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.

20 August 2009

The Invisible Translator (5)

As previewed some time ago, Chapter 5, "Margin" is about modernist approaches to translation, starting with Ezra Pound, mainly for his work on translating from the Provencal.

The trouble with this chapter, as with the chapter on Newman's Homer, is that the products of a "foreignising" translation practice appear so ropey. Obviously, that may be because I've absorbed the hegemony too much, but I think there are other problems.

Pound obviously had a better ear for music than I do, and a major concern of his translation is to keep the music of the original, which he points out were always intended for singing. So words are chosen to replicate the rhythm and melody. But like Newman his process of foreignising often involves use of English archaisms. Venuti suggests this is to communicate the strangeness of the originals. But it seems a generic strangeness. Similarly, as I saw throughout the Cantos, there's a use of jarringly 20th century idioms, but again it's hard to see how these do anything other than say look how different those other words were.

Venuti then looks at the translations of Catullus by Zukofsky. These translations are interesting. Hm. Mrs Zukofsky provided a literal translation, and Mr Z then roughly translated them homophonically, using words that closely fit the sounds of the Latin, but are barely intelligible. I have to give an example:

Nulli si dicet mulier mea nubere malle
quam mihi, no si se Iuppiter ipse petat.
dicit: sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti,
in uento et rapida scribere oportet aqua.

Newly say dickered my love air my own would marry me all
whom but one, none see say Jupiter if she petted.
Dickered: said my love air could be o could dickered a man too
in wind o wet rapid a scribble reported in water.

Venuti says Zukofsky's works "heard a dazzling range of Englishes, dialects and discourses that issued from the foreign roots of English (Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, French) and from different moments in the history of English-language culture."

When I looked at Pound's version of "Donna Mi Prega", I wondered if the word 'translation' was the right one. Same here. Isn't Zukofsky doing something different, which can only be called translation if you completely deny the existence of an author called Catullus?

The chapter then looks at the work of Paul Blackburn, a disciple of Ezra Pound, who also cut his poetic teeth on translations from the Provencal. Venuti comes over all Freudian, analysing Blackburn's oedipal conflict with Pound and its role in his development as a poet. It led to a similar blend of archaism and slang. And I have a similar doubt about the outcome.

I had a real problem with this chapter. In theory, something other than invisible translation sounds like a good idea, but in practice the results are horrible!

16 August 2009

Lost in Austen

DVD packaging
I've just finished watching the DVDs of Lost in Austen and can't help thinking it's relevant to the concerns of this blog.

The set-up is that a modern woman, who's always loved Pride and Prejudice, finds herself walking through a doorway into the world of the novel, while Elizabeth Bennett goes the other way. One of the very best things about it is that there's no attempt at an explanation of how the doorway works; it's obviously fantasy so you just better get used to it.

But why I really love this series is the love and respect it shows for Jane Austen's work. So much more than any literal period rendering of the story. In this version you get a real engagement with Austen's world, a real discussion between now and then. There's a nod to the material differences - cleaning teeth with birch twigs and chalk - but the social differences are celebrated and criticised rather than seen as fixed. In this version for example, Bingley and Jane decide to make their future in America, and Elizabeth Bennett decides she was born out of time and her independence and wit mean she'll be happier staying in the 21st century. It's like a recognition of Jane Austen's outsider status. My only gripe would be that Elizabeth's part is so small. Like every sensible man I love her, but she appears briefly in the first episode then disappears (in a brilliantly bold bit of writing) until halfway through the last. Meanwhile the 21st century character with a very Austenian name, Amanda Price, is utterly engaging, but in the end her choice of regency life with Darcy is quite disappointing.

Personal reactions aside, I think the lesson is that this kind of creative engagement with a work from a different culture is far more productive that a straight 'translation'. And, my god, this was on ITV!

15 August 2009

Translating Gawain

Using this blog as a scrapbook, here are some of Simon Armitage's comments from his introduction.

Cover of hardbackThe lack of authorship seems to serve as an invitation, opening up a space within the poem for a new writer to occupy. Its comparatively recent rediscovery acts as a further draw; if Milton or Pope had put their stamp on it, of if Dr Johnson had offered an opinion, or if Keats or Coleridge or Wordsworth had drawn it into their orbit, such an invitation might now appear less forthcoming.

