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This item is taken from PN Review 51, Volume 13 Number 1, September - October 1986.

In January an Italian publisher and I visited a bookshop in Piccadilly. Among glossy new hardbacks on the display tables he found just two titles by non-British authors - one an American, the other Australian. Literature in translation was thin on the shelves. 'In Italy,' he began, 'it is different.' In Spain, where in April I attended the Murcia conference on translation, it is also different: even small provincial booksellers seemed to represent the republic of letters as a place with borders that can be crossed. Defensive cultural chauvinism as practised in France and Britain is rare. Of course, Spain has only just joined the E.E.C.

'What worries me about translation,' Peter Porter said in a 1972 interview, 'is quite simply this: that it is burdened with so much good will. And good will is what gets in the way of anything being properly realized. We also feel, in these days of awareness of each other and the responsibilities of One World, that we ought to be able to respond to other people's languages. But really it's extremely difficult.'

My Italian friend agreed. But out of that difficulty - Wyatt's wrestle with Italian, Shakespeare's with Latin, Fitzgerald's with Spanish - comes great literature.

These rare writers, I argued, engaged other literatures at a primary level, as re-creators, not translators, learning as much from mis-reading as reading, and taking what they needed even if it wasn't actually there. Such an approach is characterized not by 'good will', semantic scrupulosity or even proper respect. Hart Crane and the Surrealists or Baudelaire and Poe show the creative value of misreading. Had good translations or good critics of the texts that delighted them existed at the time, we might have been the poorer. And surely there was something like a European tradition up until the Second World War, a common point of departure in the classics, for instance.

Literary works, my friend contended, cannot be understood without an understanding, at some level, of what constitutes them. Such an understanding might shake my view of a common European tradition during the Renaissance, which was so differently paced throughout Europe, and of a common point of departure in the classics, given the disparity in different cultures' assimilation of the classics. Great writers render other traditions accessible even as they define their otherness. Pushkin makes Byron and others available to Russian readers. Pushkin's use of Byron makes Pushkin accessible to us: he participates in a tradition that transcends his language, that his language modifies. Faulty translations are preferable to no translation at all because they communicate some of the universals and the particulars of a foreign work.

But translation can impede an approach to great writers - to Goethe, for example, Rilke, Pavese or, among prose writers, Borges and Camus. Good criticism brings one closer to difficult work and its context than mediocre translations do. Besides, modern translations often exist for other than literary reasons.

When translations from one literature abound - in the 1920s and early 1930s from Spanish, more recently from Hungarian, Czech and Polish, dissident Russian writers, Latin American novelists - it can seem that publishers and public turn in certain directions for journalistic and commercial as well as literary reasons. Spanish culture after 1937 fell into neglect in Britain because the market disappeared, not because the literature died. When Penguin published an anthology of Spanish Civil War poetry, the poems were by Englishmen. Spain's agony was appropriated as a chapter in the evolution of the British left. The great poets who went into exile never counted for much here, yet Lorca's significance can be appreciated only in the context they provide. English readers will gain a sense of that context not from bad translations of Lorca's contemporaries, but from criticism and from a rudimentary knowledge of his language.

Another strictly non-literary factor in the dissemination of translations is state subsidy as practised, for example, by Germany through Inter Nationes. Generous funding for translations and committed marketing give us proportionately more contemporary German literature than any other from among the European languages. With such arrangements there must always be a peril - beyond that of selection - that subsidy will go to acceptable authors and be withheld from projects involving those hostile to what the funding body represents. Literary presence can be bought, but as a function of diplomacy and politics, not of literature.

Spain was a good place to discuss translation. There was no threat of anything being done. There was an air of realism: we lived in Babel, we had emphatic views on the architecture of the tower and how best to subvert the Almighty's designs. But the Almighty was cleverer than we: all our views were true in part, but they didn't add up to a strategy.

Near the end of our discussions, lists of English classics eligible for translation were heatedly drawn up, as if we were compiling the guest-list for a splendid party. Most of the titles suggested had been translated before, but always 'badly'. A new start was needed. Lists of Spanish classics were drawn up with the same zest. Then someone asked: who will do the 'good' translations?

The questioner had translated Coleridge and Conrad. He said he admired our sentiments in making lists and urging funding; but, he insisted, it didn't work that way. The meeting between rare text and rare translator was a chance thing; money was as likely to impede as hasten it. Committees and lists were sure to impede it. The work of literary translators differs from that of technical or professional translators who know that time spent over a knot of diction costs money. A vocational translator represses that knowledge. His motive, like that of a writer without a contract, is unintelligible in terms of public discourse.

The writers at my round table were reluctant to listen. We had met to stimulate literary exchange. Here was a heretic.

An even more fundamental question was asked: about the medium itself. While contemporary Spanish can accept most of the registers of Engish, British English resists certain registers, certain complexes of imagery, peculiar to Spanish poetry. Registers exploited effectively by Machado, and Lorca in the Romancero, cannot be rendered: they sound inevitably mawkish, sentimental, their roots are in a popular tradition without close analogy in English, even in our ballad literature, a tradition undistorted by the ironies and social tones of our dominant literary and critical idioms. I used to imagine that Charles Causley might do Lorca or Machado justice, but I doubt now that even he could do the deed. If he could, he would have done so by now. He approaches no nearer than elegy, and in that elegy there is a lament for missing properties in our own language.

It may be that British English is incapable of rendering other modern poetries, too. Could it be that it has lost natural contact with its informing registers, lost depth and the expressive range that were second-nature to it? Can a literary language recover from irony? Can it be remade? Will the assimilation of ethnic and oral literatures be possible for it? Will translation serve again as it did in the sixteenth century to extend our literature?

Our theme was translation: what should be translated, how to stimulate translation, what circumstances favour literary exchange. The panaceas proposed were 'more cultural contact' and 'money' - evidence of that 'good will' which Peter Porter distrusts. We should have asked what can be translated, what is it in the authentic translator's vocation that fights shy of bureaucratic control, and how can we improve the quality of foreign language teaching in British schools and universities. The irreducible facts are that readers are rare, critics rare among readers, and enabling translators rarest of all.    

This item is taken from PN Review 51, Volume 13 Number 1, September - October 1986.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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