The Art of Betrayal: Translation in an Age of Suspicion

In the spring of 1970, the American PEN’s Translation Committee convened a week-long conference in New York City on The World of Translation.[1] It brought together dozens of eminent translators, writers and poets, including Gregory Rabassa, Irving Howe, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Muriel Rukeyser, among others. The committee’s manifesto opened with a call for action: “For too long,” they proclaimed “[translators] have been the lost children in the enchanted forest of literature. Their names are usually forgotten, they are grotesquely underpaid, and their services, however skillfully rendered, are regarded with the slightly patronizing and pitying respect formerly reserved for junior housemaids.” In the five decades since, some progress has been made in the Anglophone world of translation: translators’ names increasingly appear on the cover—even on the front and not just hidden in small print on the back flap—and critics and reviewers are slightly less inclined to forget that when they praise a particular foreign author’s exquisite or innovative style, the English version is comprised, strictly speaking, of someone else’s words. Although translated fiction is ever more an afterthought for the largest American publishing houses, more than a dozen small presses devoted exclusively or primarily to works in translation have been founded in the United States and Britain in the last twenty years, and international prizes recognizing works in translation have gained in prominence and purses. And finally, although the profession is still grotesquely underpaid, translators are granted royalties somewhat less grudgingly than before, and there are more stipends and grants available to them now than perhaps there ever have been.
As for the respect granted translators, it has generally increased as I hope it has for junior housemaids. In some universities, for example, translations are now accepted as publications in tenure packets. And, although works in translation constitute a negligible percentage of the books it reviews, the New York Times maintains a webpage, called Globetrotting, which offers a “sneak preview” of 75 to 100 books in translation to look out for each year. Nonetheless, the respect translators do receive is ambivalent. Although now less colored by pity and condescension, this respect is still tainted with a degree of suspicion that is inseparable from the fetishization of the perfect translation. Esther Allen has pointed out the translator’s dilemma noting that “conventional wisdom both disparages them for being mere copyists and mistrusts them for not being mere copyists.” Quite aside from the fact that exact equivalence is replication, not translation, there is no one true, definitive translation of any work. Some translations are better than others, to be sure, and some are egregiously bad.
Each language is a world unto itself and has been at least since the destruction of the Tower of Babel. It may share certain territories or weather systems with others, but it is not, nor ever can be identical to another. As Emily Apter pointed out in her introduction to the Dictionary of Untranslatables, “Nothing is exactly the same in one language as in another, so the failure of translation is always necessary and absolute. Apart from its neglect of the fact that some pretty good equivalencies are available, this proposition rests on a mystification, on a dream of perfection we cannot even want, let alone have.”
Translation’s necessary and absolute failure, often used as an excuse to dismiss translated literature as not really the author’s work or as a justification for intellectual provincialism and complacency, is in fact a primary source of its richness and value. Every translation is founded on an interpretation. The translator brings her entire background to bear, her life experiences, travel and reading history, her intuition and her vocabulary—beautifully captured in the German word Wortschatz or word-hoard—in short, her entire “autography” as Michael Hofmann put it is at play.
At the risk of appearing to shift the blame for any infelicities or infidelities in my own translations, I’ll go a step further than Emily Apter and maintain that the endeavor to transfer a text from one tongue into another is doomed from the start not only because languages are discrepant, but all the more so because treachery is rooted in the most basic elements of our medium: the word. Words are inconstant things, a single word can harbor multiple meanings, even directly contradictory ones, as in the case of oversight or peer. Then there are homophones, which function like audible, sliding doors. On top of that, personal associations and nuances accrue to words over the course of each speaker’s lifetime. And if that weren’t enough, the meanings of words can change over time and depending on the context. Until the eighteenth century, for example, the word “nice,” according to the OED, was almost exclusively derogatory—meaning foolish, absurd, wanton, dissolute, lazy, ostentatious, but also elegant, precise, or fastidious. In the past three hundred years, however, its meaning has shifted 180 degrees to the laudatory senses of respectable, cultured, virtuous, decent, pleasant, good-natured, attractive, and so on.
The novel Elsewhere by the Austrian writer Doron Rabinovici, which I translated a decade ago, offers an amusing object lesson in the precarious variability of words. The protagonist, Ethan Rosen, is a brilliant sociologist, born in Tel Aviv to Holocaust survivors but raised in Vienna. He is fluent in half a dozen languages and writes scholarly articles and polemical Op-Ed pieces on both sides of the fault lines between Israeli and European cultures. He is a reflexive oppositionist, a reverse chameleon, never more Israeli than in Austria, never more Austrian than in Tel Aviv.
When his comments in an Israeli newspaper lambasting organized tours of concentration camp museums are quoted in an Austrian newspaper by an academic rival, who attributes to them only to a well-known Israeli intellectual, Ethan does not recognize his own words and responds in outrage. The controversy spins out of control. (There’s an amusing side plot involving an ultra-Orthodox rabbi’s failed attempt to clone a Messiah from the DNA of a purported descendant of David and Solomon from the House of Judah, which in its attempt to recode an original from an original also seems an apt illustration of translation’s quest.)
“Truth,” in Rabinovici’s novel as in everyday experience, especially politics, is relative and inscrutable. Like meaning, it changes depending on who speaks it and where and when it’s spoken. In short, Truth, with a capital T, like Meaning with a capital M, is always elsewhere although more or less accurate versions of it are just within reach.
One ongoing effort to pin down the instable entity that is translation involves finding metaphors or analogies for it. This epistemological parlor game has resulted in a list that is long and still growing. The examples are instructive even if limited. Among them we have the translator as a dog on a short or a long leash, the translator as a musician interpreting a score, or a composer transposing a work for a different instrument. The translator is also compared to a landscape painter using a different color palette, a chef making a particular dish using substitute ingredients, an actor playing a role, a messenger who garbles the message, a ventriloquist, even a simple pane of glass. There are metaphors for the act of translation, such as trying to catch an eel in one pond and put it in another, as working in a hall of mirrors, or kissing through a veil.
These metaphors capture isolated aspects of translational metamorphosis but not the full spectrum of this art’s instability and variability. As a counter or complement, I’d like to suggest photography as emblematic of translation. By anchoring its subject in time and physical matter (film or screen), photography is a suspended, suspenseful kind of translation. In a photograph, as in a translation, an elusive, multifarious whole is pinned down in two dimensions, in a certain place, at a certain time, but in a shifting present from the perspective of the viewer. A translation, like a photograph, is a likeness of the original subject, to be sure, but the subject—the text—is perceived from a specific angle—the translator’s cultural and personal background, her reading and education; and it is seen in a certain light—the original language and cultural context—then reproduced in another, at a specific shutter speed, in color or black and white. Like photography, translation entails a moment of suspense—both in the sense of anticipation and suspension—in the journey of an idea, a whole, a vision between two media, and more importantly the transfiguration from the metaphysical to the physical. But the journey doesn’t end there, for readers, like viewers, bring their own assumptions and interpret accordingly.


