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Aditi Machado on Poetry in Translation at Asymptote

By Harriet Staff

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En face or stand-alone? Or how should translations be presented in publication. Aditi Machado of the Asymptote Blog discusses the art of publishing poetry-in-translation in “Reading Across the Gutter:”

Several weeks ago, I was at a roundtable discussion on editing poetry translations for literary magazines1 at which the question of presenting translations along with their originals resulted in such a range of responses I’ve been unable to let the question go. Unsurprisingly, it was harder for the editors of print journals to accommodate two texts, even if they wanted to: both space and funds are at stake. On the other hand, Don Share, editor of Poetry Magazine, argued that publishing just the translation honors the translator’s work and grants the translation its independence. Erica Mena of Anomalous Press had a different—and to me, fascinating—approach to managing a translation’s independence: not wanting to encourage “reading across the gutter,” the online journal she edits (which you should absolutely visit) publishes the source text in a pop-up window, not en face. “Reading across the gutter,” as I understand it, refers to the sort of reading in which a person compares original and translation word-for-word and line-by-line, checking for “mistakes”—in other words, the sort of reading an en face presentation could unintentionally promote.

I often take it for granted that publishing bilingually is best for translation—or for poetry translation anyway (it can get much more complicated for prose). But things taken for granted are worth re-examining. “Gutter” can be an ugly word and an ugly image. In the world of designing books, it refers to the middle part of a book where the pages meet, a useful space between blocks of text; but outside this world, gutters can be irksome, getting clogged with debris, obstructing the easy flow of water. If not cleaned for a while, the debris in a gutter might rot and stink up the place.

I want to think about this gutter, visually and metaphorically, a bit more, to see what it does to translation. Because the sort of reading Mena wants to discourage is the sort of reading I want to discourage as well. Translators make choices, not mistakes. Sure, some choices can be seen as mistakes (linguistic, cultural, prosodic, etc.), and some translations can be full of choices that contribute to an overall sense of failure in the project, but it’s not worth assuming that a translator sits around ignorantly (or purposefully) dishonoring the text with which she has chosen to work. As Rosmarie Waldrop says, “the unit of translation is the whole work rather than the single sentence or line—let alone the single word, as Benjamin suggests.”2 And speaking of the whole work, often a translator is attempting a large-scale project (re-contextualization, hybridization, etc.) that a line-by-line analysis would likely miss. To this end, I can see how an en face presentation might encourage a certain type of reading, though not all readers would be inclined to it.

More at Asymptote Blog.

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, November 26th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.