Article: Can a Translation Be a Masterpiece, Too?

Do the beliefs we hold about literature add up to something consistent and coherent? Or are they little more than random pieties? Take two crucial notions I heard repeatedly last year. First, that in a fine work of literature, every word counts, perfection has been achieved, nothing can be moved—a claim I’ve seen made for writers as prolix (and diverse) as Victor Hugo and Jonathan Franzen. Second, that translators are creative artists in their own right, co-authoring the text they translate, a fine translation being as unique and important as the original work. Mark Polizzotti makes this claim in Sympathy for the Traitor (2018), but any number of scholars in the field of Translation Studies would agree.


Can these two positions be reconciled? Doesn’t translating a work of literature inevitably involve moving things around and altering many of the relations between the words in the original? In which case, either the original’s alleged perfection has been overstated, or the translation is indeed, as pessimists have often supposed, a fine but somewhat flawed copy. Unless, that is, we are going to think of a translation as a quite different work with its own inner logic and inspiration, only casually related to that foreign original. In which case, English readers will be obliged to wonder whether they have ever read Tolstoy, Proust, or Mann, and not, rather, Constance Burnett, C.K. Scott Moncrieff, or Helen Lowe-Porter. Or more recently, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, or Lydia Davis or Michael Henry Heim.


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