Making a Case
by David Remnick
February 3, 2003
History will not easily excuse us if, by deciding not to decide, we defer a reckoning with an aggressive totalitarian leader who intends not only to develop weapons of mass destruction but also to use them.
Saddam's abdication, or a military coup, would be a godsend; his sudden conversion to the wisdom of disarmament almost as good. It is a fine thing to dream. But, assuming such dreams are not realized, a return to a hollow pursuit of containment will be the most dangerous option of all.
When you compare the English to the Russian, you find mistranslations; inconsistencies of approach (sometimes idioms are translated literally -- even if they make no sense; sometimes not); stylistic errors; literalism; mixed styles; and just plain old bad English. As far as I recall (true, I've lived in Moscow for many years), you can't say "he drank up his pants" in English. And does anyone whose native language is not Russian know what "unclean powers" might be? Or do you think a 19th century Russian peasant could say, "Well, I declare!" My colleague, who has been doing the lion's share of analysis, has been entertaining and horrifying me with examples for months now. Sometimes I accuse him of making them up because they sound like parodies of bad translation, not something that won the PEN Club Translation Prize.
We no longer have the presumptuousness to believe, as they did in Sartre’s day, that a novel can change the world. Today, writers can only record their political impotence.
--Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio
But the fact that Le Clezio and Elfriede Jelinek of Austria have the prize is not entirely down to geopolitical score-settling. The key lines in yesterday's citation were that reference to "departures" and "adventures" in the French writer's work. Winners have, especially in recent years, been those who represent some kind of formal innovation: either of subject-matter - Morrison's rendition of African-American history; or structure - the mixing of the naturalistic with the abstract in Pinter's fractured dialogue or Lessing's games with memoir and science-fiction. All, at some level, are experimental writer - as, from what an English reader can discern, is Le Clezio.
In contrast, the greatest contemporary Americans operate, though at remarkable levels of poeticism and psychology, in traditional forms. By the definitions of the Nobel committee, which likes its novels to be really novel, the prize that Roth or Updike might win has already been claimed, in 1976, by Saul Bellow.
With the possible exception of Mailer, who pioneeringly blurred the lines between fiction and journalism, recent American giants - including Arthur Miller and Edward Albee - have tended to bring an innovative style to familiar structures of fiction and drama. The Nobel judges are certainly not indifferent to flags but what really gets them going is formats. No matter how remarkable the flavour of the tea, they like a new design of pot.
According to Chad W. Post, the director of Open Letter, a new press based at the University of Rochester that focuses exclusively on books in translation, 330 works of foreign literature — or a little more than 2 percent of the estimated total of 15,000 titles released — have been published in the United States so far this year.
The US publishes a shockingly low percentage of translated books from any non-English-speaking country. Only 2.1 per cent of books are translations and the largest number of those are, in fact, from French. The failure of French literature to penetrate the US market owes as much to US incuriosity as to French slackness.
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