Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Literary Translator Esther Allen

Washington, DC

Esther Allen. Photo by Caroline White

Esther Allen. Photo by Caroline White

Since 1981, the NEA has awarded 323 literature translation fellowships for works in 61 languages from 71 countries. Today we announced $300,000 in 20 fellowships for fiscal year 2011. This year's projects vary from the ancient to the contemporary, involving works in 13 different languages from 17 countries ranging from novels and poetry to memoirs and myths. To celebrate, we spoke with Esther Allen whose fellowship will support her translation from Spanish of Antonio Di Benedetto's Zama.

NEA: Please briefly describe the project this grant will support. How do you choose the works you translate?

ESTHER ALLEN: I'm translating Zama, a 1956 novel by Argentine writer Antonio Di Benedetto, considered a great masterpiece in the Spanish-speaking world but never before translated into English. The project grew out of a trip to Argentina I made in 2005 at the invitation of the Fundación TyPA, which brings editors and translators from across the world to Buenos Aires for a whirlwind week-long literary boot camp each year. There I discovered that the Argentine writers who are known internationally are quite a different set of names from the ones everyone in Argentina is talking about. Antonio di Benedetto came up frequently in meetings with critics, writers, and editors, but I'd never heard of him before. I came home with a couple of his books and found them simultaneously intriguing and off-putting--I couldn't quite enter into what he was doing. Edwin Frank, editor of New York Review Books Classics, went on the same trip a couple of years later, and he's the one who brought Zama back. He asked me to have a look at it and see if it was worth doing--and I decided it was.

When I'm considering whether or not to translate a book, the most basic question is: do I admire the book? Is it worth the amount of effort I'd have to invest in translating it? I've heard some translators say they'll translate a novel without having read it first and I find that very hard to understand: how can they know whether they want to translate it if they haven't read it? Furthermore, there are lots of books I admire that I might not be interested in translating. It's a question of the meeting points of cultures, the places where things are intersecting and overlapping. I ask myself not only whether the book can successfully make the transition into the new context of English, but whether it has something important to bring in. I have to believe in a book in order to translate it.

NEA: You?ve spoken of your work as "a kind of activism in defense of translation"--what do you mean by that?

ALLEN: When I first started out as a translator in the early 1990s, it often felt as if it was the last thing in the world anyone should be idiotic enough to devote time to. There was a prevailing sense that translation, any translation, was some sort of shameful, lowbrow thing. Most publishers resisted doing translations--many were so out of practice they wouldn't have been sure how to publish a translation even if they'd wanted to. Some academics were bringing out their translations under pseudonyms, to avoid the stigma of being a translator. It's a wonder people kept doing it at all. There were a number of us at that point who started thinking about how to surmount those barriers and keep the conversation between literature written in English and the literature of the rest of the world going. I've been a reader of Borges from a very young age, and for Borges translation is the central literary activity; it was painful to see how belittled it had become in the English-speaking world. Now, twenty years later, our culture has certainly become far more receptive to translation. But it seems to be a cycle; American culture had previously been very receptive in the 60s and early 70s, and then moved back toward monolingual insularity. Eliot Weinberger has suggested that Americans become more interested in reading works from other languages when they are disenchanted with their own country---so perhaps these moments of increased attention to translation weren't due to the work of "translation activists" but to misguided wars like those in Vietnam and Iraq. In any case, it's clear that translation in the English-speaking world will continue to need defenders.

NEA: How do you balance your own creative voice with the voice of the source text when translating?

ALLEN: Here I'll send you back to my response to the first question: first and foremost, I have to translate work I believe in. Sometimes there is no more effective way of saying what you want to say than through a translation. One excellent example of this can be found in the life of the 19th-century Cuban revolutionary José Martí, whom I've translated extensively. He spent a lot of time and money translating Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona into Spanish, publishing it himself, and doing his best to distribute it throughout the Spanish-speaking world in the mid-1880s. He did this because he saw Ramona as a testimony to the threat that Anglo-American expansion posed to Hispanic and indigenous peoples--and since it was written by an Anglo-American, its wake-up call was far more compelling than anything he himself could have written.

