In a recent post at his Sentences blog, Wyatt Mason examines a passage from Robert Chandler's translation of Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate and enthuses over its wonders. Although Mason acknowledges that it is a translation, and rightly notes that without it we who have no Russian would have no access to Grossman's writing at all, still, I am reluctant to myself conclude definitively that the quoted passage has precisely the qualities that Mason otherwise ably explicates. Indeed it is a translation, and it is possible the translator has actually improved it in its transformation into English, or made it worse, or in some other way failed to adequately render the original in a way that would dupicate the Russian reader's experience of Grossman's text.
This is not to say that the passage does not have the qualities Mason describes, and certainly not that Chandler's translation is ultimately a failure. I have no way of knowing whether it succeeds or not, and while I am usually willing to take the word of a critic proficient in another language that a given translation is acceptable or not, I am not thereby sufficiently emboldened to approach the text as a critic in the same way I am willing to work with a text written in English. Since I am a critic still attached to "close reading," to examining a work for its stylistic felicities and its formal characteristics, the awareness that with a translated text I am at best confronting it in a second-hand version is enough to warn me away from making any confident assertions about it.
Which is why I concentrate as a critic mostly on fiction written in English, even more specifically on American fiction since I feel most able to engage with texts composed in American English (and also with the cultural realities often underlying American language conventions). In a sense I feel I am only capable of making specifically literary judgments on works in English, although I'm relatively certain the kinds of judgments I might make vis-a-vis American fiction are also relevant to fiction written in other languages. I just can't get close enough to such texts to be sure. There are times when the formal invention in an other-language work is evident enough that I can point it out with some confidence my critical eye is appropriately focused--most recently this happened with Magdalena Tulli's Flaw--but generally I stay away from making pronouncements on texts that in a sense I have not really been able to read in their native state.
I recognize that there are some critics fluent enough in second or third languages that they are perfectly reliable close readers of both English-language texts and of literary works in other languages. Unfortunately, the Spanish and French I learned well enough to pass a proficiency exam in graduate school are not good enough to allow me to pretend to read works in those languages other than in translation. This is probably a kind of self-imposed limitation on my range as a critic, but on the other hand I do feel that by restricting my critical commentary to (mostly) American fiction, I am able both to anchor my comments more firmly, and more deeply, in a particular literary tradition and its distinctive practices and to provide a context within which new works can be profitably read. It allows me to, perhaps, speak with somewhat more authority about American writers and writing by demonstrating a familiarity with the enabling assumptions, including assumptions about language, that have characterized American fiction over the long run.
I certainly don't want to imply that translations perform no useful service or that we in the United States need fewer, rather than more, of them. It's a scandal that so comparatively few translated works are made available to American readers and that so comparatively few of those readers seem to be demanding them. Translations allow us an important, if ultimately somewhat cloudy, window on the literary practices of the rest of the world, practices from which both readers and writers can and must learn. But given the haphazard way in which translations come to us (without much useful information about why this writer has been translated or why that writer is important), as well as my professed limitations as a reader of translations, I expect to continue emphasizing them on this blog only periodically.
Most of the reviews of Adam Thirlwell's The Delighted States (including the British reviews of the book under its original title of Miss Herbert) concentrated on its idiosyncratic structure and unceremonious tone (idiosyncratic and unceremonious for a work of literary criticism, at any rate). Reviewers seemed to find both annoying distractions from the occasional critical insight Thirlwell offers, and their reservations about Thirlwell as a critic were generally confined to these admittedly unorthodox features of his book.
While it is true that the central argument Thirlwell wants to make in The Delighted States could probably have been made in a much shorter book, perhaps even in a critical essay, I can't say I found either Thirlwell's circuitous method of analysis, which proceeds both back and forth across time and national literatures and sideways from author to author (at times providing unusual and surprising juxtapositions), or his conversational style particularly bothersome. I take the travelogue approach to be Thirlwell's attempt to reinforce the book's overriding point--that fiction in effect speaks an international language that manages to survive its migration through translation from one literary tradition to another--in the form his book assumes, and it is an effective enough device. It might not be the sort of method one expects from a work of serious literary criticism, but there is no inherent reason criticism can't accomodate such an alternative strategy.
