Late last year, Benjamin Moser’s critical NYT review of Kate Briggs’s This Little Art occasioned a rousing debate in the literary translation community about the nature of translation quality and criticism. The review prompted a scathing letter to the editor from a group of translation heavyweights, including Susan Bernofsky and Lawrence Venuti. Tim Parks weighed in with an NYR Daily piece, “Why Translation Deserves Scrutiny,” which outlined some challenges of criticizing translation and defended the effort.
In this conversation, Parks elaborates on the role of the translation critic, clarifies his notion of mistakes, and explains how translation theory affects his criticism. Raucous debates about quality and criticism have characterized conversations about translation for centuries. The conversation continues here.
Allison Braden (AB): At a translation conference, I heard a panelist argue that mistakes in translation, as long as they don’t significantly impede the author’s message, are irrelevant. He then went on to say that he tries to avoid making mistakes as much as possible. Later, an audience member argued that as her career as a translator has progressed, she’s found herself making more “mistakes,” because of the increased latitude that experience affords. For a group that would seem to value semantic precision, there appears to be an alarming blurriness around the notion of mistakes versus agency. How do you conceive of the relationship between the two?
Tim Parks (TP): A literary text comes alive when a reader can bring to it the kind of competence and cultural reference that gives sense to the words. Since a translator is someone who reads a foreign text for those of us who can’t read it directly ourselves, we hope that he or she is such a reader and has that competence and knowledge. Of course becoming a deep and accurate reader in a language that is not your mother tongue is not an easy proposition. Almost all of us have our lacunae. So there are going to be times when the translator misses something, doesn’t recognize that a certain phrase is an idiom, doesn’t realize that in a certain context this or that word can have an unusual connotation; then when they write down their version we have a mistake. The importance of the mistake will depend on its place in the text and the kind of text it is. It may indeed be irrelevant or minor. But equally it may be crucial. Or frequent small mistakes may eventually amount to an overall difference in tone or feeling. Whatever the case, mistakes—and I can’t see one can call them anything but that—are hardly desirable.
Returning though to the “blurriness” you observe in regard to what is hardly a difficult question, one can’t help feeling it arises from a sense of vulnerability about the translator’s competence in the source language. There is a tendency these days to suggest that you only need have a basic grip on a foreign language and a neat turn of phrase in your English and you can translate successfully, even win prizes. Or that it’s enough to do an MA in Translation Studies. But language is a rich feast and literature exploits and intensifies that richness. We love a fine piece of writing for the abundance of allusion and wit and suggestion it conjures up, and the feeling that when we read it again we will find more. It’s not easy to arrive at the kind of second-language competence where one genuinely gets all this, or even most of it. So some translators are understandably defensive or vague.
AB: In “Why Translation Deserves Scrutiny,” you posed a lot of questions about what a review of a translation should look like. What answers have you come to?
TP: I suppose the first question is, are we reviewing the book or the translation? If you’ve been commissioned to review the book and don’t know the original language, what can you do but offer some comment on the meshing of style and content, the evenness of the writing and so on, the pleasure or otherwise of reading it. Really, you shouldn’t be offering any emphatic statement, negative or positive, about the nature of the translation if you don’t know the original. Just as I don’t think juries should be handing out translation prizes when they don’t know the original languages and don’t check the translations at least here and there against the original.
It’s a whole other problem when you’re asked to comment on, say, a re-translation of a classic work from a language you know, particularly if you find a whole raft of embarrassing mistakes, and even more so if translation has been lavishly praised by folks with famous names in order to provide promotional blurbs. This was the situation with a major retranslation from the Italian that I recently reviewed in an American magazine. There were many, many mistakes, some of them crucial in altering the sense of the text, and none of them, funnily enough, present in the earlier translation of the same work. It really is hard to know what to say in these cases, since one doesn’t want to fall out with the publishers who have taken a brave decision to invest in a retranslation, and one nevertheless wants people to read the book, which is a good book despite the shortcomings of the translation. On the other hand, there’s a duty of honesty, otherwise why is one reviewing at all? Certainly I don’t think you do the literary world any favors covering these things up.
AB: You’ve written that “traditional critical analysis, however brilliant, however much it may help us to understand a novel, rarely alters the color of our initial response.” For you, what is the primary purpose of criticism? Does that purpose differ for criticism of translation?
TP: In that discussion I was suggesting that our response to a novel or poem has an element of the automatic or compulsive about it; we don’t “decide” to like things. We like them or we don’t, they do or don’t fit with our vision of life and our sense of what a book should be. However, criticism can then shift our opinion. Perhaps we read a novel from centuries ago that seems fussy and bewildering, and then a critic reconstructs some context which now makes everything clear. We begin to see why it is like it is, we are excited to have learned something, and we engage differently with it. We also respond to the critic’s engagement. We understand our position in relation to the book in contrast to his, or hers, and hence our position in relation to the critic. This is useful for an awareness of ourselves and others. Generally, a good book can only gain by knowing more about it, having more context to understand it. And vice versa with a poor book. The more you understand the worse it seems.
Translation criticism is rather different. The only translation criticism that really interests me is the kind that sets out from a deep understanding of the original work to explore how the translation has dealt with that. Or that uses the tension between the translation and the original to understand the original better and reflect perhaps on the status of its translation in our own language. A translation criticism that simply counts mistakes, or applauds fluency, is hardly interesting.
AB: I can imagine that criticism of a translation might call into question—or seem to invalidate—the reader’s initial response to the work by suggesting that they don’t know enough to respond appropriately. Yet critics of any medium are valued for their expertise. How does the dynamic between critic and reader change in the case of translation? Does that dynamic influence how you approach the task?
