Translation Talk, Russell Scott Valentino


Russell Scott Valentino is the founder and editor of Autumn Hill Books. His translations from the Italian and Croatian have been nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Book of the Year Awards held by Foreword Magazine. He is a professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, where he lives with his wife and two boys.

M—: In the opening issue of Creative Nonfiction, Lee Gutkind answered the question, “What is creative nonfiction.” I’ll ask you a similar question here: what is literary translation?

Russell Scott Valentino: The genres of creative writing, particularly those of creative writing programs in North American universities, are fairly set, with roots in fiction and poetry, and occasional branchings into play-writing, screenwriting, and, now, literary nonfiction. The degree to which translation does not fit into this sort of scheme becomes clear when one considers that the products of translating can be short stories, poems, essays, plays, and screenplays. So, first an answer in the negative: literary translation is not a genre.

M—: OK, let’s start with the literary part: What makes one translation literary and another non-literary?

RSV: I can think of two things. One is the same as what makes any kind of text literary (which is not as simple a criterion as one might think; I mean, you can take a mechanic’s manual and shape it into a work of poetry—this has been done). The other, which is more translation specific, is that you can write a translation for non-literary purposes, for instance, as part of learning a foreign language. As part of a set of exercises, translations can be practice in the same way that scales are for a violinist. Can a scale be performed in such a way that it turns into art? Absolutely. In the same way, in the hands of a really good writer, a simple pedagogical line can be transformed into a literary translation. And then there is the whole realm of “technical” translation, which isn’t so much defined by the fact that it deals with technical subjects as that it is primarily concerned with communication and semantic transfer, as opposed to the creation of art.

M—: Who are literary translators? How are they different than creative writers?

RSV: I’m tempted to say no one really knows, but that would be too flippant. A better answer would be to read some of the descriptions of what they do here. They are also, the best of them, members of the American Literary Translators Association. They straddle the worlds of creative writing and scholarship. I suspect that translation is the only form of writing that can receiving funding from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities; in one domain, translators wear their creative writing berets, in the other their scholarly fedoras. That’s sort of why I almost said no one really knows who they are.

M—: Literary translation programs have become more numerous in U.S. universities these days, but there has been some question about where to house them. Do they belong in foreign language departments?

RSV: I don’t think so, not at the graduate level at least. And even at the undergraduate level, a translation focus inside a foreign language program is likely, in my experience, to be useful for pedagogical purposes, but not especially so for getting the best kinds of works from other languages into an English form that is likely to be read by people outside that particular pedagogical context. Teaching the English-language writing skills is the hardest part. Can you write a line of dialogue like Tom Stoppard, or create lines of poetry like W.S. Merwin, or sentences like Joyce? Learning to do that is what it takes to make good translated drama or poetry or prose fiction. More on this question here. This leads to another answer to the first question, again in the negative: literary translation is not a mode of foreign language instruction (though translation certainly can be). Why not? Because literary translation focuses on the product, the English-language creation, its texture, pace, beauty. The foreign language part of this is a technical detail.

M—: How do you decide what literary translations to publish with AHB (Autumn Hill Books)? And, similarly, how do you decide, as a translator, what works you want to translate?

RSV: A number of our titles have come to us through contacts at the University of Iowa, including its International Writing Program and translation MFA programs. We also get a number of queries, and we have lots of contacts in various parts of the world. I also like to read.

M—: Does reading a work in translation differ from reading a non-translation?

RSV: Lawrence Venuti provides a very limited response to this question here. But his take is essentially Modernist, meaning that it wants us to see translation almost at a meta-level, admiring the craft in a somewhat detached and sophisticated manner. This is a nice goal for certain kinds of reading, but it also leaves me feeling like we’ve taken different trains from the same platform. I mean, to agree with this approach to how to read a translation is to assume that anyone who has ever been inspired by a translation (let’s say, of Marx, or the words of Lao Tse, or a novel by George Sand) was simply a rather naïve reader. I don’t think that quite covers it.

M—: So tell us why people should read literary translations.

RSV: Now you’re talking. It’s not because it makes you better, at least no more so than reading anything might. Of course, some people read this way, just as some people eat with their brains such that it tastes good when they think it is good for them. If you read this way, then reading literary translations might make you feel good about yourself. This is not a satisfying answer, I know. A better one is that some really wondrously fantastic works have been translated from other languages, and if you want to read them, and you don’t read all the languages from which such wonderfully fantastic works have been translated, then not only should you read them in translation, you must read them in translation. We’ll try to pick them. All you have to do is read.