The Subversive Scribe


The Subversive Scribe
Suzanne Jill Levine
2009, Dalkey Archive Press
196 pages

THAT translation is a creative act is beyond doubt. One of the finest and most experienced translators of Latin American literature , Suzanne Jill Levine, makes a powerful case for what most publishers and readers would accept without question. In The Subversive Scribe, Levine – who has translated work by Julio Cortázar, G Cabrera Infante, Manuel Puig and Severo Sarduy among others – suggests that translation can animate the text that it unearths, thereby adding to its creative force. However, it is with the consequences of this strident position this that many publishers – especially in the UK and Europe – will begin to take issue, exposing Transatlantic differences both in how the translator is regarded but also wider social and cultural differences regarding the ownership of original ideas and the global intellectual division of labour. Driven by a cultural reflex that sees the entire world as “foreign” and exotic, the North American tendency is to transform the translator into a literary superstar in his or her own right, always at the expense of the original author and the literary culture from which they come. As a publisher, I have at times experienced the perverse consequences of the US cult of the translator: Latin American authors accepting lower advances than their translators, creative tensions with a translator that far exceed those with an author, the desire of a translator to receive credits on the book – or make dedications – equal in prominence to those of the writer. This cannot be an Anglo-Saxon eccentricity, for it does not happen in the UK, and so speaks volumes about Middle America’s understanding of the real world (ie, the non-US world): that is, it is somehow seen as an intellectual anomaly that someone from “out there” can add to the fund of human knowledge independent of the US, and that it is only US interlocution that can remedy this. So we should all be grateful. While Levine is right to point out what a creative art literary translation can be, she is wrong to strengthen a position that finds it acceptable for the translator to claim or receive greater credit and applause for a work of literature than the person who wrote it. – GO’T

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