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James Baldwin on Film Adaptations

decasia[scene from “Decasia” ; image courtesy of University of South Carolina Moving Image Research Collections/Icarus Films]

Now, obviously, the only way to translate the written word to the cinema involves doing considerable violence to the written word, to the extent, indeed, of forgetting the written word. A film is meant to be seen, and, ideally, the less a film talks, the better. The cinematic translation, nevertheless, however great and necessary the violence it is compelled to us on the original form, is obliged to remain faithful to the intention, and the vision, of the original form. The necessary violence of the translation involves making very subtle and difficult choices. The root motive of the choices made can be gauged by the effect of these choices: and the effect of these deliberate choices, deliberately made, must be considered as resulting in a willed and deliberate act—that is, the film which we are seeing is the film we are intended to see.

James Baldwin, on the film adaptation of Billie Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues (from The Devil Finds Work)


Enlightening, given a continued flow of tepid films adapted from searing books.


What is the most successful — and not necessarily faithful! — film translation of an extraordinary book? Write your thoughts in the comment below.


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Benjamin's "The Task of the Translator" – Part I



Benjamin’s essay most relevant to our work here at Archipelago has to be “The Task of the Translator.” Originally written as an introduction to his translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens, the essay stands on its own as a translator’s manifesto. Over the next few weeks, I’ll highlight some particularly explorative statements, and I encourage anyone to leave a comment with their thoughts, rants, diatribes, etc. Discuss!

[A translation’s] essential quality is not statement or the imparting of information. Yet any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information–hence, something inessential. This is the hallmark of bad translations. But do we not generally regard as the essential substance of a literary work what it contains in addition to information–as even a poor translator will admit–the unfathomable, the mysterious, the “poetic,” something that a translator can reproduce only if he is also a poet? This, actually, is the cause of another characteristic of inferior translation, which consequently we may define as the inaccurate transmission of an inessential content. This will be true whenever a translation undertakes to serve the reader. However, if it were intended for the reader, the same would have to apply to the original. If the original does not exist for the reader’s sake, how could the translation be understood on the basis of this premise?

These two, bold statements twist together to form a thought difficult for me to fully understand. He seems, at first, to suggest that translation is a middle-ground between meaning and music. The next sentence, however, clarifies this further:

Translation is a mode.

And later:

As translation is a mode of its own, the task of the translator, too, may be regarded as distinct and clearly differentiated from the task of the poet.

Benjamin separates the action of the translator from the poet or novelist, giving translators their due independence as artistis in their own, distinct way.


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Ezra Pound & Canto I


If you’re going to engage with English poetry, a mentor once told me, sooner or later, you’re going to have to deal with Pound. She was referring, of course, to his controversial–and often, downright bigoted–remarks both on the page and beyond. But frankly, few modern English poets have influenced as many writers as Pound. That his work continues to resonate with successive generations poses a particular  challenge in the narrative history of American verse.


Pound recognized the need for international literature to enliven the language, incorporating untranslated text from other languages into his poetry and even translating whole works (see: Enrico Pea‘s Moscardino). Avoiding the mode of stiff, word-to-word translation, Pound followed his ear, sometimes creating a translation that was outrageously loose — but gorgeous.

And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly seas, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward
Bore us out onward with bellying canvas,
Circe’s this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.

My favorite example of his translation skills is in his “Canto I.” The majority of the poem is a loose translation of a brief episode from Homer’s Odyssey. Notice the trios of alliterative words and vowel-sounds at the beginnings of each line. Rather than follow Homer’s dactylic hexameter meter, which doesn’t work in the same way as it does for Ancient Greek and Latin, Pound chose to set the poem in a similar meter as Beowulf. Pound saw his task beyond translating the words: he translated the meter, from one language’s epic tradition to another.


For those in the know — or willing to Google the reference — Pound admits toward the end that he isn’t translating from the original Greek, but from a 1538 Latin edition translated by Andreas Divus.  Pound’s resulting creation feels like a direct address to the Art of Translation, its wonders, its pitfalls, and its importance.


Check out all of Canto I on the Poetry Foundation website here, with a great recording of Forrest Gander giving his thoughts and reading the first section.


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Tim Parks on Why Translation Matters in The New York Review of Books

jasperjohns-flagsJasper Johns, Three Flags, 1958

In 2010, renowned author and Archipelago translator Tim Parks offered an exceptional insight into the practice of translation, its thanklessness when done well, and why it matters for fiction writing all over the world, not just in America.

…it would be futile to seek to establish how much we should be praising the author and how much the translator: the author wrote a fine story, which inspired the translator to make a fine translation. Of my own translations, I should say that I was always happy when the author got the praise and I escaped mention; it’s self-evident that only a good translation makes it possible for the reviewer to praise the author.

(“America First?”, NYRB July 15, 2010)

Coming off of the American Independence Day, Parks’s article is a thought-provoking and compelling article about the cross-cultural literary conversations that translation makes possible among some of today’s greatest writers, and how American’s are isolating themselves, intellectually.


The whole article, “America First?” is available for New York Review of Books subscribers, here.


[See also: Tim Parks’s translations of Antonio Tabucchi, The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico & The Woman of Porto Pim]


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Translators Reflections: Barbara Bogoczek on Różewicz’s Mother Departs

Mother Departs is an extremely personal autobiographical work by one of the greatest writers of our time, set against the epic conflicts of the 20th century. It combines many genres – poetry, jokes, intimate diaries written through tears, ethnographic snapshots of peasant life,  and a dreamlike stream of consciousness – and it speaks in several different voices. I mean that literally: Tadeusz Różewicz brought together writings from close members of his family, including his mother and brothers. It flashes between the 1900s and the 1990s, back and forth, with one tragic moment in the Second World War at its heart.

To say that it was a challenge to translate it would be an understatement.

Click here for more. 

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How one translator proved Virginia Woolf wrong

“Humor is the first gift to perish in a foreign language.” -Virginia Woolf

Anyone who has read David Frick’s translation of Jerzy Pilch’s My First Suicide (Open Letter) knows that with a good translator, translated texts don’t have to lose anything, least of all their ability to make us laugh. This book is straight up hilarious, y’all.