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from the September 2010 issue

Bitte, Ich Spreche Nur Amerikanisch

                                                             For Yakov, Enrica, and Tanya

I’d like to bracket these observations between two half-remembered New Yorker cartoons. The first shows three people, a woman and two men, each tops in their fields, being interviewed by a man who has asked them to identify three people who’ve influenced them. The woman, a writer, mentions Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, and Chekhov; the golfer names Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods, and, to everyone’s surprise, Chekhov; finally the physicist rattles off his list: Einstein, Newton, and . . . yes, you guessed it, Chekhov. The importance of translation, anyone?

Now juxtapose this against another New Yorker cartoon which shows two men and a woman each tied to a separate tree, looks of horror on their faces, while before them stands a primly dressed woman, her mouth open wide as though she were belting out an aria, an open book in her hand. The caption reads: Americans enjoying literature in translation.

I have three modest objectives here. The first is simply to bring this subject forward—in many literary cultures, both fiction writers and poets translate as a matter of course: the art of translation is regarded as an essential part of a literary education.

Secondly, I want to recognize some of the reasons we as American writers tend to shy away from the practice, so that we can address our fears doubts and insecurities about the matter head-on. A particularly cosmopolitan poet friend who reviews widely recently surprised me by confessing that he never writes about translated work because he doesn’t think himself qualified. If even he won’t do it, I thought, who will? And why won’t he, really?

Finally, I wanted to add a few names to your reading list. What they have to offer is nothing less than another way of seeing the world, one which hasn’t been homogenized by the process of workshops where we are put in a very complicated position. I wonder how Bernhard and Jelinek and Zabuzhko and Andrukhovych and Kiš would have faired in a workshop? They break all the rules of reader-friendliness—which sometimes seem an unspoken yet implicit benchmark, sometimes I think it’s the main one, for workshop responses . . . perhaps an inevitable one if we wish to appeal to the widest audiences. It may not be possible to teach original vision, yet isn’t that the sole common characteristic of all great art?

I wonder if that’s something of what Horace Engdahl was getting at.

You remember poor Horace Engdahl, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy which awards the Nobel Prize for Literature, who generated a tempest in a teapot when he suggested American writers paid too much attention to mass culture and not enough to literature in translation? “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular,” he said before announcing last year’s prize. “They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.”

Too many guardians of our culture’s honor stepped up to stomp on the startled Swede for me to want to join their queue. I’d agree with Ron Silliman who judiciously noted the truth and the limitations of such generalizations. Certainly I don’t lose sleep worrying which of the big three perennial American contenders will be honored next. We know what that game of prizes means, even as we recognize its main virtue is to focus and sharpen a conversation, or spawn essays like this. And I’ve no wish to argue with Mr. Engdahl. The fact is it’s not only writers who need their 500 pounds a year to keep up these days—readers are, if anything, even more besieged. There seem to be more of us than of them out there. And in the economic and technological climate we’ve inhabited for the last several decades it really is only the very rich or the unemployed who have the kind of time it would take to “keep up” and so be in a position to offer some meaningful generalizations about any literary culture, North or South American or African . . . or Arab or European or Asian . . . or for that matter, of smaller regions within these vast territories. I used to read for a living, more or less, when I edited Agni, and these days, when I see the frenzy of readings in Boston on any given week, I’m tempted to heave the deadbolt and hunker down for a night of serious drinking in front of the latest episode of Mad Men.

Moreover, I want to acknowledge straight off that I while I have over the years occasionally translated from Ukrainian, I feel moderately ashamed of my own limitations here. Both my parents grew up speaking four or five languages; my grandfather read widely in nine. I worry sometimes that our children will settle for hieroglyphics and comics, since images carry over—which is what the word “translation” means etymologically, to carry over, or across—so much more easily than language.

Our cultural anxiety around this subject, as Jaime Clark—novelist and co-proprietor of Newtonville Books—pointed out, is why most people avoid it, why the number of translations into English is said to be so abysmal compared to what gets from here to there, why at least once a year Publishers Weekly or some other industry organ declares a public mea culpa: because we fear not really understanding the reference points a book’s characters take for granted. This is a valid and familiar concern, of course.