Now that I’ve led you onto the unstable foundations of trans­lation and pointed out how unreliable its construction material is, I hope to reclaim a firmer footing by exploring the essential questions: Can we trust translations? and why should we?


There’s a passage in one of my recent translations that succinctly sums up the translator’s quandary. It is from a collection of micro-fictions by the young Swiss writer Judith Keller called The Questionable Ones. In these short texts, Keller delves into the aporia of language by taking idiomatic expressions literally, unpacking the multiple meanings of words, and confounding expectations. By training her eye on a single word and peeling back the layers of associations and assumptions that have congealed around them, she unlocks metaphysical trap doors. Here she takes on fidelity:


Indem sie ihm treu ist, befürchtet sie, sich nicht treu zu sein. Sie weiß nicht, ob sie sich treu sein möchte. Es ist ihr nicht klar, wem sie dann treu sein müsste.
In being true to him, she’s afraid she’s not being true to herself. She doesn’t know if she would like to be true to herself. It’s not clear to her to whom then she should be true.


The first question to be asked in the endless—sometimes tedious, sometimes fruitful—debate over faithfulness in translation is “Faithful to what or to whom?” To the original language, to the target or host language, to the writer’s voice with all its particularities and idiosyncrasies or lack of them, to the translator’s interpretation or own idiolect? In being too narrowly true to the original text, too literal let’s say, the translator can hardly be true to her understanding or interpretation of the original. On the other hand, indulging too much in her own “autography” inevitably does a disservice to the original. This is complicated by the fact that some authors welcome their translators’ intrusions or “betrayal upwards.” Borges, who was well versed in Old English and in Anglo-Saxon poetry, told his translator, “Simplify me. Modify me. Make me stark. My language often embarrasses me. It’s too youthful, too Latinate. . . . I want the power of Cynewulf, Beowulf, Bede. Make me macho and gaucho and skinny.” Despite his strong preference for the condensed, elemental power of Old English words, Borges recognized the riches the English lan­guage’s double inheritance contributed to its word-hoard.
As a result of the Roman, Viking, and Norman invasions, English not only has a larger number of words than French or German—double by some counts, but this is impossible to quantify precisely—it has two distinct registers: the blunt, earthiness of Anglo-Saxon words and the more abstract Latinate words. Exploiting the tension between them, shifting from one to the other within a sentence is a useful tool for conveying irony and humor in English that German and French achieve primarily by other stylistic means. You use all the resources your language has to offer.
I’d like to present a few examples from my translations to illustrate some of the strategies and resources I’ve employed and deployed in order to remain faithful to the original text and my experience of it. And I hope they’ll restore any faith in the reliability of translators and their works that I may have shaken with my previous remarks.


