25 July 2009

The invisible translator

After my course at UCL yesterday - preparing for retirement - I went to Dillons. I still want to call it Dillons. I can't believe Waterstones just threw away that well-established brand, in favour of a name that briefly offered something new and interesting in mass bookselling, but is now a book warehouse, a major player in the growth of the influence of the bookseller's buyer on the range of books available. But that's beside my point today. Dillons in Gower Street isn't entirely a Waterstones yet. As it is still a major source of books for London University students, it has to maintain certain academic standards.

So I was really pleased to find good affordable editions of Pessoa - better than anything Grant & Cutler had last time I looked: an edition of Mensagem and a collection of poems under the heteronyms Caeiro, Reis, and Campos. Plenty of stuff to make a start on, although I realise I probably should also have bought the selection called Ortonimo - poems written under Pessoa's own name.

And also got The Translator's Invisibilty by Lawrence Venuti, who may be an important figure as he's the editor of the main course book on translation studies. I started reading it on the train home, and it quite closely matches the concerns I have. Venuti starts by noting that on the few occasions a book review mentions the translator or the translation, it's always fluency that is praised. This means that the ideal translation is invisible.

The translator's invisibility is thus a weird self-annihilation, a way of conceiving and practicing translation that undoubtedly reinforces its marginal status in British and American cultures.

There are clearly fascinating questions implicit. I had already wondered if that platonic concept of a pure source text waiting to be revealed can be true. But it seems likely there's a question of economic and political power at work: all writing must be like English. Venuti also raises the question of this default view of translation as being entirely about meaning, ignoring form and other non-semantic elements. Sounds to me like Ted Hughes.

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