Literature in Translation In Conversation with Ross Benjamin

Ross Benjamin by Lauren Benjamin
Ross Benjamin by Lauren Benjamin | Photo: Lauren Benjamin

Translator Ross Benjamin brings his expertise to the topic of German translation in the US book market.

In recent years, strong English translations of challenging and important contemporary German-language works have steadily appeared. Gifted translators such as Susan Bernofsky, who brought us the inventive, haunting novel Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, and Shelley Frisch, who brought us the masterly, far-reaching biography of Kafka by Reiner Stach, have redefined the boundaries of English-language literature to make room for new, enthrallingly unfamiliar voices. Increasingly, English translations – including Anthea Bell's rendering of Bosnian-born German author Saša Stanišić's tragicomic novel, How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, David Dollenmayer's translation of Jewish Austrian-American Peter Stephan Jungk's dreamlike novel, Crossing the Hudson, and Tess Lewis's forthcoming version of Serbian-born, ethnically Hungarian Swiss author Melinda Nadj Abonji's moving novel, Fly Away, Pigeon – have reflected the diversity of the current literary landscape in German-speaking countries (which was also the theme of this year's Festival Neue Literatur, featuring Austrian, German, and Swiss writers of varied backgrounds). 

There has been an ongoing influx of great canonical works and unjustly neglected ones that have been rediscovered, among them Breon Mitchell's retranslation of Günter Grass's The Tin Drum, Bernofsky's Robert Walser translations and her retranslation of Kafka's The Metamorphosis, Philip Boehm's translation of Gregor von Rezzori's An Ermine in Czernopol, and Burton Pike's translation of Gerhard Meier's Isle of the Dead. All the above-mentioned translators have preserved and drawn out the idiosyncrasies of the original texts, their culturally specific and linguistically innovative aspects, in ways that expand the possibilities of English-language literature. Each of these works is – to borrow a metaphor from eminent German-English translator John E. Woods – a "hand grenade lobbed over the wall" of Anglophone parochialism. 

But despite the range and quality of recent literary translations from German into English, there remain ingrained tendencies in the English-language publishing and media world that limit the potential impact of all works in translation. German-English translators – of which I am one – have to struggle against those tendencies in order to do our work, to get paid adequately for it, to be credited visibly for it, and to receive some measure of recognition for it. Of course, each of the books named in the previous paragraph had a publisher who took a chance on it and whose dedication there is no reason to doubt, and I have worked with several exemplary publishers of translations. To characterize the general environment as inhospitable is not to single out any particular publisher's practices or values; indeed, the tendencies I am setting out to describe are symptomatic of far more deep-rooted market factors that go beyond the scope of this article. 

Still, international literature in English translation routinely faces a series of obstacles, from the self-fulfilling belief, prevalent in the book trade, that translations "don't sell," through the resulting lack of publishing and publicity budget devoted to them (either because a larger publisher, who is less likely to acquire rights to foreign-language books in the first place, allocates the minimum amount to those it does take on or because a smaller publisher simply has inadequate resources), to the relative paucity of reviews or other media attention they manage to attract (due to the above-mentioned disadvantages plus the automatic ethnocentrism of Anglo-American literary culture) and the shortage of critics "who can say something informed about the quality of the translation" (as David Dollenmayer notes). This set of circumstances seriously impedes the capacity of translated literature to gain a broad readership in the English-speaking world. 

The notion that English-speaking readers are inherently averse to works in translation – a whole category of literature containing such a rich variety of texts – is highly questionable and depends on disregarding how the institutions responsible for producing, disseminating, and publicizing books condition the receptivity of the wider culture. Our present moment is marked by an unprecedented reduction of individuals to calculable consumer appetites. If the products we are fed presuppose those very appetites, we find ourselves caught in a closed loop. What is left to explode such circumscribed preconceptions of who we are if not great literature, works that don’t give us what they presume we wanted to begin with but allow us to enter alien terrain that changes us in ways we never suspected?

Of course, it's not only books in translation that can open us up to otherness. The heterogeneity within English-language literature ought to be championed in the same breath as a wide array of works from abroad. Both are threatened by commercial forces of standardization. Shelley Frisch observes that some editors of translated works (though not her own) favor "texts that betray little if anything specific to foreign cultures. Accordingly, the translations themselves are at times heavily 'domesticated' (sentence length is clipped, expository transitions are added, foreign-seeming elements are 'smoothed out'). The intended result is a product that is near-indistinguishable from texts originally in English." Obviously, this product would resemble only the most run-of-the-mill English-language texts, those that diverge least from dominant cultural and linguistic norms. This effacement of any trace of strangeness amounts to a conventionalization that drains the life out of works whose very value lies in their transgression against narrowly prescriptive paradigms. The impulse to curtail the open-ended exploration of creative and linguistic possibilities poses a danger for all our literature, whether in translation or originally written in English.