Questions of tone and syntax. I leaned heavily on an abstract, intellectual register when translating Jonas Lüscher’s novel Kraft, a satire of neoliberal values and Silicon Valley hubris. The protagonist, Richard Kraft, is a German professor of rhetoric and aging Reaganite who is heavily in debt and unhappily married. Now that he is down on his luck, he has begun having second thoughts about the supply side economics he once championed very much against the grain in Germany in the late ’80s and ’90s as the only viable system. Nonetheless, Kraft enters an essay competition sponsored by a Silicon Valley tycoon confident that he can make the winning case for supporting optimism in our technological era in answer to the prompt: “Why whatever is, is right and why we can still improve it.” The million-dollar prize will solve both his financial and marital woes. Lüscher’s style in this book is self-consciously, luxuriantly, and intricately cerebral. His sentences re-enact the convolutions of Kraft’s reasoning and the contortions he has to put himself through to compromise his relatively newfound principles and quiet doubts that have nagged him even before he entered the contest.
The first trap in the novel was the title, Kraft. The protagonist’s name means power, strength, force, energy, effect, ability, vitality, virility, etc., and the book is filled with puns on the word’s many meanings. I had a long discussion with the editor about whether to translate Richard Kraft as Richard Power. But to avoid associations with the far-better-known American novelist Richard Powers and because the puns on Kraft were too multivalent to be covered by any one of the English alternatives, we kept the name in German. (There is, incidentally, a very funny scene involving terroir macaroni and cheese, but it seemed better to ignore possible associations with the food product known as Kraft mac and cheese).
In this passage Richard Kraft is despairing over his inability to formulate an answer:


Es ist nur noch wenig Kraft in ihm, und er hat auf dieser Reise vieles geschluckt, jetzt kann er auch noch den Rest des Weges gehen und sich selbst vollends den Rücken kehren.


A literal version of the opening clause—there is only a little Kraft left in him—is awkward and disrupts the flow. So I decided to indicate his deflation with “but a shadow of himself”:


Kraft is but a shadow of himself at this point, he’s had to eat a lot of crow on this trip. Now he can see it all through to the end and thus definitively turn his back on his convictions.


You can see how I tried to capture the archness and irony implicit in the German with a shift in registers between “eating crow” and Kraft turning his back on his convictions, rather than the more literal “turning his back on himself.”
Next, I have a brief example of how Lüscher’s sentences reflect Kraft’s logical flailing (complete with a play on his name)—the best of these passages go on for pages, but I’ve chosen one of the shortest:


Von wegen Kraft weiß, was er zu tun hat. Der Zweifel kommt schneller, als er in der Lage ist, die Euphorie der Nacht in einen konsistenten Gedankengang zu packen. Mühsam versucht er, die nächtliche Empfindung wiederherzustellen, und als ihm das nicht gelingt, probiert er es mit Pragmatismus und System, denn wenn er sich richtig erinnert, erwuchs seine Tatkraft in Mckenzies Zimmer aus genau dieser Richtung.


Literal version:


Fat chance Kraft knows what he has to do. Doubts come faster than he is able to marshal the previous night’s euphoria into a consistent train of thought. He laboriously tries to recover last night’s feeling, and when that proves impossible, he attempts to do it through pragmatism and systematic thought because, if he remembers correctly, the energy that filled him in Mckenzie’s room came from exactly that source. (Tatkraft [energy] in the last sentence being one of the allusive Kraft puns)


This is too wordy and unwieldy. I rearranged the clauses and put in signposts for the English reader, for example clarifying what “that source” refers to. The polished version reads:


Fat chance Kraft knows what he has to do. Doubts come faster than he’s able to marshal the previous night’s euphoria into a consistent train of thought. Failing euphoria, he struggles instead to grasp the thread through pragmatism and systematic thought, because, if he remembers correctly, the energy that had filled him in McKenzie’s room was nothing if not pragmatic and systemic.


