Mark Polizzotti: a translation manifesto

My guest this week is Mark Polizzotti, author notably of a biography of surrealist André Breton; publisher at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and acclaimed translator from French of books by a wide range for writers from Gustave Flaubert to France’s most recent Nobel laureate, Patrick Modiano.

In his recent book, Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto, Mark speaks up for the translator in the face of multiple misprisions; as he told me in our interview:

There are a lot of very, very cultured people, very well read, who instinctively feel that reading a book in translation is not really reading the book, you’re reading a kind of second-best. Whereas I like to think of translations as being works of literature in their own right, if done well.

Some may view translation as the poor cousin of literature, but what I particularly liked about Mark’s book is that it in no way feels defensive. His advocacy for translation is robust:

What I’d like to get away from is the sense that translation is like medicine, you know, ‘I guess I’d better read this Italian novel because it’s good for me and it makes me seem cultured.’ The fact is, they can actually been wonderful. They can be just as enjoyable as anything written originally in English, they can be just as meaningful.

Not for Mark the view of translation as something servile, a rote tracing from one language to another. ‘A good translation,’ he writes, ‘offers not a reproduction of the work but an interpretation, just as the performance of a play or a sonata is a representation of the script or the score, one among many possible representations.

‘I think of it as analogous to a good cover version of a favourite song … that finds the essence of the song and re-creates it differently; that makes the listener hear the song in a way that both preserves and renews it.’

Mark’s family background is Italian, but it was France that captured his imagination when he was young. When we spoke on the phone recently, he began by telling me about the dawning of his interest in the country and its literature.


Lively, readable, and often funny … a likeably 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.– Emily Wilson, New York Review of Books

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