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Review of  Literary Translation : 'A Practical Guide'

Reviewer: Donald Reindl
Book Title: Literary Translation : 'A Practical Guide'
Book Author: Sorry, No Book Author Data Available!
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Translation
Issue Number: 13.904

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Landers, Clifford E. (2001) Literary Translation: A Practical Guide.
Multilingual Matters, x+214pp, paperback ISBN 1-85359-519-5, GBP
12.95, Topics in Translation Series 22

Donald F. Reindl, Indiana University, Bloomington, USA

Clifford E. Landers' practical guide to literary translation
numbers twenty-second in the extensive Multilingual Matters series of
works on translation. Although some of the works within this series
address fairly specialized topics -- such as the translation of
allusions and medieval Icelandic sagas -- Landers' contribution ranks
among the works destined to be appreciated by a broader audience. The
book is based on the premise of translation into English (p. ix),
butLanders observes that, despite obvious specific differences, there
are also a great many commonalities in the tasks that literary
translators encounter in any pairing of languages.
The title is apt: "Literary Translation" is a practical, rather
than theoretical, contribution to the field and is definitely a
guide, not a reference work. On the practical side, Landers starts by
assuming that the goal of translation is publication, and that the
translator is competent in the source language and target language
(p. ix). He addresses several dozen practical topics in pithy
sections from one to seven pages in length, ranging from the private
concerns of translators (office setup, dealing with puns and dialect,
drafts and revisions) to their professional interaction with the
public (copyright, dealing with authors, finding publishers, dealing
with contracts). Theory enters the discussion only insofar as it
related to practical decisions -- for example, target- and source-
language oriented translations, and the debatable doctrine of
"resistance" (pp. 51-54).
As a guide, the book is best read cover-to-cover, rather than
consulted on an as-needed basis -- although readers may be tempted to
skip ahead to sections with intriguing titles such as "The care and
feeding of authors" (pp. 81-89), "English before there was English"
(pp. 118-122), or "Pornography or 'pornography'?" (pp. 153-158).
Aside from the glossary at the end of the book (pp. 206-209), there
is little that can simply be "looked up" in the volume. In fact, the
book does not even have an index -- nor does it need one. The feeling
that emerges while reading the book is that of sitting down with a
trusted friend or mentor for a candid conversation on the craft of
From the beginning, it is emphasized that literary translation
is basically a labor of love, clich� or not. Although literary
translation may bring various rewards -- including intellectual
satisfaction, credit to your name, prestige, and a personal
acquaintance with notable figures -- profit is simply not a
motivating factor. Unlike commercial translation, literary
translation just does not have the financial backing commanded by
advertising copy, corporate reports, and government legislation.
Further, as Landers points out, literary translation is likely to
remain underpaid because there have always been people that engage in
it as a pastime or simply for the pleasure it brings (p. 8). It is
unlikely that anyone is translating tax codes simply for the sake of
intellectual satisfaction.
For the beginning translator, Landers offers a number of tips
and encouragements, starting with the pronouncement that, if you want
to be a translator, very well, "you are a translator" (p. 13) -- with
the admonition that, since a translator's business is translating, it
is time to start translating. Aside from this legitimization, he
offers more concrete advice as well. Reasonably, he encourages
specialization in less commonly translated languages, which offer
less competition from other translators and may well harbor
undiscovered literary gems. He also advises that beginners not bite
off more than they can chew -- start with a short, carefully planned
translation rather than attempting a lengthy novel. Landers also
suggests that beginners not write off smaller journals as possible
vehicles for their translations, and offers a personal mantra: "no
publication is as obscure as non-publication" (p. 17). Specific
recommendations for keeping records on submissions, rejections, and
acceptances are also offered. Finally, there's the matter of dealing
with harsh critics and bad reviews. From the exacting pedantry of
literary scholars to the careless excoriation of anonymous reviewers,
all literary translators eventually come up against negative reviews.
Knowing that you are not alone may offer some measure of solace.
Nor should beginners be discouraged by the fact that the
treasures of the source language may already have been translated.
Landers repeats the observation that a literary translation is an
ephemeral art with a half life of, say, forty years -- necessitating
new and fresh translations by successive generations as the target
language continues to change (p. 11). A striking example of this is
given on page 65, where corresponding passages of novel "Iracema" by
the Brazilian writer Jos� de Alencar are given in an 1886 translation
by Isabel Burton and in Landers' own 1997 translation. The two
