Editing and Self-editing

I think about the importance of editing often as I’m working. Partly this is because I am also editing other people’s writing as I write and translate. It is easier to separate these activities when the writing is of very different kinds, but sometimes they cross paths, and then I have to be careful that the voice of one first-person narration does not slip into another first-person narration. That, I think, is happening with this post. It sounds to me a bit like the narrator in Vassilis Alexakis’s Mother Tongue (La langue maternelle), the English translation of which (by Harlon Patton) I am editing for Autumn Hill as I work on Kin. Alexakis has a lovely first-person narrator’s voice, but it is quite different from Jergovic’s. How they are different would take me too long to figure out–I need to get back to both!–but here is a very brief example of the kind of editing that seems to be absolutely essential in both the self-performed and the other-performed kinds.

Re-reading a recently translated passage, I came across this phrase, which ends a section in which the narrator has commented on the disappearance of an entire line of relatives from the past: “Mi smo u rodu s fantomima i duhovima.” I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that my draft version had “We are the relatives of phantoms and spirits,” which is basically what the phrase means but misses an obvious connection to the very title of the book, which is explicit in the expression, “u rodu s…” (in relation to…). The slight change to “We are kin to phantoms and spirits” raises the register ever so slightly and strikes for the whole line a more effective, more moving tone.

I find myself looking at every sentence this way, which is of course no way to finish on time but gives me so much more pleasure than just rushing forward to get through the pages (and pages). It will be a better book, I hope, as a result of these little things.

Uncles and Uncles

I am struggling a bit with the challenge of Turkishisms. There are lots of them in Rod, regionally specific words that derive originally from Turkish and retain something of their Ottoman-era stylistic aura. Sometimes they are referenced explicitly, sometimes they pass by without comment, but any reader of the original work will be aware of them, even if only dimly. How to bring them out without simply using an italicized foreign word in each case has to be part of a global approach to the whole translation, it seems to me.

A good example is the chapter entitled “Stričevi i amidže,” which means “uncles and uncles,” the first word deriving from “stric” or “strik” (father’s brother), while the second is the plural of “amidža,” which according to the Hrvatski jezicni portal, means “stric.” A bit more searching will make it clear that amidža is the word used by Muslim families for uncle, and this is what the chapter is about. The ending is poignant:

When they found themselves all together, they always knew exactly, and never did any child mistake, who was called amidža by whom and who was called strik by whom.

The wars of the nineties were needed for the Rejc children and grandchildren to understand the nature of the difference.

Our Auntie Marica, Uncle Eda’s wife, a good cook and a simple-hearted woman, with a big heart and a stormy disposition, was born in Vitez.

Nieces and nephews did not call their uncle amidža there.

Except among the Muslims.

This kind of example is simpler than those in which the words are use without comment, for here the text teaches readers to read, making it possible to simplify the chapter title to “Uncles” without fear that the significance of the word “amidža” will be lost.

Elsewhere I need to think and choose carefully. There are so many examples that I’ve started keeping a list. It will be something I talk about with my author–for we are at least in contact about such things–when we discuss the text at length.

On compensation and explicitation

The phenomenon of compensation is well-known to translators. You cannot quite get that metaphor there so you put in one somewhere close by, not the same one using the same figure, but one that might do some of the same work. Or, even more commonly, the rhyme of the source becomes some other form of sound painting in the translation, shifting to alliteration or assonance.

With a long prose work, I suspect there are other, more general considerations than these, or rather in addition to these, which exist on the sentence or line level. Length tends to be a problem unto itself. Partly this is due to the conventional wisdom, all too often well-founded, that foreign texts are not edited much if at all. This means that often the first time a foreign author has the experience of having her or his text edited is when it is translated. Translators of contemporary works into English are therefore frequently engaging in two, distinct but in practice inseparable activities.

I had the great privilege of working with an experienced editor-translator on my very try. The book was Fulvio Tomizza’s Materada, and the editor in question, Michael Henry Heim, carefully marked up my text in pencil from start to finish. One of the principles (MHH liked principles) behind his suggested changes derived from his observation that my English text was “rather prolix.” Some of this, he said, was due to me, some to the author. The result was the language of the whole thing grew sparser and tighter.

Obviously this is not a principle to apply indiscriminately. Every text is different. But the tendency to explain, another phenomenon well-known to translators–which is described by translation studies scholars by the rather ugly but quite descriptive term “explicitation”–always puts a lengthening pressure on the translated text. You want your readers to see what is in the source in all its detail, so you add explanatory words here are there to try and make them clear, to make them explicit. Unchecked, this pressure can overwhelm any work, let alone one that is 1,000 pages long in the source.

And so I find myself actively struggling against it, trying to make things as short as possible, which means inevitably compensating in places like this:

Pomicao je usnama kao da sriče molitvu, a onda se prekrstio, lako i hitro, kao rutinski katolik.

Which becomes:

He moved his lips as if reciting a prayer, then crossed himself, nimbly as a rote Catholic.

Because (in this case I can also explain it through an analysis) “lako” (easily) and “hitro” (quickly) are both, I think, covered in the term “nimbly,” and “a onda” (and then) is covered by “then.” And while I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a “rote” rather than a “routine” Catholic, I know what it means implicitly. It’s also a syllable shorter.

It’s just one little place, but the accumulation of little places like this will, I hope, be palpable.

