Interview with Editor and Translator Esther Allen

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A few weeks ago, I began to browse through the websites of university presses, looking for books on literature and translation. I happened upon the webpage of the book In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, Edited by Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky and published by Columbia University Press. The book is billed as the “… most comprehensive collection of perspectives on translation to date.”

Esther Allen agreed to an interview about her book and her translation work. I am particularly grateful to her enthusiastic responses in this interview. Previously she and her co-author Ms. Bernofsky were interviewed by David Auerbach in Words Without Borders and Ms. Allen alone by Matthew Reynolds in Oxonian Review.

First of all, Ms. Allen, given that your book is about translation and in a way, cultural mixing of identity, linguistic and otherwise, may we discuss your first name, Esther? In the Old Testament, Esther was first known by her Hebrew name, Hadassah. The origins and meaning of her later name, Esther, seem to be a matter of some debate. Do you think your parents decided to endow you at birth with an interest in the meaning of language and the naming of things?


The name was over-determined by a kind of literary constraint that my parents for some reason decided it would be fun to impose. We five children all have names that begin with E and which are in alphabetical order by age.

My oldest brothers are named Earl and Edward and the brother born just before me is Eric. How many girl’s names are there that begin with E and have a second letter that follows R? My parents are Christian fundamentalists, so the Old Testament factor inevitably gave the name Esther an edge over, say, Estelle, or Estée.

I suppose I could have been called Eve, but there aren’t too many names beyond that in the alphabet, and they must have unconsciously been saving room for my youngest brother, Evan.

Let’s start with who is not in the index of your book and why you chose not to include some of these people. No Constantine P. Cavafy? No Rainer Maria Rilke? No Paul Celan? No Joseph Conrad? No Richard Wilbur and Moliere? No mention of Constance Garnett or Rabindranath Tagore or Samuel Beckett? I ask because some of these people are little known in English, or functioned easily in several languages or haltingly in some or are said to be hard to translate.


There seems to be no discussion of the world of the translation of scientific texts and little of popular song. No Kurt Weill or Bertolt Brecht or “Mack the Knife.” Did you have to purposely exclude certain genres?


As someone who is slightly hearing impaired and who depends on subtitles for the enjoyment of TV programs, I was surprised you did not discuss the fact that the hearing impaired are often deprived of entire lines that are simply not rendered into captions or are simply termed “unintelligible.” In his contribution to your book, Fictions of the Foreign: The Paradox of “Foreign-Soundingness” David Bellos does charmingly discuss the gibberish song Charlie Chaplin sings in Modern Times.


in translationThe essays we chose are by translators from a wide variety of backgrounds – they are anthropologists, fiction writers, poets, literary theorists, historians, publishers — writing in three languages, and translating into and out of a dozen or more languages.

We read widely and networked extensively in order to assemble eighteen essays that are all insightful, well-written and authoritative, and that cover a wide diversity of angles on translation, from Jason Grunebaum’s analysis of the problem of what kind of English to translate a Hindi novel into (U.S. English or Indian English, which is very different), to Christi A. Merrill’s discussion of the relationship between translation and storytelling, Peter Cole’s meditation on the ethics of translation, Lawrence Venuti’s description of how he used intertexts as diverse as the hymns of John Wesley and the rap lyrics of Eminem to make Italian religious poetry of the 13th century meaningful to contemporary readers,  and Clare Cavanagh’s gorgeous study of the translation and re-invention of a famous villanelle by Elizabeth Bishop into Polish, and its impact on the Polish poetry she then translated into English. All of the essays are, in addition, useful to those seeking to learn more about literary translation in order perhaps to become translators themselves.

No anthology on any subject can possibly include or allude to every potentially related topic. You’ve successfully identified a number of topics ours does not include or allude to. There are many others, as well!

In his essay, Bellos says, “What translation does is to represent the meaning of a foreign text. And that’s quite hard enough.” Do you agree that that is what translation is? What if the original is ambiguous? What if meaning is secondary to intentionally meaningless mellifluousness? 


The notion of “turning down a translation job,” arises out of a model of translation as work for hire. In this model, a publisher decides to publish a book and then hires someone to translate it.

