Translation 23. Literary Translation: A Review Essay by Brian Nelson

As I pointed out in an earlier blog, with reference to the very warm welcome accorded to Edith Grossman’s recent book, Why Translation Matters, ripples of overdue recognition of the craft of literary translation are spread when such skilled and respected practitioners of literary translation share their secrets and insights with us.

A more recent related plea for appropriate recognition for the work of literary translators has recently been presented by another distinguished literary translator and academic spokesman for literary translators, Professor Brian Nelson, in his review essay, ‘The Great Impersonators’ (The Australian Literary Review, 3 November 2010).

[Although no Internet reference seems available for this monthly section of The Australian newspaper, here is the version published in its November 2010 issue by The AALITRA Review (the Review of the Australian Association for Literary Translation). Also contained in this .pdf is a bonus piece on Grossman’s work by Jorge Salavert.]

In this review of three important recent books on translation, Emeritus Professor Nelson, who has translated several works by Emile Zola and is currently the President of the Australian Association for Literary Translation, briefly outlines and deplores public misunderstanding and underestimation of the input of the literary translator since the persecution of Saint Jerome, now the patron saint of translators.

According to Nelson, literary translation is still seen by too many (including many publishers and reviewers) as “an unfortunate necessity at best and, at worst, as a terrible form of treachery” – an allusion to the age-old slander, “Traduttore, tradittore” (translators are traitors).

After praising the recent memoir by Grossman and highlighting her passionate insistence on fidelity to the original text, Nelson goes on to present some aspects of the academic debate on translation studies in Umberto Eco’s Experiences in Translation (itself translated into English, by Alastair McEwen), such as the cultural differences between languages and the need to sacrifice “literal translation for the sake of preserving an appropriate style”.

However, it is Antoine Berman’s work Toward a Translation Criticism: John Donne (translated and edited by Françoise Massardier-Kenney) with its “theoretically sophisticated exploration of the ways in which translation is a critical process as well as a creative one”, that Professor Nelson singles out for recognition as a trail-blazing theoretical work well suited to a more rigorous discipline of translation studies, which he sees as vital to a more extensive (and overdue) public discovery and recognition of the real merits of literary translation.
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(As an example of academic polemics over literary translation, see here.)

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