iProust: Shaun Whiteside on the art of translation

In an article for The London Library Magazine, Shaun Whiteside, translator of Wu Ming's novel Manituana, counters the predicted demise of the linguist and imminent redundancy of the translator made by a recent caller to Radio Four's Any Answers. Insisting that there is more to the literary situation than Babelshot addicted iPhone users understand, Whiteside has detected a shift in the prestige of the role of the translator in the world of books:

I can't remember the world of literary translation ever being quite as confident and outgoing as it is right now - translation prizes attracting a lot of public attention, a rising generation of translators who aren't afraid of the spotlight, endless and lively public discussions. One might be forgiven for thinking that a law had been passed making it compulsory to read Scandinavian crime fiction on public transport. Even the Queen's speech last Christmas was about a translation, the King James Bible, which has, of course, just celebrated its 400th birthday.

Translation is also an art of constant negotiation,  a demonstrably imperfect one, that attempts to convey the sense and the mood, the timbre and texture, of a piece of writing from one language to another. Different languages have different histories, of course, different references, different music. And that is where the mystery of translation comes in... As a translator one seeks to inhabit the author's voice, and when it works the effect is almost alchemical, the essence of the voice persisting through its transmutation.

Comparing examples from famous translations of Eugene Onegin and Proust's Du Coté de chez Swann, in particular Vladimir Nabokov's, Whiteside muses on what is lost, or gained, in the shift from one language to another. Focusing on how translation can achieve both 'sense and spirit,' Whiteside proposes that current philosophy of contemporary literary translation ignores Nabokov's conviction that literal translation is the translator's primary duty:

To quote Friedrich Schleiermacher's 1838 essay 'On the Different Methods of Translating': 'The translator either disturbs the writer as little as possible and moves the reader in his direction, or disturbs the reader as little as possible and moves the writer in his direction. The two approaches are so absolutely different that no mixture of the two is to be trusted.' At present, the former tendency would appear to be in the ascendant.

This must ultimately be to the good, and as a trend it trusts the reader to be able to make imaginative leaps - that is, if the foreignness of the source language and the uniqueness of the writer's style are not unhappily conflated... Translators have, in a sense, an unfair advantage - works can be constantly updated, rematched to the needs of contemporary nature, in a way that the originals, by their very nature, never can.

Ending with the frequently posed question of translation's perplexing relationship to art, Whiteside views recent interest in global literary translation as proof of the project's cultural vitality in the face of electronic translation programs. Whiteside answers affirmatively, and proposes there is still artistic importance attached to the work of the translator:

So is translation art? Incontrovertibly, it seems to me, as well as a dialogue - as the Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago says - between two individuals, 'and a meeting of two collective cultures that must acknowledge one another'. As an art, though, it can't possibly be subject to the prescriptions that some of the sterner theorists have tried to impose on it.

We're going through a heyday of literary translation right now, and not only in the area of retranslation of the classics... there's a rising generation of enthusiastic practitioners working in all the European languages, but also increasingly in Chinese, Arabic and others, as well as an eagerness amongst the public to find out more about it and how it works. Could we be edging towards what Goethe called Weltliteratur?

Visit The London Library Magazine to read the article in full.

Shaun Whiteside will also be translating Wu Ming's forthcoming novel, Altai, for Verso Books.

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