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Why Translation Matters

August 10, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In the 2010 book Why Translation Matters, Edith Grossman proposes the question: what is an intelligent way to discuss and critique translations? Near the end of the Introduction, she asks, “Even if it is unrealistic to wish that every reviewer of a translated work were at least bilingual, it is not unreasonable to require a substantive and intelligent acknowledgment of the reality of the translation. I am certainly not lamenting the fact that most reviewers do not make one-for-one lexical comparisons in order to point out whatever mistakes the translator may have made – a useless enterprise that enlightens no one since the book has already been published and errors cannot be rectified until the next printing – but I do regret very sincerely that so few of them have devised an intelligent way to review both the original and its translation within the space limitations imposed by the publication” (32). This is such a difficult question, and it is of vital importance for those interested in the classics. Most of the readers will access the books through translation. Furthermore, any canon perpetuates a specific translation, so it is in our best interests to understand a little bit about the era and translator, as well as the author and canon. To me, it makes obvious sense that the translation is a unique entity separate from, but tethered to the original by ideas and context.

Since I enjoy wordplay, I periodically dabble at translating works on my own. I like to think of it more as a conversation than a concrete, finished product. I like to try to understand the author from every angle and then, place that into my world as best I can and make sense of it. The struggle here is that I am central to the role, not the author. Rather, the translator must be aware that personal perspective and experience can be hindrances. The reader, too, then, must understand that translation is a process, a conversation, an imperfection, much as the original text is.

Translation involves a great amount of creativity. I find it a pleasurable, but exhausting exercise. I simply cannot imagine a project such as Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, for example. The barriers to this type of project are many: time, historical period, Plutarch’s history, lack of outside sources, language barriers, etc. And yet, I have had the pleasure of reading this fantastic work in the Dryden translation. I would be much poorer without it. Grossman expresses similar sentiment when she writes, “Imagine how bereft we would be if the only fictional worlds we could explore, the only vicarious literary experiences we could have, were those written in languages we read easily. The deprivation would be indescribable. Depending upon your linguistic accomplishments, this would mean you might never have the opportunity to read Homer or Sophocles or Sappho, Catullus or Virgil, Dante or Petrarch or Leopardi, Cervantes or Lope or Quevedo, Ronsard or Rabelais or Verlaine, Tolstoy or Chekhov, Goethe or Heine: even a cursory list of awe-inspiring writers is practically endless, though I have not even left western Europe or gone past the nineteenth century to compile it” (26). Grossman’s book, Why Translation Matters, asks the question: What is the cultural profit or public good that we gain from reading translations? I tend to agree with her position: where would we be without them? I honestly cannot fathom a life without these amazing works. As it is, the United States has one of the lowest rates of published translations in the world, not because foreign literature is unworthy, but because there is no system. Translators receive little pay or incentive and often go unnoticed.

A few years ago, I submitted a paper on one of my favorite books: Fortino Sámano: An Overflowing of the Poem. Translated into English in 2012 by Sylvain Gallais and Cynthia Hogue, this book represents something very important to me: dialogue across languages. The original French poems by Virginie Lalucq revolved around a single photograph. Jean-Luc Nancy then offered a philosophical discussion of the poems. Translation adds a third layer of communication. However, one of the reviewers of this paper (which remains unpublished) wrote: “It is unclear as to why this text is of importance.” I realized that my paper had not adequately expressed Sámano’s importance, which I had hoped was self-explanatory. To me, this book offers a rare glimpse of a poetic argument (in two languages) followed by philosophical discourse. We simply do not see that kind of dialogue in English. Regardless of the paper's other faults, I am still disheartened by my reader's response, particularly because it was the response of a scholar in my field and I thought the ideas of translation were self-explanatory. I see now, however, that while my writing and ideas were complimented, the content itself is marginalized. Grossman expresses this more eloquently when she states, “It has been suggested to me by an academic friend who is not a translator but is an indefatigable critic, editor, and reader, that translation may well be an entirely separate genre, independent of poetry, fiction, or drama, and that the next great push in literary studies should probably be to conceptualize and formulate the missing critical vocabulary. That is to say, it is certainly possible that translations may tend to be overlooked or even disparaged by reviewers, critics, and editors because they simply do not know what to make of them, in theory or in actuality” (47). This, I believe, reflects my experience in writing about translation.

