Ben Belitt on translating

Ben Belitt, thoughts on translating from Edward Honig, ed, The Poet’s Other Voice: Conversations on Literary Translation.

the seduction of translating

In this sense, translation takes translators far beyond the genre of their own recognizable styles and idiosyncrasies as poets. One of the disintegrative benefits of translation is that it compels or seduces one into writing poetry other than one’s own…

translation as pleasure

I would say I stumbled on translation simply in the process of trying to find something that was cognate with my experience of having thought about a poet, read him word for word and word by word, and found it hostile or hateful to paraphrase. Let us say I invoked a “pleasure principle” rather than a homiletic one, that my approach was hedonistic rather than Aristotelian, much as Coleridge’s is when he says the “immediate aim of poetry is pleasure not truth.” I would be quite ready to say that the immediate aim of translation is pleasure, not truth.

the sweaty labor of mediation

It’s the Platonism, the Idea of the Perfect Poem, or the Perfect Word, that I think interferes with the sweaty labor of translation, the sweaty empiricism in which everything is an action, a commitment, a deed, a choice, and refuses to exist abstractly in the realm of the Potential […] One has to intrude upon possibility; even the poem speaks in its own right, at its most expressive pitch, as a pure tissue of possibility. The translator provides the possibles, probables, utterances, and then tries to anchor the whole floating realm of epistemological possibility. I insist it’s an epistemological, rather than a semantic or linguistic: What kind of knowledge does poetry involve? What is the thing that translators can know, and how can their language know it? What is the syntax for its survival as either immediate pleasure or eventual truth? The knowledge must never be falsified: it is a confidence, a trust—but there is a human need to take a stand and mediate knowledge. All translation, at its best, is mediation rather than definition.

how does one judge a translation upon reading it?

What is the test […]? There is nothing as blue and red as litmus paper. There are signs, faits accomplis, reassurances: for one thing, volatility; responsibility, for another the certainity that all the elements have been subjected to atomic scrutiny—all the words as they pass from their moorings in the (original language) into the ink of the translation, with no leaps of convenience or deletions such as you might find in the Imitations of Lowell.

Imagination: the most dangerous faculty

Imagination isn’t a phenomenon that can be limited to the poem in its original state. As a translator, it is legitimate, it is imperative, to work imaginatively, joyfully, energetically, ingeniously, patiently, inventively, yourself. Imagination cannot be present in the original only, and absent from the equivalence. [Imagination is the most] risky and most daring, the most desired and mistrusted faculty: the most dangerous. We mistrust it but we can’t renounce it. How can we afford to renounce imagination in the midst of a process we know to be absurd and inimitable? Or avoid saying to ourselves, in the awful solitude of translation, with an upbeat of nausea and wonder: “Well, I don’t know for a fact what the poet knew, but I believe I can imagine how this might sound in my language.” That’s an honest and poignant transaction.


Translating – another version of paradox

from Edwin Honig’s introduction to his collection of interviews The Poet’s Other Voice: Conversations on Literary Translations:

Is translation as self-transcendence still another version of the paradox: to know yourself, lose yourself in the other other? If voice is the instrument making it possible for poets to continue writing by giving immediacy and validity to whatever gifts they possess, it also exists in the constant collaboration between the language of the living and the language of the dead. Poets come to know that voice is both one’s own and not one’s own. As Antonio Machado observes, the poet, perceiving all the unbidden echoes in his personal language, realizes that his voice is not “mine” but “ours.” He senses that it resounds, as a collaborative instrument, and that the collaborators are the literary masters of many human languages, including many he does not know, as well as the special languages of trees, waters, and illiterate grandmothers.

Newly Released: Code of Good Practice for fair-play in literary translation

The European Council of Literary Translators’ Associations (CEATL) has just published six basic rules for fair-play in all business relations with literary translators, asserting that we ARE a creative force, we HAVE produced an original literary work and we SHOULD be paid a decent living for what we do. Imagine.

Hexalogue or Code of Good Practice

The Six Commandments of ‘fair-play’ in literary translation, adopted by CEATL’s General Assembly on 14 May, 2011. [pdf download]

1. Licensing of rights
The licensing of rights for the use of the translation shall be limited in time to a maximum of five years. It shall be subject to the restrictions and duration of the licensed rights of the original work. Each licensed right shall be mentioned in the contract.

2. Fees
The fee for the commissioned work shall be equitable, enabling the translator to make a decent living and to produce a translation of good literary quality.

3. Payment terms
On signature of the contract, the translator shall receive an advance payment of at least one third of the fee. The remainder shall be paid on delivery of the translation at the latest.

4. Obligation to publish
The publisher shall publish the translation within the period stipulated in the contract, and no later than two years after the delivery of the manuscript.

5. Share in profit
The translator shall receive a fair share of the profits from the exploitation of his/her work, in whatsoever form it may take, starting from the first copy.

6. Translator’s name
As author of the translation, the translator shall be named wherever the original author is named.