E L I O T W E I N B E R G E R
ANONYMOUS SOURCES: A TALK ON TRANSLATORS & TRANSLATION
Some years ago, Bill Moyers did a PBS series on poetry that was filmed at the Dodge Festival in New Jersey. Octavio Paz and I had given a bilingual reading there, and I knew that we would be included in the first program. The morning of the broadcast, I noticed in the index of that day's New York Times that there was a review of the show. This being my national television debut, naturally I wondered if their tv critic had discovered any latent star qualities in my performance, possibly leading to a career change, and I quickly turned to the page. This is what he wrote: "Octavio Paz was accompanied by his translator,"– no name given, of course– "always a problematic necessity."
"Problematic necessity," while not yet a cliche about translation, rather neatly embodies the prevailing view of translation. I'd like to look at both terms, beginning with the one that strikes me as accurate: necessity.
Needless to say, no single one of us can know all the languages of the world, not even all the major languages, and if we believe– though not all cultures have believed it– that the people who speak other languages have things to say or ways of saying them that we don't know, then translation is an evident necessity. Many of the golden ages of a national literature have been, not at all coincidentally, periods of active and prolific translation. Sanskrit literature goes into Persian which goes into Arabic which turns into the Medieval European courtly love tradition. Indian folk tales are embedded in The Canterbury Tales . Shakespeare writes in an Italian form, the sonnet, or in the blank verse invented by the Earl of Surrey for his version of the Aeneid ; in The Tempest, he lifts a whole passage verbatim from Arthur Golding's translation of Ovid. German fiction begins with imitations of the Spanish picaresque and Robinson Crusoe. Japanese poetry is first written in Chinese; Latin poetry is first an imitation of the Greek; American poetry in the first half of this century is inextricable from all it translated and learned from classical Chinese, Greek, and Latin; medieval Proven ç al and modern French; in the second half of the century, it is inextricable from the poetries of Latin America and Eastern Europe, classical Chinese again, and the oral poetries of Native Americans and other indigenous groups. These examples could, of course, be multiplied endlessly. Conversely, cultures that do not translate stagnate, and end up repeating the same things to themselves: classical Chinese poetry, in its last 800 or so years , being perhaps the best literary example. Or, in a wider cultural sense of translation: the Aztec and Inkan empires, which could not translate the sight of some ragged Europeans on horseback into anything human.
But translation is much more than an offering of new trinkets in the literary bazaar. Translation liberates the translation-language. Because a translation will always be read as a translation, as something foreign, it is freed from many of the constraints of the currently accepted norms and conventions in the national literature.
This was most strikingly apparent in China after the revolution in 1949. An important group of modernist poets who had emerged in the 1930's and early 1940's were forbidden to publish and were effectively kept from writing; all the new Chinese poetry had to be in the promoted forms of socialist realism: folkloric ballads and paeans to farm production and boiler-plate factories and heroes of the revolution. (The only exceptions, ironically, or tragically, were the classical poems written by Mao himself.) Yet they could translate foreign poets with the proper political credentials (such as Eluard, Alberti, Lorca, Neruda, Aragon) even though their work was radically different and not social realist at all. When a new generation of poets in the 1970's came to reject socialist realism, their inspiration and models were not the erased and forgotten Chinese modernists–whose poems they didn't know, and had no way of knowing– but rather the foreign poets whom these same modernists had been permitted to translate.
Translation liberates the translation-language, and it is often the case that translation flourishes when the writers feel that their language or society needs liberating. One of the great spurs to translation is a cultural inferiority complex or a national self-loathing. The translation boom in Germany at the turn of the 19th century was a response to the self-perceived paucity of German literature; translation became a project of national culture-building: in the words of Herder, "to walk through foreign gardens to pick flowers for my language." Furthermore, and rather strangely, it was felt that the relative lack of literary associations in the language– particularly in contrast to French– made German the ideal language for translation, and even more, the place where the rest of the world could discover the literature it couldn't otherwise read. Germany, they thought, would become the Central Station of world literature precisely because it had no literature. This proved both true and untrue. German did become the conduit, particularly for Sanskrit and Persian, but it is also became much more. Its simultaneous, and not coincidental, production of a great national literature ended up being the most influential poetry and criticism in the West for the rest of the century. [And perhaps it should be mentioned that, contrary to the reigning cliche of Orientalism– namely that scholarship follows imperialism– Germany had no economic interests in either India or Persia. England, which did, had no important scholars in those fields after the pioneering Sir William Jones. Throughout the 19th century, for example, Sanskrit was taught at Oxford exclusively by Germans.]
In the case of the Chinese poets, their coming-of-age during the Cultural Revolution meant that they had been unable to study foreign languages (or much of anything else) and thus were themselves unable to translate. But to escape from their sense of cultural deficiency, they turned to the translations of the previous generation, and began to discover new ways of writing in Chinese, with the result that Chinese poetry experienced its first truly radical and permanent change in some 1300 years.
Among American poets, there have been two great flowerings of translation. The first, before and after the First World War, was largely the work of expatriates eager to overcome their provinciality and to educate their national literature through the discoveries made in their own self-educations: to make the U.S. as "cultured" as Europe. The second, beginning in the 1950's and exploding in the 1960's, was the result of a deep– and already half-forgotten– anti-Americanism among American intellectuals: first in the more contained bohemian rebellion against the conformist Eisenhower years and the Cold War, and then as part of the wider expression of disgust and despair during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. Translation– the journey to the other– was more than a way out of America: the embrace of the other was, in the 1960's, in its small way, an act of defiance against the government that was murdering Asian others abroad and the social realities that were oppressing minority others at home. Foreign poetry became as much a part of the counterculture as American Indians, Eastern religions, hallucinatory states: a new way of seeing, a new "us" forming out of everything that had not been "us."
By the early 1970's, of course, this cultural moment was over, and the poets, for different reasons, became detached from the intellectual and cultural life of the country, as they vanished into the creative writing schools. There are now more American poets and poetry readers than in all the previous eras combined, but almost none of them translate. The few who do, with two or three notable exceptions, are all veterans of the 1960's translation boom. The end of a general anti-Americanism among American writers and readers may have led to a happy populace of literati, yet it is one that is singularly nationalist (but without overt flag-waving), isolationist (but without overt xenophobia), and uninformed. Unbelievably, or all too believably, the total number of literary translations– fiction, poetry, plays, literary essays, and so on– from all languages, published by all the presses in the United States– large, small, and university– comes to about 200 a year. The number of poetry translations– including the Greek and Roman classics and inevitable new Neruda and Rilke volumes– is usually around 25 or less. The entirety of world literature in English translation may be the only field where it is still possible to keep up with all the new publications in the field.
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