The Poetics of Translation


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History, Theory, Practice

Willis Barnstone

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In a lucid, pioneering volume, Willis Barnstone explores the history and theory of literary translation as an art form. Arguing that literary translation goes beyond the transfer of linguistic information, he emphasizes that imaginative originality resides as much in the translation as in the source text—a view that skews conventional ideas of artistic primacy.

Barnstone begins by dealing with general issues of literalness, fidelity, and originality: with translation as metaphor, aesthetic transformation, and re-creation. He looks as well at translation as a traditionally stigmatized genre. Then he discusses the history of translation, using as his paradigm the most translated book in the world, the Bible, tracing it from its original Hebrew and Greek to Jerome's Latin and the English of Tyndale and the King James Version. Citing the way authors intentionally mistranslate for religious and political purposes, Barnstone provides fascinating insights into how, by altering names in the Gospels, the Virgin Mary and Jesus cease to be Jews, the Jews are turned into villains, and Christianity becomes an original rather than a mere translation. In the next section Barnstone analyzes translation theory, ranging from the second century B.C. Letter of Aristeas to Roman Jakobson's linguistic categories and Walter Benjamin's "Task of the Translator." The book ends with an aphoristic ABC of translating.

Willis Barnstone, professor of comparative literature at Indiana University, author of The Poetics of Ecstasy and The Other Bible, has translated Greek, Spanish, and Chinese poets.

"This book is a learned, sprightly meditation on the varieties of translation or literary 'transformation.' It's full of splendid examples, particularly from sacred literature, and repeatedly shows how much original genius is necessary to the true re-creation of any work."—Richard Wilbur

"The book, at times chatty, polemical, highly selective, and provocative, conveys much valuable information and presents good arguments. The scholarship is sound and the style and presentation have an engagingly personal verve. There is no other book like this one."—Lowry Nelson, Jr., Yale University

"[Barnstone's] approach is that of the artist, and when he reminds us that art is, or should be, involved in the translation of the Bible, we do well to listen. . . . This is a serious book. . . . When the words seem occasionally to leap and dance about on the page, it is because we are observing a poet doing joyous homage to translation, not a comic having fun with it. . . . The book is, however, a wide-ranging effort that forces us to examine ourselves and how we understand our activity. Any of us will be the better for these few hours Barnstone asks of us."—Roger A. Bullard, The Bible Translator

"What Barnstone says about translation history and theory has authority, not only because of his genial erudition and his coherent perspective, but also because of his own accomplishments in translating literatures East and West, ancient and modern. . . . Recommended to students of comparative literature, philosophy, and creative writing, and to informed lay readers."—Library Journal

"Contains many insights of interest to translators, readers, and critics."—Publishers Weekly

"[A] fine new examination of the subject. . . . Barnstone . . . explores the curious double life of translations. . . . And he does so with verve and generosity. . . . It is hard not to see translation as more than ever necessary."—Robert Winder, The Independent

"Barnstone's book The Poetics of Translation is an invitation to scholars and critics to browse through the issues of literary translation as it chats its way through the clever subtitles of its history, theory, and practice, interspersed here and there with pearls from Kafka, Goethe, and the Bible. . . . Barnstone's book should be respected for its scholarship and research and read out of curiosity for its arguments."—Richard Philcox, World Literature Today

"This important, erudite, readable book takes the reader far beyond what is commonly thought to be the scope of translation. . . . Willis Barnstone shows that literary translation lies at the very heart of civilisation and culture."—In Other Words

"[A] landmark, comprehensive study. . . . The Poetics of Translation is a book that the reader should consider a living legend."—Steven F. White, Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature

"Barnstone has greatly aided the development of translation studies in the U.S."—André Lefevere, Comparative Literature Studies

ISBN: 9780300063004
Publication Date: February 22, 1995
314 pages, 6 x 9