The theme of our fourth anniversary event in New York was ‘Why Retranslate the Classics?,’ and three leading figures in contemporary translation—Edith Grossman, Susan Bernofsky, and Damion Searls—shared their perspectives with us, speaking eloquently and insightfully on their different approaches to retranslating some of the greatest works in European literature.
Columbia University’s Director of Literary Translation Susan Bernofsky started things off, addressing the topic of retranslation by saying that one should take it on when “you have something to say about a text that hasn’t been said before.” She then recalled the formative experience that inspired her to translate–reading Siddhartha at the age of 14—and how, when returning to Hesse’s novel as a translator, she had been transported back to her younger self, feeling the essence of the text as “a statement and meditation on promise and dreams, and a hope for the future.” Thus, retaining this sense of harmony and balance is crucial to a faithful translation. Later, after giving a beautiful reading of a favorite passage from her own translation of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Bernofsky highlighted the way her translation slowed down the action in order to depict the “dramatic horribleness,” and to be as “gruesome as possible.” Despite this, she described her fondness for Kafka’s “bittersweet comedy,” and the importance of translation to capturing Gregor’s melodramatic nature.
Next up was the inimitable Edith Grossman, translator of Cervantes, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa and many more. “I tend to translate intuitively (…) not in linguistic terms,” she explained, and she went on to speak with deep passion and humor about her current project: translating Cervantes’ novellas. Like Bernofsky, Grossman presented a personal approach to translation—one that focuses on the metaphors and imagery of a text without getting bogged down by the context. Speaking about another project—a translation of Luis de Góngora’s Solitudes—she explained how this process was complicated by the many obscure mythological references. In fact, before reading from Solitudes, she described it as “the most difficult poem ever written, in the world.” Recognizing the challenges it might pose to a listener, Grossman read aloud the text’s footnotes as a way of prefacing each section, thereby offering listeners a deeper level of understanding and appreciation.
Last but not least was writer and translator Damion Searls, who has translated Proust, Rilke, Walser, and many others. Searls began by quoting Proust, who, in the foreword to his translation of Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies, said “you never get to know anybody by talking to them once.” What a lovely analogy for translation! Following Proust’s advice, he then drew our attention to what emerges when we place different translations side by side. Using three translations of a Rilke poem—one from Stephen Mitchell, another from Edward Snow, and one from Searls himself—he highlighted the comment elements and, perhaps most importantly, the small differences that change an entire translation. Offering another great analogy, Searls spoke of the importance of bringing texts into a more contemporary light through retranslation, and that to retranslate is to “paint another portrait” of that text. Later, when addressing the issue of retranslation specifically, he commented, “sometimes you retranslate to fix something.” All the more reason to support the retranslation of classic literature!
During the subsequent panel discussion, Director of Outreach Tara FitzGerald restated the central question: why should we retranslate? Grossman suggested that “works of literature don’t age but translations do,” and that a text requires a retranslation every 40 or so years to keep it alive. Bernofsky pointed to the way that our ideas about what translation should do have changed––e.g., from rewriting to paraphrasing––and that it’s interesting to consider the future of translation. Finally, Searls described how he is “moved to do retranslations if I read something in the original that other translations aren’t getting.”
The presence of so many Asymptote supporters in the audience only added to the evening’s success. (But don’t fret if you couldn’t make it: we have autographed copies of Susan Bernofsky’s translation of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days available as a perk for our campaign!) On a night devoted to revisiting classic literary works, we enjoyed seeing familiar faces and meeting new ones as we continue to expand a global literary community—one where, as our map illustrates, there are always plenty of literary destinations to (re)visit!
Photos from our New York event are available to view here.
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