I find that the second version, though less literal, better conveys the tortuous elegance of the narrative. These considerations and adjustments are what I’m referring to when I talk about trying to re-create my experience of the original text for the English reader.


Problems of word choice and semantics. Translators approach Walter Benjamin with great trepidation, not simply because of the complexity of his thought and prose, but also because he set the bar for translation impossibly high. In his often-quoted essay, The Task of the Translator, we read that our duty is nothing less than to recover an Ur-Sprache, a pure primal language that becomes weighed down with “heavy, alien meaning” in terrestrial works of literature. The translator (in Harry Zohn’s version of the essay) is “to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work. For the sake of pure language, he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language.” While this does wonders for translators’ egos and sense of mission, it’s not much practical help in overcoming language barriers, decayed or not.
When working on a collection of Benjamin’s essays, edited by Samuel Titan and organized around Benjamin’s central Storyteller essay, I had to disentangle his evolving use of Erfahrung and Erlebnis, two words for which English has only one—experience. The concept of experience—whether gained directly or second- hand—is fundamental to Benjamin’s view of storytelling as an essential locus of meaning in human life. Both Erfahrung and Erlebnis have impressive pedigrees in philosophy and phenomenology originating with Aristotle and developed by Bacon, Husserl, Hegel, Kant, Bergson and others. Nonetheless, these concepts can, according to the Dictionary of Untranslatables, be understood in line with their etymologies. (I’d like to point out here that the editors of the indispensable philosophical lexicon of Untranslatables take great pains to stress that they are not claiming the many entries in this dictionary cannot be translated but rather that these terms have so far resisted adequate translation, and this resistance is a source of nuance and insight.)
So, etymologically—Erlebnis is based on the root word Leben or life and connotes immediate, lived experience. Erfahrung is based on the root fahren, to go or to travel and refers to the kind of experience and knowledge that is gained on a journey, from an encounter, or from another’s experiences and observations. Erfahrung can be acquired directly or learned secondhand and so can be shared in a more profound sense than Erlebnis. Benjamin’s contribution to the understanding and use of these terms was to associate them with Bergson’s theory of memory. He connects Erfahrung with Gedächtnis, or memory in general, and Erlebnis with Erinnerung, an interiorized, subjective form of memory usually translated into English as recollection. But Benjamin’s associations of these different kinds of experience and memory were not always rigorous. As Kevin McLaughlin points out in the Dictionary of Untranslatables, “The specific connection between experience and memory in Benjamin’s theory of Erfahrung is articulated through his manipulation of these four terms for which English equivalents have proven elusive.”
Where does that leave his translators? To me it felt like standing on quicksand.
One of the shorter, slipperier pieces from the Storyteller collection is a reflection on proverbs. As you’ll see, in one sentence I had to narrow down the terms Erfahrung and Erlebnis according to my interpretation of the role they are playing not only in that particular sentence, but in the context of Benjamin’s thought.


Zum Sprichwort (1932)
Zu Grunde zu legen das Bild von den Frauen, die auf dem Kopf, ohne sie der mit Hand zu berühren, schwere, gefüllte Gefäßetragen.
Den Rhythmus, in dem sie das tun, lehrt das Sprichwort.
Es spricht aus ihm ein noli me tangere der Erfahrung.
Damit bekundet es seine Kraft, Erfahrung in Tradition zu verwandeln.
Sprichwörter sind nicht anwendbar auf Situationen. Sie habe vielmehr eine Art von magischem Charakter: sie verwandeln die Situation. Es ist kaum im Vermögen des Einzelnen gelegen, seine Erfahrungen ganz von Erlebnis zu reinigen. Aber das Sprichwort, indem es sich ihrer bemächtigt, bewirkt das.
Es macht die erlebte Erfahrung zu einer Welle in der atmenden Kette ungezählter Erfahrungen, die von Ewigkeit herkommen.


On Proverbs
Take, as a foundation, the image of women carrying full, heavy vessels on their heads without using their hands.
The rhythm in which they do this is what the proverb demonstrates.
A noli me tangere of experience speaks from the proverb.
And through this, the proverb declares its ability to transform experience into tradition.
Proverbs cannot be applied to a specific situation. Rather, they have a kind of magical character: they transform the situation. An individual hardly has the capacity to cleanse all the traces of personal experiences from the lessons learned in life. But proverbs can do this by appropriating those lessons.
They turn knowledge gained from experience into a wave in the endless, breathing chain of life lessons that come to us from eternity.


