Performing Without A Stage

The Art of Literary Translation

By Robert Wechsler

Available free in three digital formats

"A passionate, enthralling book ... Throughout, the tone is conversational, jargon-free,
sometimes angry and frequently funny ... Above all, this book is quite inspiring."
Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World

"'I will try to shake up perceptions about translation and translators,' Wechsler
promises in the introduction. He succeeds admirably. Performing Without a Stage
is a provocative, passionate and entertaining book with a vital message."
—Jo Anne Engelbert,
Source: Newsletter of the Literary Division of the American Translators Association

"Wechsler's breadth of knowledge and experience makes this one of the best books
I have read on the subject. Wechsler is a lawyer by training, an editor by profession, and
an amateur translator ... His position ... frees him from the ideological agendas and stylistic
contortions that taint so much that has been written about translation by theorists and linguists."
—Carol Flath, Carolina Association of Translators Quarterly

A Selection of the Readers Subscription Book Club

Every performing art — acting, singing, dancing, playing an instrument — places the performer on a stage in front of an audience. Every one, that is, except literary translation, the performing of a literary work in a different language. Every performing art has hundreds of books about the people who do it, about its history, its pains and its joys. Every one, that is, except literary translation.

Performing Without a Stage is a lively and comprehensive introduction to the art of literary translation for readers of global fiction and poetry who wonder what it takes to translate, how the art of literary translation has changed over the centuries, what problems translators face in bringing foreign works into English, and how they go about solving these problems. It is based on extensive reading, on dozens of interviews with translators, and on the author's years of experience editing and publishing literary translations.

Performing Without a Stage will be of special interest to translators, writers, editors, critics, and literature students, dealing as it does with such matters as the publishing, reviewing, and teaching of literary translations, the nearly nonexistent public image of the stageless translator, the state of literary translation at the end of the 20th century, and the value for writers and scholars of studying and practicing literary translation.

Translation is a truly multicultural event, without all the balloons and noisemakers. It enriches not only our personal knowledge and taste, but also our culture's literature, language, and thought. If it weren't for literary translation, we would be without the great Russian novelists and classic poets, not to mention without any knowledge of contemporary writing abroad. And the rest of the world would be without Shakespeare and Milton, Morrison and Roth.

Performing Without a Stage gives Anglophone readers access to the art that gives us access to world literature.

320 pages, only available as an e-book.

Available free in three digital formats

Creative Commons License

Performing Without a Stage: The Art of Literary Translation
by Robert Wechsler
is licensed
under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Excerpt from the Introduction to
Performing Without a Stage: The Art of Literary Translation

Literary translation is an odd art. It consists of a person sitting at a desk, writing literature that is not his, that has someone else's name on it, that has already been written. The translator's work appears to define derivativeness. Would anyone write a book about people who sit in a museum copying paintings? Copiers aren't artists, they're students, wannabes, or crooks.

Yet literary translation is an art. What makes it so odd an art is the fact that physically a translator does exactly the same thing as a writer. If an actor did the same thing as a playwright, a dancer did the same thing as a composer, or a singer did the same thing as a songwriter, no one would think much of what they do either.

Like a musician, a literary translator takes someone else's composition and performs it in his own special way. Just as a musician embodies someone else's notes by moving his body or throat, a translator embodies someone else's thoughts and images by writing in another language. The biggest difference isn't really that the musician produces air movements while the translator produces yet more words; it is that a musical composition is intended to be translated into body and throat movements, while a work of literature is not intended to be translated into another language. Thus, although it is practically invisible, the translator's art is the more problematic one. And it is also the more responsible one, because while every musician knows that his performance is simply one of many, often one of thousands, by that musician and by others, the translator knows that his performance may be the only one, at least the only one of his generation, and that he will not have the opportunity either to improve on it or to try a different approach.

And while the translator is shouldering this responsibility and forcing literary works into forms they were never intended to take, he also lacks a stage to do it on. No one can see his difficult performance, except where he slips up. In fact, unlike all other performers, he is praised primarily for not being seen, for having successfully created a palimpsest, two works, one on top of the other, an original and a performance, difficult to tell apart.

We tend to think of the literary translator as someone who's good with languages. Which is like saying a musician is someone who's good with notes. Of course he is, but being good with notes won't make you a good musician; its just one of the requirements. To play music, you have to be able to play an instrument, and you have to be sensitive to nuances and understand what combinations of notes mean and are. Similarly, a translator has to be able to read as well as a critic and write as well as a writer. John Dryden said it best back in the seventeenth century: "the true reason why we have so few versions which are tolerable [is that] there are so few who have all the talents which are requisite for translation, and that there is so little praise and so small encouragement for so considerable a part of learning." Not much has changed.

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