Skip to content

Dispatches: Merely Literary?

By Ana María Correa


At The Reading Experience this past December, Dan Green defended the way in which he reads to analyze literature for its aesthetic aspects and “to open up the text in order to make its palpable qualities more accessible.” His declaration is clear and forthright:

The formal and stylistic accomplishments of fiction especially are frequently dismissed as “merely literary.” My perspective on literature has become a minority view, but just because this approach to literature and criticism has become unfashionable does not make it therefore wrong. I don’t know if some form of aesthetic analysis will again become more acceptable, but even if it doesn’t, I still intend to speak up as one of its proponents.

Interestingly, what he describes is a matter of paramount importance to literary translation. Aside from conveying the content of a work, good translators pay attention to aesthetics, style, and how the work’s effect is achieved. This goes beyond the typical considerations of “narrative” and “point of view.” Elements such as metaphor, ambiguity, rhythm, alliteration, repetition, and iconicity are not simply aspects of poetry but of poetics, and are inherent to prose as well. Literary texts consist of interlocking aesthetic systems that translators must analyze in order to work towards target versions that avoid misrepresentations of the original text (as there is no such thing as a “perfect translation”). I think this is one of the main reasons I’m fascinated by translation and chose to study it in the first place: close reading and literary analysis are fundamental aspects of literary translation.

Susan Bassnett discusses this at length in Translation Studies, her first example being an English translation of the opening passage of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain:

“An unassuming young man was travelling in midsummer, from his native city of Hamburg to Davos-Platz in the Canton of Grisons, on a three weeks’ visit.

“From Hamburg to Davos is a long journey—too long, indeed, for so brief a stay. It crosses all sorts of country; goes up hill and down dale, descends from the plateaus of Southern Germany to the shores of Lake Constance, over its bounding waves and on across marshes once thought to be bottomless.”

Bassnett describes how this “fast-moving, energetic passage, consisting of three sentences with four verbs of action and movement pulls the reader straight into the narrative,” but exposes the problems of this version in comparing it to the original German:

“Ein einfacher junger Mensch reiste im Hochsommer von Hamburg, seiner Vaterstadt, nach Davos-Platz im Graubuendischen. Er fuhr auf Besuch fuer drei Wochen.

“Von Hamburg bis dorthinauf, das ist aber eine weite Reise; zu weit eigentlich im Verhaeltnis zu einem so kurzen Aufenthalt. Es geht durch mehrerer Herren Laender, bergauf und bergab, von der sueddeutschen Hochebene hinunter zum Gestade des Schwaebischen Meeres und zu Schiff ueber seine springende Wellen hin, dahin ueber Schluende, die frueher fuer unergruendlich galten.”

She explains how “the reader is given a series of clues that key him in to some of the codes operating through the novel” and that Mann’s text is “not restricted within the boundaries imposed by the realist world”:

The journey depicted in the first few sentences is therefore functioning on more than one level: there is the young man’s actual journey; the symbolic journey across a nation; the journey as a metaphor for the quest on which the reader is about to embark. Moreover, in Mann’s description of the journey there are deliberate devices (e.g. the use of the classical term Gestade for shore) recalling eighteenth-century modes, for another major line through the novel is an attempt to bring together two stylistic modes, the lyrical and the prosaic. The English translator’s compression of Mann’s sentence structure reduces the number of levels on which the reader can approach the text, for clearly the translator’s prime concern has been to create a sense of rapid movement. [...] The stylized terms describing places have been replaced by straightforward, geographical names and the stately language of Mann’s text has been replaced with a series of cliches in a conversational account of an overly long journey.

There are also other variations. The introduction of the protagonist in Mann’s first sentence in such deliberately decharacterized terms is yet another key to the reader, but by translating einfacher (ordinary) as unassuming, the English translator introduces a powerful element of characterization and alters the reader’s perspective.

Overkill? I don’t think so. Literary texts very often work on multiple levels, and to specify or remove any ambiguity in a target text does a disservice to the reader (nevermind the original!).

Bassnett also states that

if the translator of Mann had considered the function of the description of both the young man and the journey, she would have understood the reasons for Mann’s choice of language. Every prime text is made up of a series of interlocking systems, each of which as a determinable function in relation to the whole, and it is the task of the translator to apprehend these functions.

I think this is an intriguing and marvelous challenge. Analyzing what makes a literary text tick is essential to rendering it in another language.

In her excellent book The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction, Suzanne Jill Levine cites E. Rodriguez Monegal’s Borges: A Literary Biography:

“To write about translation is to write about one of writing’s most conscious operations, the one that lays open the function of writing as a manipulation of words and not of realities.”

She later writes,

Exposing the poetics of prose translation and the prose translator’s role as creative writer and literary critic can provide invaluable insights, for translation is the most concrete form of the interpretive act performed by all readers, scholars, and teachers of foreign literatures.

Literary translators simply could not do what they do without analyzing the aesthetics of a text. Those who unfavorably criticize the “merely literary” would do well to spend more time reading and listening to what translators have to say about how they approach literary texts.

Published Feb 20, 2009   Copyright 2009 Ana María Correa

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.