In NY later this week (for a man and a woman)

I’ll be participating in The University of Rochester’s Reading the Word series this Thursday for the launch of The Man Between. Man_Between-front_largeThen to NYU’s Jordan Center on Friday afternoon for a presentation drawn from The Woman in the Window.

Here are the details:

Event No. 1: Michael Henry Heim was one of the greatest literary translators, and translation advocates, of the 20th century. His impact – on the study of translation, the funding of translation, the introduction of the phrase “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” into English – is immense, varied, and inspirational. Come hear the editors – Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, and Russell Scott Valentino – of The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim & A Life in Translation talk about this exciting new book, the many contributions within, Mike himself, and the art of literary translation.

Thursday  |  April 2, 2015  |  5:00 p.m.
Welles-Brown Room  |  Rush Rhees Library
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY 14627

And Event No. 2: The Woman in the Window: Commerce, Consensual Fantasy, and the Quest for Masculine Character from Dostoevsky to NabokovThe Woman in the Window

Valentino’s lecture rests upon notions of 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 examples drawn from the works of Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pasternak, and Nabokov, Valentino argues that Russian authors worked through this question via their depictions of mixed-up men, charting 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 themselves afloat – a woman in a window.

Start: April 3, 2015 3:00 pm

Venue: NYU Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia

Phone: 212.992.6575

Address: 19 University Place, 2nd FloorNew York, NY10003

Hope to see you there (or there)!

Communication, Literature, Translation

A couple of readers of a recent post of mine objected to my claim that literature makes very little use of the common tools of interpersonal communication. I suspect this is a simple case of miscommunication, not a disagreement about principle.

Interpersonal communication makes use of a wide and rich spectrum of sensations, an extensive range of meaning-making tools. Consider proximity, as in how close you stand to someone; or volume, or pitch, or tone, or speed. You touch someone on the shoulder or take him by the lapel of his jacket. You breathe so he can smell your breath. You make eye contact, or look down, or over his shoulder, or raise your eyebrows, or snap your fingers, or shrug. You use words that don’t seem to mean anything at all like “you know,” or “I mean,” or “like,” as if you’re just affirming that there are two of you talking and you’re both living beings — yes, you’re alive, yes, I’m alive, here we are both alive, having this conversation. This list can go on.

Literature makes use of none of these, or rather when it uses any of these, it does so “on purpose.” Of course literature cannot help but be a form of communication, but it’s a remarkably narrow and rather deformed slice of it. As a result, by contrast to the various forms of natural language, it is characterized to a very high degree by artifice and convention.

This is what I mean when I write, “Translation combines interpretation and writing in really interesting ways, but it makes very little use of the common tools of interpersonal communication, especially when the author of one’s text has been dead for over a hundred years.” Okay, the hundred years comment is slightly facetious, but only slightly since death does have a tendency to make interpersonal communication difficult.

This narrow and hyper-conventionalized form of communication (literature) requires some very different interpretive skills than those used in everyday encounters. We internalize these pretty quickly when we begin to read and sometimes forget they’re there. But their presence jumps out again the moment we try to write literary texts, and this is true of translators as well. They might be able to read and understand a work as well as any native speaker, but when they try to create a new work in a different culture’s literature, they need to be able to manipulate not just everyday language but language amid the very specific conventions of literature in the receiving culture, and they need to be able to do so in ways that will be perceived by members of that culture as artistic without being artificial.

What form of expertise, then, would be most appropriate for judging the success or failure of a translated literary work? This is an important question, one that another reader has suggested is a fault in my argument: “A physicist who reviews a book on physics […] and discusses details that the lay reader has no way of checking is also making ‘an implicit argument from authority, which says listen to me because I know something you don’t.’ Isn’t that part of the point of reading reviews, to learn something from a reviewer who knows things you don’t? It would seem that the implication of your theory is either that books should never be reviewed by specialists or that such specialists should never refer to their specialist knowledge.” I see this criticism and begin to find it compelling, until this reader concludes, “I can’t for the life of me see how readers are poorly served by explaining ways in which translations misrepresent the original book.”

If we were discussing misrepresentations or outright semantic errors, then I would be on board. But that has not been the issue in these posts. Interpretive differences, like those that often surface in comparisons among multiple published translations of the same text, are not misrepresentations, they are interpretive differences. There is a monolithic quality to the “original book” in the comment above. The original book, original poem, original story, or play, or literary essay is not a unitary thing. It wasn’t even a unitary thing for the receiving culture at the time of its first appearance, and now we are recreating it for other audiences in other times and places. As a result, it grows and accumulates cultural resonances for new audiences, and its meaning grows. A big part of this growth happens in the rebirth we think of as translation. We might want an answer to questions such as which one of these is the “most accurate” or the “closest to the original,” but these kinds of questions are all based on a false assumption about the ontological nature of the source text, and about what translating that source text into another language might mean.

An example: The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground uses the word “wicked,” where other translations have “spiteful” or “nasty.” Asking which of these words is the most accurate without engaging in a thorough examination and commentary of the entire translated work in the receiving culture mistakes both the nature of the source and the interpretive and creative processes at the heart of translation. The fact is that all these words are possible translations of the word “zloi,” which in effect contains and suggests aspects of them all. This individual lexical item, which occasions a choice in the receiving culture, could become a fascinating inroad to the whole text as part of an extended analysis, but reducing its polyvalence in the service of an interpretation whose ultimate goal were to pronounce judgment on the quality of the whole translation would be a mistake, as would believing such an interpreter’s authority were somehow sacrosanct because she or he happened to be able to read the word zloi and those surrounding it in the source text.