Some translators, for perfectly valid reasons and with great success, have chosen not to imitate its highly alliterative form. But to me, alliteration is the warp and weft of the poem, without which it is just so many fine threads In some very elemental way, the story and the sense of the poem is directly located within its sound. The percussive patterning of the words serves to reinforce their meaning and to countersink them within the memory.

It's surely no accident that the second passage is itself so alliterative, but also noticeable that it sounds perfectly natural. English, modern or middle, likes alliteration. And that's not the only advantage Armitage has. As a northern poet, you feel his diction is directly derived from the Gawain poet.

I read the book in three or four train journeys in three days. It's a really good read, thanks both to the brilliance of the original story, and to what seems to me to be wonderful translation. Very occasionally you sense that the alliteration is forced, leading to a jarring choice of word, but why not? Chances are, that happened in the original, and it's a poem, not a news report. It should tease and tickle the heart's inner ear.

13 August 2009

The Last Man and the Green Man

Cover of The Last Man
I've been reading Mary Shelley's The Last Man for what seems like months, but have now finished it. It's mentioned in the reading list for the Comparative Literature syllabus, for its imagining of a world without people: specifically, what is the meaning of a city without people? It sounded interesting, and I'd never heard of it so gave it a go. The initial reaction to the book (when it was published) was terrible, but the critical quotations in the Oxford Classics introduction express disgust with the subject matter, rather than the technique. The subject matter, eventually, is a plague that gradually kills off all but the narrator. So there's lots of disease and death. The Introduction suggests that the book has now become more popular because we are less alarmed about looking at the possible end of the world. Maybe. But there's also a clear wish-fulfillment at work: of course we wish Mary Shelley had written something else as good as Frankenstein; we wish she had written something that could be construed as a critique of patriarchy.

The big problem with the book, though, is that it's at least three books in one, and it takes forever for the big story to start. There's apparently a roman-a-clef going on, with characters who represent Percy Shelley, Byron and others. This at times suggests a strong emotional drive - Mary Shelley saw so many people die too young. But this also maybe gives rise to the second problem: the variability of peoples' characters. That might not matter in a less conventional novel, but this is essentially a standard Victorian form. You just get the feeling that whenever she needs to move things on she just recasts.

And the interesting stuff about adjusting to a world without people comes right at the end; a tiny proportion of the book. By then I was forcing myself to read on, not taking the time to think about the issues. But it didn't strike me as being particularly focused.

One thing that's not mentioned in the introduction is the attitude to religion: there's a token theism, but strikingly no reference to Christianity at all, which must have been strange and contributed to the book's poor reception. Although, obliquely, the last hundred pages or so can be read as a rewind of the Genesis creation myth.

Anyway, I have now moved on to something lighter: Simon Armitage's translation of Gawain and the Green Knight. It really is lighter, and I suppose I ought to be thinking about it in terms of translation theory, but for now I'm just enjoying the story.

10 August 2009

The Invisible Translator (4)

In the third chapter, “Dissidence” Venuti looks at how the selection of works for translation can be part of a foreignising project in the translating culture.

The major part of the chapter is about the work of Iginio Ugo Tarchetti, an Italian writer of the mid-19th century, who belonged to a group called scapigliatura (roughly, ragamuffinry). He wrote in the fantasy genre, and it’s suggested this was a literary and political challenge to the orthodox style of realism, enshrined in I Promessi Sposi, which underrepresented any social divisions within the new Italy. There’s a long discussion of Tarchetti’s translation/plagiarisation of a Mary Shelley story, "The Mortal Immortal". He published this as his own work but it is very much a translation. However, by not claiming (or admitting) to be a translation, the work is able to part company with the original. Venuti argues that this enables Tarchetti to strengthen the role of class divisions.

Venuti seems to regret that there’s no place for this kind of translation/plagiarisation today. It’s forbidden by copyright law and contracts. He suggests that the concept of the author as embodied in copyright law is over-simplified: the work is not simply the product of the person who wrote it, and the modern emphasis on single named authors doesn’t allow the kind of collaborative work that we may imagine Homer to be. And there would be a kind of frankness in a translator being able to say they have made several changes to the original to make it more relevant to the target culture.

But he says that people can attempt to introduce some foreignising influence into their translation work by their choice of material.

