Between Blockbuster and Blog

by Brian Honigman    /  September 1, 2009  / No comments



After working for many years as an editor and a translator, I have become increasingly aware of the many ways the two activities overlap. How their roles change and how we view these two activities bring up important issues regarding publishing, texts, authorship, and artistic integrity.

Both require deep, concentrated, meticulous, magnifying-glass reading—a kind of reading that exposes failures of execution, narrative inconsistencies, stylistic missteps, and just plain errors. As an editor my job is often to intuit what an author really wanted to say and didn’t quite manage to, then suggest a more elegant, accurate, or efficient way to do so. As an editor, I mark the page with a pencil or, more often, turn on Microsoft Word’s “track changes” feature and decorate the text with colorful and graphic deletions, additions, and comments.

As a literary translator, a certain level of such “edits” can, as we all know, be made invisible, obscured under the fog that hovers in that low-lying space between languages. But what does a conscientious, loyal, and engaged translator do when, after teasing out a complex, multilayered, and seemingly elegantly constructed metaphor and parsing it into some form of English, it becomes apparent that it is, god forbid, mixed? How does one deal with a “quiddity,” that actually makes no sense, even after extensive etymological, lexicological, and historical research in Google and beyond?

Literature, which we may want to define roughly as works of art that employ language as their medium, is inhabiting an increasingly narrow space, hemmed in on one side by the blockbuster and on the other by the blog. Within this space, the role of the editor and the publisher—among the many gatekeepers of culture—is becoming more intrusive on one hand and more neglectful on the other. The implications for the translator—ethically, aesthetically, pragmatically—are far-reaching, especially as regards her “loyalty” to the text and the author, as that author’s “representative” in its new home (language and cultural context, of course, but also marketplace). As we creep along the spectrum toward the blockbuster, the concepts of fidelity, loyalty, and integrity may mean something quite different; they may mean creating a text by any means that offers the greatest chance of selling the most copies; that is, being faithful to the market rather than any highfalutin concept of textual integrity.

Jorge Luis Borges once made a quip about the original remaining true to the translation. Perhaps that has become a physical, rather than a metaphysical concern.

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