Hanging on by a Thread: Bookstores, Translation, & Literary Links


O tempora!  O mores!”–Cicero

It’s the end of the world as I know it, and I feel fine.–R.E.M.

We are hanging on by a thread, whether because of political anxiety, bad hairdos, global warming, or the uselessness of melatonin on hot nights. And we book junkies wonder what direction our lives will take if the printed word is censored in the new isolationist frenzy at home and abroad:  newspapers (dying or dead),  magazines (dying or dead), proofreading (dying or dead: I found a Latin error the other day in a great new novel),  foreign language study (budget cuts have eliminated many language departments), and communication via misspelled texts instead of letters on stationery (oh, long done!).

the swerve 51chpVixqKL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Well, thank God there’s a wide selection of backlisted and used books for sale online.  It is a vast improvement over having to travel hundreds of miles to find out-of-print books or obscure classics. I am not Poggio Bracciolini, the book scout who discovered the manuscript of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) in a German monastery (The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt).  Travel is expensive.

Nor do I romanticize independent bookstores, which are and always have been rich people’s hobbies. Some are good and some are bad, and there are few in these parts, but I hear they’re coming back.  Print book sales are up, they say, but since an e-book now costs almost as much as a paperback, isn’t that a deciding factor?  Well, they don’t admit that, but they are admitting to a coloring book boom.

Many years ago, an independent bookseller told me that if a book review ran in the newspaper before the book’s publication date, it hurt his business.  If the buyer couldn’t find it right away, he or she usually forgot about it and the bookseller lost a sale.  Now that we can “pre-order,” it must be even more disheartening.  I do quite often read reviews of books a week or month ahead of publication.

But not all is lost! We still have contact with the world.   Here are literary links to three articles about literature in translation. Let’s bring back language study, too.

1. Sam Jordison mentioned the rise of translated fiction in the UK when he asked The Guardian book club to choose a book in translation for  June.  (They chose The Master and Margarita.)

The fact that translated fiction now accounts for 7% of sales in the UK market is a welcome change. It feels like a long time since I wrote an article lamenting the lack of traction that foreign fiction had in the UK. If I were to attempt a similar provocation now, I might be tempted to suggest things are heating up too much. Every other book that publishers send me for review at the moment seems to be translated. On the one hand, this stream of books makes me worry about the thoughtless following of fashion and the many-limbed, no-headed mass of the mainstream publishing industry. On the other hand, it’s a heck of a lot better than books on mindfulness or beating titles like The Man Who Caught the Smugsmug Train to Cozylandia.

2. Words Without Borders recently published an interview with Lydia Davis on translation.  Her is an excerpt.

Q.  Does a translator need to dominate the culture of both the language she is translating to and the culture of the language she is translating from?

madame bovary lydia davis 515JL42NLCL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_LD: By “dominate,” do you mean “master”? Or, even better: “have a deep and thorough understanding of it”? I want to clarify, because the attitude of a writer, including a translator, toward his or her own culture, as well as the culture of the original text, should be that of a seeker rather than a dominator. One is always seeking to understand. One gains some understanding, but one never understands completely—true of any culture in which one is working or living.

But to answer more simply: let’s assume that the translator has a good, deep understanding of her own culture. Then the question is how deep does her understanding of the other culture need to be? I found, in translating Madame Bovary, that a good deal of the text was understandable, and translatable, without that deeper knowledge of nineteenth-century French culture in a provincial town. Certain human behavior seems to be fairly universal, or at least common, to Western civilizations of the last couple of centuries. (I should beware of generalizations—there are always exceptions!) Other habits, customs, expressions are not as familiar to us in the twenty-first century. Still, translating the way I do, staying close to the original—even when it comes to expressions such as “to put straw in one’s boots” or “other dogs to beat” (yes? is that what Homais says to the beggar?)—rather than seeking equivalent expressions in English, the customs, habits, even modes of thinking of Flaubert’s time come through quite well. But I may translate accurately what is on Emma’s mantelpiece without knowing what her taste in decor “means”—and it would be good to know, even though that wouldn’t change my translation, in this case. For Flaubert, of course, what she had on her mantelpiece indicated her slavish following of current fashion, her striving for bourgeois gentility. His readers at the time would have known that. I use many reference books, learn what I can, write endnotes to help readers of the translation, but I do not feel I have to become a scholar of the culture Flaubert was writing about, or within. (Long answer! Third cup of coffee!)

3. At Words without Borders, Aaron Poochigian speculates in “Have We Lost The Lofty? Virgil’s Aeneid and the History of English Poetry” about changing literary tastes and new translations of the Aeneid.  Here is the opening paragraph.

aeneid dryden e2cde76d4ee8730e958f4bd11f157370.600x510x1In two months’ time Farrar, Straus and Giroux will release Seamus Heaney’s translation of Book Six of the Aeneid. In the same way as the epic was, in the words of his daughter Catherine Heaney, “a touchstone . . . to which he would return time and time again through his life,” so the often-translated epic itself has been a touchstone for changing literary and cultural tastes throughout the course of English literature. Translations of the Aeneid have, in fact, inaugurated major literary movements. Now seems a good time to review the history of this very Roman poem in English. Translations and re-translations are fascinating because they reveal the tastes (and limitations) of past ages and our own. Though poets of yore found in it a justification for British imperial ambition, the epic feels in places as if it were written with the express purpose of turning off contemporary readers—the hero’s great virtue is the Roman ideal of pietas (“piety, dutiful respect”), and the narrative is a kind of literary empire-building. We here in the twenty-first century want heroes with a rebellious spirit and abhor empires for their oppression of native peoples. No, the Aeneid’s politics are not for us.

By the way, I love Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary, and of course I read The Aeneid in Latin.

2 thoughts on “Hanging on by a Thread: Bookstores, Translation, & Literary Links

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s