Does Translation Make for ‘Literature Without Style’?

The English language seems, generally, to have a greater anxiety about translation than do others. It is not just bringing other works into translation (which we do rather sparely) or translating out (which we do a lot, but with occasional hand-wringing) it is the fact of translation’s existence, and how it affects literature:

Caution: Translators at work.
At an Abbasid Library. Probably full of translated works.

Tim Parks, writing in the NYRB blog, seems to fault translation for a “Literature Without Style” that has made him weary of contemporary fiction. Some of the writing is lovely, particularly when he is talking about the style of writers he appreciates, such as Henry Green and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Parks moves his way toward this definition:

“Style, then, involves a meeting between arrangements inside the prose and expectations outside it. You can’t have a strong style without a community of readers able to recognize and appreciate its departures from the common usages they know. Much of what is surprising in Green’s text is inevitably lost in translation, in a language, for example, with different rules of deixis; some is lost simply by shifting the book across the Atlantic. Green’s work never travelled well.”

This style is something translation — and here he generalizes, mostly from the Italian translations of Gatsby — cannot do:

I’ve looked at five Italian translations. None is able to convey “unrestfully,” “permanent move,” or “get rich together.” … In translation, stripped of its style, Gatsby really doesn’t seem a very remarkable performance.

Translation — or even movement between different communities within a language — is at fault because:

…style is predicated on a strict relation to a specific readership and the more that readership is diluted or extended, particularly if it includes foreign-language readers, the more difficult it is for a text of any stylistic density to be successful.

Parks yearns for a very particular (recent, Anglo) past where literature is first appreciated by critics, then by a local audience, and then (maybe! some time down the road!) translated by “cosmopolitan literati.” But the translators and audiences both keep their distances; they don’t get too near to the literature itself.

Parks then makes this great leap, central to his argument (which has been made elsewhere, although not with much evidence):

“it seems inevitable that style will align with what can be readily translated more or less into multiple languages and cultural settings, or into a readily intelligible international idiom.”

It is perhaps true — I’m not sure — that wild flights of style are not as common as they once were, that there are fewer Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq and Tristam Shandys and more Booker-clone, MFA-styled (insert your own perjorative) texts.

Parks talks about the style of two celebrated contemporary novels, both of which don’t seem really located in their particular present. I could agree that this is, indeed, a real phenomenon. But can we trace this to “too much” translation? It seems far more likely that we can lay it at the doorstep of the Internet, of Twitter, of a “globalized” lifestyle that is not global so much as it is based on affinity groups that might not be in our neighborhood but are mediated online.

That is, the “global” of similar book festivals in Pakistan, India, Germany, Scotland, and Mexico isn’t particularly universal. It is certainly a real thing — and yes, give me Hanan al-Shaykh’s Story of Zahra over her Only in London any day of the week — but I’m not sure what it has to do with translation.

Parks says, for his part, he has taken to reading poetry, where “writers are still allowed to produce texts that are untranslatable and for the most part unprofitable.”

Indeed, glory to the “untranslatable, unprofitable” text, that reinvigorates language. And particular glories to the translations that do bring across style (cheers, for instance, to what Humphrey Davies did with Leg over Leg); that bring something new into a language. Because while the “globalization” of particular elite communities is not much to celebrate, and neither are most “hurry-hurry-quick-to-market” translations, certainly we don’t want to live in isolation, either, without knowing what is going on in other literatures.