I’ve often enjoyed Nicholson Baker’s writing and I admire some of the creative things he does with fiction. I especially enjoyed The Anthologist because of the way it talked about poetry (the main character is writing an introduction to an anthology of rhyming poetry but is finding it difficult to do). But I was disappointed by Baker’s apparent views on translation (or maybe they were just his protagonist’s views).
For example, the main character, Paul Chowder, talks about opening a magazine and looking at a poem. He notes that you look at the title and the name of the author, and he adds, “if it says “translated from the Czech by Bigelow Jones,” forget it, you instantly move on, because translations are never good. Well, wait—that’s not fair. That’s ridiculously unfair. I’ve read some wonderful translations. Translations of Tranströmer, for instance. But my heart does droop when I see that it’s a translation. But let’s say this poem is one hundred percent original…” (p. 69)
So he thinks a translation isn’t “one hundred percent original” (what’s original?) and he also seems to suggest that you move on rather than read a translation.
On the other hand, Chowder later says how Ezra Pound told W.S. Merwin to “sharpen your mind with translations”, and Merwin did, although Chowder says “I don’t know if it was good for him or not to translate so much” (p. 94). I think most of us who translate would say that it is good, because it forces you to think about language in a different way.
Finally, translation comes up again because Chowder is a big fan of rhyme and he feels that translation destroyed rhyme, because Jules Laforgue “exoticized” Walt Whitman’s poetry in translation and removed the rhymes, and this then had an effect on what people wrote. “The death of rhyme is really about translation. Everybody started wanting to write poetry that sounded like a careful, loving prose version of some sweet-voiced balladeer from a faraway land. Everybody read the prose in their own language, and then they imagined the glorious versificational paradise that they didn’t inhabit but that was glimmering greenly there in the distant original. The imagined rhyme-world was actually better and more lyrical than if they had the original poem in the original language with the actual rhyme scheme in it in front of them.” (pp. 131-2) I don’t know if I follow all this, but he basically blames translation for people no longer writing in rhyme as often.
I definitely recommend Baker’s work and this novel in particular, but I wish he didn’t have such a negative view of translation. Without translation, how would Chowder be able to appreciate some the poets he admires and learns from? How would he know anything about another culture or its literature?