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Sontag on Translation

Sarah, David, and I are translating Julio Cortazar’s short story “Los Posatigres” for The Travelers Notebook.

Funny… we’re all gringos; our spouses all speak Spanish as a first language.


I was flipping through Sontag’s At the Same Time earlier tonight for another project when I happened upon her speech about literary translation, “The World as India.”

I’d like to like Sontag more than I do, but to be honest, I find much of her writing to be terribly disorganized and some of her statements (“It isn’t what a writer says that matters”) to be provocative for the sake of being provocative. (Does she honestly believe that?).

Anyhow, I’m reflecting on some passages I underlined in this essay a couple years ago:

“[T]ranslating [is] a valuable cognitive–and ethical–workout.”

“[The] activity of translating [is] the vehicle of such values as integrity, responsibility, fidelity, boldness, humility.”

“How far is the translator empowered to adapt–that is, re-create–the text in the language into which the work is being translated?…. How ‘free’ can a responsible translation be?”


3 responses »

  1. That last question is so, so hard. How can you interpret with confidence and still be humble enough to let the original soul of a piece come through? I love translation because it gets you thinking so hard about individual words, about three words together and what they mean in different order….it’s like what you were writing about the artists in Cuba making books, about having such respect for words.

  2. I’ve been working on a Farsi translation of a novela with a friend of mine. He’s published widely through a Persian press in Sweden but has very few things in English. His writing is dense and difficult, even if you’re 100% fluent in Farsi. And the cultural and historical references are almost impossible to understand, even if you include descriptive footnotes with the translation.

    And the truth is, if you have to stop every few minutes to read a footnote, you lose the flow of the novela. That detracts from the translation, too.

    The best you can do is move the general sense and feeling of what’s being translated into the target language. “Writing in chains,” as my Persian friend calls it. But readers, writers and translators should never make the mistake of thinking a translation is the same as the its source.

    So how much leeway do i give? As much as you need.

    • Leigh- Fascinating.
      And Sarah- agreed.

      A few months ago, I attended a reading and discussion with the Venezuelan playwright and writer, Gustavo Ott and I was really fascinated by his take on translation (specifically, the translation of his work). He essentially hands his texts over to his translators and invites them to make the texts their own, changing them as much as they need to (even characters, plot endings, and the like) in order to make the work culturally relevant for the intended audience. He said that the Japanese translations of his work are particularly interesting because they’re always changed in some fundamental way– the translator insists that a Japanese audience wouldn’t “get” them otherwise. He has absolutely no problem with this.

      The English version of his plays that were read at the event were extraordinary– you’d never be able to discern they’d been written by a Venezuelan; they’d been translated so thoroughly to an American idiom, experience, setting, and context.
      At the same time, though, I thought that while this method of translation really worked for his writing, it wouldn’t work for all kinds of writing or for every writer. I guess that’s where I stand on translation: that the decisions we make in response to these questions are always made on a case by case basis.


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