This is a common notion of how translation works, but none of the essays in our book are based on that model. For the major scholars and literary figures who are our contributors, the translator is a curator who produces knowledge by successfully recreating texts in a different cultural context. No one hired Haruki Murakami to translate The Great Gatsby. As he tells it in his marvelous introduction, included in our anthology in a translation by Ted Goossen, it was a lifelong dream, which he had imagined embarking on in his 60th year, but which he was so eager to pursue that jumped the gun and started in his late 50s. The same is true of the other translation projects discussed in the volume: no one hired Schlegel and Tieck to translate Shakespeare into German!

This is not to say that a translator cannot do first-class work when someone else brings him or her a proposal about what to translate – just as writers sometimes write their best books as a result of a publisher’s commission. Increasingly, however, the model for the new translation that has emerged since 2001 is that of activist-translator who finds important texts and then finds ways of bringing them into the target culture.

Regarding ambiguity: some texts are not at all ambiguous; indeed they are written to exclude any and all elements of ambiguity and therefore can be translated by computer.

A good example is weather forecasting. A very finite number of standard weather conditions need to be described and an initial human translator establishes the 20-odd set phrases that will be used to allude to the same weather phenomena in different languages. Once that initial work has been done, each day’s forecast can be machine translated. Stock instant message phrases like LOL or OMG have stock translations in many languages that are translated by computer for users of global mass role-playing games. See, for example, the recent New York Times article on Game of War: Fire Age and translation.

Most human communications, however – this interview, for example, any example of real human speech interaction, any book or magazine article, almost anything written in sentences in a newspaper – are vastly more ambiguous and complex than that. Computers famously can’t translate the simple phrase “the box is in the pen” because they simply can’t tell that in this context “pen” cannot be the thing you write with, but must be a small enclosure for an animal. David Bellos, whom you mention, has a superb chapter on machine translation in Is That A Fish in Your Ear? (2012), his best-selling introduction to many aspects of translation.

And that inherent ambiguity is why Bellos very rightly says that representing the meaning of a foreign text is quite hard enough. Creating a representation of something is often very difficult – ask any painter, sculptor, writer, filmmaker, scholar or translator.

You discuss in the introduction to the book, the “…burgeoning in recent years of smaller publishing houses and magazines focused on translation…” You mention, “a more horizontal process of reception and connoisseurship, a more directly representative and inclusive scenario….” Do you think that this scenario might be funded in part via crowdfunding platforms such as I ask because there have been some interesting cases of small translation projects such as Molecular Cell Biology into Vietnamese, where the subject matter was scientific and the point of the project altruistic, or Sherlock’s Home: The Empty House, where the translations were designed to increase the worldwide readership of the essays (originally in English) as well as to raise money for the purchase of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s house.


The only crowd-funded translation I know of at this point is the translation of Moby Dick into emoji, titled Emoji Dick, which was also crowd-sourced. I agree that we’re likely to see lots more of that.

In his contribution to your book, “Anonymous Sources (On Translators and Translation),” Eliot Weinberger writes, “Everything worth translating should be translated as many times as possible, even by the same translator…” Do you agree with that? What is something you would like to translate all over again and why? Do you think that there are too many translations of any book and what would you classify as not worth translating?


There are certainly an infinity of texts that don’t currently strike us as worth translating, and we may well, in many cases, be right about that, but we should keep in mind that future circumstances might at any moment make any one of them well worth translating. Horacio Verbitsky, one of Argentina’s top journalists and human rights advocates, gave me his book El Silencio when I visited Argentina in 2006; it’s an extraordinary investigative report on the Argentine Catholic Church and the way it was embedded in all aspects of the Dirty War, with special emphasis on one cleric who had by then become a cardinal.

I found it well worth translating even then, but could persuade no U.S. publisher to take any interest in it in 2006. This spring, after Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Argentine cardinal mentioned in the subtitle of El Silencio, suddenly became Pope, many publishers across the globe went in hot pursuit of the book. So it’s very hard to predict what will or will not ultimately be worth translating.

