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This report is taken from PN Review 167, Volume 32 Number 3, January - February 2006.

The Rewards of Translation Daniel Weissbort

I began by translating a sewing machine manual from French into English and have by now translated poetry by many twentieth-century Russian poets and one or two nineteenth-century ones, including Pushkin. Is there something analogous in these two classes of activity? Well, the literary translator has many more opportunities to correct mistakes, than, say, the simultaneous translator.

Translation, we are assured, is key in a world of global concerns. We protest that we do not wish to eliminate 'foreign' languages, but at the same time that there is a need to facilitate intertraffic. As George Steiner points out, human communication involves translation, whether between or within languages; when we address each other we translate and are translated, at least approximately. In a special issue of Modern Poetry in Translation on The International Writing Program in Iowa, I quoted a poem by the late Paul Engle, founder of the IWP, which may now sound sentimental, or replete with post-colonialistically colonial condescension:

At Lahore the language is Urdu, liquid and soft,
At Delhi they speak the harder Hindi, at Bombay, Marathi, [...]
I do not understand one uttered word.
[...]

Then down the street, with a sound I recognize,
A figure runs, with a step I recognize,
A crying girl, lifting a hurt hand.
[...]

Even English is no unitary linguistic phenomenon; Bernard Shaw quipped that the Brits and Americans are 'divided ...


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