To further complicate matters, translations into other languages often rely upon the English version. So, while the English may not be the original, translators rely upon the English as if it were original. Grossman continues, “Another salient reality that affects writers profoundly is the need for books to be translated into English in order for them to be brought over into other, non-European idioms, for English often serves as the linguistic bridge for translation into a number of languages. The translation of texts originally written in other Western languages into the enormous potential market represented by Chinese, for instance, often requires an English version first. Because, at least until recently, many more Chinese translators work from English than from Spanish, a considerable number of Chinese-language versions of Latin American literary works have actually been based on the English translations. Some years ago, French was the conduit language, and many Spanish-language versions of Russian books were actually rooted in French translations of the texts. Of equal significance is the possible transfer of the book into other media like film and television. Powerful filmmakers and television producers whose work is distributed worldwide are all apt to read English” (58-9). I understand the reasons for this, but it reinforces the idea that translations should stand separate from the original.

I second Grossman’s question as to how we can critique and discuss translations with an element of consistency. While there are various entities dedicated to this, they lack cohesion. I find this question of vital importance since it involves not only the important ideas we discuss, but also the language with which we do it. Grossman cites Octavio Paz who says, “When we learn to speak, we are learning to translate” (75). In other words, ideas of translation are foundational and coexistent with being and education. Perhaps we need to better understand our own language to appreciate translation. Perhaps we can add courses on translation for young students. Whatever the answer, I hope that we are careful and clear about the documents we use, naming author, but also translator.

My few experiences in creating translations have greatly expanded my love of language. I feel a connection with the way that Octavio Paz celebrates language. Grossman explains, “He [Octavio Paz] states that children translate the unknown into a language that slowly becomes familiar to them, and that all of us are continually engaged in the translation of thoughts into language. Then he develops an even more suggestive notion: no written or spoken text is ‘original’ at all, since language, whatever else it may be, is a translation of the nonverbal world, and each linguistic sign and phrase translates another sign and phrase. And this means, in an absolutely utopian sense, that the most human of phenomena – the acquisition and use of language – is, according to Paz, actually an ongoing, endless process of translation; and by extension, the most creative use of language – that is, literature – is also a process of translation: not the transmutation of the text into another language but the transformation and concretization of the content of the writer’s imagination into a literary artifact” (75-6). Whether or not you agree with the deep importance that translation plays in our lives, it is worth our while to take note of those who do the heavy lifting of bringing foreign texts into English. I, for one, would not be happy without Borges and Paz, Dostoevsky and Chekhov,  Plutarch and Homer, or Lalucq and Nancy. Therefore, I would not be happy without Dryden and Grossman, Pevear and Volokhonsky, Lattimore and Le Guin, or Gallais and Hogue.

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Translations of Chaucer

May 4, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Last week’s Quarterly Discussion focused on Chaucer in translation. I opened the discussion with the question as to how one would determine what elements make a “best” translation. This seemingly generic question is actually really difficult to answer. Some authors excelled at rhyme schemes, while others performed better with word choice, for example. Truly, there is no single response and my intent in opening (and closing) the discussion with this question was to explore the benefits of having access to the primary source (and primary language).

Necessarily, translation contains many layers. First, there is the original language barrier. Most people who read a work in translation do so because they cannot access the language of origin. Secondly, translations must navigate not only word choice, but also context and cultural information carried within a language. Stylistic issues present a third difficulty. These are things such as alliteration, rhyme scheme, line length, etc. And finally (though this list is hardly exhaustive), the translator faces the issue of the target audience. By that I mean that the translator must weigh all of these decisions by postulating how successful the translation will be in the target language. In other words, there is a very delicate balance between risk-taking and minimizing risk, all driven by the target audience.

