24 August 2009

The Invisible Translator (last part)

Chapter 6, "Simpatico" is in some ways one of the most interesting, as it's largely based on Venuti's own practice, and follows his developing beliefs. He tells the story of how he was advised, early in his career, to begin translating someone of roughly his own age, so that he could develop as a kind of alter ego, all the better to express that poet's meaning. Venuti's field is Italian poetry, and he began to concentrate on the works of Milo de Angelis. So he uses the word simpatico to express the desired relationship between poet and translator.

I know nothing about modern Italian poetry, and helpfully Venuti gives a crash course. It is apparently dominated by Eugenio Montale (1896 - 1981) but since the war a generation of poets Venuti describes as experimentalists has arisen; in fact they seem like old-fashioned modernists. Montale is accepted in anglophone poetry circles, whilst the experimentalists are seldom translated or published. Venuti argues this is because Montale's work usually adheres to the dominant romantic view of the poem as the expression of the poet's thought. Even when it doesn't, translators twist it so that it does. He quotes a translation which even I thought was dodgy. Montale says:
La speranza di pure rivederte
which is translated by Dana Gioia as:
I had almost lost
hope of ever seeing you again;
and I spotted (hooray for me!) before Venuti pointed it out that this changes the structure of the sentence making the poet's voice more active grammatically, and so conforms to the anglophone idea of a feeling, suffering poet.

De Angelis goes further in refusing to construct a poet's voice in the poems. Like Ez, you are often unsure who is talking. The poems could be translated 'helpfully' - inserting words that appear to give context, but this would be to add something to the poem. The concept of simpatico presumes that the translator can become so like the poet that s/he can understand what the poem means, and reproduce that meaning in the target language. (Incidentally, Venuti never uses the term 'target language'. It's always 'translating language' - a subtlety I don't grasp.)

And I think for the first time the term Platonic crops up: the mistaken belief that there's a real reality the poem refers to, so that a translation can be another, though inevitably flawed, image of that.

So Venuti's translations of De Angelis don't tidy up the discontinuities. Even where the Italian might be easier than it seems - eg in the lack of a subject pronoun for a verb, he leaves the uncertainty in (looking back to the Flaubert snippet, this would be equivalent to leaving out the word 'forward' in 'she leaned forward'). He calls this 'resistancy'..

The end of the story is that in trying to be 'simpatico' with a poet whose work resists the idea of the poet being a constant persona, he learned that this approach doesn't work.

The final chapter "Call to action" sets out, after a discussion of Burton's translation of the Arabian Nights, which again seems to 'valorise' (one of his favourite words) generic archaism, sets out some proposals for ways readers, translators, editors, critics etc might bring the translation process into the foreground.

Final thoughts are that this was an interesting read - a good way to get started on the subject - but I'm not wholly convinced by Venuti's argument. Which is strange, because I thought I would be. The weakest point is that so many examples of 'foreignising' translation concentrate on the use of multiple linguistic resources (language, register, era) which although they all say "this is a translation", don't say, for example, this is a translation from early Italian and you need to know that virtu is complicated concept. Another gap in the book, I think, is about variety of purpose of translation.

But I'm very happy that I do disagree. Those critical faculties are still alive.

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