In the seventh sentence, reducing Erlebnis to “lessons learned in life” and erlebte Erfahrung to “knowledge gained from experience” is a necessary evil. It is a kind of betrayal, but one done in good faith and after extensive research and anguish. Publishers of literary translations rarely allow footnotes or endnotes to alert readers to the array of meanings in a single word or phrase, so I had to incorporate my interpretation of Benjamin’s intentions in using these terms—keeping in mind that general readers not scholars were my intended audience. And, of course, in translation no single word stands alone. I decided to translate lehrt das Sprichwort as “what the proverb demonstrates” rather than “what the proverb teaches” because the latter would tie the proverb too closely to the Erlebnis three paragraphs later. Proverbs, in this text, teach by example, whereas life experiences teach lessons directly. It is easy to get lost in such weeds, but preserving nuance depends on not overlooking these weeds.


Incompatible verb tenses or moods. The subjunctive mood was commonly used in Old English, much as it is in German, to cast doubt on the truth of a proposition or express unreality, wishes, requests, and commands or to indicate reported speech. However, it began to wither in Middle English as inflectional endings were levelled and verb forms were simplified. Middle English, incidentally, is bounded by the Norman Conquest in 1066 and 1476, the year the first printing press was set up in England.
The subjunctive plays an essential role in the novel Angel of Oblivion by the Austrian writer Maja Haderlap. Haderlap was born into the Slovenian speaking community in Carinthia, Austria’s southernmost province. She initially wrote poetry in Slovenian but turned to German, the main language of her education, to write this work, a decision that was very harshly judged by a contingent of the Austrian Slovenes who are, understandably, very possessive of their history. But had she not written the novel in German, its audience would have been extremely limited, and Angel of Oblivion would not have changed the domestic conversation about Austria’s past as it assuredly has.
This novel is based on the experiences of Maja Haderlap’s family and her community, many of whom fought as Partisans against the Nazis during the Second World War and suffered resentment and suspicion from the German-speaking majority in the decades after. It is also the story of a young girl learning to navigate the treacherous terrain between two hostile communities and two extremely burdened languages: Slovenian, a language of heroic resistance and continued humiliations suffered, and German, a way out of her stifling rural upbringing but also the language of the camps which her grandmother barely survived and many family members didn’t.
Angel of Oblivion is both a study of the fragility and malleability of collective memory in embattled minority communities and a testament to the power of storytelling. As she listens to the erratic and sometimes jumbled narratives of relatives and neighbors, the narrator as a girl realizes they are not actual storytellers, but Fasterzähler or “almost-storytellers,” whose stories crumble to pieces in their minds.
As the narrator grows older, she gradually retrieves her community’s past from the abyss of history and begins to understand the complexity of that past and its echoes in present-day Carinthia. Even so, her sense of identity is inextricably bound up with stories heard secondhand and the trauma of others. And this is where the subjunctive becomes an essential element of the narrative. The narrator constantly alternates between her own memories and those of others, between direct and indirect speech. The narrative is rhythmically punctuated by references to the sources of the stories or the information being related: sagt Grossmutter, sagt Vater, sagt Ton i or wie man erzählt. There are also shifts between the indicative and conjunctive I, along with abrupt pronominal jumps that embody the narrator’s inability to put distance between herself and her family’s history. These were all but impossible to capture. In an early passage, the narrator recalls doing chores with her grandmother, which were always accompanied by a stream of recollections. Here the words in bold in the German version demonstrate the rhythm essential to the narrative voice in this novel.


Sie sagt, sie habe auch Essen gestohlen für sich und die anderen, sie habe nach jeder Kartoffelschale gesucht, nach allem, was essbar schien, damals, als sie die Kessel gewaschen hat, das war noch ein Glück, sagt sie, dass sie dahin gekommen sei, in die Küche, im Lager, ich weiß.


The girl’s inability to distance her own from her grandmother’s perspective is encapsulated in the constant switching from the conjunctive I (habe) to the indicative (das war noch ein Glück), back to the conjunctive (sei) and again, not only to the indicative, but to her own perspective (ich weiß). All this is inevitably flattened out in English.


She tells me she also stole food for herself and the others, she kept an eye out for every single potato peel, for anything that looked edible, back then, when she washed the cauldrons, it was great luck, she says, that she ended up in the kitchen, in the camp. I know.