Further, both the looser, more informal structure and the reader-friendly critical language Thirlwell employs seem to me to work to accomplish one of criticism's legitimate tasks, which is to explicate features of literary works that are not necessarily obvious to all readers, that require the critic to call attention to them as evocatively as possible. In The Delighted States, Thirlwell is making a case for the efficacy of translation that calls for numerous and at times subtle comparisons and analogies, and his manner of leading the reader along his route of unexpected congruences, pointing out the connections more as an enthusiastic guide than as a source of critical pronouncements, is a perfectly sound way to proceed. If the test of a worthwhile critic is whether his reader is able to regard an author. a text, or literary history with enhanced understanding, then Thirlwell passes this test readily enough.
Something that may have contributed to reviewers' lack of enthusiasm for The Delighted States is Thirlwell's emphasis on innovation in fiction, a preference that consistently informs his survey of literary influence and the role of translation in the evolution of fiction as a form. Along with his related emphasis on form (which he often conflates with "style"), Thirwell's focus on aesthetic innovation must have grated on the sensibilities of mainstream reviewers, who generally look askance at innovation as manifested in contemporary fiction and mostly ignore form in favor of what a work of fiction has "to say" (when they're not simply judging it for its superficial entertainment value, its success or failure at being a "good read"). For me, that Thirlwell's book illustrates the extent to which the history of fiction is the history of inspired change is its greatest virtue, but for some of its reviewers its own unconventional form as literary criticism may have only reminded them of Thirwell's implicit defense of the role of the unconventional in literary history.
None of the book's reviewers, however, chose to examine what to me is its most problematic claim--or, as it turns out, series of claims. In his commitment to the idea that all works of fiction are translatable, even down to a particular writer's distinctive "style," Thirlwell makes the following observations:
. . .A style may be as large as the length of a book. Its units may well be moe massive, and more vague, than I would often like.
A style, in the end, is a list of the methods by which a novelist achieves various effects. As such, it can seem endless.
In fact, it can become something which is finally not linguistic at all. For the way in which a novelist represents life depends on what a novelist thinks is there in a life to be represented. A style is therefore as much a quirk of emotion, or of theological belief, as it is a quirk of language.
A style does not entirely coincide with prose style, or formal construction, or technique. (20)
In order to maintain his position that fiction can be translated without appreciable dimunition in the integrity of the translated text, Thirlwell needs to minimize the obstacles posed by "style" understood as a writer's characteristic exploration of the resources of his/her native language. One way to do that would be simply to dismiss the importance of style in comparison to all of the other elements of fiction that could well come through in a good translation without loss of effect. To his credit, Thirlwell does not do this; instead, he radically expands the meaning of "style" so that it includes. . .well, just about everything: It is "a list of the methods by which a novelist achieves various effects. As such, it can seem endless."
But, of course, if style is everything, so "various" as to be "endless" in its features, it is actually nothing. Thirlwell in fact deprives it of its one materially definable quality when he asserts that it might be "something which is not linguistic at all." This notion, that style is not fundamentally a phenomenon of language, recurs throughout Thirlwell's discussions of his international (although primarily British and European) cast of writers, even of those writers, such as Flaubert or Chekhov, known for their attention to "linguistic" style. He picks up on Marcel Proust's comment about style as "quality of vision" and uses this phrase as a kind of summary concept encapsulating his definition of style in ist most "massive" incarnation. What persists in a translation, then, is this quality of vision, which in its grand scope dwarfs mere facility with language.
I confess I don't finally understand the need for this erasure of style in its tangible, most coherent form. However much it grasps metaphorically at a less tangible if still apprehensible object of our experience of fiction, to speak of "quality of vision" does not adequately account for the concrete achievements of writers as stylists. However much I value Flaubert's "quality of vision" (which is a lot), it just seems to me manifestly obvious that reading Flaubert in English is not the same experience as reading him in French. Reading Virginia Woolf in French cannot be more than a necessary if barely sufficient substitute for those French speakers without English who want to read her work. While I am reasonably sure that the comic vision of Stanley Elkin would still be preserved for those reading his fiction in a translation, how in the world could this writer's style survive the crossing-over?