To be clear, I am excluding outright errors (where the translator has clearly not understood the source language) and deliberate manipulation (where the translator has willfully made the text into something else, e.g., an updated version of The Inferno replete with contemporary figures in their appropriate circles of hell). This is not a discussion of misrepresentation. As a result, no one is being called in to tell us what is the “true” or “most accurate” or “authentic” or “ideal,” because this monolithic, unitary, most accurate version does not exist anywhere in reality. And this is the source of much confusion where judgments about translations are concerned. Thinking that it does exist would be like thinking that there is one correct interpretation of any artistic work and that you could write that version down somehow, capturing the entirety of it in other words than those in which it was first expressed. The irony of ironies of such a mistaken conception is that the supposed original itself doesn’t come into existence (in the mind) until someone creates a translation.

I’ve been writing exclusively about the problems associated with reviewing translated literature in this particular manner, on the basis of this kind of implied or explicit expertise, rather than suggesting better ways to do it. Like most criticism delivered without alternatives, this has invited all sorts of imaginary alternatives “implied” by my criticism, of the sort, “Your theory would seem to imply that….” This post is already long, so in a future one I’ll provide an example or two of how reviews of translated works for a general reading public can help to expand our understanding of translation, translated works, and the work of the translators who make them.

Deep Translation

I’m taking a little break from responding to comments readers have been sending about recent posts in order to think a little more deeply about the activity of translation, beyond, let’s say, the most comment use of the term as a means of finding equivalents across languages and cultures. Now I’m sure someone may find that characterization objectionable, too, which is fine—feel free to send me a comment; I do try to respond as fully as I can when I have time. But just now I’ve been thinking about something else, trying to calm my mind a bit, and the result was to realize that some earlier thoughts and posts that might not have seemed to be about translation were also about translation.

Crossing seven silences, for instance. I have sometimes found myself tempted by phrases such as the silence of ignorance and the silence of hatred, but ignorance is so very rarely silent, and hatred even less so.

Now, varieties of silence exceed seven by far, so I am also tempted—might as well get these all out at once—by the definite article, that “the” that would suggest these silences are the silences, the only ones or almost. A little thing, but a grand temptation, I admire its nuance and power, as when you hold open your palm with two pencils and say, take the pencil. Not the only, not quite, because obviously there are two. Just the.

I admit to an impish curiosity at what a Russian or a Japanese translator might make of this distinction, those languages having no articles at all, let alone any definite ones. Take pencil. Take pencils. Take one pencil. Take one pencil we’ve been talking about. Take one I want you to take. One I’m looking at more intently. One I have in my mind. One we both know is right to take. Take either pencil. Take any pencil.

I am reminded of the sound of water at the end of Matsuo Basho’s famous poem about the frog leaping into an old pond, which is just water in Japanese, mizu, but this is obviously the mizu here, not just mizu, because mizu does not make a sound unless it moves—the silence of land and the silence of water are land and water—and this particular mizu moves because a frog just jumped in. (I also thought the country of my birth was mostly brown until, at the age of twenty-eight, I drove from Los Angeles to Virginia one June, and discovered it mostly green, and far noisier than I had thought, what with all the buzzing and humming.)

“The silences” suggests a limitation where there isn’t one, a purity somewhat like an “accurate translation,” or, in another vein, the absence of mixture that I am loathe to credit. And so there are taboo silences, like when your sister marries a black man, and these are closely allied with the silences of prejudice and bigotry, as when your uncle comes out from the pizzeria’s kitchen in back where you used to play with your cousins throwing pizza dough balls up onto the ceiling to see if you could get them to stick, dozens upon dozens of dough balls, and he says hello to all his relatives at the table, one by one, and asks how you’ve been, each in turn, lingering, his eyes kind, and then he skips, in silence, across his four-year-old great-nephew, the little dark-skinned boy who hears you pronouncing uncle so many times as if there is some natural connection here that does not quite connect, and so he asks, when his uncle has disappeared back into the kitchen, “Is he my uncle, too?”

The medieval moralists, following Aristotle, emphasized the practice of the virtues over their contemplation in the hope that the cultivation of habit would encourage the values themselves, not just the behaviors that made one look as if courageous, temperate, prudent, just, faithful, hopeful, and loving. Father Zosima says something like this in The Brothers Karamazov, when a visitor, beside herself with grief, admits that she has lost her faith. He tries many tacks but, when nothing works, says she should act as if she has it, practice, behave as if, and it will come back to her. Your acting, he seems to suggest, will become the thing, and this must be what Plato was afraid might happen to his imaginary guardians in his imaginary republic, if they acted the parts of scoundrels or weaklings or liars in a play, rather than only ever acting the one role he had assigned them—that of guardians.

The seven ideals thus resemble silences, voids that cannot be grasped accurately, only interpreted and traversed again and again, in the hope that the practice will bring one closer to them, the hope that, through behaving as if, long enough, as if will transform, in the end, into simply as. And the crossing, the melding of them all, together in one person—or rather one persona (for we all seem to be acting here)—becomes the ideal of an integrated, unified virtuous whole, an ethical purity made up of mixture. This person seems to look at least two ways at once and perhaps might seem to be treasonous to some as a result.

But there is a moral ideal in this activity, an attempt at one anyway.

Please take pencil.