Indiana University Bloomington
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Slavic Chair Wins NEH Research Grant

Posted: Monday, July 8, 2013

Russell Scott Valentino


Russell Valentino, chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, has received a 3-year, $220,000 collaborative research grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to partner with the Russian State Humanities University and the University of Zadar, Croatia to study “Translation and the Making of World Literature.” Slavic student assistant Lauren Bridges sat down with Valentino to discuss the aims of the grant, and took the opportunity to learn more about his passion for language, literature, and the fine art of translation.

What will you be researching as part of this grant?

We'll be looking at how certain works are acculturated at certain moments and then become part of the national tradition of that culture. So Dante's Inferno is now a staple of the English-language poetry world — there are new translations all the time, and it has influenced a lot of English-language poets. The same is true of Russian poets, and Croatian poets. How did this happen? A similar thing happened with Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground in English, where it somehow got associated with existentialism and then was institutionalized in American higher education in a particular way.

Does literature change depending on what language it is written in?

Absolutely! That is why there can, and in fact there have to be, multiple translations of one and the same work. There is no way to fix in one translated version the kinds of nuances that exist in a given source text. They're changing all the time, from generation to generation, and, with less variation, from reader to reader. Partly this is because of the memory that accrues inside language, in artistic forms and genres, and memory is never fixed. This is one of the more marvelous aspects of language and literature study.

What are the costs associated with the translation process?

For literary translation, it depends on the culture. The U.S. is pretty decentralized. Translators mostly take up projects as they like, then pitch them to publishers. There are some exceptions, but for most of the books that get published, this is how it has happened. Japan, on the other hand, tends to have a more centralized publishing system in general, and this affects how translations get created, too, with certain key publishers functioning as the main impetus. After that the costs are like any sort of publishing — rights acquisition, editing, publicity, paper, and so on. Translators sometimes get paid by the word, sometimes receive a flat fee, and sometimes get some of the royalties. Combinations are also possible. Most translations don't make money. Many translations lose money. Again, like all books.

What's the hardest thing about translation?

With prose, it's my back — I mean that only partly as a joke. Prose has a lot of words, and they seem to go on and on, and you have to figure out how to get them all in somehow. When you're revising you sometimes find that you've missed a phrase or line or even a paragraph. That sort of thing rarely happens with poetry. There I think the difficulty is more musical, tonal, maybe more purely aesthetic, but this is not a hard and fast distinction. The honed prose period can be just as aesthetically motivated, and satisfying, as the poetic line.

How do you go about translating poetry? How have you become so in tune with languages?

Best quote about translation ever: When asked whether he was ever concerned that his Spanish might not be up to the level required to translate a master like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Gregory Rabassa replied that the question wasn't whether his Spanish was good enough but whether his English was. My teacher, Michael Henry Heim, once put the same idea a different way: knowledge of the foreign language is a technical skill; the real art, and the hardest thing to learn and teach, is the use of the receiving culture's language. If you’re translating fiction, you have to be able to write sentences like a fiction writer; if you’re translating poetry, you have to be able to write lines like a poet. Then, too, you can’t really skip anything. When you speak, you can circumlocute, get around the things you don't know how to say. When you translate, you have to understand everything. You can’t circumlocute or explain what something means in other words. You have to find the same words… that just happen to be in a different language. That's probably why my back starts to hurt when I translate long prose works.

What inspires you to research literature? To translate? To teach?

First is the same sort of motivation to learn that I experienced when I was eighteen or so and didn't know much. It's a little more directed now than it was then, but I recognize it as the same thirst. The other is the good experiences I've had with teachers and students, which makes me want to give back, to provide something like what I was fortunate enough to encounter.

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