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16 November 2009

Susan Sontag

First, a thought about the crazy economics of book publishing. Where the Stress Falls by Susan Sontag is a collection of essays and speeches from the last 20 or so years of her life. As I've noted earlier, it's a beautiful looking book, and the production inside is just as clean and stylish as the cover. But at about 350 pages, and with no new content, the cover price of £12 is ridiculous. Waterstone's has it in stock at full price, and not included in any 3 for 2 offer. Amazon has it for £8.60, which is more like it, but I bought it from a dealer in Amazon's marketplace for just £3.84 (plus p&p). To make any profit, the dealer must have got it for around £3.50. This is surely a mad, unsustainable business model.

Anyway, I bought the book largely because there's an essay on Roland Barthes. It praises him very highly, but largely despite his theoretical views. Earlier in this blog I looked at S/Z, where you can see Barthes succumbing to a classic narration, despite its lisibility. Sontag more or less argues that he was like that throughout his career; he was an old-fashioned practical criticismist in modernist clothing. I think there may be something in this. As with Stanley Fish, Barthes's analysis depends on many of the skills that people like Richards and Empson valued and developed.

A later piece, "On Being Translated", shows that Sontag doesn't hold with modernist denials of the primacy of the text. In a parenthesis she says:
You will have already noted that I am assuming that there is such a thing as an "original" text. Perhaps only now, when ideas utterly devoid of common sense or respect for the practice of writing have great currency in the academy, would this seem to need saying.

This is from a speech given at a conference on translation. It refers to Sontag's time in Sarajevo, working on a production of Waiting for Godot during the siege. Production was threatened because some people wanted a new translation of the play into Bosnian, to replace the existing Serbo-Croat one. But Bosnian is to all intents and purposes exactly the same language as Serbo-Croat. The call for a new translation was political.

The speech also covers some general points about translations. Unsurprisingly, given the above quotation, Sontag says the translation must serve the original text, but accepts the spread of means in which this can be attempted.

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