Between 10 and 14 December 2018, the LSE Review of Books blog is running a Translation and Multilingualism Week. This feature presents an extract from the recent book, Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto (MIT Press), in which author Mark Polizzotti offers both a manual and manifesto for translation that invites readers to understand the translator not as a ‘traitor’ but as the author’s creative partner. 

If you are interested in this topic, all posts published as part of the week can be accessed here. If you would like to contribute on this topic in the future, please contact us at Lsereviewofbooks@lse.ac.uk

Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto. Mark Polizzotti. MIT Press. 2018. 4-8. 

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The question of whether translation is or isn’t possible, and to what degree, and how much is ‘lost’ in it, and just what that means, has been exercising translators and translation watchers practically since the dawn of human language, or at least since humans noticed they had more than one language at their disposal. Over the years, not only many scholars but even some practicing translators have gone out of their way to denigrate translation as a mug’s game, judging by the self-defeating discourse they maintain when commenting on it. The eppur si muove response is, of course it’s possible—translations are realized every day, in all sorts of contexts. Umberto Eco once noted that ‘every sensible and rigorous theory of language shows that a perfect translation is an impossible dream. In spite of this, people translate.’

That said, it would be utopian to pretend that the reader of a translation is truly experiencing the original, or that in the reading of any translation there isn’t a degree of difference— difference rather than loss—between the text being translated and the translation itself. The heart of the matter lies in whether we conceive of a translation as a practical outcome or an unattainable ideal. If the latter, then the inherent and inevitable flaws of the translation enterprise would, in fact, make the entire effort seem futile. (But couldn’t one say the same of any piece of writing?) The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset noted that while translation is no doubt a ‘utopian task,’ it is only so because ‘everything Man does is utopian.’ Wishing to cut through this Gordian knot, the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur recommends that we reach the stage of acceptance, explicitly likening this to the work of mourning, and ‘give up the ideal of the perfect translation’ once and for all.

When I translate Patrick Modiano, with his deceptively plainspoken style, I try to absorb his sensibility, internalize his structure, plot, characterization, syntax, rhythm—all the elements that Modiano put into creating his text—so as to deliver to his English-language readers the same reading experience as is had by their French-language counterparts. Needless to say, that’s a pipe dream: For one thing, languages, as we know, are not just collections of definitions and grammatical rules but instead are conditioned by a host of other factors—history, culture, usage, literary tradition, politics, chance occurrence, even something as inane as the latest celebrity scandal—and all of these factors cause words and phrases to have their own resonance, their own subtext, which moreover evolves over time. The reciprocity of culture and language, thought patterns and language, perception and language, national character and language, has been a staple of linguistic theory for centuries, from Herder to Humboldt, Coleridge to Sapir, Wittgenstein to Whorf. To remind ourselves that a nation’s literature is shaped, in its form and in its essence, by the ambient language is merely to restate the obvious. ‘Whether consciously or unconsciously,’ writes George Steiner, ‘every act of human communication is based on a complex, divided fabric which may, fairly, be compared to the image of a plant deeply and invisibly rooted or of an iceberg largely under water.’

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For another, and perhaps more to the point, the translated text is a collaboration. It’s not the same as the original but is by necessity a reinterpretation, a second writer’s reading and re-creation of the first writer’s sentences, in other words an unavoidably subjective process—which is why, when I talk about Modiano’s English readers, I really mean ours, his and mine. (Moreover, in many cases, there is a third writer in the mix as well, the line editor, who revises the translator’s work and further alters its representation in the target language.) Much as I hate to admit it, my version of Modiano is no more purely ‘him’ than Barbara Wright’s, or Joanna Kilmartin’s, or Damion Searls’s, or any of the other translators who have tried their hand at his books. With varying degrees of success, each of us has brought Modiano’s voice into English; and in so doing, each of us has unavoidably infused that voice with tonalities of our own.

Arguably, it is this constantly shifting balance between objective fact (the text to be translated) and subjective interpretation (a given translator’s version of it) that accounts for the persistence and vehemence of the conviction that translation is inherently impossible. It rests on a conception of human language that considers speech merely a conveyer of information, or, as David Bellos puts it, a ‘desire to believe (despite all evidence to the contrary) that words are at bottom the names of things.’ As Bellos notes, this conception goes all the way back to the Book of Genesis, in which Adam sets about naming ‘every living creature’—which begs the question of how Adam would have named a particular shade of blue (or indigo, or azure) hovering over the Paris skyline at dusk, or the feeling of melancholy (wistfulness, gloom) that might visit you at that hour. Nor does it account for the fact that even supposedly straightforward nouns, such as dog, have different resonances in different cultures, even if they designate the same species. And, finally, it leaves aside the fact that, as a translator, my choice of rendering the French word chien as dog, hound, cur, pooch, canine, or mutt will alter the feel of my English sentence, and that one of my tasks is to decide which of those options is the most appropriate to the given context. Language is not all about designation. Its real meanings often hover in the spaces between utterances, in the movement generated by particular arrangements of words, associations, and hidden references. This is what literature does, in the best of cases. And it’s what translation can do as well.

But perhaps more than anything, the conviction of translation’s impossibility rests on a monolithic conception of how we read a work of literature, which logically leads one to conclude that a work’s single, inalterable reading cannot be reproduced accurately in another language and culture. The reality, however, is that reading, even within a single culture, is by nature a subjective and active process. Every reader, like every translator, ‘loses’ something in experiencing an author’s work—through misunderstanding, or inattention, or personal bias, or any number of other factors—and at the same time brings something to it that no one else could bring. Even without the added white noise that the source work carries in its wake—such as previous critical acclaim, commercial success, or scandalous controversy—we can never know how target readers will react to a translation because we don’t know how source readers have reacted or will react to the original from one reading to the next. If we think of the source text not as a defined, monolithic whole that can never be replicated adequately, but rather as a zone of energy, always in flux, endlessly prone to different assimilations and interpretations, then we begin to understand better the work of translation, which, like any communicative act, shows itself to be not only possible but dynamic.


Mark Polizzotti has translated more than fifty books, including works by Patrick Modiano, Gustave Flaubert, Raymond Roussel, Marguerite Duras and Paul Virilio. Publisher and Editor-in-Chief at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he is also the author of Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton and other books.

Note: This book extract gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. Thank you to Mark Polizzotti and MIT Press for providing permission to publish an edited extract from the book. 

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