Near the end of The Delighted States, Thirlwell scales back the grandiosity of his claims about translation:
All through this book, I have been arguing that style is the most important thing, and survives its mutilating translations--that although the history of translation is always a history of disillusion, something survives. . . . (429)
Yes, of course something survives. What serious reader sadly restricted to one language (or even two or three) would claim otherwise? Certainly I wouldn't. But I'm comfortable with accepting that this "something" includes inspired storytelling or formal inventiveness or compelling characters, but not style except in a more or less successful approximation. To stretch "style" into "vision" or "theological belief" is way too misty and metaphysical for me. I'm willing to settle for style as irretrievably "linguistic," a writer's artful way with words.
Jonathan Mayhew notes that
To understand Creeley, say, you would have to know about Williams, Pound, Duncan, Olson, Levertov. Also Ginsberg and O'Hara and Lowell--representing directions he didn't take. Maybe also Thomas Hardy and some of Creeley's other favorite British poets. Some medieval lyrics. The understanding of Creeley within his context and tradition entails a very dense and nuanced positioning.
It strikes me (and this is not a new observation with me) that we tend to read "foreign" poets in a quite different way. We never see them against the backdrop of their mediocre contemporaries who never get translated. Usually it is only one or two poets from any given country who are at all known at any given time, so there is rarely a sense of Creeley's "company," the social network of poets. The poet translated stands pretty much alone.
While I ultimately believe that a work of literature can and should stand "pretty much alone" in the reader's immediate aesthetic response to the work, the provocation to which remains, in my opinion, the primary ambition of poetry and fiction under any plausible conception of their "literary" status, to "understand" a poet's, or a fiction writer's, body of work more broadly surely does require--or at least certainly is enhanced by--locating it within the writer's "context and tradition." Although this context includes both historical context and the web of direct and indirect influences, ultimately it encompasses the writer's particular relationship to his/her native language and the set of practices with which he/she most closely identifies. Such context can be "dense" indeed, tracing out its dominion not just "nuanced" but a potentially never-ending task.
For those of us who must read "international" writers in translation, we unfortunately must for the most part make do without this context. The text "stands alone" in a way that deprives us of a linguistic foundation that would give our reading experience solidity. Combining this with the vagaries of translation as part of the "book business," which leave us without knowledge of the "social network" to which Jonathan alludes, in effect puts most American readers, at least, in a position of ignorance when assessing poems and novels outside the "English" context. This problem is arguably more acute with poetry, which embodies an especially intimate connection to "context and tradition" and which is translated even less frequently than fiction, but I think the problem exists with fiction as well. Perhaps I could simply pick up one of the Roberto Bolano novels that now seems to be on everybody's reading list and read it with adequate appreciation, but I really doubt it. While the "context" provided by the "tradition" of Latin American fiction is probably more accessible to American readers than many other international literatures, somehow it doesn't seem likely that the context in which the Chilean Bolano was nourished is interchangeable with that in which the Colombian Marquez came to literary maturity. That doesn't mean I won't read Bolano, but before I do so I am trying to understand as much of his "context" as I can from the accumulating number of reviews and critical essays about his work now becoming available.
Of course, I'll never be able to acquire all the context I need simply from reading reviews and gleaning what I can from them. This is where someone like Jonathan Mayhew, who is himself a scholar of Spanish literature (specifically modern Spanish poetry), could play a valuable role in making translated work meaningful to nonspecialist readers, if publishers would allow him to do it. In my experience, most translations come without any context at all, except occasionally through a translator's introduction that usually doesn't go very far (through no fault of the translator, I'm sure, who has to fight the effort among American publishers to hide the fact of translation in the first place). Scholars and critics fluent in the "context and traditon" of the national literature at hand, ideally of the specific writer in question, could provide, through preface and appendices, relevant commentary that would surely illuminate some of the darkness in which we are now asked to approach translated work. Ideally, some sort of textual commentary (made as nondisruptive as possible) could also be included. I realize that this kind of apparatus is usually reserved for "classic" works intended for classroom use, but I don't think we can pretend that translations shorn of such support are sufficient for presenting the work, poetry or fiction, of translated authors, especially authors to whom we come completely unfamiliar.
