I have one final book group tomorrow night before the summer break. I’m ready for the break, for the opportunity to read whatever I want for the next two months without thinking about what needs to be read for the next group discussion. (To be perfectly honest, I’ve been known to go to discussion before I finished the book, however that never stops me from having an opinion.) Tomorrow night we’re discussing Death in Venice by Thomas Mann and I’m on page 10 of 142, not an insurmountable hurdle to complete in 21 hours. Surprisingly, I’ve already fallen in love with the book.
The flirting stage began with the introduction. I like reading introductions, Julie Robinson, my book discussion guru. warns against them. Julie thinks it could steer the reader away from what he or she would otherwise feel about the book. Maybe, but I’m fairly opinionated and not too easily steered. When I have the time, I like easing into a book with an introduction. Michael Cunningham‘s essay on reading and translation is, by far, the best introduction I recall.
Claire and I have spent several lunches and many blog posts discussing translated literature. Claire consistently feels that reading in translation keeps her at a distance. I know what she’s feeling, but I wonder if it is because much of the translated literature we have read is from Europe and we’re experiencing a cultural difference. Cunningham argues that all literature is a work of translation from the ideas in a writer’s head to the printed word. To a certain extent, he agrees with Claire, but his argument is that the act of writing is a process of translation:
My own translators, the best ones, seem always to battle a sense of failure–the conviction that while they’ve come close they’ve missed something in the original, some completeness, some aliveness, that refuses to quite come through in French or Italian or Japanese. This, too, is familiar to me. I always feel the same when a novel has finally exhausted me, and I feel compelled to admit that, although it doesn’t, seem finished, it is as close to completion as I’m capable to getting it. Some wholeness isn’t quite there. While I wrote, I felt it hovering around me. I could taste it, I could almost smell it–the mystery itself. And even if that published novel has turned out fairly well, there is always that sense of having missed the mark.
Fiction is, than, at least to me, an ongoing process of translation (and mistranslation), beginning with the writer’s earliest impulses and continuing through its rendering into Icelandic or Korean or Catalan. Writers and translators are engaged in the same effort, at different stages along the line.
I’m reading the 2004 translation by Michael Henry Heim, not the first for Death in Venice which was originally published in 1912. Cunningham’s introduction was written before all of thehullabaloo over the Pevear and Volokhonsky translations of War and Peace. But, without conducting extensive researching whether he wrote on that subject, I would guess he was in favor of renewed translations.
For a handful of the greatest writers, Thomas Mann among them, the process of translation continues even further. Occasionally a book like Death in Venice speaks so enduringly to readers that it is translated not once but again, and sometimes again and again. This is as it should be. It respects the fundamental nature of literature as a mutable and ever-unresolved business involving writers’ and readers’ ongoing attempts to get to the heart of the matter, to complete that which can never be completed. A great book is probably, be definition, too complex and layered, too intricately alive, to be translated once and for all.
Cunningham continues in his essay to discuss specifically why this translation is better than a previous one, however, his examples relate to scenes in the book, which I need to get back to if I am going to finish it for tomorrow discussion. What are your thoughts on Cunningham’s view of translation? What are yours? We would love to hear them in the comments.