is literature untranstable

A given literary text is never wholly untranslatable. In the context of Russian literature, translation and translatability have played a vital role. In fact, according to Russian and translation studies scholar Brian James Baer, modern Russian poetry as we know it was born in a translation. Finally, reiterating Joseph Brodsky’s notion of translation, the blog stressed the importance of recognizing translation as an important literary activity, not a subsidiary art form. In a good discussion of literary translation and the significance of translation in Russian literature, it has been argued that literary untranslatability is not gospel truth.

Indeed, the idea that a translation can never do complete justice to the original does not imply that a high-quality translation is not possible. The widespread suspicion of the literary translation may be traced to a range of factors, including aesthetic purity and the monolingual hegemony of nation-states.

In fact, according to Gideon Lewis-Kraus, our mistrust of translations arguably has its origins in the concept of “infidelity” which dates back to the Ottoman Empire (see “Is Translation an Art or a Math Problem?”, by Gideon Lewis-Kraus in The New York Times, June 4, 2015.)As he argues, “The sultans and the members of their court refused to learn the languages of the infidels, so the task of expediting communication with Europe devolved upon a hereditary caste of translators, the Phanariots.

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They were Greeks with Venetian citizenship residing in Istanbul. European diplomats never liked working with them, because their loyalty was not to the intent of the foreign original but to the sultan’s preference.” Hence, Lewis-Kraus concludes, translation is often associated with the notion of treachery. In the context of aesthetics, it has been argued that since the poetic value of a literary text is vulnerable to mistranslation, translation is ultimately a doomed undertaking. At best, it can make it to the outskirts of the original.

Such an assertion is evidently fatal and inimical to the very ethos of literature. After all, according to the Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, the “outskirts” is where the pulse of culture is almost palpable. Besides, as the blog post rightly argues, it is a translation that has given us the classics of world literature.

From Greek philosophy translated by Arabic scholars to the birth of Latin literature on the back of a Greek play, translation is the lifeblood of literature and culture. Too, it has been rightly claimed that translation is the gateway to understanding Russian literature.

From Alexander Pushkin to Leo Tolstoy to Vladimir Nabokov, the transcultural spirit of Russian literary traditions cannot be separated from the acclaimed genius of its literary productions. What is more, the new wave of Russian-American literature continues to nourish the selfsame transcultural element innate in the Russian blood.

The blog post also argues that virtuosity is no longer highly valued in the arts. So far as literature is concerned, the postmodern dissolution of literary standards is indeed true. However, a blanket denial of literary virtuosity is still a possibility, albeit a dangerous one. Whether or not it becomes a reality, given the gross liberalization of culture, remains to be seen.

Image by Felix Wolf from Pixabay


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