A number of the essays in the anthology are about translation projects so difficult or obscure that they might easily have been dismissed as not worth translating in the sense of being untranslatable. Richard Sieburth writes about translating the French Renaissance poet Maurice Scève, whose dizains are poems of ten lines, with ten syllables per line: gorgeous linguistic contraptions that seem absolutely rooted in their language and time. His essay and his translations make an important contribution to the understanding of Scève’s work, even – especially – for those who can read Scève in French.

Another eminent translator I know, Michael Scammell, is currently re-translating Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, having published a translation of it in 1976.  He’s promised me that he’ll write an essay about what he discovers in the process of translating such a book twice, and I look forward to reading that.

I have enormous respect for those who retranslate literary classics; it’s an important way of keeping those texts alive in our culture and, as well, of turning people’s attention to the subject of translation per se. Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary incited more serious discussion of translation in the U.S. media than anything had in years.

However, in my own career, I’ve been more compelled by the vast body of extraordinary literary works that remain untranslated into English. I’m interested in introducing new authors and new texts and have only very rarely done a re-translation, and then primarily because earlier translations were deeply flawed – which is not at all the best or only reason to re-translate something.

If I were ever to re-translate anything I myself have already translated, it would be the pieces by Jorge Luis Borges in the Selected Non-Fictions, edited by Eliot Weinberger —a couple of which had previously been translated before I tackled them. But this time around, I would want to annotate them quite heavily, as well.

Do you think some dialect-heavy writers (e.g., Twain, Kipling) cannot be successfully translated into any language or just not into some?


Twain and Kipling have both been translated across the globe. If poor translations have appeared in some languages, that’s an invitation to future translators to do a better job of re-inventing them. Is a mastery of variant local dialects the most important thing about their work? If it were, they probably wouldn’t be translated to the degree that they have been.

Roberto Bolaño is a past master of representing local dialects of Spanish – and a lot of that inevitably moves off the page when his work comes into English. That has not prevented Bolaño’s work from having a gigantic impact.

A Burmese student of mine told me about working on a production of Othello in his home country. Othello’s “otherness” as a black North African was not particularly compelling or comprehensible in that context, so Othello became a Burmese Muslim, and Desdemona a Buddhist – which made the play a searingly intense, even inflammatory, experience for the Burmese audience.

How has the advent of the Web changed the jobs picture for future translators? Has it foreclosed opportunities for them or opened a wealth of such for them? 


The Web has been an enormous boon to translators, both in terms of the unprecedented resources it offers for linguistic and historical research, and because landmark sites like Words Without Borders, Three Percent, The Compleat Review, Asymptote, Ezra, Paper Republic, N+1, Guernica, Little Star and many others have enabled translators to come together as never before, and have offered new venues for discussion and publication of their work.’s venture into translation publishing, called amazoncrossing, also promises to be a game-changer.

Have any of the books you have translated been released as e-books? Does reading a translation on an e-reader or a tablet differ in any way from reading it in traditional book form? 


Most of my books, including In Translation, are available in e-book form. I’ve never actually read any book, translated or not, in e-book form, so I can’t comment on how that would be different from reading a paper book.

Do you think that the rise of the e-book will help or hurt when it comes to increasing the number of translations published worldwide every year?


Excellent question. Apparently, a number of European publishers (I’ve heard of instances of this in Spain and Italy), frustrated by their inability to find publishers in the English-speaking world for their star writers, are commissioning translations into English themselves and publishing them as e-books in order to circulate the work internationally and begin to create a global reputation for these writers. The phenomenon interests me a great deal, but I know little about it except via hearsay. The first of these translations were terrible, but I hear that the European publishers are beginning to realize they can’t farm the work out locally and will need to bring highly skilled Anglophone translators on board if these projects are to find the audience they’re seeking.

Or, perhaps, to discard that old work-for-hire model, talented translators into English who have trouble convincing publishers in the Anglophone world to bring out the works they’ve translated, will simply begin approaching writers and publishers in the source language, instead – who are ever eager to get into the global language. Translators are generally much better than source-language publishers at identifying what will work in the target culture because they understand it better than someone from outside.

