The Enormous Life of Translation

As a budding literary journal, it has been a goal to publish excellent original work of all kinds. This includes translations of works, both old and new. The reasons for this are manifold — not the least of which is, to me, the self-evident value and beauty of multiculturalism, especially in an age when migrants are viewed by maddening crowds as anything but valuable and beautiful — yet the decision ultimately takes its roots from the premise that the world is rather a large place after all, and works written originally in English make up only a part of it. Even if translated work comes to us through our native tongue, this is surely to be favored over never having experienced the written word of other peoples, nations, cultures, heritages, and, of course, languages at all.

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida rather famously opined that all work is translated, to some degree, when it is interpreted by the reader. He also observed that translated work is never identical to the original. Both these ideas seem to this writer quite true, but this does not make translated works any less meaningful or powerful. Perhaps quite the opposite. The “extra” translation work done by the reader of translations must allow for this other linguistic layer lying atop the text. In this way, reading a translation might bring one even further down the semantic path to the words themselves and their meanings, infinitely forking in the verbal, proverbial wood.

With this in mind, it shouldn’t be too hard for those fancying themselves global citizens to fathom this particular dream, to have the opportunity to discover other worlds and perspectives through the lens of translated works. Great translations have the nearly impossible task of communicating authentically while at the same time illuminating the text for readers in the new language, the aforementioned overlay, which one recognizes likely functions as both transparency and filter at the same time.

Having done very little of this work myself (if the reader will accept my Latin homework in college), I don’t claim to be authoritative on the subject, only to impart a viewpoint, emotionally compelled though it may be. As it is, reading and writing are both forms of translating, each in its own, interconnected way. The guide is the self, one’s experience, the present state of affairs, any contextual framing for the piece under consideration, whits of semantic comprehension, and a multitude of other factors, each one a ripple and a tide in its own right.

The best translation work I’ve encountered shines a light on the text while somehow disappearing into the shadows cast by that same light. Two of the greatest modern translators of Dostoyevsky are Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, whose work on Crime and Punishment made that text bold and accessible. In an interview with The Paris Review in 2015, Pevear said, “The words seem simple, but when you start looking, there is enormous life underneath.” This rings true for me of nearly all great literature, but of translation, it has a double-meaning.

Isn’t that just it, though? Any text will bear its own meanings and the ones the reader finds within it. Hopefully, those meanings bear their own significance that affects the reader long after the piece is finished. With any luck, this is precisely the kind of literature that is published in the pages of this journal, from all reaches of the world, regardless of the language of origin.

Neal Tucker