Propp’s Magic

While his prose might not be scintillating (see previous post), Vladimir Propp’s insights and analyses are of the sort that occasionally help just about everything one has ever read in a certain domain fall into place. This happened today when I worked on this passage:

Sometimes the hero is tested through a contest before the wedding. At first glance, these contests have a purely athletic nature. Frazer [he’s referring to Sir James Frazer of The Golden Bough –RSV], studying this topic, sees only athletic rivalry in them; he attributes an ancient origin to the custom and projects it onto “primitive society.” “The personal qualities which recommended a man for a royal alliance and succession to the throne would naturally vary according to the popular ideas of the time and the character of the king or his substitute, but it is reasonable to suppose that among them in early society physical strength and beauty would hold a prominent place.” (Frazer 1911a: 296) “Sometimes apparently the right to the hand of the princess and to the throne has been determined by a race. The Alitemnian Libyans awarded the kingdom to the fleetest runner. Amongst the old Prussians, candidates for nobility raced on horseback to the king, and the one who reached him first was ennobled” (Frazer 1911a: 299). Fraser finds no reason to support this other than “we can assume.” The issue was decided not by an athletic build and certainly not by beauty, but by completely different qualities. M. G. Tikhaia-Tsereteli, who worked on Georgian folktales senses this though she cannot prove it: “The personal qualities of the hero are also typical: beauty, athletic strength, intelligence, and other qualities that reflect his mythological nature. These qualities are what determine his union with the princess, not his origin” (Tikhaia-Tsereteli 1932: 172, emphasis added). The author here saw correctly what Frazer did not: that athletic strength or dexterity reflects the mythological nature of the hero.

Careful study of the wondertale [what we often call “fairy tales” –RSV] shows that it is not the hero’s strength and dexterity but other qualities that are reflected in the contests. Victory is provided by the magical helper. The hero cannot do anything without him, and his personal strength is not the point.

Let us consider the running contest. “The king’s daughter will run to the well for water, and the man who outruns her will get her in marriage. If someone competes and does not outrun her, his head will be chopped off” (Khudiakov 1862: 33). It is not only the speed of running that is important here; the goal towards which they run is also important. At first glance, the well does not represent anything special. However, comparison of different variants shows that when they compete in running, water is the goal of the race. The Afanas’ev tale shows that this water is not simple. There, one must get “the healing and living water” in the shortest time, “before the king finishes his dinner.” The hero is distraught: even a year would not be enough time to get the water. Having heard the task, “his companion untied his foot from his ear, ran, and instantly got the healing and living water.” On the way back, he lies down to rest, but the Seer or the Insightful One discovers him. The Archer wakes him up with a skillful shot, and Swift-Runner arrives with the water on time (Afanas’ev 144). These examples show that it is not enough to run quickly: the important thing is to run quickly beyond thrice nine lands and return. Later, however, this target was lost, the “living water” transformed into a well, and running fast became the goal in itself.   

(from Chapter Nine of Historical Roots of the Wondertale)

If, as Propp argues, these kinds of stories are much older than those of organized agricultural societies (the Egyptians, the Greeks, and so on), then the rights of initiation that he focuses on make them much more like the stories of other hunter-gatherer societies around the world. In other words, when you ask what Russian fairy tales are like, a better answer than “like Greek myths” is “like Native American, African, Micronesian, (and so on) initiation stories,” which means stories rooted in the rites of passage of the 50,000 generations of human hunter-gatherer societies. This is where they have their origin, while the 500 generations of agricultural societies tried to make sense of them in their own ways after their societies had stopped practicing most of the rituals that previous humans had relied upon. In the process, the farmers often engaged in “re-signifying” (this is how we are choosing to translate переосмысление) them in ways that, by today’s standards, often look bizarre or “magical.”

At other times, like this one, they translate these now bizarre practices into the most mundane of traits and skills, like being bigger, stronger, faster, or more beautiful, which, if Propp is right, was never the point at all.

Propp: Brilliant but Boring

I have been translating, with two colleagues, Vladimir Propp’s Historical Roots of the Wondertale (Исторические корни волшебной сказки), a very important book that has for some reason never made it into English. It is a tour de force in many ways and truly a follow-up to his widely known Morphology of the Folktale (Морфология сказки), which has been especially influential for folklorists, historians, anthropologists, and others for decades. This book had its own roots in the final chapter of the author’s dissertation, which was also the source of the Morphology. It helps to fill out the picture of Propp as a scholar and thinker. The previous volume showcased his application of formal categories and structural analysis; the English version was a staple text for budding structuralists of just about any stripe, whether they were interested in folklore or not, in the 1970s and 80s. This book, which is twice the length, allows him to delve into history, particularly the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural ones, where the wondertale (a.k.a., the fairy tale) finds its deepest roots.

There has been a lot of work on human evolutionary history since Propp’s day, in numerous fields, some of it written for popular audiences, much of it focused on the same transition between what Michael McCarthy in his 2015 The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy refers to as the 50,000 generations (of hunter-gatherers) and the 500 generations (of agriculturalists). But no one to my knowledge has done what Propp does in this book, which is to try to fix the development of specific fairy tale features (e.g., the abducted maiden, the serpent/dragon, the guardian of the underworld) in concrete human social practices, especially those associated with rites of initiation.

