Sympathy for the Traitor
A Translation Manifesto
200 pp., 5 x 8 in,
- Published: January 29, 2019
- Published: April 20, 2018
- Published: April 13, 2018
An engaging and unabashedly opinionated examination of what translation is and isn't.
For some, translation is the poor cousin of literature, a necessary evil if not an outright travesty—summed up by the old Italian play on words, traduttore, traditore (translator, traitor). For others, translation is the royal road to cross-cultural understanding and literary enrichment. In this nuanced and provocative study, Mark Polizzotti attempts to reframe the debate along more fruitful lines. Eschewing both these easy polarities and the increasingly abstract discourse of translation theory, he brings the main questions into clearer focus: What is the ultimate goal of a translation? What does it mean to label a rendering “faithful”? (Faithful to what?) Is something inevitably lost in translation, and can something also be gained? Does translation matter, and if so, why? Unashamedly opinionated, both a manual and a manifesto, his book invites usto sympathize with the translator not as a “traitor” but as the author's creative partner.
Polizzotti, himself a translator of authors from Patrick Modiano to Gustave Flaubert, explores what translation is and what it isn't, and how it does or doesn't work. Translation, he writes, “skirts the boundaries between art and craft, originality and replication, altruism and commerce, genius and hack work.” In Sympathy for the Traitor, he shows us how to read not only translations but also the act of translation itself, treating it not as a problem to be solved but as an achievement to be celebrated—something, as Goethe put it, “impossible, necessary, and important.”
Sympathy for the Traitor is a swift, lucid, and engaging tour of what translation is and does. Polizzotti reviews two thousand years of thought on the subject, sweeps away contorted academic theorizing, and makes an unbreakable case for sympathetic readability. And then, acknowledging the many peculiarities of the mind-meld that is translation, he goes on to visit the farther reaches of translingual exploration. This little book deserves to become a standard text.
Luc Sante, author of The Other Paris; translator of Félix Fénéon's Novels in Three Lines
Translation is the most delicate art, a form of mimetic magic invisible to many, taken for granted by readers who would be lost without it. Mark Polizzotti's book makes the hazards and thorny choices involved in translation vividly evident, but goes much further, into questions of enduring perplexity that arise from the interface of cultures, the homogenization of life in a shrinking world, and the effort to preserve difference while facilitating understanding. A beautifully written, necessary book, and a timely one.
Gary Indiana, author of I Can Give You Anything But Love and Do Everything in the Dark
Lively, readable, and often funny … a likably idiosyncratic sequence of essays on a topic that is of more importance than ever in our globalized world … Polizzotti makes one feel that creating and reading translated literature can be a genuinely pleasurable experience.
New York Review of Books
Sympathy for the Traitor is lucid and erudite, but above all it is engaging, entertaining and illuminating … as exhilarating and invigorating as a lungful of chill, pure air in a classroom grown musty with dogma.
With impressive breadth and scrupulous detail, translator Polizzotti offers a manifesto about what translation is, what it should be, and why it is important … Polizzotti's book is suffused with expertise and displays his decades of experience in incisively capturing the nuances of an esoteric discipline, while also offering a passionate defense of his trade's larger value.
There is no such thing as a perfect translation, claims Polizzotti, adding: “And so much the better.” Translation deserves to join other forms of artistic expression on its own terms, but the process should “start in homes and in schools.” This book has the potential to inspire such a change.
Sympathy for the Traitor is lucid and erudite, but above all it is engaging, entertaining and illuminating and Polizzotti's manifesto is as exhilarating and invigorating as a lungful of chill, pure air in a classroom grown musty with dogma. He eschews the dour fingerwagging that translation is somehow 'good for us', as though it were literary cod-liver oil, and revels instead in those voices that offer 'a particular delight, an irreplaceable thrill of discovery that is available nowhere else'. As he persuasively argues: if literature in translation is valuable in today's world, it is because such minds and voices are exceedingly rare, and we cannot afford to be ignorant of a single one of them.
In Sympathy for the Traitor, his acute, pugnacious manifesto, Mark Polizzotti takes issue with the adage traduttore traditore: translators aren't traducers or traitors, ghosts or parrots, or helpmeets, but writers in their own write (as John Lennon put it). The longstanding ideal of the good translator's self-effacement behind the towering original fails to take full measure of their vital role in recognising their parity with the author: 'It takes respect for one's own work,' Polizzotti writes, 'belief that one's translation is worth judging on its own merits (or flaws), and that, if done properly, it can stand shoulder to shoulder with the source text.'
London Review of Books
To Polizzotti, a translator deserves notice as an artist, no matter how hidden her art may be. The ability to hide one's voice is an art, and it's one readers should learn to look for. In other words, Polizzotti asks readers not to suspend belief, but to catch ourselves in the act of believing.