Lydia Davis’s Eleven Pleasures

A very nice piece by Lydia Davis in the Dec. 8 NYRB on “Eleven Pleasures of Translating.” I wish I had the time to write an extended essay on it, because she broaches important topics in a way that invites commentary, if not conversation. Two quick observations (before I return to the pleasures of translating (and other stuff)):
First, the long intro demonstrates the difference between many (mostly older) translators of the tactile dictionary-centric school and those who tend to start with online sources. “Later, I discovered that the equivalent [for the French “macher“] in the wine-tasting world is indeed ‘chew’—but would it have ever occurred to me to look to a wine buyers’ guide for help with my Flaubert translation?” Well, perhaps not, but one could have done a Google search on the spot to verify this. There’s even at least one YouTube movie that demonstrates how to chew one’s wine.
More interesting is this: “I have had two literary occupations, and preoccupations, all my adult life, both evidently necessary to me, each probably enhancing the other—writing and translating. And this is one of the differences between them: in translation, you are writing, yes, but not only writing—you are also solving, or trying to solve a set problem not of your own creation. The problem can’t be evaded, as it can in your own writing, and it may haunt you later.”
Teachers now discuss problem-based teaching these days quite a bit. Translation, then, might be understood as a form of problem-based writing teaching.

On demons, devils, Satan, et al.

Problem-based teaching is all the rage, I hear, so maybe translation can serve as a point of departure of sorts. Here is the problem.

Od njega, Javorka je prvi put čula riječ đavao.

Vrag se u njezinom životu već javljao. Spominjali su ga i Nona i Nono, bio je prisutan u svakoj priči, uglavnom bezazlen, šaljiv, šeprtljav, ali đavao je bio nešto sasvim novo. Zbog onog ao, koje se nije moglo samo tako izgovoriti, zaustavljalo je rečenicu, gonilo da se razmišli o njemu, i da ga se shvati vrlo ozbiljno.

What I first wanted to try was this:

It was from him that Javorka first heard the word Satan.

The devil had already appeared in her life. Nona and Nono mentioned him, he was present in every story, mostly naïve, mischievous, and clumsy, but Satan was something completely new. That name was impossible to just pronounce and then go on with one’s sentence without thinking about it and thoroughly comprehending it.

The problem with this solution is that Satan is such a powerful word. Plus it reminds me so much of Dana Carvey’s Church Lady on Saturday Night Live from twenty years ago. Saaataan!!! Besides that, I’ve completely left out the “ao” thing. What is that anyway, and why does it stop one’s sentence midway?

So now I’m thinking of moving my tinkering to earlier in the sentence, to the first term. (This reminds me of the trick of trying to discern which word the poet or songwriter came up with first in a rhyming couplet. It is a mark of poor poetry and/or songwriting that anyone should be able to tell.) And so the following solution begins to seem better:

It was from him that Javorka first learned about the devil.

Demons and spirits had appeared in her life much earlier. Nona and Nono had mentioned them, and they were present in every story, mostly as naïve, mischievous, and clumsy. But the devil was something completely new. Because of that evil, which was impossible to pronounce lightly, one’s sentence stopped midway and forced one to reflect on him and consider him seriously.

This has the advantage of using part of the word in the same way that the source does–đavao and ao become the equivalent of devil and evil. The disadvantage is that evil is a word unto itself, unlike ao, which might be suggestive but isn’t a coherent semantic category anywhere near as specific as evil. Maybe this compensation is over-compensation. For now at least it is my version, and I must fly onward to the many pages, and problems, that await.