The PEN Ten with Lawrence Venuti

Venuti.Credit Karen Van Dyck

Credit Karen Van Dyck

Published on June 17, 2014
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s biweekly interview series curated by Lauren Cerand. This week Lauren talks to Lawrence Venuti, who translates from Italian, French, and Catalan. His translations include I.U.Tarchetti’s Gothic romance, Fosca, Antonia Pozzi’s Breath: Poems and Letters, Massimo Carlotto’s crime novel, The Goodbye Kiss, and Ernest Farrés’s Edward Hopper: Poems, which won the Robert Fagles Translation Prize. He is the author, most recently, of  Translation Changes Everything: Theory and Practice.  

When did being a translator begin to inform your sense of purpose?

At the very beginning, as soon as I began to consider myself a working translator. Translating is purposeful in its own way, and the more I translated, the more the purposes multiplied and metamorphosed, growing in self-awareness and determination. Initially, I saw myself as making available Italian writing that readers without the language could not otherwise read. I felt I had to do that in comparable literary terms, taken as I was with the example of poet-translators like Ezra Pound. Translating was immediately a form of writing for me, and I wanted to (re)write well, producing an imitation of another text, but nonetheless a text in its own right, releasing its own literary effects.

Translation also became a source of income, however modest. But I quickly learned that money is the worst reason to translate: it places a premium on speed, leading to a lack of discrimination and a dependence on publishers to choose your projects. Most Anglophone publishers can’t read foreign languages, so working with them can be like riding with a taxi driver who needs directions. Besides, you can’t make a living translating literary texts into English. Or let’s say that if you are living off of it, you can’t be giving enough thought and effort to what you are doing because you have to move quickly from one project to the next.

Nor is it enough to claim as your reason for translating that the source text is a masterpiece. You don’t learn about a foreign cuisine by eating only in Michelin-rated restaurants. Why should translation be reserved for the works we consider the very best? Literary exchange between cultures needs to involve a broad sampling of work, current, past, and emerging, popular as well as elite. Readers of translations can develop a feeling for a foreign-language literature only if they read each new translation with some awareness of previously translated work.

The most compelling reason to translate is to make a difference in the culture for which you are translating. A translation project should bring something new into the translating language, should interrupt business as usual, should unsettle complacencies regarding the source culture and give readers an altered sense of what is possible in literature, both the one they can’t read and the one they can.

Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?

Let me rather mention some authors I have already plundered. Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, and Bram Stoker in translating the late 19th-century Gothic writer, I.U. Tarchetti. H.D. and Lorine Niedecker in my versions of Antonia Pozzi’s modernist poetry. Sir Thomas Wyatt and John Cleland with Melissa Panarello’s sexy memoir, 100 Strokes of the Brush before Bed. Jim Thompson and Andrew Vachss with Massimo Carlotto’s brutal noir. With each translation project, I developed styles that were not only appropriate for the source texts but also analogous to styles that already existed in English. I was testing the expressive resources of English-language literatures, in effect, gauging their hospitality to the Italian works, while bending those works into uncanny new shapes.

Where is your favorite place to translate?

The country where the source text originated—for all the obvious reasons that enable a translator to get deeper into the source language and literature: easy access to daily newspapers, books, and movies, the small talk with waiters and shopowners, the unique sensorium that living in a different culture always creates. Over the past decade, as I began to translate Catalan writing, the places have included Barcelona, the Costa Brava, and those inland towns where not a word of Spanish is spoken and Catalan is everywhere.

Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?

I have been arrested a few times. It happened when I was a teenager because I grew up in the working class and hung on street corners. Disturbing the peace might get you carted off to a holding tank in a police station, whereafter your irate father was phoned to pick you up. As an adult, I ran afoul of the “no tolerance” policy that the New York City Police Department implemented during Rudolph Giuliani’s tenure as mayor (1993-2001). I was arrested for a relatively minor offense, but because the evidence was moot, I was not required to make a court appearance, and the case was adjourned in contemplation of dismissal. It ended there.

Since I am not writing a script for Law & Order, I won’t go into detail about the crime—something better saved for my memoirs. Still, the questions seem to mask another, more direct question—what does a writer think and feel when confronted by the prospect of losing his freedom?—and that does deserve some sort of answer. My experience was at once horrible and farcical. Horrible: there were moments when I actually believed I had done something wrong, that I wasn’t just the victim of a repressive political policy. Farcical: although not put on a suicide watch, I had to surrender not only my belt but my shoe laces. I learned at first hand what Nietzsche wrote of the “pale criminal”—“for evermore he saw himself as the perpetrator of one deed” (in R. J. Hollingdale’s translation)—but with a certain Chaplinesque spin.

Obsessions are influences—what are yours?

I am obsessed with translation theory, with accounting for translation so as to make it comprehensible to the people who need it—all of us—and thereby to combat the misunderstanding, neglect, and exploitation that it continues to suffer around the world, regardless of how much a culture translates. My obsession has influenced the projects I have developed by emphasizing an experimentalism, allowing theoretical concepts to lead to innovative strategies and vice versa.

What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?

The arguments in my book, The Translator’s Invisibility. For centuries, translators worldwide have worked under a discursive regime that enforces fluency in the most familiar form of the translating language. The effect of fluent translating is to lull the reader into thinking that the translation is the source text, “the original,” although only because the translator has labored hard to make the translation so easy to read as to be unnoticeable. In the process, the source text is assimilated to what is comprehensible and interesting to readers in a different language and culture. This assimilative move, so necessary for the circulation of the source text in the receiving situation, remains invisible to most readers.

But don’t get me wrong: I am not against fluency! I do want my translations to be readable! What I question is the fallout: the narrow stylistic range forced upon translators, regardless of how inventive the source text may be, the imposition of the receptors’ values on a foreign text and culture, the lack of recognition for translators, and their own uncritical acceptance of the status quo.

What is the responsibility of the translator?

Constantly to make the receiving culture mindful of what it lacks.

While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe that those who engage with the written word have a collective purpose?

Insofar as writing is fundamentally collective in its meaning, value, and function, its impact always exceeds the writer’s intention, so that even the most hermetic work can release far-reaching social effects. This is especially true of translations into English, partly because relatively little is translated, partly because the translation may be the reader’s only connection to the source culture, and partly because at least two intentions drive the translation, that of the source author and that of the translator. These two writers, more often than not, aim to reach very different audiences.

The translator, as a result, bears an enormous responsibility, not just in relation to the source text, but in representing a foreign culture. Translations can create or strengthen stereotypes of foreign literatures. Or translations can compel us to see them in a new light. I prefer to see the translator, then, as a very public intellectual, although one whose task is to challenge the values that currently prevail in the translating culture. After all, translation traffics in differences, linguistic and cultural, economic and political. It can’t avoid shaking up the way things are—unless it is muzzled by publishers and reviewers, readers and, yes, translators.

What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons members of the artistic and literary world in retaliation for their expression?

The Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi’s novel, Sostiene Pereira, translated into English by Patrick Creagh and first published under the title, Declares Pereira: A Testimony. It is set in Lisbon in the 1930s, under Salazar’s dictatorship. Pereira, the title character, is the editor of a cultural section in a newspaper. At one point, he prints his translation of a story by Balzac because it reminds him of his dead wife, but because the French text is critical of Prussia, Salazarist officials read the translation as an attack on Hitler’s Germany. This incident begins Pereira’s slow political awakening. Ultimately, he prints an attack on the fascist regime in Portugal. The moral: even the most seemingly self-absorbed writer can prove to be a threat to a repressive government.

Where is the line between observation and surveillance?

It can only be discerned in specific contexts—like the meaning of any word.