Climbing Macchu Picchu

Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu

by John Felstiner
Stanford University Press, 284 pp., $18.50

Translators, more than anyone else, tend to become weary of the subject of translation. Enmeshed in it, they balk at discussing its impossibilities. For them, each literary work presents its peculiar problems, all requiring unique solutions, so that for them there can be no theory of translation, only the exacting act, varying enormously from text to text. Assailed by the reservations of others, they tend to throw down their finished versions defiantly, and stalk off without another word.

There are reasons for this. Translators tend to feel professionally rueful, less from a sense of going unrecognized and unrewarded than from having come to expect a lack of understanding of their complicated tribulations, for a suspicion still prevails that the translations of literary texts must be makeshift, second-hand, unsatisfactory, the glow of the original just beyond their horizon, a circumstance translators are more deeply aware of than their readers.

It has become something of a commonplace to refer to the last twenty-five years as an Age of Translation, a claim justified, I think, not so much by the assiduous bringing-over into English of difficult literary works from a great many languages as by a growing absorption in the act of translation itself as a mysterious process of revelation. And yet, translation continues to be cold-shouldered by the academy, and imagined but not unimaginable professors complain of students who “try to get away with doing a translation instead of some real work,” an attitude which has generated a mass of fruitless and pointless literary studies, exceeding the Nixon papers in bulk by far, and all doomed, as Borges would say, to oblivion. It would have been of much more use had these poor souls undertaken working translations, with notes, of texts from foreign languages not likely otherwise to have been translated.

Any translator can testify that the translation of a poem involves the most exhaustive possible reading of the original, which must be scrutinized, heard, and brooded over at length before it can assume anything like its shape in another language. Translation is an act that must go through the critical process and beyond it, since it must reach decision. Yet translation is a ground that the academy still shies from, although schools and departments of translation are beginning to sprout. The translation police, those dusty figures (dons, we were always sure) who used to patrol the pages of published translations on the lookout for errors to denounce in acid letters to the editor, are dying out, and a healthier interest replacing them. What we have certainly entered is an age of translation-consciousness.

If we look back over the patchwork history of literary translation into English, a view such as we get from the recently published Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation, which Charles Tomlinson edited amply, it becomes astonishingly clear what a crucial figure Pound was for translation, in demanding a more exacting attention to the literary mode of the original, rather than a merely intelligible English version. He saw …

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