How to address this proximate neurosis? It’s real enough for readers trying to make sense of American fiction too. Some years ago one of my most talented writers in a fiction class at UMass- Boston was a twenty-year-old who was one of the so-called “Lost Boys” of Sudan, now a man with a family of his own. M wrote brilliantly about his experience of wartime Sudan but after one semester he didn’t pursue the practice because he felt he couldn’t understand so much of what his classmates were writing about: there were so many references to popular culture, television, and local products that he found himself missing the implications for setting and social milieu hidden in words like The Temptations, or the Fonz, or “Over the Rainbow”—though he knew about Gettysburg, since history mattered. Incidentally, M learned to write by drawing letters in the sand. How many similar subtleties and nuances do we forfeit when we wade into the terra incognita of another’s culture?

I think it’s important to acknowledge that, and to recognize that one of the things fiction can do is invite readers to learn more about a subject—it helps to know something about Chilean history to understand the final half of Bolaño’s By Night in Chile, doesn’t it—but one can also always look it up afterwards. It’s also why I think it valuable to harken back to one’s earlier reading experiences, before such sophisticated anxieties intruded on our delights. I want to remind us of one of our earliest impulses in reading, even before we were seduced by the contemporary versions of Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys—that is, by images of characters our adolescent selves could identify with—before that, we had far more imaginative encounters with talking animals and mythological figures and gods, beings very unlike us, yet the distance was what made reading compelling. Our imagination helped us grow beyond our immediate circumstances, because we recognized instinctively what Flaubert defined as the goal of art, which is to do what nature does, that is, to set us dreaming. A waking dream about another world radically unlike our own: yes, certainly that’s one fine reason to keep reading: to get lost inside a world we just don’t understand. How much like life!

When I first read Knut Hamsun’s great novel Hunger, I knew nothing of Oslo. That was part of the novel’s appeal. New York City was next door to where I lived. Cheever and O’Hara were writing about my own geographic backyard and their reflections offered insights for sure—though their upper-middle-class worlds were perhaps farther from my own child-of-immigrants situation than the life of a vagrant in Oslo. In any case, the lure of the unfamiliar only hastened the seduction. When I finally did visit Oslo there were many things about the atmosphere in Hamsun’s work which were modified by the direct encounter. But reality also prospered, having been rendered almost mythical because of my earlier visits there via literature. The same may be said of London and the Lake District, Paris, Madrid, Salamanca, Mexico City, Vienna, Florence, Macondo, and Damascus.

(That’s because we read literature not with our minds alone, or with our hearts, but with the soul.)

So that anxiety, the fear, the possibility—no, the certainty, of missing or misunderstanding references cultural, geographical, and historical—can be part of what pumps us with adrenaline, and drives us more eagerly into the mystery rather than what keeps us rooted, home, content to travel widely in Concord alone.

Besides, we are all translators, whether we cop to it or not.

Translation of one sort or another is something we do daily. All life is a carrying over, from one second to the next. Every one of us translates thousands of phenomena and experiences—traffic signals, seductive smiles, sirens and swan songs—into meaningful or suggestive information. Sometimes we mistranslate, of course. Those full lips weren’t smiling, they were smirking; we read them wrong because we don’t know the nuances of that particular face well enough.

While most of the work I’m categorizing here as translation is indeed accomplished automatically, habitually, with little conscious effort on our part to refine or revise our first impression, that familiarity is in fact a problem. Living by the numbers adds up to a subtraction, a thinning, an enervation of experience. The natural world we largely take for granted retains at least as many mysteries for most of us today as it did for our ancestors who weren’t as distracted by electronic chachkas as we are. I can almost imagine them hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, having developed skills for plumbing their more narrowly focused world. When Whitman asked “What is the grass?” he wasn’t merely being rhetorical, I’m sure. He knew any effort at an honest fulsome answer would lead us deep into the heart and life of things. Nanotechnology, harnessing realities at the molecular level, suggests our knowledge of matter remains in its infancy and in any case we’d surely profit from learning how to be better translators of our own environment and immediate moment. Some months back, I was walking along the Charles River in Cambridge near where I live. A sheet of ice covered the land and a membrane of it on the water helped turn that sunny day hot with reflected light. A few yards after I marched through a flock of geese nibbling the frosted grass, I came upon a solitary one blocking my path, staring at me. When I looked closer I saw in the blinding light that what stood before me wasn’t a goose but rather a fierce and haughty hawk I’d interrupted chewing on a rabbit. “The world,” wrote Mircea Eliade, “is nothing but language speaking to us by the mode of its existence, structures, and rhythm.”

