Found in Translation
Need evidence that our culture doesn’t value literary translation? Just browse a bookstore: translators’ names are often left off the covers of translated works. In her book, Can These Bones Live: Translation, Survival, and Cultural Memory (Stanford University Press, 2007), literature faculty member Bella Brodzki ’72 argues that one reason to value translation is that it preserves works over time. After all, the Western canon consists mostly of translated works. And though no English version of, say, The Odyssey can perfectly replicate the original Greek, we read that work, she says, “as though Homer were speaking to us.” Citing the German theorist Walter Benjamin, Brodzki likens literary translations to bones: A translation of a work is often all that endures.
Brodzki traces her interest in translation theory to her childhood; she grew up surrounded by the rhythms and idioms of Polish, Yiddish, and German. Urged by her father to “learn languages,” she studied in France, Switzerland, and Israel during her undergraduate years, plowing through French translations of works by German philosophers such as Heidegger and Nietzsche. She is fluent in French and Hebrew and reads German and Spanish.
photo by Don Hamerman
Can These Bones Live? employs translation as a lens for analyzing an array of literary works—many of which are not, in fact, linguistic translations. For example, Brodzki writes about Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale, a contemporary American novel of slavery, as a “translation” of the 18th and 19th century slave narrative into the genre of the novel, and considers the memoirs of the Spanish intellectual Jorge Semprún as a “translation” of that writer’s life. The act of transmitting stories from generation to generation, according to Brodzki, is also an act of translation.
Since 1995, Brodzki has taught “The Poetics and Politics of Translation,” a yearlong course in which students work on individual literary translation projects. Last year, nine languages, including Farsi, Sinhalese, and Finnish, were represented in her students’ conference work. “When you translate something,” she said, “you know its deepest recesses. Translation is the most intimate form of reading.”
—Michael Rymer MFA ’05