OK, I don't get it.
Every once in a while I check out Wyatt Mason's blog, Sentences, over at Harpers. Mason is consistently happy to talk about books in translation when he is unable to read the original text (anything in German, Yiddish, Greek, Danish, to take a few examples). This is a point of view that I don't really get - if a book in translation strikes me as brilliant, my next step is to try to read at least something of the book in the original language. The first Russian text that I tackled was the beginning of Anna Karenina (I had to see the words of Tolstoy); the first Japanese text was a passage on the name of a cat in Haruki Murakami's A Wild Sheep Chase; the first Polish text was a story by Stanislaw Lem. I don't know that these were the best books in the language to start with, but these were what I had come across in translation, and I had to see what the writer had written. At the same time, though, I'm always conscious of the precipitous learning curve - the shocking amount of time it takes to read even a couple of paragraphs in the original language of a book one has read in translation, if one dives right in at the deep end. I feel that I have to do it, yes, but I'm not convinced that it's rational.
But. Um. ¿K?
If a book is in a language I know well, it would strike me as completely mad to read it in translation. I can't imagine reading a translation of a French author in English - what conceivable reason could I have for doing so? Mason has translated Rimbaud and Montaigne into English; I assume he is competent in French; what conceivable reason could he have for reading French writers in English translation? He now says of Grégoire Bouillier's L'invité mystère: I had no idea who Michel Leiris was in 2004 when I read the book for the first time. I had occasion to reread the Bouillier the other day and liked it even more than I had back then. I’ve never bothered to grab the French version, trusting fully Stein’s English.
A few months ago Horace Engdahl, secretary of the Nobel commitee, complained of the provincialism of American writers; he complained that American writers were cut off because too little was translated into English. This was really rather odd, because all American high school students are required to study a foreign language to graduate; in theory, at least, anyone with a high school diploma should be able to read books in a language other than English. Anyone who goes to Paris will be struck by the wealth of writers from the Arab world who have been translated into French; a visitor to Berlin will be struck by the Eastern European writers who have been translated into German. Anyone who has studied French or German at school need not wait for an American publisher to do the decent thing and commission a translation; three years of high school language study should enable the traveller to pick up all kinds of books.
I can't say that this scenario strikes me as especially realistic. No. But. Um. When an acclaimed American translator of Rimbaud and Montaigne is content to read an English translation of a French writer, I'm um, um, um. Words fail me.