I selected Chaucer in translation for a couple of reasons. First, I was surprised that the Great Books version was Neville Coghill’s translation. My initial introduction to the Canterbury Tales was twenty years ago in an undergraduate class where we worked slowly and diligently (if impatiently) through the Middle English. I think this text is still fairly accessible with footnotes. Having said that, I do understand the amount of labor involved in combing through a footnoted text. (Personally, I believe that Gibbon’s texts include more footnotes - and more foreign languages - than the Middle English Chaucer, but that is perhaps just me.) Since I study the idea of poetry and occasionally attempt translations, I have become very interested in the differences (and similarities) between the original and translated versions of Chaucer.

For this discussion, we compared four different texts of “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”: Nicholson (Librarius version, published 1934); Neville Coghill’s translation (published 1951; this is also the Penguin Classics text as well as the Great Books version); A. S. Kline’s version (dated 2007); and the original. Below is a short passage from all four texts which will hopefully illuminate many struggles both from a translator’s standpoint, as well as the audience’s.

First of all, Chaucer writes in rhymed iambic pentameter. Since this sounds archaic to the modern-day ear, the translator first has to decide if they will stick with that same rhyme scheme. Secondly, Chaucer includes jokes throughout, using words with double meanings that may have faded away over time. In some cases, the translators chose to create a new joke, one that would work with the contemporary audience. In other cases, the translator ignores the joke. What license does a translator have in making these decisions? How much introduced content is actually new content? For example, in order to replace the Old English forslewthen, which means slow to act, or to delay, Coghill adjusts the metaphor and loses the layered meaning of a man about to set sail who is incapable of stemming his own “tyde”. Coghill writes, “But as I see you mean to stay behind/ And miss the tide for willful sloth of mind” instead of the original line: “But sith I see that thou wolt heere abyde/ And thus forslewthen wilfully thy tyde”.

Analyzing translations can be a tedious process, but it is the most enriching language experience I can imagine. In studying these texts, we gained insight into: root words, etymology, cultural adaptations, similes and metaphors (both new and old), effects of acculturation, and more. Furthermore, when translations of Chaucer differ, then the moral, main idea, character or understanding of Chaucer and his times, might also change. The stakes may be even higher when thinking about something like Tocqueville’s Democracy in America or Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, in which the moral is educational. The following passage demonstrates just one (of many) deviations that we analyzed during this discussion.

 

“Ful sooty was hir bour, and eek hir halle

In which she eet ful many a sclendre meel.

Of poynaunt sauce her neded never a deel.

No deyntee morsel passed thurgh hir throte;

Hir dyete was accordant to hir cote.” – Original

 

“Right neatly was her bedroom and her hall,

Wherein she'd eaten many a slender meal.

Of sharp sauce, why she needed no great deal,

For dainty morsel never passed her throat;

Her diet well accorded with her coat.” – Librarius (Nicholson)

 

“Sooty her hall, her kitchen melancholy,

And there she ate full many a slender meal;

there was no sauce piquante to spice her veal,

No dainty morsel ever passed her throat.

According to her cloth she cut her coat.” – Coghill

 

“Full sooty was her bower, all melancholy,

In which she ate full many a scanty meal.

No pungent sauce was needed for her veal;

No dainty morsel ever passed her throat.

Her diet, her cottage struck a single note.” - Kline

After reading through these passages, we wondered: Do we have the same impression of the widow after reading these four lines? Why do Coghill and Kline introduce the term melancholy? Did Chaucer intend for the widow to be surrounded in dirt, or simply soot from the ever-burning fireplace? Did the widow feel impoverished? How does “veal” change the passage, if at all? If we assume that Chaucer is intentionally including words from Latin, French and Old English, does the word “piquante” fit here, or does it distract (since we no longer navigate language tri-lingually or are, at least, not aware of it)? “Cote” is the Middle English term for cottage, so is the introduction of “coat” appropriate?

