The Passion of Translation
Here is a lament — or complaint — I hear, anywhere in the world, at least once a month: "Why isn't all of Eisenstein/Bazin/Kracauer/Daney/etc translated into my language yet?" The globe is vast, and every single national film culture feels its lacks keenly — or has yet to realise what they are missing: little Frieda Grafe in English, not much Raymond Durgnat in French, reams of Mikhail Iampolski only in Russian, Judith Williamson unknown in Spain, Manny Farber yet to break through into Korean... and the beat goes on, infinitely.
The extent of what gets translated — in almost any field, and especially in the arts and humanities — is always miniscule, a tiny beachhead inserted into another culture. Many people have a charmingly Platonic view of translation: it's all out there to be translated, so it just somehow, magically, will happen! This is also a naively benevolent view: it assumes that book publishers and their commissioning editors are people with a total, global vision, a complete grasp of cultural history, and an impeccable sense of intellectual priorities: they are just waiting for the opportunity, the right moment in the market, to unleash 1,000 pages of Eisenstein's Method on us!
Regularly, 'translation projects' are announced around the world, such as by the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS). Every time I see such a headline, my heart leaps: what will it be, what's coming out next? But, in fact, almost all such projects are rather whining wish-lists: "Why don't we have all of Pasolini on cinema in English? When will Helmut Farber's vast oeuvre ever be transported outside of its original German?", and so on — as if simply complaining about it, from atop a high mountain, will actually get it done.
I have been fortunate to be a part of the translation process; in fact, these days, it takes up a lot of my life. I get translated, and I translate others. I think of it as both a privilege, and a duty. It has become something of a mission, in fact, to facilitate as much translation of film texts as I can — and Internet culture has aided immeasurably. It takes me away from other tasks, but I'm hooked. It's what I think of, slightly religiously — and also erotically — as the Passion of Translation.
Although there are many fine professional interpreters/translators (such as, across English, French and Spanish, the superb Surrealist expert Paul Hammond), translation is nothing like an 'industry' that is regulated, governed or directed from a Mabusian vantage-point. It is, on the contrary, completely ad hoc, discontinuous, often arbitrary, frequently grossly unfair (don't we sometimes feel, in a fit of pique, that some film theorists are over-translated?).
The law of translation is simple: it only ever happens, usually, when one person — a quite mad, super-dedicated, obsessive person — decides, against all reason and common sense — to do it, or to get it happening with others. Which means raising money, lining up a publisher (how many English-language publishers have even heard of Grafe or Hasumi or a hundred previously untranslated others?), and putting aside two, three, five, maybe more years to get the manuscript all the way through to a tiny but appreciative reading public. But that's the Passion of Translation...
This column originally referred to a new translation of Bazin's What is
Cinema?. This passage has been removed on request of the author. The
publisher of this translation, Mr. Timothy Barnard of Caboose Books
however wants to assert that the publication of this book is not in any
way in contravention of international copyright laws.