translations are markedly different in style, reflecting the
readership for which they were intended. As elsewhere in the book,
providing a translation as an example does much more to illustrate a
point than would simply referring to the matter in abstract terms.
Landers also provides valuable advice for becoming steeped in
the culture of the source language, arguing that cultural familiarity
is just as, or even more, important for a literary translator as is
linguistic familiarity (p. 74). From living in-country and
establishing contacts with authoritative and reliable native
speakers, to attending events at a variety of cultural levels
(cockfighting, anyone?), to maintaining cultural contact long
distance, the ultimate goal to strive for is not merely fluency, or
even bilingualism, but biculturalism (p. 76). He points out how
difficult it is to keep up with your own culture, let alone a foreign
one, when not constantly immersed in it by citing a personal
anecdote: after living for only three months in Rio de Janiero in
1965, he was baffled to encounter a reference to "flower children" in
a "Time" magazine article (p. 76).
Throughout the guide, Landers emphasizes that his thoughts are
intended as a stimulus to translation, not as dictates or precepts,
and it is in this spirit that his "Twelve commandments of literary
translation" (p. 167) should be taken. Nonetheless, there are a few
cases where he comes down fairly strongly on an issue, including
recommendations against translating into strongly-marked dialect,
reading others' translations in advance of producing your own, or
engaging in bowdlerization. On the positive side, he emphasizes
reading the entire work before translating, reading the translated
text aloud, and consulting with the author and with source-language
native speakers.
For translators at all levels, Landers offers his thoughts on
some of the knottier problems of literary translation: what to do
with untranslatable puns (p. 109), when to provide descriptive
paraphrases (p. 79), or whether to launch into an explanation of
culturally-specific concepts (pp. 93-95). For the latter dilemma,
Landers generally comes down on the side of pragmatics and the
author's intent: "this is a novel, not a cookbook" (p. 40) and "this
is a novel, not a sociological treatise" (p. 43).
Although English, as already mentioned, is set up as the target
language, and although Landers' professional orientation toward
translation from Brazilian Portuguese is obvious, the work is fairly
accommodating in the language examples it cites. This includes
reference throughout the text to specific illustrations of
translation from, or into, languages including French, German,
Norwegian and Spanish. His numerous arbitrary references to other
languages -- for example, citing the likelihood of Lithuanian or
Slovenian literary translators engaging in indirect translation
through English for want of Portuguese (p. 119) -- come across as
sensitive and reasonable, rather than flippant.
Landers displays a familiarity with quickly-evolving modern
technology, offering his measured observations on the potential
advantages of electronic dictionaries, word processors ("does anyone
still use a typewriter?" p. 180), spell checkers and grammar
checkers, and Internet resources ("a last resort, but ask me again in
five years," p. 179). No less in-touch are his connections to modern
popular culture, citing examples such as the Harry Potter phenomenon
in the translation of children's literature, and the charges from
some quarters that it promotes witchcraft (p. 106-108) or Internet
chat room debates on the possible lesbian subtext of the television
series "Xena, Warrior Princess" (p. 127).
The finishing touch to the book was the author's decision to
introduce and close the guide with two of his own translations from
Brazilian Portuguese, with short stories written by Rubem Fonseca and
Moacyr Scliar, respectively (pp. 3-4, 197-199). Both of these
intriguing stories exemplify the pleasure to be derived from
discovering foreign language literature, and the doubling of that
pleasure when it is translated and shared with others.
Landers' witty and accessible style makes the book a pleasure to
read, and the humor that he injects into the discussion will coax
occasional laughter from even the most serious readers. The insight
that it provides into the challenges faced by even accomplished
translators provides ample material for reflection -- whether in the
form of sobering, but encouraging, observations for those considering
entering the field, or for more seasoned translators, who will surely
recognize their own experiences in the pitfalls and triumphs that
Landers describes. The guide gives a frank view of the labor involved
in crafting the ultimately rewarding product: a work of literature
seamlessly translated for the target language reader. Landers' book
is certain to be appreciated by those engaged in translation, but
would also be enjoyable -- and instructive -- reading for those for
whom the translation process is truly invisible: readers of

Donald F. Reindl is a doctoral candidate in Slavic linguistics at the
Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Indiana University,
Bloomington, USA. His research interests include historical
linguistics, language planning, and language contact. He is currently
working as a translator and university lecturer in Ljubljana,


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