Basically, if this is the character that Chaucer uses as the introductory frame for his morality play, how much change still maintains the same message? And, is it important to aim for the same? At the end of our discussion, we still struggled to state precisely what is “best”. The translator must make value judgments and so must the audience, thus complicating the very business of translation!


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Code Talkers

November 24, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“The code word for America was our mother Ne-he-mah.”

“I enjoyed serving my country and my people.” - Chester Nez

Protecting our country is an act of honor and bravery. Every one of those citizens who sign up for the arduous task of defending America is worthy of mention. Just within my own life, I have come to listen more closely to those veterans who are familiar to me. And I have discovered that each person contains a wealth of stories, information, humility, kindness and complexity. Soldiers lives are littered with disruption. Constant movement and change juxtaposes the often monotonous routines of the armed forces. I would love to highlight every single one of them. Since this is not feasible, then I will simply say that we are grateful and honored to be Americans. Thank you for your service.

The month of November celebrates two extremely important pieces of American culture: both Veteran's Day and Native American history and heritage. As I have been studying languages for some time, I felt it might be interesting to revisit the Code Talkers. While most of these men have passed away, their legacy is still palpable. In a very short time, they wrote the beginnings of their own language and used it to then create an unbreakable code. This code helped America win both the first and second World Wars.

According to the National Museum of the American Indian, “More than 12,000 American Indians served in World War I – about 25 percent of the male American Indian population at the time.” The use of a code dates back to World War I in which 14 Choctaw soldiers helped the U.S. against Germany. Then, in 1941, the U.S. government once again struggled to create encrypted codes safe from enemy eyes. Philip Johnston, son of missionaries and fluent in Navajo, proposed the idea of using the native language to the U.S. Marine Corps. The original program enlisted 29 code talkers who created and memorized the code. There was no written record to ensure that the code would be kept private. Therefore, the men created an alphabetical code based upon common Navajo words so that it could be easily memorized. For example, “[T]he Navajo words 'wol-la-chee' (ant), 'be-la-sana' (apple) and 'tse-nill' (axe) all stood for the letter 'a.' One way to say the word 'Navy' in Navajo code would be 'tsah' (needle) wol-la-chee (ant) ah-keh-di- glini (victor) tsah-ah-dzoh (yucca)." The code talkers were deployed to the Pacific and as the program grew, more than 400 code talkers would join their forces.

The Diné word for warrior is naabaahii. The warrior tradition is an important and respected part of Navajo culture. Chester Nez (a Code Talker from World War II) said that “a warrior is someone who cares for and protects the area that they are from, protect the country” and that he was proud to be a part of this tradition. These warriors created a code that changed the face of the war. The code was kept secret for 23 years and then declassified in 1968. After its declassification, the code talkers were asked for interviews and information. The National Museum of the American Indian reminds us how difficult and complex it may be to understand a soldier's life. They write, “Like all soldiers, Code Talkers carry many memories of their war experiences. Some memories are easy to revisit. Others are very difficult. Some veterans do not really like to discuss these memories, while others can more comfortably recall them. They remember how fierce and dangerous some of the fighting was. Some remember when their fellow soldiers were wounded or killed. They remember the noise and the violence of war. Others recall being prisoners of war. Sometimes they have more pleasant memories of different cultures and places that they had never seen before and probably would never see again. They also remember how their American Indian spirituality was important to them during the war.”

As the generation of Code Talkers fade, it is important to dedicate some time in becoming familiar with the multiple ways in which they served. They bridged two worlds, both Navajo and American, in order to create a better society for all of us. There are many ways to support local veterans, from donations to programs. We can all find ways in which to serve those who have best served us.

