The Translator’s Playbook

One of the many reasons why reading the newspaper has become so depressing in recent years is that one inevitably gets bludgeoned repeatedly with the same fixed phrases that the Republican Party uses to control the discourse around so many issues. I remember when the “Republican Playbook” was leaked around a decade ago and parts were read out on NPR. The political strategists who had dreamed up this playbook, or phrase book, were astonishingly detail-oriented, providing instructions that might go something like this: “Never use the phrase ‘stem cell’ without putting the word ’embryonic’ in front of it.” Lo and behold, many of the people who heard this phrase every time they turned on the news became convinced that stem cell research kills babies. And have you ever heard the medical procedure “intact dilation and extraction” referred to as anything other than “partial birth abortion” or, at best, as “the procedure referred to by its opponents as ‘partial-birth abortion'”? People on the Republican team stayed on message until the news media decided (shamefully capitulating) that it would be too difficult to use any other term to describe the procedure. The Democratic Party is home to a wide range of diverging views expressed in a variety of discourses, with the result that Team Democrat produces fewer pert sound bites and memes to shape the public imagination (“Yes we can” being a noteworthy exception).

Like the Democratic Party, literary translators are a motley crew who hold a wide range of views on translation and its relationship to writing that, among other things, reflect the views on translation held by the literary establishment at large. I am currently teaching literary translation to graduate students in an outstanding creative writing MFA program in which the conviction that translation is a form of writing is so firmly rooted that translation is one of the “tracks” the MFA students can choose to major in, along with fiction, poetry and playwriting. Most MFA programs in translation in this country are segregated from the creative writing programs at their institutions. But translation is a form of writing, and it is a form that illuminates as well as imitates the text being translated. As I have discussed before in this blog (here for example), the translator has a singular, subjective power to shape and present an author’s text, defining style, tone and nuance. There is no such thing as a neutral translation, and I see this as a cause for celebration.

And so it distresses me when translators run around badmouthing their profession in places of high visibility. There’s certainly a long tradition of translator disclaimers, since the notion of translation as derivative writing has long produced a certain ambivalence in its practitioners. I still love Friedrich Leopold von Stolberg’s comment prefacing his 1778 German edition of the Iliad: “Dear reader, learn Greek and throw my translation in the fire.” He’s right to point out that reading any given text in the original is infinitely preferable to reading it in translation. On the other hand, reading literature in translation is infinitely preferable to not being able to read it at all. And translators themselves, immersed in the torturous minutiae of their work, are often the first to lose sight of this fact. But even when you, the translator, despair of your ability to create even an adequate – much less glorious – translation of a work you love, please don’t allow yourself to indulge in self-doubt to the point of going on record saying that translation is a waste of time. Always check the appropriate page of the Translator’s Playbook before you speak to the press.

Because if you snark about your profession, rest assured that the ladies and gentlemen of the press will run with it. How could they resist? I was so disappointed to see the interview podcast and blurb the New Yorker ran this week on their website, featuring Jay Rubin, who translated “Town of Cats” by Haruki Murakami, which appears in the Sept. 5 issue of the magazine. The short text introducing the podcast offers to show us “why Rubin doesn’t recommend reading literature in translation.” When I listened to the interview itself, I found that Rubin had gone even farther, saying “I strongly advise people not to read literature in translation, because I know what happens in the process.” Now, I don’t think that if my colleague Jay Rubin truly believed translation were worthless he would be devoting so much of his time to translating books (and believe me, he’s not in it for the money); rather, I think he just got carried away in this interview while expounding on the pitfalls of translation (and believe me, there are plenty). But when you pitch snark softballs like that, you do have to assume they will be caught, fielded, etc. Everyone loves trash-talk. But while Rubin no doubt presumed he was addressing an audience of folks for whom it goes without saying that literature in translation has great value – after all, it’s the only thing standing between us and cultural isolation – the message he gave voice to can easily be misunderstood and misused, and yes, it hurts the cause. So I would ask all translators who are in a position to communicate with the press to remember the responsibility inherent in being a spokesperson for your profession. Translation is a valuable contribution to the cultural life of our country; don’t lose sight of that message.

P.S. Update: NPR agrees with me.

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  1. Will says:

    I was disappointed in Jay Rubin for those comments too! I’m glad I’m not the only person who was put-off by such a comment, especially from the most visible of the Japanese translators.

  2. Impaire says:

    I wonder about the “obvious” notion that “reading any given text in the original is infinitely preferable to reading it in translation.” To make an equally “obvious” parallel, depending on what one is reading for, it might be preferable to read a text in an annotated or non-annotated version, to read an older author with modernized or non-modernized spelling and punctuation, to (if you are French) read Poe in English or in the Baudelaire translation or in a more modern, faithful translation… Etc, ad infinitum. The assumption here seems to be that the translator is an inferior writer and an unworthy literary critic (maybe mediator would be a better word). I am wondering if that assumption shouldn’t be challenged.
    That’s an open question for me. I am starting on a comp lit PhD hoping to find a way to approach these questions from a literary standpoint (this is the reason I decided for comp lit rather than translation studies… I never heard of Queens College MFA before today, or I might just have applied there instead, who knows!)

  3. Bravo/brava, and thank you for taking the point even further. I know Germans who read Kant in English translation because Kant was such a lousy prose stylist in German that his writing actually makes it harder to understand his difficult ideas. The translators dug through his thickets of words to figure out what he was trying to get said. There are certainly any number of indifferently written books out there that are actually improved in translation – but that’s a can of worms for a different post.

  4. Impaire says:

    Well I look forward to that other post!

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