The Translation Paradox

Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books:

Imposter-baxterGlory, for the translator, is borrowed glory. There is no way around this. Translators are celebrated when they translate celebrated books. The best translations from the Italian I have seen in recent years are Geoffrey Brock’s rendering of Pavese’s collected poems,Disaffections, and Frederika Randall’s enormous achievement in bringing Ippolito Nievo’s great novel Confessions of an Italian into English. Brock, who has also given us an excellent version of Pinocchio, finds an entirely convincing English voice for the troubled Pavese. Randall turns Nievo’s lively, idiosyncratic pre-Risorgimento prose into something sparklingly credible in English. However, neither of these fine books became the talk of the town and their translators remain in the shadows.

The Complete Works of Primo Levi, which contained the work of ten different translators, offered an example of the general situation in microcosm. Levi is remembered above all for his Auschwitz memoir, If This Is a Man, and to a lesser degree for The Truce, an account of his return from the camps, and The Periodic Table, an engaging collection of autobiographical essays drawing on his work as a chemist. These three books, whose translations I discussed in the previous posts in this series, have monopolized critical comment on The Complete Works and inevitably brought prestige to their translators, Stuart Woolf and Ann Goldstein. But they amount to fewer than 600 of almost 2,800 pages. The other writings, comprising about 1,600 pages of stories and essays, 150 pages of poems, a novel, If Not Now, When?, and a fiercely controversial reflection on concentration camp survivors, The Drowned and the Saved, have received at best generous nods and asides from the critics, while their eight translators were fortunate if they were named at all.

More here.