For more on the code talkers, visit the National Museum of American Indians: http://www.nmai.si.edu/education/codetalkers/html/chapter4.html

To find the Navajo Code Talkers dictionary, visit: https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/n/navajo-code-talker-dictionary.html

Shakespeare's Henry V

April 14, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

When reading historical documents, it may be easy to forget the more mundane effects that occur when two cultures collide. However, Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth paints an example of this exact thing. In the play, the actual collision is often thought to take place in the battle between France and England, however it is actually through details of everyday life that Shakespeare exemplifies the angst of cultural divides. Shakespeare frames this combination of two cultures very well in his dramatic interpretation of the life of Henry the Fifth. Having just discussed both the text and the BBC's version of Henry the Fifth, I owe much of my rambling to a continued conversation from our film series. I am indebted to those participants for having inspired so much continued thought about this play.

To say that Henry the Fifth is a history play is not entirely true. It is, however, a well-developed sketch of a young king taking possession of land in France. In combining two empires, Shakespeare incorporates the French language directly into the text which offers an accurate portrayal of the experience. In addition, he includes characters with accented speech and he foregrounds a variety of ethnicities. Shakespeare also incorporates the classic technique of a chorus, a practice which stems from ancient Greek theatre, which helps to introduce the scenes and move through both time and place.

Henry the Fifth begins with an introduction from the Chorus, which frames the play. The film brilliantly portrays this as a voice-over narrator who renders commentary on the action. At the end of the film (spoiler alert!), we find out that the Boy is actually the narrator. For me, this creates an astonishing and brilliant use of the Chorus. In this case, the frame becomes the actual lens of the Boy as he has seen and lived through these times and with these characters. As an actual witness to their pranks, emotions, jokes and lives, he becomes an authority and a sage. In Henry IV, Part 2, it was Henry himself who sent the Boy to wait on Falstaff. So, it is very fitting to use his particular lens to navigate both Falstaff's death (at the beginning of the play) all the way through to Henry's own death. Throughout the play, the Boy attempts to separate himself from characters he finds unworthy (such as Pistol and Bardolph). He takes the audience a step closer to understanding honor and virtue through the life of Henry the Fifth. Therefore, his view of the battles and the politics becomes extremely important.

The film begins and ends with Henry V's funeral. The audience immediately understands the transitory nature of life, even the life of this great king, who died at the age of 44. It is somber to note that his young, French wife has an infant. At the end of the film, she kisses the infant and carries him away from Henry's casket. This moment follows closely on the heels of the courtship scene (which ends the text). Therefore, it accentuates the painful separation which comes so close upon the actual union. Shakespeare understands that everyone identifies with life, death and love. The final scene of Henry the Fifth surprises us with Henry's tenderness and care for Katherine, which itself comes close on the heels of the fierce battle scenes. Henry presses Katherine to speak English, but while she struggles with the language, she does not struggle to show her interest in Henry's proposal.

I am not surprised to find that Shakespeare writes brilliantly both in English and in French. Shakespeare uses French in a way that is, again, universally unmistakable. First, in a scene with Katherine and Alice, her attendant, Katherine attempts to learn a few English words. The scene beautifully demonstrates what it is like to learn a foreign language. In addition, it walks the audience through Katherine's excitement and nervousness represented by her approach to English. Then, in the end of the play, Shakespeare combines French and English as Henry V asks Kate to marry him. This documents, of course, a real experience in these communities which often clashed. Even the reader must change the manner in which they approach these sections of text. This abrupt language change clearly communicates the experience of fracture, but also of the fact that some experiences are universal and require no translation.

Plays often shift linguistic paradigms and there are many bridges to gap. In other words, the text of a play is not meant to stand alone on the page, but to be read out loud, acted and imagined. The addition of French is only another way of expressing the idea that we are always translating outside experience into personal experience.

Once again, I thank the group for a wonderful discussion of Henry the Fifth. I look forward to our next film course in the fall. For more information on the film series, email rfisher@hmu.edu.

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