Remaining faithful to the translation: The poetics of translation - Willis Barnstone: Yale University Press, pounds 25

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The Independent Online
IT IS quite common, these days, to see long, fist-shaking articles attacking the whole idea of literary prizes. The big flaw, it is usually pointed out, is that they are awarded to books that have already been written, and are therefore a blatant waste of everybody's time and money. What is the benefit to literature, they ask, if A S Byatt gets a new swimming pool? Can we be sure that all this back-slapping will spur the lucky winners on to greater things?

Only the other day, one of these articles mentioned in passing the Independent's own award for translated literature, and paused just long enough to call it 'that most worthy and unattractive of forms'. The writer would probably be mortified to think that anyone could take this as a compliment, but worthy - worthy's all right. It's a notch above unworthy, at least - though we might well notice that English could use a little translation itself when a word such as 'worthy' starts striking some people as a term of abuse. And unattractive? Only a reader devoted to the idea that books need to be fashionable could think of that as a tasty insult.

It is quite common, for some reason, to think of translations as tricky and esoteric. Yet translation is a strong and influential part of everyday life. Someone once said that 'the duty and the task of the writer are those of the translator', meaning that all forms of writing are an attempt to translate the incoherence of life into the ordered lucidity of literature. Most films, after all, are translations of books, though we rarely call them that.

Besides, the idea that translations are 'unattractive' is a rather recent one. As Willis Barnstone points out in his fine new examination of the subject, the first book ever produced on movable type in the West was a translation: Gutenberg's bible. And subsequent British versions have easily convinced five centuries of readers that God spoke Elizabethan English, and that he meant every word. Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde is pretty much a translation of Boccaccio. Malory's Morte d'Arthur is a collage of French books; Spenser packed The Faerie Queene with strong belts of Tasso and Ariosto; Shakespeare rewrote North's translations of Plutarch and called them Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus.

Perhaps these are merely worthy and unattractive writers. But we only have to consider the popularity of translated classics in the English-speaking world to see how thin and modern is the idea that they are ungainly. A few years from now, newspapers will be featuring Christmas pull-outs in which prominent people are asked to name their favourite books of the millennium, and nobody will frown when they see names such as Homer, Virgil, Dante, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Flaubert, Balzac, Mann, Kafka, Proust and Borges in there with the giants of English literature.

It was Borges who said of one of his stories that 'the original was unfaithful to the translation'. Willis Barnstone takes this neat line as his theme and explores the curious double life of translations: books that include both reading and writing in their nature. Inevitably, he is obliged to discuss the work of recent linguistic theorists - people who talk not of translation but of interlingual transposition - and he does so with verve and generosity, not failing to point out that such theorists decline, for their own reasons, to include a discussion of literature in their elaborate, pseudo-scientific equations. In the end he rests his case on another witticism by Borges: 'The dictionary is based on the hypothesis - obviously an unprovable one - that languages are made up of equivalent synonyms.'

Barnstone has some fun with the idea of translation as a metaphor for all forms of transfer and mediation, though he could have had even more. Saul Bellow once said that if we pricked Shylock today, he would not bleed as others do. The merchant of Venice's resonant appeal to a common humanity is reduced, as it were, to mere special bleeding. As the world splinters into competing special interests, each claiming a unique sovereignty for its own needs, it is hard not to see translation as more than ever necessary, as a way of negotiating not just between languages but between races, religions, warring states, and sometimes even between the sexes.

But the largest chunk of his book is devoted to a description of the many different English bibles. He notes how Jewishness was drained out of the good book - the word 'Rabbi' is usually rendered in English as 'Master' - and pounces on the prevailing political and religious motives that drove the early interpreters. This is part of a larger argument in favour of perpetual translation, and while we might expect him to favour this, it does lead to a satisfying view of translators as performers - as actors or conductors, repeatedly staging fresh adaptations of original texts.

Sometimes, of course, the results have a certain comic charm. Eskimos do not, understandably, have a word for lamb, so the Eskimo version of the Bible talks of Jesus as the 'Seal of God'. Poland, apparently, has never had anything resembling a whaling industry, which means that the Polish version of Moby Dick is one of the most remarkable and mysterious books in any language. But at other times the results are just plain distressing. As an example of how translations that claim to be faithful to the letter of the law end up betraying its spirit, Barnstone cites the following extract from the Gospel according to St John, as found in the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1959:

'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was towards the God, and God was the Word. This was in beginning towards the God. Everything through him became, and apart-from-him became not-even-one-thing. What has-become in him life was, and the life was the light of the men. And the light in the darkness shines, and the darkness it not overcame.'

Now that really is unattractive. But the same could not be said of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, by Jose Saramago, translated by Giovanni Pontiero, which was last night presented with this year's Independent Award for Foreign Fiction. A sustained and spirited description of a strange man at large on the streets of Lisbon, full of small twists, it is what one of the judges (Michael Wood) called in a review: 'funny, capacious and threatening'. It is a book that easily stands alongside the two previous winners of the award (the prize is yet young): Milan Kundera and Simon Leys ..ETHER write errorTX.- At any rate, they are pleased in Lisbon. The President of Portugal made a radio statement congratulating Jose Saramago. Difficult to imagine John Major making - how should we put it - such a worthy and unattractive gesture.