Art of course is almost entirely a matter of translation. In music sonic stimuli are at their most obvious in pop melodies but when we read the following about Beethoven’s late great piano sonata, the “Hammerklavier” “(T)he distance and the hum-like character of the music represent deep grief. Soon the bass line of the choral-like texture gets stuck on c-sharp while the upper forces make lamented attempts to climb upwards. It is as if the c-sharp would keep them from gaining freedom . . .” we recognize how rarefied the art of translating music into words rapidly becomes . . .The translation of sound into the edifice of symbolic staff notation we take for granted today was itself formulated by a Benedictine monk, Guido D’Arezzo, only in the eleventh century.

Painting and the visual arts generally are, or rather, were until a century or so ago, less vulnerable to violent misunderstandings. Yet while the interpretations of, say, Parmigianino’s rendering of the Conversion of St. Paul may vary, depending on the taste, sophistication, and depth of field of the viewer—moreover, as we know painters have a personal vocabulary for discussing their art which often centers around musings over color, texture, and the physical or chemical properties of their materials—nevertheless, like most Renaissance painters, Parmigianino aimed to tell a specific story. And yet even translations of familiar stories vary widely—as we see if we compare Parmigianino’s version of the conversion (or translation) of Saint Paul to one by Breughel painted a century, and half a continent, away. You can’t miss Parmigianino’s narrative, but you’d be hard-pressed to discover Breughel’s, were it not for the painting’s title. But it was Breughel, as Auden reminded us, who observed that the old masters were never wrong about suffering, or about the way important, even profound, things happen in the course of an ordinary day while we’re looking elsewhere.

This gross visual example suggests by analogy just how radically an original can, some would say must, be transformed by its translator in order to feel vital and new.

Certainly the importance of a "good" translation is essential for a work to have the second life promised by the art. If the translation doesn't engage the reader in the new language, what will it have accomplished?

It's a question I've had to ask myself quite directly.  

A few years ago, I was sitting in the lobby of my hotel in Vienna huddling with my editor and translator, trying to figure out what to read in a few minutes. Invited to participate in the first Viennese Book Festival, I was in the embarrassing position of being practically the only writer present who spoke no German. “What about this passage,” I said to Martin Amanshauser, a highly regarded poet, novelist, journalist, and happily for me, my translator: “Oh maybe not,” he replied. “I’m not so pleased with that paragraph.” In fact Martin, a charming and casually brilliant man whose father was one of Austria’s leading writers, and a friend of one of my literary heroes, Thomas Bernhard, had by all accounts done an excellent job with my first book. It seems, however, that he and the co-translator on this project hadn’t seen eye to eye in all cases and were now barely speaking to each other. The moment clarified and personalized the immediate hazards of translation. I was of course aware of how complex the process was and how many things could go wrong—at so many different levels. A collaborative enterprise even when there’s just one original and one translator, how much more fraught it can become when two pairs of ears test the music of a foreign tongue against what they hear in their native language in order to produce their own renditions of the original.

Alistair Reid, the great translator of Neruda and Borges among others, has written beautifully about the art in an essay titled Basilisks’ Eggs: “Translators require the self-effacing disposition of saints; and, since a good translation is one in which a work appears to have been written and conceived in the language into which it is translated, good translators grow used to going unrewarded and unnoticed, except by a sharp-nosed troop of donnish reviewers (we call them ‘the translation police’) who seem to spend their reading lives on the lookout for errors.” Later in the essay he cites Nabokov’s observation that a bad novel is simply a blunder, but a bad translation is a crime. No one knew that better than that master criminal Nabokov himself who spent several years making Pushkin plod.

