How does one reflect on translation? For Susan Bassnett, one of the world’s foremost thinkers in translation studies – it is a field she helped into being, no less – this is a question answered incrementally, and over time. Her Reflections on Translation collects critical pieces that appeared, for the most part, in the ITI Bulletin; their significance immediately connects to the author’s name, but the usefulness of – and often, sheer enjoyment in – reading them owes also to an adopted style and approach to communicating what’s really important. Most of her reports from the various lives of an interdisciplinary field like translation studies serve to direct our attentions rather than offer a more exhaustive academic treatment of a given subject. Dates of publication are often illuminating, the book also serving as a chronicle of some of the twists and turns taken by translation studies in the first decade of a new century: after an Introduction succinctly explaining how we got here, we begin with the Threlford Lecture on ‘Language and Identity’ delivered by Bassnett in 2000; and after about 150 pages, arrive at the ‘Power of Poetry’, published in 2010. In between these two pieces, the order is only occasionally chronological; rather, themes loosely cluster together. This feels right, given the diverse associations Bassnett may reach for from the starting point of, say, ‘The Pleasures of Re-reading’ (an appraisal of both re-reading and re-translation); and also encourages the reader to enter at any point, instead of pre-installing any theoretical priorities.
It is actually the space between critical opinion and theoretical position that we inhabit here, with the issue under discussion often indexed by puns, wordplay in a short title: ‘Between the Lines’, ‘Reference Point’, ‘More than Words’, ‘Good Rhyme and Reason’. And these pieces are often prompted by everyday incidents and situations (‘at a dinner table the other week...’), or travels abroad: anecdotes lead to examples astutely assembled and soon enough, we reach those wider implications. The generally short length of these essays, as allowed by their origins and scope, does not come at the cost of depth. In fact, it is often astonishing to realize how many details and directions Bassnett manages to suggest even when she’s in a more conversational mode. Researchers in translation will also appreciate the clearer picture on the author’s evolving interests that emerges now that these pieces are bound in one volume. And overall, the picture is nothing if not inclusive: topics considered range from ‘The Value of Comparing Translations’ to ‘Translators Making the News’. There are, however, concerns that persist through the pages; principal among them is the relation between literature and translating. This emphasis is not surprising. More often than not, it is indeed the literary aspects of the experience that most allow translator and translation to reflect. Returning to ‘The Power of Poetry’, we discover how such interpenetrations are seen clearly, from the other side of the mirror:
…whatever a writer writes is to some extend a kind of translation, because that work will be the product that has emerged out of readings of other people’s writing. Sometimes that rewriting will be unconscious while at other times it will be a deliberate choice. This is particularly the case with poetry, when words and images used by one poet are echoed in the work of another (164).
Such statements are not supported by mere observation: in Exchanging Lives (2002), Bassnett’s work as poet and translator is woven intelligently with that of Alejandra Pizarnik; the book is one of those wondrous illuminations of the dialogues and dynamics involved. Several essays in Reflections on Translation then address the various synergies encountered in the translation of literary or theatrical texts, seen at the micro-level of its practitioners, as well as in terms of cultural and theoretical impact. Bassnett’s book includes observations on the vagaries of translating style; considers issues of agency, or reception; the literary genres spreading and adjusting through translation (‘On the Case’ explains her increasing fondness for detective fiction growing via foreign masters like Swede Henning Mankel, and considers difficulties posed by genre conventions when accented by cultural details). There are also the age-old anxieties (‘How Modern Should Translations Be?’, ‘Translation or Adaptation?’), but even concerns more topical, as in the significance of translation competitions – prompted by a report on the inaugural Stephen Spender prize – will return us to meetings and/or cut-off points between authorial and translational positions. We should remember that “when judges of literary prizes consider whether to select Pamuk’s work for an award, what they’re actually considering is [Maureen] Freely’s version of Pamuk. She’s his English language writer. Similarly, all those English writers who claim to have been inspired by Russian novels are actually talking about the translations they have read” (51).
Languages as they are learned, or listened to, in dialogue, languages loved and lost: across this book (but especially in ‘All in the Mind’ or ‘Living Languages’), Bassnett’s finds translation not just everywhere in everyday communication, but as part of the human condition, among the experiences that provoke awareness of personal identity, bestow it with new intensities. Such pieces are felt as carrying personal truths; alongside her discussion, via Steiner, of ‘the tone of the self’ in the essay that opens the book, they make for captivating reading. On the other hand, given the necessarily mobile concerns of translation studies, other pieces move outward. An essay on ‘What Exactly did Saddam Say’ is one of a few pieces that recognize correlations with news media and communication studies in an era of globalization. But the greater weight is given to the everyday lives of translations and translators, and the status of the latter, how they are perceived as professionals and cultural actors. Understandably, the view is often one from within the UK, such as when attention focuses on the place of foreign and ancient languages in the curriculum, or to issues of training and (mis)conceptions of translation studies within academia; yet without missing out some very useful comparisons with pedagogic attitudes abroad.
On more than one occasion, Bassnett takes to castigating disconnections or imbalances between theory and practice in academic contexts: a worrying trend witnessed not only in the work of students and researchers, but among her own colleagues. She especially notices how a default over-reliance on theoretical frameworks, coupled with increasing distance from acts of translating, leads to uneven research work and case studies. With theory rarely taking center stage, and prioritizing the immediacy of example and experience, Reflections on Translation itself exists as reaction to this situation. Quoting literary critic Frank Kermode on his recent going back to reading ‘writers’ actual works’ in ‘theory-less’ seminars, Bassnett realises that her own teaching is moving in a similar direction. This is not to say that translation theory is now useless, she argues, but that there certainly needs to be
more thought given to linking theory with practice, to understanding how translators explain what it is that they do, and how scholars analyze translations. Perhaps one way to ensure closer links is for theorists also to engage in more practice. Interestingly, for several years now students have been voting with their feet to study literature through programmes that offer both critical analysis through reading along with creative writing, and some of the most successful literature degrees have a sizable writing component (163).
If we agree with Bassnett that the basic distinction between literal and free translation was made 2000 years ago by Cicero, and all theoretical approaches since then really just ‘play around in one way or another with that dichotomy’, then questions of didactics indeed become even more pertinent today. It is perhaps the repetition of translation events across time that is most significant, our unending ways of seeing, and saying, translation. Bassnett’s book observes some of these instances with inviting clarity. And further understandings of transcultural communication happen exactly because the texts collected in Reflections on Translation worry less about the austerities of academic discourse; there is more space here for opinion, meaningful encounters, travel and the reading of the books of others. The seasoned teacher is also somewhere inside all of this, peppering the texts with advice, words of caution and probing questions. Above all, Bassnett never forgets that when it comes to translation as well as its study, there are always new stories to be told.