Although the introducer before Radio 4′s ‘Front Row’ programme last Wednesday (listen online here) correctly identified translation as an ‘art’, the discussion which the programme itself engaged in presented a controversial and narrow analysis of translators’ work.
Eminent, prize-winning translator Edith Grossman responds.
Brava, Ali Smith. You’re a wonderful writer and an intelligent, perceptive commentator on the translation of literature. I’d translate the Italian brava if not for my fear that Naomi Alderman would equate my English version of the word to “sliced prosciutto.”
Space and decorum necessarily limit my response to this program, which seemed like an exercise in drawing false analogies. The suspicion of translations, the refusal to buy them, the citing of some mediocre translations as somehow revelatory of the inadequacies of all translations, the contempt for a translator’s efforts to pin down exact meanings: one needn’t look very far to discover why only three per cent of books published in the English-speaking world are literary translations. I assure you, it is our loss, unless we can read every written language on earth.
Contrary to one of the assumptions made on the broadcast, not all writers are or can be translators, but I assure you that every competent translator has to be a writer, because that is what we do. We write, in the guise of the person we are translating. Not all writing is good, yet we don’t condemn Philip Roth for the inadequacies of a potboiler we pick up at the airport. By the same token, not all translations are good, but if I may speak for my translating colleagues and paraphrase Samuel Beckett, we keep on in the belief that next time we’ll have to fail better.