The chapter ends with a rather separate but interesting exploration of a recent phenomenon in English language publishing: the popularity of translated crime novels – eg the Wallander books. It’s unconclusive. On one hand, you can see the readers of these books as wanting to read about a different culture. But if that was so, why don’t they read mainstream literature in translation? On the other hand, the books that tend to be translated are firmly in the anglo-american tradition, focussed on the police officer or detective’s solution of the crime. The discussion has made me want to read some Wallander, though, as well as some of the other less mainstream books discussed, eg Miyuke Miyabe’s Kasha (translated as All She Was Worth. Venuti ends with the happy thought that even unchallenging books like the Wallander series can expand the range of acceptable books in the mainstream culture. I think that’s true: anecdotally, it seems to me that the choice of translated books that appear on Waterstone’s tables is becoming more adventurous - which bizarrely means more mainstream.

That’s it for today. The next chapter is called “Margin”. It’s quite a long one, and it features - tada! - Ezra Pound.

The Invisible Translator (3)

Chapter 3 of The Translator’s Invisibility is called “Nation” and it examines three studies of a “foreignising” approach to translation.

The first part is about Friedrich Schleiermacher’s 1813 essay “On the different methods of translating”. Schleiermacher was writing in a context where German-language culture was seen as subservient to the French, and from the account given here, it appears that he believed that there was an inherent superiority in German culture – actually, it’s becoming clear how often people involved in translation theory find their own culture to be superior – but could improve if translations incorporated some foreignness so that the scope of the thought would be widened. It’s a position that’s inherently contradictory in many ways, and I can’t actually see that Schleiermacher’s a good model to follow. What’s more interesting in this chapter is the underlying tension between Venuti and André Lefevere, who has translated Schleiermacher and Schlegel, using a very domesticating style. Sometimes this only shows up in the footnotes. But when I was reading the quoted text, this caught my eye. Schlegel wrote an imaginary dialogue in which a Frenchman says:
The Germans translate every literary Tom, Dick, and Harry.
That can’t be right, and it turns out, in a footnote, that the original reads
Die Deutschen sind ja Allerweltsübersetzer
which is quite different.

The second part is about the quarrel between Francis Newman and Matthew Arnold over Newman’s translation of Homer. He explicity tried to make the work seem strange, using a ballad metre, and copious archaisms. Arnold attacked the translation on grounds that rely on the existence of a cultural elite which is the arbiter of taste. He refers, tellingly, to the “nobility” of Homer’s prosody, while admitting that this nobility is hard to define but easy to recognise. Which sounds precisely ideological and hegemonic to me. Venuti argues that Arnold’s view (which became dominant) denigrates anything but the elite form of discourse, excluding class and regional differences.

But again, I don’t think the issue’s entirely clear-cut. Newman’s strategy is not to make the work look Greek, but to make it look generically ancient. Here’s an extract that is quoted:
“Chestnut! why bodest death to me? from thee this was not needed.
Myself right surely know also, that ‘tis my doom to perish,
From mother and from father dear apart, in Troy; but never
Pause will I make of war, until the Trojans be glutted.”
He spake, and yelling, held affront the single-hoofed horses.
Naturally, Arnold found that yelling ignoble (it “leave[s], to say the very least, much to be desired”), but criticised the use of Chestnut for Xanthus, Achilles’ horse, as an unnecessary translation. But that’s a domesticating usage. Arnold’s concern isn’t so much with domestication v foreignising as with valuing and maintaining the position of the cultural elite.

But the history shows that it was the fluent strategy that came to be seen as democratic.

In the third part, Venuti looks at how foreignising translations can work and avoid the tag of elitism. His strongest case here is the 1990 translation of The Brothers Karamazov by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Apparently this has been enormously successful, and Venuti compares its somewhat alien style with the smoothness of Constance Garnet’s Edwardian version. It is, he says, a better reflection of the changes in register of Dostoevsky’s original. I have to take his word for that, of course.

08 August 2009

Thanks again to Evri

Most of the time Evri produces quite comically useless links, but here's a good one: Adrian Hamilton in the Independent on the colonialising effect of translations. It refers to Ted Hughes' Phedre, but also includes Chekhov and Ibsen, with the comment that Ibsen, for example, is over-simplified to meet English expectations. It's a while since I've seen an Ibsen, but I remember Fiona Shaw's Hedda Gabler, which included one quite unforgiveable bit of comic business. Back again to Barthes' view of acting as translation. Here are the closing comments (which actually may overlook the pressure on good translators to domesticate the text; it treats translation as unproblematic, an alternative to 'versioning'):
This is more than a question of downgrading the translator's role. A "version" is, at heart, a form of colonialism, an act of ownership over a foreign literature. It says that the original is not quite good enough for us. It needs improving to be acceptable to a British audience. The sadness is that we have such good translators in this country. Why don't we use them?