A book may have been a great success in Argentina, but that doesn’t mean it will play in Arkansas – and the translator in Arkansas is in a better position to see why it won’t work there than the publisher in Argentina. Offhand, I can see no reason why this model wouldn’t succeed, if someone could figure out the marketing end of it – and global publishing and the circulation of world literature could be transformed as a result.

Will your book come out as an ebook?


Yes, it’s available on Amazon’s Kindle Store.

Is it ever the case that a translator is a superb interpreter of written texts but an atrocious speaker of the language he is translating?


It’s often been the case: check out the history of Ezra Pound’s work as a translator. The model for that is Classics; no one expects the translator of Homer or Virgil to be able to conduct a conversation in ancient Greek or Latin.

However, I think we’ll see less and less of this in the future. The translators in our anthology generally don’t see themselves within some kind of modernist ivory tower of high literature where actual oral fluency is irrelevant. Instead they tend to be people who actively promote relations between two cultures, with one foot in each of them. And that requires a fairly high degree of oral fluency in the source language.

Alice Kaplan’s essay memorably recounts the failed translation into French of her book French Lessons, which is a memoir about learning French. She needed to learn to speak French very fluently indeed in order to become the critic, historian and translator of French culture that she is, and the John M. Musser Professor of French at Yale.

Have you ever cried out in delight at your own success in rendering a passage from language into another?


Yes. Often. And then moaned in despair when I suddenly remembered some other element of the context I hadn’t taken into account before and realized my brilliant idea wasn’t going to work after all. It’s a complex process.

In her essay, “Translation and the Art of Revision,” your co-editor Susan Bernofsky writes, “…somewhere along the line the original text must be forgotten.” That is a pretty daring thing to say—do you agree with that? Bernofsky’s statement is particularly interesting when juxtaposed against the last few lines in the last essay in your book, “The Art of Losing: Polish Poetry and Translation,” by Clare Cavanagh who writes, “…sometimes you even feel, for a while at least, for a day or two or even a couple of weeks, that you’ve got it, it’s worked, the poem’s yours. But then you turn back to the poem itself at some point, and you have to hit your head against the wall and laugh: it’s still there.” Is translation, then, all about books and laughter and forgetting?


Hooray for your implicit homage to Kundera’s  Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which was translated into English by Michael Henry Heim, who passed away last year. He was one of the finest, most brilliant, erudite, delightful and generous people I’ve ever had the privilege to know. He lived a very frugal life, on a UCLA professor’s salary, yet he and his wife donated $734,000 of their own money – which came from a small inheritance and a lifetime of penny-pinching – to found what is now known as the PEN/Heim Translation Fund. The Fund has just celebrated its 10th year of existence, and has supported nearly 150 translation projects, proposed by translator-curators who were moved to translate something they’d read in another language into English. One of the earliest projects supported by the Fund was one of the first translations of Roberto Bolaño to appear in English, done by Chris Andrews.

Heim, to whom In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means is dedicated, founded the Fund because he was afraid we in the Anglophone world were forgetting – forgetting about the entirety of world literature not written in English.

If, as a translator, you do have to go through a process of creation that involves, in the final stages, leaving the original text behind, forgetting about it, the end goal of that process is to allow all of us in this language to remember: remember that there are writers like Bolaño, who do not write in our language and whose work is nevertheless of enormous value to us.

Will your book be translated into other languages?


The essays by Haruki Murakami and José Manuel Prieto were originally written in Japanese and Spanish, respectively, and have doubtless been published in many other languages besides English. David Bellos’s piece has been translated into Spanish, French, Italian and I don’t know how many other languages.

Our book was primarily compiled to address the specific political and historical situation of people translating into English now that it is the language of globalization; it’s not necessarily relevant to other linguistic contexts. But some translators working in other languages have received it warmly, so perhaps someone somewhere may decide that the volume as a whole is worth translating. Who knows?

Thank you for your time. 


Hope LemanHope Leman is a research information technologist and a 2009 graduate of the Master of Library and Information Science program at the University of Pittsburgh. She is extremely interested in the subjects of crowdfunding, publishing and all things digital. She can be followed on Twitter.