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The Lives of the Translators: the Whence and the How

2016/2/23 — 16:42

【Text by Josh Billings】

"Kafka’s fluent homelessness began to look more and more prescient to the Muirs as the years passed..."

Translation, like marriage, is the art of making things work; so it should be no surprise that some of the best translations in literary history were made by married couples.

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Frequently this is a matter of convenience, or at least begins that way. One partner is fluent in one language; one is a better writer; one has more time. Talents assert themselves and sacrifices are made, until eventually the two sides work things out enough for the garbage to get taken out and the dog fed. The book gets done, in other words, which is another way of saying that the labor that produced it disappears behind a finish so perfect that it confuses pets and makes guests wish their own lives were so spotless.

For Willa and Edwin Muir, the Scottish couple whose translations of Franz Kafka, Hermann Broch and many others introduced English-language readers to some of the greatest German modernists, translation was a gift and a curse. On the one hand, it offered them money and a sense of accomplishment; on the other, it encroached on the writing that both of them, at different points in their lives, considered a true calling. But no matter how they thought about it, translation remained a means of survival for the couple: a lifeboat in which they bobbed, happily or at odds, through some of the most treacherous waters of the 20th century.

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