“I feel somewhat rueful about the whole question of translating between languages,” Reid continues. “Its mysterious nature can become something of an obsession, for each act of translation is an unprecedented exercise; yet it is an obsession shared by a minority of people who live and read in more than one language, or whose work requires them to function simultaneously on different linguistic planes—spies, displaced persons, the Swiss, international soccer referees, interpreters, travel guides, anthropologists, and explorers. Translators enjoy the status, more or less, of literary mechanics, reassembling texts from one language to function in another; and even if they do more than that, their work is likely to get them little more than a passing nod, if it is mentioned at all—understandably, for there can be only a very small body of readers capable of passing judgment on translations, and most of us are glad to have them at all.”

On the other hand, my own sense of the centrality of the translator’s role in the process was hammered home by my acquaintance some years back with the late William Arrowsmith. Arrowsmith had been editor of Oxford University Press’s 33-volumed Greek Tragedy in Translation series, as well as translator of the Italian poets Cesare Pavese and Eugenio Montale. I was preparing to publish several of his Italian translations in Agni and we’d sent him his galleys. The next day I got a testy single-spaced letter back from Arrowsmith taking me to task for listing him as the translator only in small type at the end of the poem. How dare I insult the translator’s profession in that way? How dare I treat his contribution so glibly? Didn’t I understand that the text I was publishing wouldn’t exist for me or my readers if he had not translated it? The genie would sleep forever in that cobalt Italian bottle, in the holes of the ossi di sepia. The translator was in fact like the guru in Tibetan Buddhism, who is to be treated as though he were the Buddha himself—after all, without him, what would you know?

We need only a few names—Cervantes, Tolstoy, Dickens, Flaubert, for instance, oh and yes of course, Chekhov!—to remind us of how profoundly international a form fiction is, how essential translation is to its full life. If I stretch the list out a bit to include the names of De Maupassant, so-called founder of the modern short story; Knut Hamsun, credited with pioneering the clipped journalistic prose Hemingway appropriated and made a kind of standard for American writers; and Borges, whose influence on postmodern fiction continues unabated three decades after his death, we quickly recognize that it’s useless to put up walls between literary cultures: the important news will find a way to slip through.

And it’s worth noting that every literary golden age was also a period of intense translation—that is, of intense dialogue across cultures. This surely has something to do with our recognition that art participates in the workings of this larger human spirit which no single tongue or border, no one vocabulary nor set of laws can limit or define.

Sometimes the “news” takes the form of a stylistic innovation. People became enamored of the polyglot group of fictioneers happily assembled in Paris in the fifties who went by the name of OULIPO. The members included the Frenchman Georges Perec, the American Harry Matthews, and the Italian Italo Calvino. It’s Calvino’s structural experiments and meditations which seem to have penetrated most deeply into American literary consciousness. But the precedent for pioneering work in other languages subsequently incorporated into English goes back to the first “novel,” Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Published in Spanish in 1605, it appeared in English translation as early as 1612. As Milan Kundera notes in Testaments Betrayed, the importance of the fiction pioneered by Cervantes is that it provides an arena for the development of an extra layer of self-awareness, for the sort of evolutionary self-conscious that has led us from the middle ages into the enlightenment, to wherever we happen to be—in this period when that mirror held up to our complex nature has been marginalized by new media.

So I quickly took that ardent translator and hero of translators everywhere, William Arrowsmith’s point. When a young writer cited his indifference to the writers of the past because “we know so much more than they do,” T.S. Eliot famously quipped, “And they are what we know.” There’s little doubt that fiction and poetry are both international forms: those foreign writers are what we know without knowing it when we sit down to do our own work.

Ever since then Agni has acknowledged the translator’s role by running pieces with a slash between the author’s and the translator’s name along the top of every page of the translation.

