Upstairs, Downstairs

Article excerpt

"The World as India" by Susan Sontag, in Times Literary Supplement (June 13, 2003), Admiral House, 66-68 E. Smithfield, London E1W 9BX, England.

In an idealized world of literature--a vision now brought closer to reality, thanks to the Internet, than at any other time in history--all works in all languages would be available to all people. What stands in the way, says Sontag, the noted writer and critic, are the limitations of translation. Technology hasn't vitiated the lament of St. Jerome, who translated from Greek to Latin the Chronicle of Eusebius in A.D. 381, that "it is an arduous task to preserve felicity and grace unimpaired in a translation."

For Sontag, translation is a necessary and almost sacred function, the "circulatory system of the world's literatures," and perhaps of humanity itself. In what she calls the "evangelical incentive," translation can "enlarge the readership of a book deemed to be important." Although this can promote a kind of scorecard approach--the number of languages in which a book gets published represents its worth--translation often occurs in only one direction, with "many more books written in English being translated into foreign languages" than vice versa. Almost "inconceivable," in Sontag's view, is the possibility that a serious novel originally published in a non-English language could make it to the New York Times bestseller list, as Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus did in 1948.

This is literature's loss. Citing 19th-century German philosopher, theologian, and translator Friedrich Schleiermacher, Sontag notes that there is "a value in connecting with something that is different from what we know, with foreignness itself. …

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