New York Times Article on Writing as Translation (Translation as Writing?)

There is a truly great article in the New York Times about the role of the translator and translation (in several, some surprising, guises). Michael Cunningham the author of “The Hours” and, most recently, “By Nightfall” uses his experience and a graceful examination of the translation of one line(!) from Moby Dick to illuminate some of the issues that translators and authors face. His essential point is simple:

I’ve come to understand that all literature is a product of translation. That is, translation is not merely a job assigned to a translator expert in a foreign language, but a long, complex and even profound series of transformations that involve the writer and reader as well. “Translation” as a human act is, like so many human acts, a far more complicated proposition than it may initially seem to be.

"Ground Control to Major Tom..."

This is interesting enough a claim likely to be met with some skepticism in the West, where writing and reading are seen as solitary endeavors. Still, it seems right in at least one way, as a reader, solo or not, is certainly “translating” in some sense the work of the author. This, for instance, is why many readers like “The Buckwheat Seasons” by Yi Hyo-Sok and I strongly dislike it. My reader’s translation takes place through a prism that has certain characteristics. First, there is a set of certain genres that I recognize and like. Buckwheat Seasons is in none of these genres, in fact if I had to give Buckwheat Seasons a genre I’d have to make one up, bucolic shaggy dog tale, or retreat to something entirely generic like “fiction.” Second, I generally like my fiction to go somewhere. Buckwheat meanders around a central premise that is never expressed, really examined, or concluded. Finally, I don’t have much sentimental feeling for buckwheat.

Authors, similarly, are translating the world into text and, surprise, often do not work alone. Kim Young-ha’s “Your Republic is Calling You,” is substantially based on the tales of ex-spies, tales they were paid to tell him. Who is the author here? Kim Young-ha gets the residual checks for this excellent work, but isn’t he really just translating the story of the North Korean?

And what of the role of the editor? In an excellent discussion of the The Myth of the Lone Genius, including authors, take a look at the Slate series on collaboration in which Joshua Wolf Shenk notes:

To illustrate the consistently hidden partner with an obvious example: Book editors don’t put their names on covers. Their reputation largely depends on authors—who can be notoriously ungrateful and committed to the idea of their solitary genius. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road sat on slush piles all around Manhattan until Malcolm Cowley, then an editor at Viking, undertook the laborious effort (literary, political, emotional) of shaping it for publication. But afterward, Kerouac and the Beats portrayed Cowley as a villain who muddied the famous unbroken typescript, which they claimed was powered by Benzedrine and holy light.

Even when a creative partnership is inescapable, principals may resist acknowledging its influence. Maxwell Perkins, the great editor who discovered and shaped the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, also made magic with Thomas Wolfe. Their collaboration made Wolfe’s sprawling manuscripts into the epic novels Look Homeward Angel and Of Time and the River.

At first, Wolfe praised his partner, comparing his role in Of Time and the River to “a man who is trying to hang onto the fin of a plunging whale.” Maxwell’s tenacity, Wolfe said, gave him his “final release.” The irony is that just such exuberant acknowledgments helped fuel a major critic’s charge, in the Saturday Review, that the author’s “incompleteness” could be seen in “the most flagrant evidence” that “one indispensable part of the artist has existed not in Mr. Wolfe but in Maxwell Perkins.”

Then, Cunningham goes on to talk about the role of translation in making the literary experience right. He begins with Moby Dick and asks:

“Call me Ishmael.” Three simple words. What’s the big deal?

He answers his own question..

For one thing, they possess that most fundamental but elusive of all writerly qualities: authority. As writers we must, from our very opening sentence, speak with authority to our readers.

Cunningham notes that these words have something important beyond authority:

They have music.

Listen to the vowel sounds: ah, ee, soft i, aa. Four of them, each different, and each a soft, soothing note. Listen too to the way the line is bracketed by consonants. We open with the hard c, hit the l at the end of “call,” and then, in a lovely act of symmetry, hit the l at the end of “Ishmael.” “Call me Arthur” or “Call me Bob” are adequate but not, for musical reasons, as satisfying.

Most readers, of course, wouldn’t be able to tell you that they respond to those three words because they are soothing and symmetrical, but most readers register the fact unconsciously.

Then he introduces us to an Italian translation:

“Chiamami Ismaele.”

That is the Italian version of Melville’s line, and the translator has done a nice job. I can tell you, as a reader who doesn’t speak Italian, that those two words do in fact sound like something, independent of their meaning. Although different from the English, we have a new, equally lovely progression of vowel sounds — ee-a, ah, ee, a, ee — and those three m’s, nicely spaced.
If you’re translating “Moby-Dick,” that’s one sentence down, approximately a million more to go.

Cunningham concludes by encouraging potential translators to do what they must to his own work, but his general arguments are also powerful. ALL communication is translation, this is a given in communication theory, and this makes me wonder about the relative marginalization of translators, and the sometimes cavalier approach that authors and translation institutions have towards their work. It seems intuitive that translators should be the key decision-makers in transmitting messages across languages, and this raises the question of why the current translation structure is composed as it is.