Book Review: Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English

Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English
Olive Classe (Editor)
1776 pages, 2 vol. Fitzroy Dearborn. $425

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This brilliant work, “one of the first attempts at a large-scale charting of the field of English-language literary translation”, helps demonstrate the importance and scope of literary translation into English. But it goes much further – it helps enhance the importance of non-English-language literature, in an increasingly globalized world.As a freelance translator, doing some literary translation to feed my mind, and technical and commercial translation to feed my stomach, I am delighted to see such a work published. Translations into English are becoming increasingly rare, and any work that contributes to an awareness of “other” literatures can only be positive for the translation profession.

Indeed, fewer books are being translated into English, for a variety of reasons. While this is perhaps not within the purview of this encyclopedia, it may be the central issue of literary translation into English (and not into many other languages, where translations from English are very common): the only way to ensure that translations continue into English is to address the many issues that are contributing to their rarefaction.

In any case, this work fills a gap – that of providing a compendium of information about literary translation. More than a mere work of translation theory, this encyclopedia features three types of articles:

– General and historical surveys of English literary translations from the major world languages, both ancient and modern;

– Authors and their works, including critical analyses and comparisons of various translations,

– Translation issues, covering the history, theory and practice of literary translation.

Those articles covering translation issues provide brief overviews of some of the main issues literary translators must deal with, together with bibliographical references. But, there are perhaps not enough of them, and some of them are far too short (the editors imposed a 1000 word limit on them). Nevertheless, taken together, they offer a fine glimpse of the issues involved in translating literature, and will be useful for both translators and readers of translation.

But this raises the question of the intended audience for this work. The introduction says, “One of the intended functions of the Encyclopedia is to further [the rapprochement between translators and translation scholars and theorists]. However, one can note the general lack of translators featured in this work. Most of the articles are written by “translation scholars”, some of whom have certainly translated literature, but for most this is not their bread and butter occupation. Examining the list of contributors, one sees an interesting dichotomy – some translators are called “freelance translator”, and others “professional translator”. I find it difficult to understand this distinction, since, in almost all cases, we translators are indeed paid for our work.

In any case, the cost of this work ensures that most literary translators will not be able to afford it. We are poorly paid for our work, and do it more out of love than for money.

The articles on translations from specific languages are interesting, giving an overview of the history of translations from these languages, and showing how the types of authors and books translated has varied over time. They also examine the influence literary translation has had on target cultures. To use French (the language I translate from) as an example, the article examines translations from before the Renaissance to the present. But, oddly enough, the section on the 20th century is somewhat limited, discussing, say, Asterix and Simenon (as well as many influential French thinkers of the late 20th century) while paying little attention to recent authors.

I feel that the most valuable part of this encyclopedia lies in the articles about specific authors. Each of these articles gives an overview of the author’s life and works, and goes on to discuss some (or all) of the English translations that were made. Several hundred of the world’s most important authors are examined, and these articles allow both translators and readers to have a better idea of the quality and style of the available translations.

The authors take an analytic point of view for these articles, discussing the merits and demerits of specific translations, putting them into the context of the time they were published, and not hesitating to outright criticize poor work. This is a good thing, because nothing is worse for translation as a whole than poor translations.

For example, the article on Proust gives a good overview of the translations available and their problems, both in register, specific terms used, and even the title chosen for the English version of A La Recherche du temps perdu. The author of this article, Anthony Levi, helps the reader understand just how difficult it is to translate such a text – not only must the translator consider lexis and syntax, but also the many subtle connotations Proust’s words vehicle from the complex social structure he wrote about.

Another example is the article on Cervantes, which gives a good presentation of two translations of Don Quixote, with examples that show the different tone and style chosen. However, the author dismisses all the other available translations, and it would be nice to have an idea why.

One could easily make a list of authors who are missing from this work. There would be hundreds, if not thousands, from major languages as well as minor languages. This does not lessen the value of this encyclopedia, though, even if some people will feel left out, especially those from some of the “minor” languages – only 41 languages are represented.

The encyclopedia contains an alphabetical list of entries, but this contains two serious mistakes. First, while authors are listed in alphabetical order, their names are in first name – last name order, which makes it much harder to browse. Second, I feel it would have been useful to have separate lists for the three types of articles, to make it easier to browse the content of the encyclopedia. I would like to be able to see a list of all the articles on translation issues, but they are interspersed with the entire contents.

It is good to find a list of authors, titles, and even translators mentioned in the book, as well as a thorough index.

All in all, this is a valuable work for translators, teachers of translation and those readers interested in reading literatures from other cultures. It belongs in any library that claims to present foreign literature to English-language readers, and, ideally, should be easily found by readers wishing to know more about the literature of other countries.

Literary translators will certainly find it interesting, especially the comparative analyses of various translations. There is a lot to be learned from reading these, no matter what language one works with, because the underlying issues – context, culture, register, etc. – are the same for all.

This excellent book is, unfortunately, somewhat expensive, but those who cannot afford it should certainly try and find a library where they can examine it. It fills a much-needed gap in the field of literary translation, both for translators and readers.


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