14 December 2010

Demons, grains and beads

I'm perfectly aware that writing this is a diversion from actually reading the damn book (Dostoevsky's Demons) but sometimes a word leaps out that suggests the translators' dilemma.

In Part One, Chapter 5 (which P-V translate as "The Wise Serpent", Garnett as "The Subtle Serpent", hmm) a hitherto unknown character appears. The narrator pauses a little to describe him. Garnett translates this in past tense and here's an extract:
His words pattered out like smooth, big grains, always well chosen, and at your service.

P-V translate that sentence as:
 his words spill out like big, uniform grains, always choice and always ready to be at your service. (p 180)

The change in tense is interesting. I'd guess the original is written in present tense, but Garnett felt unable to use the present historic in English: it was much less common then than now. I'd imagine there are huge amounts of translation from French where this has happened. So it's an example of a wider change in the translating language enabling a translator to be more literal.

Then the stranger speaks:
"... Only fancy, Varvara Petrovna," he pattered on, [Garnett]

"... And imagine, Varvara Petrovna," the beads spilled out of him [P-V]

It was that word "beads" that made me check the two translations. It's out of nowhere in English. You have to supply a missing metonymy: words are like grains; big grains are like beads. Again, I'm guessing, but might the word "grains" in Russian have a closer link to the Russian for "beads"? A quick look at an online dictionary suggests the words зерно and бу́син(к)а don't sound alike, but maybe they're more interchangeable culturally. Maybe Russians (in the 19th century) couldn't see a big grain without thinking of a bead.

Maybe one day this association will become part of English understanding and we won't find the transition weird, just as we don't now find the use of the present tense weird. (I doubt it, though.)

This is the kind of problem that has always put me off reading translations. I don't know if the use of "beads" is clumsy or meaningful. But the fact that P-V use the word so awkwardly strikes me as clear evidence it's a literal translation of Dostoevsky's term. Maybe Garnett's decision to repeat "pattered" is closer to Dostoevsky's original impact.   

Later (p 219) the same character (Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky) is described as having "words spilling out like peas", a word that Garnett also uses.

01 December 2010


I've written a poem.
My pen is in my hand;
My hand is in warm water. 

I'm sure you'll agree it's remarkable.

Actually, of course, it's rubbish, but the good thing about it is it's rubbish in two different languages. These are grammatically correct lines in both English and Afrikaans and have very nearly the same meaning (or lack of). So does it matter which language I claim to have written in?

A minor point would be that warm in Afrikaans is more likely to mean hot, so there's a slight change in surface meaning.

But in either language there is a familiar technique of poetry: the incompleteness of motivation in the words means the reader has to construct a meaning. It would be hard enough to understand why you would ever want to tell anyone your hand is in warm water. But what's all this about the pen?

Well, of course, now that I've said this is a poem, the first line is a fairly standard bit of poet's reflection. It's common for poets to reflect on the difficulty of writing poetry, of capturing elusive feelings in words. You could expect a neat inversion:
My pen is in my hand
But no words are in my heart.

Even so, you could only see that as the start of a longer poem (and, I'd guess, a pretty poor one). 

Here, though, there's no linking conjunction; the reader has to guess the relation between the two clauses. You could read a but in there: here I am, ready to write but because my hand is (literally) in warm water, I can't. Or an and: my pen is in my hand, and I'm cleaning it (them). You could try various literal interpretations, but I don't think you'd find any of them satisfactory. So then you have to explore various metaphorical interpretations of the second line. Because the poem is so short, any satisfactory interpretation would have to explain why the poem ends where it does, and would have to be adequate: it would have to be able to import a strong feeling in those few words. My poem fails as a poem because you can't do that. There's no way in which you interpret "My hand is in warm water" to give any tragic closure. I'm pretty sure that's true in any language.

Perhaps a poem has to be specific to a certain language to be able to carry a complex idea in a few words: the associations within the language enrich the bare text. (Incidentally, there is a slightly obscene reading of the English version of [untitled], which I won't go into. It's the kind of thing Leopold Bloom might have said. It depends on wordplay of course.)

Of course you can have completeness at the expense of complexity. I might have written:
My pen is in my hand
But it is out of in

which at least is slightly funny and does explain its own brevity. The 'poem' is complete, but doesn't have enough serious content to detain us. The reader has a fairly simple job of seeing the trick. And it probably doesn't work in Afrikaans.

So I've written (or more accurately, assembled) two things that look like a poem, but aren't. There are plenty of those out there. Here's another one, which I'll call "Guest List":
Tim Key, poet.
Rufus Hound, comedian.
Pope Benedict XVI, protestant.