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  • Literary Translation and the Making of Originals by Karen Emmerich
  • Gordon Braden (bio)
Literary Translation and the Making of Originals. By Karen Emmerich. London: Bloomsbury, 2017. viii + 224 pp. Paperback £23.99.

Emmerich now teaches comparative literature at Princeton, but for fifteen years she has been a professional translator of modern Greek literature. Practical experience keeps nosing into the more theoretical parts of her discussion. Another critic’s prim scorn for the “translation business” sparks annoyance from the shop floor: “I am frankly baffled at who might comprise this ‘translation business’; in fact, to most of us involved in producing, publishing, and promoting literary translations on a would-be professional basis, these activities seem just about as far from a business as you can get” (187). The book bristles with irritation at lazy or perverse tropes and terminology that turn up in the analyzing and evaluating of translations and translation: references to “source” or “original,” to “equivalence” in meaning, gestures toward “what is lost” in translation, toward “untranslatability” (“translation is not impossible; it happens every day”; 119), praise of translations as works of literature “in their own right.” Readers may not immediately understand the logic of this list; to explain it, Emmerich offers a theoretical context and five case studies.

The latter are detailed, absorbing, and impressively diverse. Only two are on Emmerich’s home turf. One of these reconstructs the editorial decisions by which a de facto canon of demotic Greek folksongs was created by a series [End Page e-8] of editors—the first and most influential of them French—over the last two centuries; asked to translate some of these for an English-language anthology, Emmerich decided she simply could not take for granted the Greek text presented to her. Another chapter focuses on tries at translating the “unfinished” poems of the much-translated Cavafy; these survive in messy drafts, with multiple variants confusingly entered for particular words and phrases. Emmerich’s first chapter looks at what had to happen to get from the cuneiform writing on some ancient clay tablets to the literary work we call Gilgamesh. The story has been well told before, but Emmerich convincingly stresses the radical uncertainty accompanying the whole enterprise: what we now read in some modern language, and treat as our earliest literary touchstone, translates no particular surviving text, and those texts themselves are written in multiple long-deceased languages that we can never be certain have been correctly deciphered. A chapter on Emily Dickinson considers the recent intensified interest in the eccentric manuscripts (which have similarities to Cavafy’s “unfinished” poems) that lie behind the printed texts her editors have made available, and looks afresh at the not easily answered question of what exactly to do with the information they provide. A final chapter presents the brief career of the poet Jack Spicer, especially the translations and “pseudotranslations” (translations of non-existent works) in After Lorca (1957), as an exemplary “coming to grips with the fundamentally citational nature of all writing” (162) and an affront to “our lingering hesitation to explore the full consequences of poststructuralist challenges to the notion of writing as individual expression” (188).

That last gives a sense of the context within which Emmerich wants to link her five chapters. Her central thesis, reflected in her title, is a dissent from “the often unexamined assumption that the object of translation is a single, stable lexical entity whose existence predates the process of translation.” Rather, “each translator creates her own original, fixes a particular text as the ‘prior’ text to be translated—fixes it sometimes before translating and sometimes during” (13). Putting that in terms of a single translator if anything understates things. The creation of Gilgamish involved a collectivity of archeologists, editors, and translators, in a chain of second guessing that will end only if the world just loses interest. The same instability applies even when things are less remote. Emmerich cites her own experience being commissioned to translate a novel by Vassilis Vassilikos published in evolving Greek versions; her employer insisted she cut 250 pages from the latest. She did so in collaboration with the fortunately available author, who also suggested further changes...


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