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Things to avoid: astigmatic pedantry

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A phrase has been playing around in my head since a recent reading of Mark Polizzotti’s Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto. Polizzotti talks of translators who kill enjoyment through “astigmatic pedantry”. They belong to the literal school which favours information over interpretation. Translation is never finished; nor can there be a final, irreducible version of a work of literature.

All this makes translation one of the least understood of arts, and translators the least celebrated of writers.

Anyone with an interest in translation will know where the ‘Traitor’ in Polizzotti’s title comes from. The Italian expression traduttore, traditore is an aural pun, implying the traduttore (translator) is traditore (traitor). The cultural, psychological, semantic, philosophical implications of that have kept translation experts busy for decades.

It is glib to say that translation is impossible, just as it is true to say that without translation, there would be no literature. Firstly, we would be denied access to the works of Marquez, Cortazar, Llosa, Proust, Dostoyevsky, Paz, Pushkin, Chekhov, Kundera, Allende, Kawabata, Neruda, Pamuk. Translation is long, lonely, even dangerous work (the Japanese translator of Satanic Verses was slain). Secondly, writers learn their craft from one another, just as painters and musicians do.

The novelist Carlos Fuentes called Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote “a major literary achievement”. Grossman says “authors must see themselves as transmitters rather than creators of texts”. Borges told his translator not to write what he said but what he meant to say.

Marquez called his translator Gregory Rabassa, “The best Latin American writer in the English language”, and went so far as to say that Rabassa’s version of One Hundred Years of Solitude was superior to his own. He preferred, he said, to read his books in English as translated by Grossman and Rabassa. Rabassa said he was merely “exposing the English that was hiding behind Marquez’s Spanish.”

In Kerala, they joke that Marquez is the best writer in Malayalam; that is the language many have read his books in. It is easier to get Malayalam translations of books in Spanish and Portuguese than it is to get of books in Punjabi or Gujarati. I am sure the reverse is also true. The field is large in India, but untapped.

In Mouse or Rat?, Umberto Eco speaks of translation as negotiation, arguing that negotiation is not just between words but between cultures. The Italian ‘ratto’ is rat while ‘topo’, he says can be either rat or mouse, and a shriek followed by a cry of ‘Un topo’ is acceptable in an Italian translation of Shakespeare. But in a translation of Albert Camus’s La Peste, the rat presages the plague, and therefore only ‘ratto’ will do.

All great texts contain their potential translation between the lines, wrote Walter Benjamin.

Perhaps all writing is translation: of an incident (sport, politics) or an act of creation (art, music) or imagination (fiction), using the finite number of words available in a language. And avoiding at all times astigmatic pedantry.

(Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu)

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Printable version | Dec 13, 2019 6:09:11 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/things-to-avoid-astigmatic-pedantry/article30062339.ece

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