Animadversions on translation

Michael Hofmann
29 July 2003

Read Michael Hofmann’s poem ‘Between Bed and Wastepaper Basket’, from the collection Acrimony (Faber, 1986)

It’s been quite some time since I felt much optimism about the prospects for foreign literature in English translation, but for the last three years or so, I’ve been in open despair. The 1980s, in retrospect, were a kind of Bronze Age. There was still room for the kind of felicitous miscalculation that made the appearance of certain books in English possible – it seems to me these things were only ever done by mistake. The period we are now embarked on is an Iron Age, quite possibly a terminal phase. After it, we may expect a deluge – a deluge of nothing.

Publishing houses with venerable names and cosmopolitan traditions seem quite unembarrassed about putting out catalogues that are wall-to-wall English-language originals. Chatto & Windus – home of Anton Chekhov, Marcel Proust and Joseph Roth – recently went through three or four seasons without any translations at all.

Obviously, publishing isn’t what it was, the bottom line has risen inexorably, there were all the huge and much-bruited takeovers and mergers and acquisitions, but there are reasons more profound – even – than the state of publishing, to explain why the number of foreign titles to appear in Britain is no higher than it is in Iceland. (Or is it half as many? I forget).

The principal factor is the size and spread of the English language, which offers readers a delusive self-sufficiency. Why bother with anything else – apart from a handful of 19th century French and Russian novelists, which is the only thing that has ever really caught on – when there is so much to be read in English, whether from Manchester or Madras or Melbourne or Malibu Beach?

Increasingly, it’s only English that counts, not only in England and other English-speaking territories (it seems justifiable to think of the linguistic ‘empire’ of English), but globally. Scores of English books get translated every year into every language under the sun – thereby wrecking the ‘domestic’ market of the ‘indigenous’ writers – while pitifully few come the other way. English remains both the most highly-sought reward and the basic measure of a foreign book, but more and more, it denies access to itself and lies back and thinks only of English.

It had to be a foreign publisher who took a look at a list like Carcanet – Natalia Ginzburg, Robert Walser, Emmanuel Bove, Clarice Lispector – and concluded it was a force in the land. (I wish). It is hard to conceive of a writer from a ‘small’ language being in a position to win, say, the Nobel Prize, without his or her books first appearing in a ‘bigger’ language, preferably English. Even internationally, ‘international’ comes a poor second to ‘English’.

Effectively, English is running a colossal and intolerable surplus with the rest of the world. (The abusive term from trade talks, ‘dumping’, comes to mind.) This isn’t good for the rest of the world, evidently – to be without its prize and its unit of measurement, its biggest potential readership and probably its only guarantee of posterity – but nor is it good for English.

The loss of the most distinguished, characteristic and classic books from other languages will finally make itself felt, however richly English is able to compensate itself from its multitudinous sources. There is really nothing like the strange bi-authorship of translation; the hapless, resourceful or wooden sense of words not deployed by a single hand according to instructions from a single mind; the demands on vocabulary and, less predictably, on syntax, that made the reading, for example, of Gregory Rabassa’s translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude such an enlarging experience.

Translation is the other, it upsets expectation, it extends the field of comparison, it forces even the sluggardly to re-evaluate and to re-contextualise. A period of good writing has to be a period of good and abundant translating also. The fact that we’re not presently living in one should qualify the large claims currently being made for British poetry and fiction. Surely a healthy – never mind an exceptional or wonderful – condition wouldn’t be this sequestered or this drip-fed on parochial fashions and moods and reputations. It’s undeniable that it’s written in a world language, but how much of it is world literature? It’s the present low level of interest in translation that prompts the question.

If the unrealistic concentration of money and reputation on English books has had the inevitable cosy, inflationary impact, there is a way in which translated works, for their part, have also been affected. For a long time, they were offered as part of a bigger landscape: this is what ‘Johnny Foreigner’ is doing - take it or leave it.

That’s what shows in Frank O’Hara’s great poem of 1959, The Day Lady Died, when he buys himself a hamburger and a malted and ‘an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets/ in Ghana are doing these days’. It existed, therefore, in a reduced way, it was. (In many other languages, by contrast, English exists, and is, and is barely reduced: in the 1960s for instance, a hugely influential little volume called Mittagessengedichte was published, that enabled German readers to see what Frank O’Hara had done.)

Subsequently, foreign titles had something of the status of evidence – false, misleading evidence, albeit; there was something of an alibi about it – an increasingly mendacious and half-hearted assertion that such things were still part of the general scene, were still being cultivated. There was the token translation, like the token poetry list or the token volume of belles-lettres. You saw it and were supposed to say, ‘Look, it has come through.’

It was a zoo (not, alas, in the colloquial sense of the phrase), where you could see the Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Günter Grass, the Milan Kundera, the Harry Mulisch, the great beasts, the kings of the jungle; again, as in a zoo, there was something a little stale and old-fashioned about it, the animals were getting on, they were grumpy and neglected, they kicked off and weren’t replaced, there was little sign of any fresh blood.

And now? The foreign novel is a novelty. It’s a chimera or a yeti or a unicorn (the beast that never was, as Rainer Maria Rilke describes it). Over time, it’s changed from being a cornerstone to a decorative pillar to a perplexing functionless stump somewhere. It’s published in a bodiless way, as though it came out of some (English-language) text-tube: people don’t read Peter Høeg out of an engagement with Denmark, or Jostein Gaarder to see what the writers in Norway are doing these days!

There is something resolutely and manufacturedly singular about the books that are translated these days – one-offs like stumps and yetis and chemical clouds – pornographic or quasi-pornographic oddities. Translation has largely degenerated to a depository for the abstruse and the shameless. As such, it is a caricature of ‘abroad’. And this is at a time when our well-being, perhaps our very survival, depends on a full and accurate representation.

A version of this article was first published in the London Review of Books

Between Bed and Wastepaper Basket

There hasn’t been much to cheer about in three years
in this boxroom shaped like a loaf of bread,
the flimsy partitions of the servants’ quarters,
high up in the drafty cranium of the house.

All things tend towards the yellow of unlove,
the tawny, moulting carpet where I am commemorated
by tea- and coffee-stains, by the round holes of furniture –
too much of it, and too long in the same place.

Here, we have been prepared for whatever comes next.
The dishonest, middle-aged anorexic has been moved on.
The radio-buff is now responsible for contact
in the cardboard huts of the British Antarctic Survey.

(His great antenna was demolished here one stormy night.)
The tiny American professor is looking for tenure.
On occasional passionate weekends, the vinegary
smell of cruel spermicide carried all before it.

Familiarity breeds mostly the fear of its loss.
In winter, the ice-flowers on the inside of the window
and the singing of the loose tap; in summer,
the thunderflies that came in and died on my books

like bits of misplaced newsprint … I seize the day
when you visited me here – the child’s world in person:
gold shoes, grass skirt, sky blouse and tinted, cirrus hair.
We went outside. Everything in the garden was rosy.

Prefabs ran down the back of the Applied Psychology Unit.
Pigeons dilated. The flies were drowsy from eating
the water-lilies on the pond. A snake had taken care of
the frogs. Fuchsias pointed their toes like ballerinas.

My hand tried to cup your breast. You were jail-bait,
proposing a miraculous career as country wife
and parole officer. We failed to betray
whatever trust was placed in us.

‘Between Bed and Wastepaper Basket’ is taken from Acrimony (Faber, 1986).

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