Benjamin Moser’s meditation on translation struck me as muddled and inconclusive in some ways that are fairly typical of our moment. Accusing English of colonizing the planet, finding fault with translation into English as somehow advancing that process, and then letting off a snobbish vibe when talking about foreigners with their nakedly functional, “airport” English, the essay left me feeling that another writer would have served the topic better. And speaking of snobbery, I couldn’t suppress a tiny giggle of superiority when I read Moser’s brag that
Ours was one of the oldest continually written literatures in the world, an uninterrupted stream that goes back beyond even Beowulf.
Well, yes, Caedmon and Cynewulf lived at least a couple of hundred years before the Beowulf-poet. But a tradition that begins around 700 CE isn’t really all that old. If you want to meet a “continually written literature” with some history to it, I recommend Greek, Chinese, Hebrew, or Farsi; and with a quibble on the qualifier “written,” you could learn Sanskrit too.
Moser’s meditations begin with encountering a book collection that reminds him of his grandmother’s, containing hundreds of volumes of writers nobody (he says) reads. Mostly writers in a certain kind of modern American English; lots of translations into that idiom too. Like Moser, I grew up climbing around the shelves of my grandmother’s library (she was born in 1906). From it I got my first acquaintance with Dante, Baudelaire, Homer, Cervantes, Tolstoy, as well as Poe, Henry James, Melville, Faulkner, and the Fugitives. I still have on my shelves her copy of Ulysses and her Analects of Confucius. In some ways she wasn’t sophisticated: her critical sense was rooted in a kind of realism that wouldn’t get you far in the seminar-room today (you’d find on those shelves Edmund Wilson and How We Live, The Shock of Recognition, Bright Book of Life). But although we were living in a middle-sized town in the South, and basically monolingual people with a smattering of other languages, she was conversant with Lin Yutang, Auden, Stephen Spender, Hannah Arendt, as any intelligent person in the postwar West had to be. When I think about that library, my feeling isn’t mournfulness at its obsolescence, but gratitude that I got to read freely in it and readiness to share what I got there.