward vocabulary, such that translating it, in Ammiel’s words, is “like pouring water from one glass to another.” Actually I suspect that a lot of work went into Ammiel’s translations of these poems, but the simile is still pretty enough to share.

But here’s the main thing Ammiel got me thinking about: In the United States, we’ve gotten into the habit of talking about translators not having much power. From an international standpoint, however, this is not always true, particularly in the case of translations into English. Those who create and publish English-language translations can sometimes become unwitting kingmakers in other parts of the world. You can pluck a poet out of relative obscurity in his home context and give him an international platform. Might you be doing so at the expense of his perhaps more accomplished peers? You should at least know who his peers are. As Ammiel says, it is crucial to make sure you truly understand the original literary scene and context—including the political context where relevant—of the works you’re translating. Ammiel is absolutely right about this, particularly in terms of the politics (which is what he was mainly talking about). The mainstream culture of the United States is more likely to think of literature as divorced from politics than is the case in most other parts of the world (which I believe has a lot to do with the fact that it’s been a century and a half since we experienced a war fought on our home turf). It’s good to be reminded that literature is not always neutral.

Even in purely aesthetic terms, translations into English are sometimes surprisingly potent when it comes to shaping the literary careers of foreign authors. Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader was dismissed in Germany as a not particularly well-written book about the Holocaust—a judgment I agree with—until Carol Brown Janeway’s translation of it was chosen as an Oprah’s Book Club selection, whereupon it became a bestseller in Germany as well as here. And Sylvia Molloy has written insightfully on how the American obsession with magical realism in the 1960s created the misconception that this was the main thrust of all important Latin American writing—promoting the careers of some authors internationally while marginalizing others. With hegemony comes responsibility. Know that.

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