25 July 2009

The invisible translator

After my course at UCL yesterday - preparing for retirement - I went to Dillons. I still want to call it Dillons. I can't believe Waterstones just threw away that well-established brand, in favour of a name that briefly offered something new and interesting in mass bookselling, but is now a book warehouse, a major player in the growth of the influence of the bookseller's buyer on the range of books available. But that's beside my point today. Dillons in Gower Street isn't entirely a Waterstones yet. As it is still a major source of books for London University students, it has to maintain certain academic standards.

So I was really pleased to find good affordable editions of Pessoa - better than anything Grant & Cutler had last time I looked: an edition of Mensagem and a collection of poems under the heteronyms Caeiro, Reis, and Campos. Plenty of stuff to make a start on, although I realise I probably should also have bought the selection called Ortonimo - poems written under Pessoa's own name.

And also got The Translator's Invisibilty by Lawrence Venuti, who may be an important figure as he's the editor of the main course book on translation studies. I started reading it on the train home, and it quite closely matches the concerns I have. Venuti starts by noting that on the few occasions a book review mentions the translator or the translation, it's always fluency that is praised. This means that the ideal translation is invisible.

The translator's invisibility is thus a weird self-annihilation, a way of conceiving and practicing translation that undoubtedly reinforces its marginal status in British and American cultures.

There are clearly fascinating questions implicit. I had already wondered if that platonic concept of a pure source text waiting to be revealed can be true. But it seems likely there's a question of economic and political power at work: all writing must be like English. Venuti also raises the question of this default view of translation as being entirely about meaning, ignoring form and other non-semantic elements. Sounds to me like Ted Hughes.

23 July 2009

Phèdre in Yorkshire

Today's audience, it seems, consumes Racine in a purely anthological way: in Phèdre, it is Phèdre the character they come to see; more than that they come to see the actress herself, to see how she will play the role. [...] The text itself is seen as an assortment of materials, from which to choose one's pleasure. Memorable lines and famous tirades stand out from a background of boredom and obscurity. It is for these lines, these tirades, this actress that one goes to the theatre. One puts up with the rest in the name of culture, in the name of the past, in the name of a poetic flavour patiently awaited because centuries of the myth of Racine have localised it. Performances of Racine are a mixture of boredom and celebration, this is to say essentially a fragmented spectacle.

That is the start of Roland Barthes' 1958 essay "Dire Racine", collected in the book Sur Racine. It's my translation. I could translate it further. The first two words really ought now to be “the audience of 1958”. Or, to make the underlying point clearer, I could recast it as Shakespeare, and substitute Hamlet or King Lear for Phèdre. I think that could work pretty well (once I had also swapped in soliloquies for tirades). The point is that familiarity, particularly a culturally shared and shaped familiarity, risks changing the way a text is received. (I'd also change the title from Reading Racine to Speaking Shakespeare. Equally stupid sounding, after all.)

In the rest of the essay Barthes looks at what actors can do to speak the text in those circumstances. Surprisingly, in an essay in French about plays written in French and performed in French for a French-speaking audience, it sparks some interesting ideas about translation, which I'll be considering in the light of Ted Hughes' translation of Phèdre which is currently on stage at the National Theatre.

Barthes argues that the actor in Racine typically interprets the text by indicating certain key words and phrases. He uses two culinary metaphors: first the actor “chews” (mâche) the the text; he also says the actor acts like a parent, cutting up the food for a child. The outcome of this process is to enable the anthological approach, which Barthes identifies as a wholly bourgeois approach to art. He compares this to the use of rubato in music, which is the imposition of the artist's view of the piece. J S Bach springs to my mind here: the best performances, for me, are those in which the player most scrupulously follows the written notation. If Bach wanted rubato he'd have written it. Bach's music, like Racine's text, has effects written in it, that are produced simply by playing it. On the other hand, it's foolish to assume that there can be any pure, uninterpreted reading of a text.

Barthes writes that the actor works on a false belief that the words translate the thought (“les mots traduisent la pensée”). I've quoted the original because “mots” much more closely refers to words as individual items, rather than as a stream. He talks about actors speaking the text as a didactic exercise, not aesthetic. Their purpose is to make key words stand out, and those key words are the ones that express a fairly literal meaning.

At the same time, actors seem to try to disguise the alexandrine structure; instead they use pacing and rhythm that try to approximate to normal spoken language. He says the alexandrine contains its own musicality; there is no need for the actor to sing, to add a “secret music”.

English audiences for Racine don't have the background anthology of Racine in their head. They're not looking out for the memorable lines. So actually that familiarity isn't a problem. English audiences come to a performance almost naively. The actors don't need to cut up the meat for them. Maybe the text can speak directly through its own resources.

In the programme for the National's production, Blake Morrison writes about the translation. He's impressed by the fact that it sounds like Yorkshire, but then he would be. He quotes three lines of Racine in the “standard blank verse translation” and Hughes's version, which I may as well requote:

Athens revealed to me my haughty foe.
As I beheld, I reddened, I turned pale
A tempest raged in my distracted mind.

Hughes offers:

Suddenly he was there
Standing in front of me,
He had simply appeared -
Staring at me,
The man created
To destroy me.
Before I could grasp what I'd seen
I felt my face flame crimson – then go numb.
My whole body scorched – then icy sweat.

The original is:

Athènes me montra mon superbe ennemi.
Je le vis, je rougis, je pâlis à sa vue ;
Un trouble s'éleva dans mon âme éperdue ;

Obviously, the original is best. The simplicity of that second line is unparalleled in either of the Englishings. The staccato impact works so well among the longer more formal words, and the stress pattern almost demands a syncopation. But what's so notable about Hughes's version is that it adds so much meaning, letting the words translate the effect of the music of the lines. The short anglo-saxon based words – grasp, scorched, sweat – don't shock because they live in a context of short punchy words. And there's no music left.

Morrison clearly sees Hughes's version as an improvement on the standard blank verse translation. But I think that's precisely because it adds something – something Yorkshire – to the meaning. As foreseen, Hughes's lexicon is much bigger – not just here but throughout. A lot of the power of Racine comes from that very sparseness of words – that sense that all the characters are debating what these concepts – gloire, coeur, honneur – mean. It's claustrophobic, matching the closedness of the setting.

So Hughes's version (as the programme scrupulously calls it) adds explicit meaning to the text, making it much more lisible, and completely changing the experience. Later (later in my life, I mean, not later here – I've nearly finished) I'll consider if a translation ought to preserve the experience.

02 July 2009

No puns allowed

When talking about Alain de Botton, it's wise to self-impose a ban on puns. Anyone can think of their own. I've read another critical review of Adam Thirlwell's Miss Herbert, this one by Philip Hensher, who says:
The sad impression that this book gives is that he started it wanting to be George Steiner. Very soon, he revised his ambitions, and wanted to be Alain de Botton. Neither of those should be the ambition of a grown man.
Three birds with one stone! I've never been impressed by AdB. Some of this is entirely irrational. That name. That face. That hair. But he just seems to me to be pretending to be a philosopher. There's no real insight, just an ability to quote germane extracts from diverse writers.
And now AdB's lost part of the plot. Unwisely (or is it a calculated bid for notoriety?) he's responded to a critical review, with this well-argued case:
I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.
as Nietzsche might have said.