One way I tried to make up for this flattening of effect was to reproduce, if not stress, the variable rhythms of Maja’s sentences.


Regenerative translation—a first step. Translation is an opportunity to stress test a language and invigorate it. Eliot Weinberger has noted that “many of the golden ages in literature have been, not coincidentally, periods of active and prolific translation.” Not only are new genres, styles and forms imported into a receptive literary tradition, but the host language itself gains in expressive tools and techniques. As Weinberger pointed out, “Translation liberates the translation language. Because a translation will always be read as . . . something foreign, it is freed from many of the constraints of the currently accepted norms and conventions in the national literature.” Think of American Modernism in the early twentieth century or German literature at the turn of the nineteenth century. And consider the echoes of Thomas Bernhard’s irascible narrators and W. G. Sebald’s melancholy wanderers in contemporary Anglophone fiction.
Translation is, by definition, an exercise in building bridges between individuals and communities. Susan Sontag saw literary translation as “preeminently an ethical task, and one that mirrors and duplicates the role of literature itself, which is to extend our sympathies; to educate the heart and mind; to create inwardness; to secure and deepen the awareness (with all its consequences) that other people, people different from us really do exist.” I believe that in order for us to understand that “people different from us really do exist,” not only in alien cultures but in cultures that share many of our own values and our history we must be exposed to their underlying assumptions and their thought processes.
Several books that I have translated have made me uncomfortable. Early in my career, I translated the novel One Hundred Days by the Swiss writer Lukas Bärfuß. It charts the emotional and moral collapse of David Hohl, a Swiss aid development worker in Rwanda who falls in love with a Hutu woman shortly before the outbreak of the genocide. When he is spurned by this woman who leaves him to lead a particularly ruthless death squad, Hohl’s previously latent racism and misogyny surface. For several months during the editorial process, it was not clear if some of the more offensive passages, a total of 4 or 5 pages, would be cut in the English edition. (Translators, I should point out, do not always have the final say in the edited version, but that is a topic for another day.) In the end, One Hundred Days was published unexpurgated because it was clear that these passages are a crucial element of the novel’s stinging critique of the willful blindness displayed by some humanitarian and soft diplomacy initiatives sponsored by wealthy countries whose governments are too arrogant or lazy to examine the unintended or indirect consequences of the programs they fund. Had this critique been defanged, Bärfuß’s novel would have been less offensive, but then its effectiveness in provoking readers to examine both their own assumptions and motives and those of their government institutions would have been blunted.
One Hundred Days, complete with the objectionable passages, was eventually shortlisted for a major translation prize, but I am still left with a lingering discomfort. I suspect this novel would not survive today’s sensitivity readers. It is difficult and dangerous to make prescriptive rules about what should or should not be softened or smoothed over in translation. There are still many cases in which offensive language is used in indulgent, irresponsible, harmful, and ignorant ways. And yet, we can’t paper over or wish away our differences or the uglier aspects of our histories.
Isabel Fargo Cole has written of her experience translating the fiction of the East German writer Wolfgang Hilbig with multiple passages that “contain the toxic history of male hysteria which a generation of young feminists . . . is struggling to dismantle word by word.” Her unease was provoked less by the fraught language itself than by her editor’s expectation that she tame the characters’ voices or cover them with a kind of smooth membrane. She points out the dangers of eliminating the friction that arises from exposure to views radically different from our own. “The propo­sition of frictionless identification can be a dead end—not just for the reader, but also and especially for the translator. The assumption of innate affinity can cause blindness, makes it all too easy to project yourself onto the other. You end up standing in your own way.” How much insight into the darker urges all humans are subject to can we afford to sacrifice for our comfort?
Each case involving charged or offensive language must be evaluated individually, according to its function and effect in the text. I hope I have shown that in translation, context is all. We ignore context—familiar or foreign —at our peril.


David Bellos succinctly sums up the case for translation, warts and all, in Is That a Fish in Your Ear? with the assertion: “Trans­lating is a first step towards civilization.” After all, civilization depends on communication between disparate groups of people. Absent communication there can be no hope of common ground. Although indispensable, translation is a provisional, precarious endeavor. If the bridges translation builds resemble delicate suspension bridges rather than sturdy stone constructions, it does not mean they are any less essential or trustworthy.


[1] This essay was delivered as the Berlin Prize lecture at The American Academy in Berlin on March 3, 2022.