Another key attribute of translated work is that it carries across the values of another world, aesthetic and otherwise, which are often radically unlike our own. Entering the realm of the Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata feels like stepping under a waterfall and entering a cave where silence and slow time still reign. Rather than watching the same sock-hop repeated over and over, encountering a diamond-hard proposition that challenges our assumptions stimulates the creative spirit. In his essay “The Impact of Translation,” published more than twenty years ago (in 1988), Heaney courageously asserted that “poets in English have felt compelled to turn their gaze East and have been encouraged to concede that the locus of greatness is shifting away from their language.” By East, Heaney meant Eastern Europe, which is a lot closer west than it once was, because the translation of so many ideas, both good and bad, has remastered the geographical template. More specifically, he was speaking about reading a poem by CzesÅ�aw MiÅ�oszin the Pinsky-Hass translation which relied heavily on the use of abstractions and rhetoric in a way that had been out of fashion in English for over a century. I suspect Heaney felt inspired by the encounters to write such now canonical poems as “The Republic of Conscience.”

It’s important to note that there exists a hierarchy amid translated works that’s not unlike the socio-political power struggles endemic to the rest of the world. The Yugoslav (for there once was such a place) writer Danilo Kiš lamented that the incomprehension greeting a writer whose native language is Serbian is different from the incomprehension faced by a Russian writer whose work is almost automatically contextualized inside a lineage armed with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and, yes, Chekhov. “Domination by language,” Kiš wrote, “is as old as domination by arms . . . I believe that every work of value is an act of revolt against the writer’s own and only language.”

In literature as in life, geography is destiny. The poet born in Paris sees a different world than what meets the scribe of Kabul or Gaza. Yet one can with effort become if not a master of then at least a minister to one’s fate. Recognizing the limited horizons available to any one of us is the only antidote to solipsism, and offers a door out of our particular prison. This attitude of skepticism toward any idea of a national literature and culture must be maintained in all its complexity in a multicultural literary atmosphere such as ours, where it’s easy to think we’re reading against the nationalist grain because the writers we read are likely to include ones of Indian, Korean, Mexican and Latvian origin. If they’re in the U.S. and writing in English, they automatically become part of a certain branch of the family, and for all their differences we should not expect them to contain the whole of wisdom. For that we absolutely must read across cultures and borders.

One week some Decembers ago I took part in two memorials—the first was for Mahmoud Darwish and the second was for Grace Paley on her birthday. Now I can’t tell you how many students over years have told me Grace Paley is their model. Yet it came to me very clearly that Darwish and Paley had a lot more in common with each other than they did with people who might have claimed kinship ties based on ethnicity, language, and geography. Both recognized and lived out the vitalizing tension between art and a life of active commitment to humanist ideals. Some qualities translate very well indeed.

But old habits and attitudes are hard to change. Our self-absorption has deep roots. I was halfway through the Flaubert/Turgenev letters before I was struck by something—Turgenev was writing Flaubert in French, a feat Flaubert nowhere acknowledges. This happens over and over. Writers from Asia or Africa know our writers and we preen ourselves that this reflects well on the profundity of our culture. But that’s rather like thinking we’re clever because we’ve conned China into loaning us money. Surely the advantage lies with those who know our literature as well as their own. They are enriched by knowledge; we remain impoverished by our ignorance. I think that kind of arrogance was part of what Mr. Horace Engdahl of the Swedish Academy was incensed by. Turgenev even spent several months translating a few of Flaubert’s novellas—“St. Julian” and “Hérodias”—into Russian. The versions, incidentally, were criticized by Russian translation police for being too loose—which I take to mean they were good. (As a further sidebar, what you see in their correspondence is Turgenev’s rejection of Flaubert’s aestheticism, and the Russian’s assertion of faith in the primacy of life rather than of one of its products).

But to bring this sidebar to the center, I’d propose that a vivifying energy is exactly what sparks from the cross-cultural encounter. There are ideas in Pascal and Unamuno and Gandhi which might never occur in German or English—unless you are Henry David Thoreau. I am forever grateful to the Swiss philosopher and poet Hugo Ball for his remarkably lucid definition of two difficult words, culture and intellect. Asked, what is culture, Ball replied: “Interceding for the poorest and most humble among the people as if from them the noblest beings and the rich plenitude of heaven are to be born.” Intellect, meanwhile, is nothing other than “conscience applied to culture.” That changes things, doesn’t it? I for one never found the words defined this way in English.