TP: I couldn’t agree more with your initial statement. As for the rest, all I can say is that we should approach criticism with an open mind, ready to have our opinion on this or that book shift, excited even by the idea that we will grow to love it more, or perhaps be freed from our attraction to it. Attaching ourselves to first impressions, pet loves, and pet hates is infantile. Which doesn’t mean we have to agree with every criticism. And critics too should avoid just having an axe to grind. Part of the fun for the reader of criticism is assessing the critic’s disposition. It’s all about our putting ourselves in relation to each other, meeting each other through writing.
Naturally, when I write a criticism of a translation from the Italian I bring to it more knowledge than most of my readers will, having spent my life in Italy, teaching translation, translating myself, and writing. One tries not to make that a burden to others and to avoid setting oneself up as the ultimate authority. On the other hand, I love it when a piece of criticism explains to me how this or that translation from a language I don’t know relates to the original text. We should all treasure expertise when we find it. This is the task of literary journals, to offer their readers the experience of people who’ve spent time thinking about a subject and are competent in it. Not opinions and ideologies.
AB: Online book culture and reviews, in general, have been criticized for being “too nice,” in part because of the community’s insularity. Some critics have argued that they prefer to call attention to worthwhile, rather than subpar, work. Provided critics have a choice in what they review, is that argument convincing to you?
TP: In recent years and in Anglo-Saxon countries in particular, translation has become attached to a certain political stance. Translation is seen, in some broad sense, as morally good. Hence it has to be defended even when done badly. Speaking at the conference of American Literary Translators in 2017, I was asked by a member of PEN who was upset by some article or other I had written, whether I didn’t feel that I had a duty to promote translations tout court, avoiding criticism of this or that translation so as not to damage the image of translation overall. My answer was no. There is no imperative to promote translation regardless of its quality. Or anything else. We are talking about literature, what we think about it, how it was made, how it works, how it has been translated. And we want to talk honestly. The last thing we need is to become repositories of inconvenient information that we do not feel should be passed on.
AB: The idea of quality in translation has been debated since the dawn of time. Does the mountain of theory on the topic weigh on you as a critic? Has theory informed or significantly altered your critical approach?
TP: Last year I taught a post-grad course on translation theory from the earliest times to the present day, which meant going back and rereading a lot of stuff. I found it fascinating and extremely valuable, if not always immediately practical. One sees in particular how approaches to translation change with the overarching ideologies or beliefs that characterize a time or culture. Let me offer a couple of quotations I found pertinent, that remind you what’s at stake. Here’s Leonardo Bruni, responding to criticism that he has been too hard on a translation, and reminding us why we should care:
Now I admit that I was rather more heated in my criticism than I ought to have been, but the reason was my sense of indignation. It gave me real pain, anguish even, to see books that in Greek were filled with elegance, delight, and a certain fathomless beauty, defiled and disfigured in Latin by the worst sort of translationese.
Translation matters to Bruni, that’s why he criticizes it. The quality of the text is more important than the ruffled feathers of the translator. Or again, here’s Dryden reflecting on different types of translation, in this case “imitation” where one freely sacrifices semantic correspondence for style:
To state it fairly; imitation of an author is the most advantageous way for a translator to show himself, but the greatest wrong which can be done to the memory and reputation of the dead.
I love coming across these observations. But of course they were written by experienced translators who wanted to express the sum of years of reflection.
AB: What advice do you have for monolingual readers who want to be more attuned to translation while reading? Is it possible to be more critically aware of translation quality without recourse to the original?
TP: Just to be aware that it is translated, that the text has been mediated by someone who has read the original and done their best to write what they understood, inevitably coloring the writing with their own particular view. Rather than developing some special antenna for translation, we might all do well simply to read more attentively in general, to be as aware as possible of what is there before us on the page. So often we read what we want to find and a great deal passes us by.
AB: Finally, on the topics of the translation critic’s role or mistakes versus agency, what’s the most interesting aspect I haven’t asked about?
TP: Mistakes are not interesting and it would be wonderful never to find them and never to have to mention them. Far more interesting is to find two or more accurate, thoughtful translations of the same piece of literature and savor their difference, from each other and the original. One could call that difference their agency, or simply the result of their desire to be true to their experience reading the original. In any event, different translations remind us how a book exists only when read, and that each individual reading is different. So translation helps us to appreciate that literature is something writers and readers can only do together.
Tim Parks is a novelist, essayist, travel writer and translator based in Italy. He is the author of sixteen novels and has translated works by Moravia, Calvino, Calasso, Tabucchi, Machiavelli, and Leopardi. His critical work includes the essay collection Where I’m Reading From: The Changing World of Books and The Novel: A Survival Skill. In Translating Style: A Literary Approach to Translation – A Translation Approach to Literature he goes to the heart of literary translation issues with pragmatic explorations of Italian translations of the English modernists. A new collection of essays will be published in May under the title Pen in Hand: Reading, Rereading and other Mysteries.
Allison Braden is a journalist and translator based—for now—in Bariloche, Argentina. Her work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Columbia Journalism Review, and Spanish and Portuguese Review, among others. She also serves as editorial assistant for the journal Translation & Interpreting Studies.
Photo credit: Martin Figura
Read more interviews on the Asymptote Blog:
- Taking Up the Translator’s Baton: An Interview with David Colmer
- The Multilingual Carpathians: Weronika Gogola in Conversation
- Meet the Publisher: Feminist Press’ Lauren Rosemary Hook on Feminist Writing in Translation