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Literary Translation and the Making of Originals by Karen Emmerich

Reviewed by Elliot Koubis, University of Oxford

Literary Translation and the Making of Originals, Karen Emmerich. New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. £23.99. ISBN: 9781501329906.


The influence of post-structuralism has questioned many assumptions in Translation Studies over the years, yet one glaring omission which Karen Emmerich, leading translator from Greek into English, confronts in her new book is that of the stable, ‘original’ source text. In Translation Studies we distinguish between the Source Text (ST), the supposed ‘original’ text that we are translating, and the Target Text (TT), the rendering of that text in another language. Despite the fact translation theory since the 1970s has increasingly borrowed from post-structural thought, its concern with instability has yet to properly destabilise the notion of the ST which translators mostly understand as a fixed entity, or whose instability is glossed over in translation theory, Emmerich claims (11).

            Emmerich’s book opens by asserting that literary ‘translation doesn’t just edit or manipulate some pre-existing, stable ‘“source”’ (10) because ST ‘originals,’ like all texts, are subject to the ‘textual condition’ of ‘variance, not stability’ (2). We see this most obviously in ancient texts that are constructed from varying fragmented or incomplete sources by editors over a long period of time. But Emmerich stresses modern works exhibit this variance too, despite the ostensible fixity offered by modern print. Published poems or short stories often appear in different versions, and editors often renegotiate what counts as the ‘original’ work by incorporating hidden or lost manuscript variations. Recalling an astonishing example of her own translation of the Greek author Vassilis Vassilikos, Emmerich highlights that writers often exploit translation as an opportunity to substantially revise their ‘original’ work for a foreign audience. Overall, Emmerich compellingly argues that what determines an ‘original’ work is provisional at best. Indeed, what we understand as the ‘original’ work is created by translators, whose translations establish a fixed source (148). Chapter 1 shows how modern translators of The Epic of Gilgamesh tried to construct an ‘original’ text from varying sources spanning Gilgamesh’s textual history (39), and Chapter 2 narrates how translators and editors around the turn of the century crafted ‘originals’ of Modern Greek folk songs they collected in anthologies that even influenced how Greek folk cultures remembered and performed these oral works (95).

            The arch-concept Emmerich refutes here through the novel lens of ST mutability is that of ‘equivalence’, which she defines as a nebulous theorisation of the synonymy of two utterances on the level of word, function, form, sentence or text (54). It is meaningless to talk about ‘equivalence’ between an ST and its translation if its actual textual source, often left undisclosed in publications, had variations or was different altogether (3). In fact, quoting Naoki Sakai, Emmerich argues that translation bolsters the illusion of equivalence by establishing continuity between discontinuous languages (4). This point is well illustrated by the example of Gilgamesh, where lexicographers and translators did not so much discover the meanings of cuneiform texts in English but rather constructed word-level equivalence through consensus (40). However, despite being central to her critique and to translation theory in general, Emmerich defines equivalence too late and too briefly: an overview of its many iterations in Translation Studies would have solidified her use of the term for readers unfamiliar with the concept.

            So, if literary translation can no longer be understood as a transfer of meaning, yet is still a term useful enough to retain, how else are we to comprehend it? Emmerich persuasively argues that literary translation 'continues the iterative growth of a work in another language whose otherness and self-sameness are always provisional' (4). In other words, translation generates different versions of ‘the work’ and embodies interpretations of it in texts. Emmerich structures this argument around Peter Shillingsburg’s binary of ‘work’ and ‘text’: The ‘work’ is considered to be the 'product of the imagination' that takes many textual forms over its life; the ‘text’, on the other hand, is the typographic manifestation of that work in any physical form (16). Emmerich’s innovatively expands Shillingsburg’s concept of ‘work’ to encompass versions across different languages, freeing the translator from seeking equivalence to instead embody within the text of their translations their own interpretations as to what and how the work means.

            The strongest offering Emmerich makes to literary translators is the way she encourages them to assume the role of editors and accommodate the textual history of the works we are translating, using strategies to evoke their incompleteness and textual variation. Translators, like editors, choose which text(s) they work from. They select particular elements in the work, textual or non-textual, thereby determining how it expresses meaning (24). Without realising it, translators already make editorial decisions by silently endorsing those that formed their working STs (25). Emmerich refrains from prescriptively outlining a general methodology for how translators should negotiate textual variance, but one compelling example she offers in her discussion of the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy exploits digital media to present a version of a poem on a screen that cycles through its manuscript variants every few seconds (157). Emmerich also holds up the recent online archive and facsimile editions of the poems of Emily Dickinson as paradigms in Chapter 3, whilst making sure not to fetishise them as 'originals’. Fundamentally she encourages translators to be lucid, 'disclos[ing] to readers which editorial hybrid or hybrids [they have] chosen as the basis' of their translations (120).

            Emmerich acknowledges that her project’s main hindrance is that translators, not to mention literary critics, are rarely trained to deal with textual variants, accustomed as they are to working with definitive ‘reading’ texts (100). To this end, she suggests that translators focus more intently on the 'editorial history of the works we translate,' and consider the 'potential significance’ of non-lexical aspects of our source texts (103). Recent developments in textual and archival digitisation could bring Translation Studies and practice into contact with current critical discussions of visual and material form (101). The book’s last chapter serves as an impassioned polemic to change how we view translation within the academic sphere. Emmerich makes a strong case for translation to be taken more seriously as a legitimate academic pursuit as a form of embodied textual criticism, and because translated texts enable international academic study to function. We should make students aware when they read translated texts that both translations and so-called ‘original’ texts constitute iterations of a work that embody interpretations, which as a pedagogy avoids fetishising original works. Likewise, we should teach textual variation whilst emphasising that translation is still a valid task in order to avoid engendering a “distrust” of translation (196).

            Emmerich’s book is magisterial in scope: it takes into account a broad corpus of texts across both time and cultures. To some extent this large bibliography, coupled with Emmerich’s fastidious approach to textual history, occasionally throws the reader off the book’s main thesis, albeit via interesting avenues of discussion. Furthermore, Emmerich does not fully explore the ramifications of the term ‘correspondence’ in Chapter 5, which explores the highly ‘citational’ work of the contemporary poet Jack Spicer. Here, ‘correspondence’ denotes a type of translation that, like creative writing, draws from multiple, often invisible sources, prioritising textual proliferation over word-level equivalence. Unfortunately, Emmerich does not formulate this concept further as an innovative theoretical alternative to equivalence.

            Crucially, this book only sets out to deal with literary translation. While this is not a problem in and of itself, Emmerich’s chapters focus mostly on poetry, where semantic play is most apparent, to the detriment of fiction and non-fiction where her arguments could be argued with equal validity. These criticisms notwithstanding, Literary Translation… is punctuated throughout with rigorous criticisms of oft-overlooked concepts in translation theory, offering working translators productive ways to rethink their practice and the question of textual variation, inviting them to find their own solutions. Translation scholars may find Emmerich’s arguments familiar, but her introduction of ‘work’ and ‘text’ into the field’s vocabulary, the value of her textual criticism, her fierce defence of translation’s academic legitimacy, and her novel and convincing argument against the stability of the ‘original’, constitute fascinating and timely reformulations of perennial questions in translation theory. Her book pioneers a modern approach to textual instability in translation practice that speaks urgently to our moment of digital media and textual fluidity.