Translation is a fashionable subject these days, and a steady stream of books on various aspects of translation in theory and practice bears witness to this trend. Many books are aimed at the burgeoning international student market and hence repeat much of what has been said over the thirty years since translation studies first emerged as a field of study and tried to proclaim itself as an independent subject. Some, sadly, are so jargon-ridden that anyone outside the narrow pool of translation studies would gain little from reading them; but Mary Ann Caws’s elegantly written Surprised in Translation thankfully steers clear of jargon and engages instead with real translators and with the nitty-gritty of poetry translation. I was pleasantly surprised when I started it, and found myself enjoying it more and more as I read on.
Caws prefaces her book with a note about its genesis. Those translations that appeal to her most, she says, ‘have something odd about them’. Each translation she writes about was chosen because it struck a particular chord, and inspired the several chapters which are effectively distinct essays on different translators and their work. The unifying thread of the book is the oddity of each of the works discussed – what Caws defines as the unpredictable. So she looks at Mallarmé’s translations of Tennyson, Ezra Pound’s translations of Arnaut Daniel and Rimbaud, Virginia Woolf ’s translations of the lesser-known Clara Malraux, Beckett’s translations of his own work and other people’s, and Yves Bonnefoy’s versions of Shakespeare, Keats and Yeats, and analyses the ways in which these very different writers recreate works that first appeared in another language and which they transformed into something new, rich and strange through translation.
Before embarking on these several studies, Caws discusses the implications and complexities of translation, drawing upon her own extensive experience. The opening chapters are short but full of surprises as she boldly defines her own concept of what translation entails. It is, she tells us, about readjustment, rereading and rewriting: ‘Really, translation is about all of this: mishearing and parroting correctly, making jumps in orders and reclassifying, perceiving in concrete and abstract terms, allowing and creating the slippages and reshapings that will best work.’ Ultimately though, and for Caws most crucially, it is about ‘rethinking in order to retranslate, with some degree of surprise’. [End Page 333]
She also devotes a brief chapter to the surprises involved in collaborative translation, which is particularly appropriate when a writer such as Mallarmé has written in different voices. Working collaboratively on Mallarmé’s journal, Caws notes that not one moment of their co-translating was dull.
What I found particularly illuminating were Caws’s views on translating what she calls the inner, as opposed to the outer shape of a poem. She discusses the vexed question of the weight of words, and the need for the translator to understand an intrinsic lexical heaviness or lightness deliberately created by the poet. She is good also when writing about the problem of the voice of the original poet and the translator’s voice, and the delicate balancing act required to ensure that neither is extinguished. Balance is a motif that runs through this book, and significantly her final paragraph uses the image of hanging perilously from the trapeze of translation and retranslation.
This is a book by a writer who understands what it means to translate poetry and who has a profound understanding of how writers write. It is refreshing – and surprisingly energizing – to read a book whose author loves literature and who understands that what matters in translation is not some abstract notion of fidelity that will always be unattainable, but rather the translator’s own literary abilities and his or her ability to engage with the text. Caws understands the vital importance of play in literary creation, hence her delight in slippages, inventiveness, everything except the boringly mimetic...