Even if such aids to reading were routinely offered, however, we would still fall woefully short of understanding the "company" every writer keeps. Only the kind of immersion in a national language that fluency in that language makes possible would allow us to approach such understanding. And as long as only "one or two poets from any given country" (perhaps a few more fiction writers) are available even in translation, we'll get no more than a similacrum of familiarity with either individual writers or the "social network" to which they are connected. On the other hand, few of us put forth the effort to comprehend the literary context from which writers in our own language emerge, which, as Jonathan's brief survey of Robert Creeley's influences attests, can be a daunting task in itself. Whether this makes one's dependence on translation for access to so many important writers seem less, or more, futile is a hard question to answer.
In her recent consideration of Dalkey Archive's anthology, Best European Fiction 2010, Ruth Franklin wonders:
Other than the language in which they write, is there anything that unites [writers such as Ha Jin, Jhumpa Lahiri, Edwidge Danticat, and Nathan Englander]—all of whom have spent long periods of their lives living in places other than the United States—as definably American?
This immediately seems to me rather insipid. In taking full measure of all writers' work, "the language in which they write" is everything. If the language is English, then whatever is "definably American" about the work can only reach us through the Americanized version of this language. (Luckily the reach of English into many countries and cultures gives us Americans additional direct access to the work of many non-American writers, although I would still maintain that American readers are going to respond most fully to American fiction simply because they "know" the language as inflected by American culture, just as Australians will respond most strongly to Australian fiction. This does not seem to me a matter of "preferring" one's national literature to translated literature. It's simply a matter of fact.) As to what else might mark a writer as "definably American": Who cares? It's an exercise for an American Studies scholar, perhaps, but otherwise not a question relevant to the our encounter with the text.
I have written before that I feel comfortable engaging in literary criticism, at least that form of it I generally favor, close reading, only of English-language fiction or poetry. I am not able to get close enough to do a close reading of translations, since I can't be sure the text in front of me is an adequate realization of the original--indeed, I know it's not, as the only adequate realization would be the original. I cannot immerse myself in the language of the text, only the translator's rendering of the text in another language, and I don't see how a critical reading of this text would be a fair judgment of the writer as a writer. It's literally not his/her writing.
I experience this dilemma not as a reason to elevate literature in English above that produced in other languages but as a reason to focus my critical energies (although not necessarily all of my reading time) on work that I think I can assess accurately. I experience it ultimately as a forfeited opportunity to widen my own reading horizons, a result of my inability to pick up languages easily, or at least to learn one well enough to read an untranslated text with any degree of confidence I am "getting it." There's certainly enough that I can get from a translated text--most of its formal qualities and a general comprehesion of character or setting or theme, etc.--to make reading translations worthwhile, but I would venture into extended critical analysis of a translated work only when I think its most important qualities obviously enough survive the translation--as I did most recently with Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones.
According to Franklin, "There’s something a little bit ridiculous about continuing to use nationality as a primary label for writers now that literary culture has gone truly global." Nationality itself, perhaps so, but there's nothing ridiculous at all about using national language as "a primary label for writers." There may be an increasingly shared "sensibility" among "global" writers, but finally the way in which that sensibility is embodied in the available resources of the writer's medium--the particular language in which he/she writes--can't simply be ignored. To the extent it is being ignored, both in the commentary about Best European Fiction (where language differences among the included writers themselves are also being subsumed to the imperatives of the "global") and in discussions of translation in general, a fundamental fact about literature is simply being elided. I can't see that it does a writer from any country any good to encourage readers to think that language can harmlessly be tossed into a melting pot of flavorless "international influences" and be served up as a stew.