English is the great language of measure, of specifics, of precision. Its rich vocabulary, harvested from all the world’s tongues as needed, is unparalleled in its capacity for naming. Such strengths have naturally been translated into a number of axiomatic aesthetic criteria that threaten to reduce the range of our art. Some time ago the former editor of the NYTBR published a piece about J.D. Salinger in which he dismissed Salinger’s ideas as dated and stressed that his strength lay in detailing. I suggest that’s off. While I agree that Salinger is a superb stylist, were that all Salinger offered, he would not have been himself. Part of what remains fresh about his work is the way the Glass children revel in culture, ideas, and a blunt yet amusing discussion of values at the same time as the fixtures of their world are rendered credible and vivid in Salinger’s exacting diction and elegantly muscular, even playful syntax. Many of his ideas, incidentally, involved translated hermetic religious texts such as The Way of the Pilgrim—the influence of translation is everywhere apparent in the later books of this most American of writers. We grow insular when we remain attached to the specific effects of our mother tongue only, and cease testing its limits.

In fact I want to suggest that there are few literary pleasures more exhilarating than the ones we experience when we step outside the ghetto of our native tongue. I especially recommend the revelations of reading criticism of English language literature by informed writers not spellbound by the felicities of sound: Borges on late Joyce, Kiš on Nabokov, und so weiter. And it’s fascinating to discover what from our literature gets translated, what matters to different cultures. In Kyiv I sat riveted on a rainy October afternoon as three Ukrainian scholars—young women in their late twenties—delivered thoughtful papers in wobbly English—but in English, in Kyiv, Ukraine—about Jamaica Kincaid, Alice Walker, and Rita Dove. Afro-Am lit is—or ten years ago, was—hugely popular in Ukraine partly, I think, because serfdom was abolished there around the same time as our Civil War, in 1861 in fact, and there’s a feeling of recognition and curiosity about American reflections on their comparable experience. What better way to discover what is not lost in translation, or to hear how someone not wooed or wowed by its native music responds to the transposition of harmonies? This doesn’t always play to a writer’s strength as I know from the unpleasant experience of being chided—so I’ve been told—by one German critic for holding “communist sympathies.” But what of the nuanced beauty of the language, I wanted to plead in pathetic self-defense!

Eternal vigilance is the price of democracy and translation. I once received an aggrieved e-mail from a major émigré poet in New Jersey who read an essay I’d delivered in English in Kyiv some years ago but which had just appeared, translated, in a Ukrainian journal. I had checked the galleys for it myself. “You’ve rendered my life’s work meaningless,” he lamented. “What?” I asked. “Yes, you wrote that the United States has been deceived by the diasporans.” “No way.” I looked at the journal, and yes, in the penultimate paragraph, there it was: the words “made up of”—as in “comprised” had been misunderstood and translated to mean exactly the opposite of what I was trying to say, as I assured my distraught friend.

And yet the journey is well worth the hazardous passage.

Happily, the self-congratulatory era of Western cultural evolution seems to be ending—something Samuel Huntington, who died recently after giving the twenty-first century its first unfortunate catchphrase, “the clash of civilizations,” perhaps did not wish to live to see. But it is rather “the waltz of cultures” we want to speed up. Cultural change always appears excruciatingly slow to arrive and then one day everyone’s talking about . . . who else but some contemporary Chekhov—whether his name is García Márquez or Roberto Bolaño. The next Milan Kundera writing the history of the novel is not likely to be quite so Western-centric as Kundera was: we are only slowly (because reading takes time, and understanding still more) beginning to discover the literatures of the Middle East, Asia, Africa and all we don’t know. I’ve no doubt that hybrids and syntheses of unimaginable brilliance await us.

Copyright 2010 by Askold Melnyczuk. All rights reserved.

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