To be clear about my argument, I don’t recommend that a publisher choose texts that can be seen as “representative” of a foreign culture. My point is rather that the publishing must be done strategically, so that a foreign work in translation can achieve a level of intelligibility in terms that are specific to the foreign culture, not merely to the receiving one. How can our reading of foreign works approximate the forms of reading that they receive in their own cultures? Those forms of reading are bound by multiple contexts, linguistic and literary, cultural and social, contexts that gave rise to the works in the first place, but that may also shift with different readerships who bring divergent kinds of knowledge to their reading. [...](via The Literary Saloon)
More than one publisher needs to take an interest in the writing of a particular foreign culture at the same moment. Publishers shouldn’t look at their colleagues as competitors but as contributors to the construction of cultural patterns from which they themselves as well as their readers can benefit. Patterns of selecting foreign works for translation tend to harden into canons, producing valued yet highly selective representations of foreign literatures. This is one reason why we often see a publisher translate the same foreign writers or the same kinds of foreign writing. The choice of material becomes familiar, and readers who are challenged by the differences of foreign writing in translation might gravitate toward familiarity. Publishers as well as translators need to be vigilant about these possible effects of their decisions because for every foreign work that is admitted many, many others are excluded and the resulting image of a foreign culture can only ever be partial—both incomplete and biased toward the reigning tastes of the translating culture. Any notion of a “representative” selection of foreign works needs to be rigorously examined and resisted. [...]
Just think of all those reading groups that publishers now try to cultivate for their books. As a reading group moves from one book to the next, its choices are usually motivated by the members’ personal tastes or interests along with what they’ve heard in the media about a book. What if the group had a program of exploring a set of books from a foreign literary tradition? Could current publishing trends in the US support that program? If so, for how many languages and cultures? [...]
I’d want to avoid anything that suggests building a context is simply another scholarly activity. Readers who read for pleasure get part of that pleasure from automatically comparing what they’re reading to previous reading experiences. Those experiences always come into play, even if selectively, depending on the current read. We build up reading experiences that shape later ones. Yet anglophone readers can’t do this much with foreign literatures because of the dearth of translations (and the relatively small number that remain in print or accessible).
But I am now completing a project that tries to compensate for the virtual lack of any translated context in which to read the work: a book by a contemporary Catalan poet, Ernest Farrés, in which each poem is based on a painting by Edward Hopper. [...] So I’m banking on what the anglophone reader will bring to my translation, a familiarity with Hopper’s mythic images, perhaps some sense of the English-language poems that have been written about Hopper (by noted American poets like John Hollander, Edward Hirsch, Stephen Dunn—the Hopper authority Gail Levin has compiled a little anthology of these poems). Against this backdrop Ernest Farrés’s book is absolutely stunning in its ambitiousness, its wit, and the depth of its interpretations of the visual images. (Or so I think).
It would help this project greatly if a body of Catalan poetry, past and present, were available for anglophone readers of poetry. But I’m trying to work around that absence in various ways—including the language I use in the translations: an American vernacular that draws on words and phrases which Hopper and his wife, the painter Jo Nivison, actually used in their speech and writing, but that at the same time matches the Catalan poet’s penchant for colloquialisms, among various other forms of the language (e.g. the standard dialect, jargon from the social and natural sciences, foreign borrowings). I am also compensating for the lack of context by creating a section of endnotes that identify allusions in the Catalan poems and quote comments that Hopper and Nivison made on the paintings and their circumstances. These notes will point up the continuities and disjunctions between the poems and the paintings, highlighting the biographical slant that Farrés himself has taken in his book, his ventriloquism of Hopper. Finding a publisher who will be interested in printing a small number of color reproductions, just some to go along with the poems that can most benefit from the images, is another strategy. It is a rich and complicated project, experimental in a unique sort of way, fitted to the contingencies (notably the lack of Catalan poetry in translation) and relying on the continuing interest in Hopper’s work.
19 February 2008
Lawrence Venuti responds to questions regarding his recent article (which I mentioned here), elaborating further on what publishers can do to enlarge the context in which works of translation can be received: