Translation is of course conspiracy. Whatever else it is or may intend, translation represents a concerted move of the few against the many, the foreign against the domestic, there against here. It is the paradox of the solitary army, taking orders from a distant text, parlez-vous’ing these commands into some semblance of the speech heard round about the place where the translating is going on. Translators are much- traveled characters, close kin to spies and pioneers–two other occupations with a range of acceptation from the most honorable to the detestably covert. But all are cunning. So when we hear that a translation has been undertaken or published, cherchez the plot.
Now if a trove of unknown Inspector Maigret novels should come to light in the attic of one of Simenon’s innumerable mistresses, we might expect the resultant flurry of translations to be cued by no more veiled an agenda than Dives at his gilded door–Get more, get more. Things sell.
When, on the other hand, PEN America‘s editor invites us to reflect on what translations are needed, what is being kept from us, what are they (over there, back then, far away) hiding from us now, there is a gratifying whiff of the conspiracy theory and it seems to me exactly right. We are invited (indicted?) to become co-conspirators in a huge project of subverting the way things are so far.
And what a grand business it would be if from our various cranky or overparticular or generous responses to the question, a permanent forum could be established, under the aegis of PEN, to maintain a continuing archive of titles and authors we need to have translated. A needy and querulous voice (like the voice Socrates assigns to Love itself) that might lift up from time to time and demand Cyprian Norwid or Quirinus Kuhlmann (two poets who happen to be on the top of my oldtimers list of those needing translation).
Such a forum might also remind us that we lose whole bodies of work when translations lose currency, since the language of the translator seldom has the intimate and obsessive presence that the original has in its tongue. Writers whose names we know vanish from our reading tables when their translations age or grow vague. For example, I think we need to hear Quevedo again in our own lingo, and Gautier, and Mörike, and Lermontov, and Strindberg, and Lautréamont, and Platen, and Tyuchev, and . . .
It is a fertile and exciting gesture, this PEN America idea of opening up the whole issue of what we’re missing by being monoglot. Or, most of us, sesquilingual-I mean most of us read Anglo-Indo-Afro-Carib-Australo-American pretty well, even natively, plus a heavy smattering of some other tongue, typically French or Spanish. So we’ll call the usual American reader mono-and-a-half-glot. Nevertheless, since that half tongue is seldom up to allowing us to loll in a hammock with Musil’s notebooks or Lacan’s jokes or Lezama Lima’s original paradise, we rightly clamor for the artful interpreter to tell us what those geniuses have been saying.
But in a lifetime of buying original texts and then reading translations (at times performing the religious duties of comparing the texts en face), I have come to believe that translation, as an enterprise and a business, is just as much part of the sinister Military-Industrial-Complex (what we now call the Entertainment Industry) as the hexing of the Kyoto Treaty.
So we need to invent a conspiracy, a confederation of spies who bring us the news, from then or there.
What are they keeping from us (whoever they are)? What is out there that we need to hear about, read, come home to? Imagine what our sense of literature would be like if no one had bothered to translate Proust and Dostoevsky and Kafka. When Bellow sneers at some putative Zulu Tolstoy, I fancy I hear the voice that could never have predicted Gilgamesh or Bobrowski or Rushdie or Lessing (Rhodesia, for crissakes!) or Meddeb or Diop or any other of the humane texts and geniuses that had the temerity to arise in regions off the A-list.
But Bellow’s prejudice is accurate enough in one sense-there is a worldwide plot against our business as usual, a plot of eternity against the comforts of time. Translation, whether translations of new texts, or new translations of old texts, or deviant translations of traditional texts (like Gavin Douglas’s Scots version of the Aeneid that thrilled Pound so much, or William Arrowsmith’s Petronius-that satirized Pound), all translations betoken a conspiracy against the mind-at-present.
We sleep in language, if language does not come to wake us with its strangeness.
So the bringers of the strange are our appeal, the writers we need now. I’m going to offer a brief list of titles, in case some idle dragomans are itching for work.
Ernst Jünger, Heliopolis, his big utopian novel. Several decades ago a very small press published a version I’ve never found–Jünger’s most ambitious book needs a good literary translation, one that considers the precise and lapidary nature of Jünger’s style, likely the most self-consciously focused of twentieth-century German writers.
Boris Vian, L’herbe rouge. A sequel of sorts to his L’écume des jours, which was a sensational million-seller in France (and once a Penguin paperback in English). Vian’s perennially fresh sensibility makes him such a sweet alarmist.
E. T. A. Hoffmann, The Serapion Brotherhood. A nineteenth-century translation once was to be found in Bohn’s Library, I think. Certainly needs recasting. Hoffmann’s neuroses are precise and vivid, and fraternal with our own. He can talk now, if we let him. (Look at the incredible story “The Fermata” if you think he’s all goblins.)
Novalis, The Apprentices of Sais. A short initiatory novel, a real challenge to a translator’s double sense of style (highly formal) and agenda (deeply poetic, aesthetic, almost spiritual).
Beyond such easily named masterworks needing Green Cards, I can’t quite stop myself from reeling off some more names. Jean Paulhan, Gertrud Kolmar, René-Guy Cadou, Louis-René des Forêts, scarcely translated at all into English though celebrated in their own terrains and in international criticism. I need to read them now in my own demotic.
It’s not just the aesthete and experimentalist readers who need help. Even the bourgeoisie is deprived of its own international comfy classics: what about finally getting Jules Verne and Eugène Sue and C. F. Meyer and Theodor Fontane into English complete at last? And even Balzac is still not fully translated into unbowdlerized English versions.
(My original plan of attack in this note was voided by a timely compliance on the part of Penguin, that cunning press, which gave us a translation, I still haven’t seen it, of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Kater Murr, Tomcat Murr, we’d say, which long struck me as close to the top of the list of books we need englished, Hoffmann’s masterpiece of the talking cat, the stories interwoven, the hangover that lasts a whole life. So perhaps even as I write or you read, someone is translating Fijman and de Chazal and Suhrawardi or the complete journals of the Goncourt brothers.)
And then there are the poets. Not just the famous ones like the great Max Jacob and Georg Heym of whom we hear much, but so little of whose work has ever been put into circulation in English. There are others, the ones whose very success has obscured them. They are the ones we are taught to think of as Thinkers, but who are really poets, who thought in language and embodied thinking in the grace of words-I mean for instance the superpoets Nietzsche and Marx, who have always been presented for their Ideas, as if their texts existed just to notate conclusions. Strip away their working-in-language (which is the revelatory gesture of poetry, soulmaking, revelation), and all you have left is opinion. Take the poetry away from Dante and you have a quaint Fodor’s Guide to Purgatory, as we could imagine a humdrum translator taking away the epochal transformative poetry of James Merrill’s Divine Comedies and leaving us with a scuffed old ouija board.