Lost in Translation

In the Times earlier this month Michael Cunningham makes the bold claim that “all literature is a product of translation.” It is far more than simply translating a work from one language to another with all the imperfections and variations that involves. His argument goes like this.

First, the writer makes an effort to translate his ideas or images to the page. There is always a discrepancy between the two. Cunningham claims most writers never write the book they had hoped to write. “It feels, in short, like a rather inept translation of a mythical great work.”

Next is the language translator who makes an effort to capture the writers meaning in another language that may yield only a vague approximation of his intent, subtle ironies, nuances, and sometimes humor that may be the most difficult of all to accurately convey in another language.

Finally, on Cunningham’s account, there is the reader’s translation of the writer’s words. What does the writer mean by saying this? What does the story mean, after all? Do I have even the vaguest idea?

No two readers are going to answer these questions in the same way. Cunningham suggests in a rather elaborate fashion that each reader translates the text into his or her “private imaginary lexicon, according to his or her interests and needs and levels of comprehension.

Emerson said it better: “You have seen a skillful man reading Plutarch. Well, that author is a thousand things to a thousand persons. Take that book into your own two hands and read your eyes out. You will never find there what the other finds.”

However, I think there is another step in translating a work of literature and that may the longest and the most subject to change. It is the way the story gets recalled and retold again and again as time goes by. You look for a review of the book, you tell your friend about it, you try to write a blog about it and at each step along the way the story is given another translation.

Cunningham concludes: “Here, then, is the full process of translation. At one point we have a writer in a room, struggling to approximate the impossible vision that hovers over his head. He finishes it, with misgivings. Some time later we have a translator struggling to approximate the vision, not to mention the particulars of language and voice, of the text that lies before him. He does the best he can, but is never satisfied. And then, finally we have the reader. The reader is the least tortured of the trio, but the reader too may very well feel that he is missing something in the book, that through sheer ineptitude he is failing to be a proper vessel for the book’s overarching vision.”

I found Cunningham’s notion refreshing and provocative. It has elicited some comment in letters to the Times. One person made reference to a remark Robert Frost made about poetry: “When you translate poetry, poetry is what gets lost in translation.”

Try translating that into Italian. I did and here’s how one translator did it: "Quando si traduce la poesia, la poesia è ciò che si perde nella traduzione." Is that what Frost meant?