Catalogues, lists, parataxis, and pig spleens

One of the things my author does is list. He lists and lists, stringing objects and observations in long catalogues that are sometimes paratactic (without connecting words), and sometimes filled with and’s and but’s and gradations of these (such as the word “a,” which can suggest and, but, though, and a variety of other linking notions) to create sentences like this:

By evening, the sausages will be made, the meat ground up and packed into the wide, flexible pork intestines, the cracklings will have been salted and left to cool in the summer kitchens on wide, black baking pans, the cats will be gorging themselves around the courtyards on the pig spleens and the little bits of their animal insides that a person can’t manage to swallow, and everyone will be dead drunk, singing Croatian songs about the Velebit Mountains and Ban Jelacic, and when the rakija has wiped away their minds completely, they’ll take courage and shout to the memory of the Ustaše Jure Frančetić and Rafael Boban, to the glory of the Poglavnik Pavelić, and neither the People’s Militia nor any village informants or spies will be there to report the songs or the singers, for they too will in that moment be feasting on their slaughtered pigs, singing different Croatian songs or maybe the same ones.

It’s not the longest sentence in the book, but there are quite a few like this. Some of the active verbs in the source I’ve changed into participles to make the thing hold together. Hidden footnotes are peppered throughout (the word mountains, for instance, and the word Ustaše and the names Frančetić and Rafael). He also uses a fairly specialized word for pig spleens, which is slezina, and which maybe ought to be “milt” in English, but who knows what that means? Pig spleens rings true and is appropriately disgusting.

On the loftiness of administration

I have two dogs. When one lies down, the other likes to stand over his head so that when the lying dog looks up he looks right into the standing dog’s penis. I tell the standing dog to knock it off, and he comes over to me all smiling (he does smile) and tries to lick my face, because he knows I’m the boss. I don’t let him lick my face and tell him to knock that off too, so he goes back and stands over his fellow dog.

When dogs engage in this kind of behavior it’s mildly distasteful. Seeing people do it is outright disgusting.

The Bizarre Task of the Translator

Janet Malcom’s “Socks” is the latest in the healthy or interminable (depending on your level of interest) debate regarding translations of nineteenth-century Russian fiction into English. The touchstone, yet again, is Anna Karenina, which I wrote about here some time ago on the occasion of a review by Masha Gessen. The primary target of Malcom’s essay is the translation and the stated approach of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonskaya, as well as the “obtrusive literalism” of Marian Schwartz’s more recent translation.

The essay’s basic argument and examples are consistent, and Malcom does a good job of specifying her aims in both reading AK and writing an evaluation of existing translations. When she characterizes herself as “the reader of simple wants, who only asks of a translation that it advance rather than impede his pleasure and understanding,” she makes clear a crucial sense that in order to say anything about any translation, one needs to imagine who it is intended for. Unfortunately, the dichotomy she suggests between this sort of “reader of simple wants” and the “more advanced (or masochistic) school [of readers] who want to know what the original was ‘like'” is far too simplistic. It also suggests a rather narrow parochialism that serves to reinforce rather than challenge the sort of cultural and linguistic complacency that more adventurous translations are intended to challenge. One also has to wonder what the reader’s “understanding” might amount to when it does not include an understanding of what the original text was like.

Malcom’s lack of understanding of this aspect of translation comes across most explicitly in her claim that Pevear’s notion (from a 2005 interview with David Remnick) that a translation into English should somehow enrich English is “a bizarre idea of the translator’s task.” The idea actually has a long and distinguished pedigree and has been used explicitly by translators in various times and places, more commonly in poetry circles, it is true, but not exclusively there.

Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of how the project of national language seems apropos here. Languages are characterized by forces that tend to pull them apart (like dialects, regionalisms, and slang) and those that tend to hold them together (like schools, newspapers, grammar handbooks). It is a healthy or interminable (depending on your level of interest) process, with the innovations of literature as one of the factors that have tended to create newness in language at key moments in a language’s history, and with literary translation as a factor in the innovations of literature. This idea might seem a little bizarre from the standpoint of “the reader of simple wants,” but it is one of the translation strategies always available to translators who are serious about their work as literature.

In Paperback!

New In Paperback Spring 2016

The Woman in the Window manages to cross numerous boundaries with enviable ease. The result is not just intellectually stimulating, but eminently readable.” —Eliot Borenstein, Russian and Slavic studies, New York University

“Provocative and wide-reaching, The Woman in the Window: Commerce, Consensual Fantasy, and the Quest for Masculine Virtue in the Russian Novel seeks out sometimes distant and unexpected contexts in which to reread Russian classics. This point of view is refreshingly original, and these juxtapositions, often not obvious at first, are explained pithily and convincingly.” —David Herman, Slavic languages and literatures, University of Virginia

In The Woman in the Window: Commerce, Consensual Fantasy, and the Quest for Masculine Virtue in the Russian Novel, Russell Scott Valentino offers pioneering new insights into the historical construction of virtue and its relation to the rapidly shifting economic context in modern Russia. This study illustrates how the traditional virtue ethic, grounded in property-based conceptions of masculine heroism, was eventually displaced by a new commercial ethic that rested upon consensual fantasy. The new economic world destabilized traditional Russian notions of virtue and posed a central question that Russian authors have struggled to answer since the early nineteenth century: How could a self-interested commercial man be incorporated into the Russian context as a socially valuable masculine character?

With chapters on Gogol, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky as well as Pasternak and Nabokov, The Woman in the Window argues that Russian authors worked through this question via their depictions of “mixed-up men.” Such characters, according to Valentino, reveal that in a world where social reality and personal identity depend on consensual fantasies, the old masculine figure loses its grounding and can easily drift away. Valentino charts a range of masculine character types thrown off stride by the new commercially inflected world: those who embrace blind confidence, those who are split with doubt or guilt, and those who look for an ideal of steadfastness and purity to keep afloat—a woman in a window.