05 August 2009

Susan Sontag. And penguins

Not critical, but HOORAY Penguin books have found a sense of style again. They've reissued a series of books by Susan Sontag. Here's what they look like.

Good god, that's stylish!

03 August 2009

The Invisible Translator (2)

I have now read the second chapter of The Translator's Invisibility and it seems like not a bad idea to use this blog to note what's in it.

The chapter is called "Canon", and is about the way fluent translation became the standard procedure. It's organised as a "genealogy" - a term I don't think I'd come across in this meaning before. It's derived from Foucault and the method is described on page 32. I'm trying to find a short definition, to minimise typing, but can only find this:

Genealogy is a form of historical representation that depicts, not a continuous progression from a unified origin, an inevitable development in which the past fixes the meaning of the present, but a discontinuous succession of division and hierarchy, domination and exclusion, which destabilize the seeming unity of the present by constituting a past with plural, heterogeneous meanings.

There is quite a lot of that kind of language, including the often-repeated phrase "the enthocentric violence of domestication". I'm sure some of it could be avoided, but also suspect it's like theological language, where a structure of concepts and terms is developed by various writers building on each other's work, and I've skipped straight to a higher storey. Eventually the structure - like this metaphor - will collapse.

The book looks at the development in translation in the early modern period, mainly focussing on translations from Latin. So there are several versions of Virgil. It's made clear how the choices in translation serve a current political purpose. For example, Denham's translation (1656) takes out a lot of the specific references to Priam and Troy, generalising the language to talk of the King and the Court, with an obvious reference to 17th century English politics.

Catullus also comes up, where the sexual content diminishes as the 19th century approaches.

One thing that I think was missed was that most educated English readers in the times covered would have been able to read Latin. Why would they even want a translation? Does the nature of translation change where there's a high incidence of functional bingualism?

01 August 2009

Into Pessoa

Now that I've got some actual books, I'm beginning to read some of Pessoa's poetry. The first, wonderful, thing about it is how easy the language is. Pessoa and his heteronyms use a limited vocabulary, using a lot of repetition. Here's an extract from the collection O Guardador de Rebanhos by Alberto Caeiro.
O único sentido íntimo das cousas
É elas não terem sentido íntimo nenhum.

Não acredito em Deus porque nunca o vi.
Se ele quisesse que eu acreditasse nele,
Sem dúvida que viria falar comigo
E entraria pela minha porta dentro
Dizendo-me, Aqui estou!

(The only inner meaning of things
Is that they have no inner meaning.

I don't believe in God because I've never seen him.
If he wanted me to believe in him,
No doubt he would come to talk with me
And would come in through my door
Saying to me, Here I am!)

Caeiro, according to the introduction to the selection, is a simple man, closely allied with the natural world, refusing to try to find any transcendent meaning. Unlike Pessoa himself, who had many metaphysical worries.

Ricardo Reis, the second heteronym in the collection, writes, according to the introduction, with a classical poise, although reflecting a struggle between epicurism and stoicism. His poems are short and formal, with classical mannerisms, and slightly harder.
As rosas amo dos jardins de Adónis,
Essas volucres amo, Lídia, rosas,
       Que em o dia em que nascem,
       Em esse dia morrem.
A luz para elas é eterna, porque
Nascem nascido já o sol, e acabam
       Antes que Apolo deixe
       O seu curso visível.
Assim façamos nossa vida um dia,
Inscientes, Lídia, voluntariamente
       Que há noite antes e após
       O pouco que duramos.

I'm not translating that in full, but the last four lines are roughly:
So we make our life a day,
Unknowing, Lidia, willingly
That there is night before and after
The little that we last.
You can imagine that the word order follows a Latin original. I don't know if it's an actual translation or a pastiche.

The third heteronym in the collection, Alvaro de Campos, has led a more extreme life, including a period of cocaine use, and has travelled widely as a naval engineer, which is why he washed up in "Barrow-on-Furness". His poems often have long rambling lines, and one is called Saudacao a Walt Whitman. Yet he can also write in strict sonnet form (as in "Barrow"). I haven't got far into his poetry yet. It is harder still to understand, containing a rich mixture of language and register, but seems to share Whitman's exuberance at the variety of life, sharpened by a sense of its transience.