I once attended a long talk by a well-known American pundit who repeatedly emphasized that the United States needed to listen to the Iraqi people. During the 40 minutes he spoke, he never once named or quoted an Iraqi person. To me, the translator of an Iraqi text, who creates a space in the global language that is English for the voice of an Iraqi, is doing something far more intellectually credible.

Beyond that, the most crucial element of a translator's work is finding a voice for the literary text in the target language. Finding that voice requires skill, imagination, rapt attention to rhythm, pacing, nuances of tonality, shades of meaning, the color and texture of words. Which is to say that it is an intensely creative act. My creative voice is the voice I create for the source text. People sometimes think of translation as a kind of intellectual subservience, a master-slave relationship; they imagine that the translator subjugates his or her own creative impulses to the demands of the original text in what must be an act of drudgery and submission. But they don't think of an actor as "subjugating" himself to a role, or a musician "subjugating" himself to a piece of music, do they? For the musician, the score is a means of self-expression, and so is the text for the translator.

NEA: How is the work of the translator and the writer similar; how is it different?

ALLEN: I've answered the first part of this question in my response to the previous one. As for how the translator's work differs from the writer's work--I think the best answer to that comes from Gregory Rabassa, who writes in his memoirs about a strange difference he finds between rereading things he wrote and rereading things he translated. When he looks back at something he wrote, he generally finds it mildly interesting and sometimes even thinks, well, my word, the fellow who wrote that had a point. But when he goes back over something he translated, the experience is excruciating; each phrase, each word, brings on sharp pangs of self-criticism, a piercing sense that he should have been able to do better than that. Some writers can never leave their own work alone (Henry James of course corrected and revised throughout his life), but the translator's work is always incomplete, there's always another version, another reading, a different way and perhaps better way it could have been done.

NEA: Why do you believe it?s important for the NEA to support literary translation?

ALLEN: In 2007, with the Institute Ramon Llull of Barcelona and International PEN, I put together a sketch of what might be called the "translation economy" of a number of different countries and linguistic spheres called To Be Translated or Not To Be. We were prompted to undertake the project by our concern about linguistic globalization: English has long since consolidated its position as the world's global lingua franca, and yet it remains more resistant to translation than many other major languages. The book documents the extensive programs that government agencies and government-sponsored foundations in countries including France, Argentina, and the Netherlands have in place to support the circulation of works written domestically into other languages, and to ensure that works written in other languages are brought into their language.

If you believe that every country, every language, produces thinkers of merit who deserve to be able to contribute to and build up their own cultures by writing in their own languages, then it's very clear that translation is crucial; it's the lifeblood that will circulate the most important of those works beyond the languages in which they were originally written. English could and should be functioning as a great central hub in this circulatory system---and it is, to some extent: Orhan Pamuk's work is translated into more than 50 languages, but about half of those translations are based on the English translation, not the original Turkish text. But English could be doing much more. The NEA's increasing support for translation is an effective means of demonstrating to the world that the United States government is not indifferent to this; that we don't want to be the country, the language, that speaks constantly and never listens.

NEA: You received an NEA translation fellowship in 1995. What did that fellowship mean to you and to your work?

ALLEN: I can honestly say that the NEA translation fellowship launched my career--I might have given up and stopped translating without it. In 1989, I'd been awarded a Fulbright grant for dissertation research in Mexico City; while there I visited the southern state of Chiapas, where I discovered a wonderful novel about an indigenous uprising by Rosario Castellanos--a great classic of Mexican literature. I was powerfully affected by it, wanted my non-Spanish speaking friends to read it, too, and was surprised to discover that though it was first published in 1962, it had never been translated into English. I decided to try and translate it myself, and for three years I sent out my proposal and sample chapters to publishers who rejected it--even after the 1992 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas had made the novel more relevant than on the day it was published. In a last-ditch attempt to keep the project alive, I applied to the NEA. Receiving that grant changed everything. I found a publisher, the hard-cover edition (under the title The Book of Lamentations) came out to considerable attention, including a full-length review in the New Yorker, it was picked up in paperback by Penguin 20th-Century Classics, and it is still in print today. For all of which I can only say: thank you, NEA.

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