Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Translation and World Literature

Translation, fostering understanding and perhaps appreciation among people for other cultures, is a central element of Goethe's conception of world literature. In the essay "Zu brüderlichem Andenken Wieland" (1813) he mentions two "translation maxims"): one requires that the author of a foreign country be brought to us so that we can recognize him as our own (daß der Autor einer fremden Nation zu uns herüber gebracht werde, dergestalt, daß wir ihn als den Unsrigen ansehen können); the second makes a demand on us, namely, that we journey to the foreigner and put ourselves in his circumstances, his way of speaking, and his peculiarities (daß wir uns zu dem Fremden hinüber begeben und uns in seine Zustände, sein Sprachweise, seine Eigenheiten finden sollen) (WA I,36, 329-30).

What I find interesting about this interest in translation is that the foreign works that were most formative for Goethe's own development were in languages that he was able to read: Latin, French, Italian. He even knew enough Greek to read Homer and to get an idea of what Pindar was writing. In was later in life that he stepped outside these and became interested in the literatures of other countries: China, the Middle East, eastern Europe. The focus on translations, however, seems to point forward to our modern era, where even very educated people only master one foreign language.

Certainly translations were essential to my own education or "Bildung." In college, at Indiana University, one of my favorite places on the campus was the Union building. It resembled a huge English manor house of Tutor vintage and was located in the middle of a charming campus of hills and dales and small bridges. Besides the university bookstore, a cafeteria, and a restaurant ("the Commons"), as well as banquet rooms for overnight visitors to the campus, it had a number of reception rooms furnished with large, comfortable couches, chairs, and tables. In the winter months fires would be burning in the fireplaces, and the mantels would be hung with garlands and other seasonal decorations. There was a smaller reading room that held current copies of magazines I had never heard of before but used to take down and try to make heads or tails of: The New Republic is one I remember being fascinated by while unable to figure out the political distinctions. What a long way I have come since then!

The rooms in the Union, with chairs and tables so different from any I had ever sat upon, suggested a larger, more privileged world. And yet, here I was, a part of it. Between classes I like to take possession of one of the solid wooded tables set into a niche. Beyond the window with leaded panes I could look out and see the autumn foliage or the flowers of spring. As I memorized German vocabulary or wrote out grammar exercises, students at other tables or on couches or chairs were similarly engrossed in the written word. Invariably, someone was reading The New York Times or Foreign Affairs, publications I had never seen in Louisville. Since these were public rooms, people passed through on a regular basis, but my feeling of possession was seldom disturbed. Food and drink were not allowed, a policy everyone accepted. Food was to be eaten in the cafeteria, though in any case food had not yet become a consuming American pastime. Indeed, a quiet decorum, conducive to reading or to feeling serious, reigned in these spaces.

I would spend hours on the oversized chairs in the Union delving into books by writers who were largely unknown to me before leaving my parents' home: Thomas Mann, Camus, Lermentov. My initial efforts with these writers were a struggle, and sometimes it was only a paragraph here or a sentence there that resonated. Even the title of Lermentov's short novel -- A Hero for Our Time -- suggested something big and important. I was principally kept going in my efforts by my awareness that thoughtful people had taken the trouble to read these writers. I liked the picture of myself sitting on one of the big chairs in the Union reading a thick Russian novel. Those novels seemed to add heft to me, as if I were absorbing all the weight of the history and tragedy of the characters' lives.

As Goethe said, in one of his comments about world literature, we come to know ourselves and our own country better by knowing other peoples and countries. My own experience bears that out. My junior year in college was spent studying in Germany. Despite the importance of foreign cultures in my life, however, I must admit that I have never felt like a "citizen of the world." One of the things that always annoyed me in my travels was the view of some people -- often Americans -- that the U.S. was somehow deficient in not being more like Europe. People who spent five days in Japan (where I lived for 5 years in the late 1970s) would be pronouncing on the superiority of the way Japanese did things.

This view of America's shortcomings reared itself in the past week with the announcement of the Nobel Prize in literature to the German-Romanian (or is that Romanian-German?) writer Herta Muller (pictured above on learning of the award). The reaction of Americans, according to European accounts, was again evidence of our eternal "parochialism." I particularly liked the headline in the Belgian newspaper De Morgan: "Amerikaanse media: Müller, who the f*** is Müller?" Need I translate? (Actually, my favorite headline was to be found in The Indian News: "Nepal Maoists disapprove of Nobel for German Author.")

Michael Orthofer at the Literary Saloon (now, that is a site concerned with world literature) had good coverage (on October 10) of the reaction of the award to Müller. Orthofer has long been campaigning for more critical attention to translations, especially in The New York Times Book Review. (I agree with him, though for different reasons, that the NYTBR is a mediocre publication.) He was irritated at the reaction of "Herta Who?" on the part of professional reviewers. After all, as he notes, five of Muller's books have been translated into English. I haven't read them, in German or in English.

Not long ago I came across an essay in the Wilson Quarterly by Aviya Kushner, a speaker of both Hebrew and English. In the essay she wrote of the parochialism of American students she had encountered while studying in France. "It is not that Americans lack curiosity of any kind" she writes, "but that we seem to lack the right kind." She faults the Americans who preferred to live in "Anglophone dorms," thereby missing the experience of French bathrooms and kitchens.

Kushner has an attitude I have often encountered among European elites, for whom the important things in life are represented by culture and art. They seem offended by America, an entrepreneurial society in which one accrues status by making money or creating jobs. What they fail to see is that most Americans are "average," just as are most Europeans, and certainly European elites don't look down their noses at their own compatriots. Class distinctions in Europe may mean that they don't expect much from Europeans who are not like themselves in education or cultural achievement. It is the ordinariness of Americans that bothers them. It must seem wrong to be successful and not have read, for instance, Goethe.

Kushner is bothered by the lack of translations, too, and more so by the fact that foreign cultures are increasingly being represented by foreigners writing in English: "Now, sadly, we have forgotten what is is to live between languages, to have translators who inhabit the space between tongues. We prefer to read of a Bosnian immigrant in New York instead of a Bosnian man in Sarajevo, written by a Bosnian."

My sense is that most people like to read about people like themselves. What is wrong with that? "Literary" works, whether in English or in a foreign language, are a special category. I think, for instance, of the Chilean writer Robert Bolaño, whose Nazi Literature in the Americas I am currently reading. On August 30 of this year, the New York Times Book Review reviewed the new translation of Bolaño's The Skating Rink, first published in Spanish in 1993. Bolaño's novels tell me more about what interests other writers than they do about Chile. I wonder where Herta Müller fits in. Does she write books that most people want to read, or is she an acquired taste?

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