Sunday, February 1, 2009

The art of failure

Three literary translators discuss the joys -- and challenges -- of
their profession
By Susan Larson, book editor
The Times-Picayune January 28, 2009

Translation is a solitary yet collaborative art. Consider the
translator, dictionary at the ready, pen in hand, searching for
meaning and nuance, rewriting the work before him. It's an art that
demands concentration and devotion. So who does it? And why?

We posed those questions to three prolific and well-known translators
who have strong ties to Louisiana: Burton Raffel, professor emeritus
at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, whose recent translation
of "The Canterbury Tales" has been enthusiastically received; John
Biguenet, playwright, novelist and professor of English at Loyola
University, who has served two terms as the president of the American
Literary Translators Association; and New Orleans native John Cullen,
who has worked as a literary translator since 1995.

Cullen describes the translator's workshop thusly:

"I have the book in front of me propped open to the page. To my right
and left I have dictionaries, both English and the bilingual and
monolingual dictionaries in the original language. Sometimes, I'm bent
over the compact Oxford English Dictionary with a magnifying glass in
my hand, making sure the vocabulary isn't anachronistic.

"Sometimes," he said, "I write on the computer when I'm in a groove
and the sentences aren't too complex. But when there's something
really long or complex, I write out quite a bit in longhand and tinker
with it.

"There's a creativity attached to it. You read the original and try to
come up with a version of it that sounds to your subjective ear
equivalent to the original sound."

Cullen never envisioned this life for himself. He earned his doctorate
in English at the University of Texas and stayed on to begin his
career as a full-time academic. But he didn't like teaching -- "and I
was terrible at it, too," he said -- so he set out to travel Europe
"with the deliberate intention of learning languages."

He began with Italian and German, building on the Latin he learned as
a student in New Orleans. His goal was not to translate, but to better

"My intention in learning these languages was pure: I wanted to read
the literature -- Proust, Thomas Mann and Kafka," he said. "I never
had any intention of translating."

The entry to that career came from his partner, novelist Valerie
Martin. "She saw me sitting around reading something in another
language -- I'm sure it was Dante -- and she said she thought I should
try translating," he said, "and she said it a lot."

Martin's publisher, Nan A. Talese, was publishing a book by the Swiss
psychologist Alice Miller, and she asked Cullen to translate it. "I
did, and she liked it," he said, "and she asked me to do something
else. I did something French, and she liked it. Eventually, I
published enough translations for other people to notice."

That also led to work as a book scout, reading foreign works and
recommending them for publication.

So is there a great sea of writing in other languages to which the
American reader doesn't have access?

"Well, sure," Cullen said. "More books need to be translated."

Cullen rejoices in his translations that find an audience -- "The
Swallows of Kabul" certainly was successful -- and regrets those that

"A book I translated that I loved came out in September," he said. "It
was Stephan Audeguy's 'The Only Son,' a fictional autobiography of the
brother of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It got one really good review and
died like a stone.

"Every now and then, a (translated) book breaks through, and nobody
knows why. Tapping it is part luck and part accident and part that the
authors are good. But a lot of them don't seem to be the best books."

Burton Raffel, born in 1928, is a Brooklyn native. His parents were
Russian immigrants, and his father, a lawyer, spoke Russian, Ukrainian
and Polish.

"It has to be genetic," Raffel said of the translator's calling. "All
of my children are distinguishedly, markedly linguistically oriented
people. But you're not born to be a translator. You may be born to be
a musician. Translation is an art of a sort, but it's a minor art,
dependent on the others."

Raffel abandoned doctoral studies in English to train as a lawyer
before returning to his first love and forging a career as a novelist,
poet, teacher and translator. For a long time, it seemed as if he
might settle in medieval literature, with translations of Beowulf and
other Old English poems, "Das Niebelungenlied" and the fabliaux of
Chretien de Troyes to his credit. But Dante and Shakespeare beckoned,
as did Rabelais and Balzac and "Don Quijote."

He translated "The Canterbury Tales" because his students had a
difficult time reading them in the edition available for a class. And
after a year spent in Indonesia as a young man, he began to translate
Indonesian poetry.

"In 2009, I can still say, without fear of arrogance or correction,
that I'm the best professional translator of Indonesian poetry," he
said, speaking from his home in Lafayette. "But I'm also the worst
because I'm the only one."

His next major translation -- the great Spanish poem "El Cid," due to
be published in April -- is typical of the challenges and rewards of
this kind of work.

"The art of translating poetry is loving and respecting and having to
work with very difficult texts," he said. "But the poem is such a
gorgeous rush that it's very exciting to work with."

Raffel said he tries to place himself in the poem in "my language and
my time. In the case of 'El Cid,' that was (imagining myself to be)
some unknown person, discovering what it is he wanted to do."

If he could choose one more author to translate, it would be Proust,
Raffel said, starting with the work's very first sentence.

"You know that word rechercher? There's an obvious psychological block
there. It means hunting, searching, not remembering!" he said. "The
title should be 'Searching for Days Long Gone,' not 'Remembrance of
Things Past.'"

John Biguenet shares something with Raffel: He said he became a
translator "because my mother is from Brooklyn, and we'd visit. Those
days in Brooklyn almost nobody spoke English. You'd hear Greek and
Italian and Yiddish. I remember hiding in the steam room, hearing that
soup of languages over my head."

And he shares something with Cullen: "I played football with his
brother Terry. So you could say that all the good translators come
from Brooklyn or Gentilly."

Growing up in New Orleans, Biguenet had great-grandparents who still
spoke French. But then, as he said, "My father's generation was
punished for speaking French. So this combination of an Italian mother
and New Orleans father led me to have a curiosity about languages."
First came Latin, followed by French.

Biguenet -- an accomplished novelist and playwright, is the co-editor
of "Strange Harbors," the annual showcase of international writing
published by the Center for the Art of Translation. But it was his
work as a writer that first led Biguenet to translation.

"I was just so bored to death with American literature," he said, "and
I just got more interested in international literature."

It is not an interest that is widely shared. He ruefully remembers one
experience as president of the American Literary Translators
Association: "We had invited a very distinguished Mexican poet to come
up to a creative writing conference in the U.S., and we set it up in a
big ballroom. Ten people came to the reading, but 300 showed up for
the free food afterward."

The danger of this sort of provincial attitude toward literature,
Biguenet said, "is that we begin to think that everybody sees the
world as we do in America, and that impoverishes us. It's more and
more likely that we're going to make mistakes as we live in a smaller
and smaller world."

Translation, as Biguenet describes it, "is the art of failure. You go
into it knowing you're not going to create a lasting work. There's
something about a great work that requires a new version every 30 or
40 years. So there's the impermanence of translation. Even good
translations show the patina of age in the way that original works

Translation also, Biguenet said, "teaches modesty. If you've ever
translated a great writer, you'll never boast about your own work.
It's a wonderful apprenticeship, and it's lifelong. You have to keep
going back to it."