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Edith Grossman on literary translation as narrative transmutation

I’ve been reading her Don Quixote [amazon] for the last 18 months.

Rest In Pages.

Ralph Manheim, the great translator from the German, compared the translator to an actor who speaks as the author would if the author spoke English. A sophisticated and provocative analogy, for it takes into account something that is not always as clear as it should be, at least to many reviewers, whose highest endorsement for a translation tends to be that it is “seamless.” If I may attempt to translate the damnation barely concealed in their faint praise, I think they really mean that the translator has, with proper humility, made herself or himself “invisible”—a punishing goal that is desirable only if we are held personally responsible for the Tower of Babel and all its dire consequences for our species.

Fidelity is surely our highest aim, but a translation is not made with tracing paper. It is an act of critical interpretation. Let me insist on the obvious: Languages trail immense, individual histories behind them and no two languages, with all their accretions of tradition and culture, ever dovetail perfectly. They can be linked by translation, as a photograph can link movement and stasis, but it is disingenuous to assume that either translation or photography, or acting for that matter, is representational in any narrow sense of the term. Fidelity is our noble purpose but it does not have much, if anything, to do with what is called literal meaning. A translation can be faithful to tone and intention, to meaning. It can rarely be faithful to words or syntax, for these are peculiar to specific languages and are not transferable.

To create significance for a new set of readers, translators must make the effort to enter the mind of the first author through the gateway of the text—to see the world through another person’s eyes and translate the linguistic perception of that world into another language. The better the original writing, the more exciting and challenging the process is. You can be sure that the attempt to enter the mind of García Márquez is as exciting and challenging as the work of a translator gets.

Edith Grossman – Narrative Transmutations

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