- Literary Translation and the Making of Originals by Karen Emmerich
Thanks to the labors of scholars in translation studies, a discipline that has existed in the academy since the 1970s and has done a great deal to advance scholarly understanding of the theory, history, and practice of translation, scholars in the field are now entirely familiar with the fact that translation is always an interpretative act, and that there are a number of very different ways that a translation can legitimately respond to an original text. Karen Emmerich’s brilliant new book argues that we need to consider the instability of the “original text” (3), as well as that of translations. We tend to imagine originals as “categorically richer texts than translations” (2) and discuss translation as if it always began with an entirely stable source text to hand. Emmerich persuasively deconstructs this set of assumptions, showing how originals themselves can be—or, she suggests, are always—also creations, formed qua originals only once derivative texts such as translations make them so.
Her starting point is her own experience of being asked to translate a Greek novel by Vassilis Vassilikos, Γλαύκος Θρασάκης (Glafkos Thrassakis, 1979), titled in her translation as The Few Things I Know about Glafkos Thrassakis (2002). According to the terms of her contract, Emmerich was required to provide a “ ‘faithful rendition into idiomatic English’ ” of this novel that would “ ‘neither omit anything from the original text nor add anything to it, other than such modest changes as are necessary in the translation into English’ ” (3). But the contract also specified that Emmerich’s manuscript would be “ ‘approximately 500 pages in length’ ” (3). This combination of requirements posed a rather obvious difficulty, since the two most recent Greek editions of the novel were both more than 750 pages long. Moreover, the novel had gone through several radical revisions by the author, who was still in the process of revising it and himself described it as “ ‘a work in progress’ ” (6, quoting Vassilikos). The author and translator met in a hotel bar to solve the problem of how to create a 500-page text for the English translation; in the end, the author tore out a [End Page 179] “chunk of roughly 150 pages” (6). Since this new “original” was still a good hundred pages too long, Emmerich pared it down as she worked on the translation, checking each cut with the author, who showed surprisingly little interest in her work, but subsequently produced yet another revised version, prompted by Emmerich’s reductions. The “original” from which Emmerich translated was thus “an utterly unique object” (6)—and, in fact, it did not entirely exist—since there was and is no text of the novel that is exactly equivalent to her translation.
This hilarious and thought-provoking case is clearly in certain respects an outlier; most translators are not required to abridge the work from which they translate. But Emmerich argues that there are far more cases than we tend to acknowledge in which the “original” or the “source” is itself unstable. She claims that this example is “extreme but not exceptional,” since with all “originals,” relative to translations, “textual instability is there, whether or not we are aware of it” (8). She makes this important argument through a rich, varied series of case studies. Her ultimate goal is to invite readers, critics, and scholars to be “able to let go of the rhetoric and ideology of faithfulness,” and instead to understand translation as a “further textual extension of an already unstable literary work” (14), inviting a more capacious understanding of what translation is and can be.
Emmerich’s chapters range across an impressively diverse array of studies. She is to be commended for her willingness to step far outside her central professional area in Modern Greek literature. The first chapter is an overview of the earliest textual reconstructions and translations of the Epic of Gilgamesh, a set of stories dating from the third millennium BCE that survives in fragmentary inscriptions in cuneiform, first deciphered in the...