It is a fascinating history, and he is extremely good at pulling together research and examples from myth, religion, ethnography, and more, and from regions all across the globe. I have learned a lot by translating his words into English.

What I have not learned by translating his words is anything about effective writing. Translating Propp for me has often taken on strange qualities, where I might feel like rewarding myself for getting through a few sentences by taking a break. This is not usually the way translation works, not for me at least. Generally, I am motivated to start and to continue a translation project by the quality of the writing itself. I am drawn forward by wanting to share the magic of the words — their formal coherence, sound patterns, rhetorical nuances, and more — as much if not more than by any semantic content “in” the words.

This is not just about fiction or poetry either. I feel the same way about the literary nonfiction I have translated, even prose that might be categorized as “scholarly,” such as Carlo Michelstaedter’s Persuasion and Rhetoric, which was a joint project together with Cinzia Sartini Blum and David J. Depew (Yale University Press, 2004). His prose is sometimes turgid, but it is also always quite compelling. Lines like this were what first grabbed me: “Un peso pende ad un gancio, e per pender soffre che non può scendere: non può uscire dal gancio; poiché quant’è peso pende, e quanto pende dipende.” I must have read this sentence aloud a hundred times, and I still love it. The prose made me think, and in fact it was interwoven with the ideas in interpretive and linguistic puzzles that made me want to solve them.

There are almost no puzzles in Propp’s prose. He is clear. He is also somewhat repetitive and rhetorical, as if he were speaking from a lectern, which he probably was (“let me remind you”), and in the royal “we” (“previously we explored…”). He can also be rather lazy, engaging in the sort of sloppy techniques that some graduate students might use in their first couple of years of study before they figure out that, while what they’ve written might be correct, it is not at all enjoyable to read. A colleague of mine once recalled that a favorite professor of his from grad school had given him an A- for exactly this shortcoming. When asked why the grade was not an A, the professor had responded, “You wrote a very thorough paper that no one would ever want to read twice.”

I am capable of translating such prose. But it is also LONG and chock full of references (to the Rigveda, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, collections of folktales, myths, studies from the Americas, Africa, Australia, and more), many of them from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which means they need to be checked for page numbers, existing English translations, etc. Hence the reward of taking a break after every few sentences or so.

I am certainly learning things by focusing in this way on the book, but the process has reinforced in me how much I am motivated as a translator by the compelling aspects of the writing itself. Without that, translating can be quite a slog.

Bringhurst on Translation

I just read Robert Bringhurst’s “The Polyhistorical Mind” lecture, which is the first chapter in his 2006 book The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology, and was struck by this observation: “Few people earn a degree in European Studies or Asian Studies without acquiring some rudimentary knowledge of a European or Asian language. Students of African Studies are also routinely expected to learn an African language. But how many universities ask even their doctoral students in American Studies or in Canadian Studies [Bringhurst is Canadian–RSV] to learn an indigenous North American language? Not one.” Reading this in 2020, I am pretty sure he is still correct.

The essay has a number of moments like this, with direct, clear observations that amount to institutional interventions, and is unusual and refreshing from this standpoint. For instance, while he lauds the practice of including writers with Native American ancestry in the curriculum, he also notes, “When we teach Greek literature, we do not limit the offerings to novels conveniently written in English by Greeks.”

As he delves into why such things matter, moreover, he touches on the declining number of living languages in the world and the resulting impoverishment for what he calls the “intellectual biomass” of the earth, especially in its “word hoard and grammar hoard and story hoard.” I am with him throughout this section, but then, just as he is describing the accumulation of wisdom in the stories of the earth, his thought takes a strange turn in this paragraph:

Translation, of course, is a hurdle. But it can be crossed, unlike the painted wall of paraphrase or the blank wall of silence and denial. The labor and pleasure of crossing it should be shared, I think, as widely as possible. But it shouldn’t be thrust on the storytellers themselves.

(Bringhurst, p. 31)

I suppose I can agree with a lot of this, but the point of departure, namely, the “hurdle” of translation, strikes me as too easily leaped over in this cursory manner. And while there is a tiny gesture towards something that might actually not be a hurdle in the process, namely, the “pleasure of crossing it” (which also goes by extremely fast), the overall sense and mood here is of a labor that needs to be shared in order to be manageable.

The paragraph feels almost like an afterthought or perhaps a response to a question, anticipated or real, for just after this, we are back to the organic nature of the story within the language and the moment in which it is told:

Mythtellers tell their stories to those who are listening. They also tell their stories to themselves. That is hard to do in a foreign language. When you ask a mythteller to tell you a story in your language rather than hers, the mythteller must talk only to you, not to herself. And then something is missing.

Ibid.

I certainly see that this carries on the “sharing of the labor” idea from the previous paragraph, but it is still all negatively coded. I cannot help but think that by hurdling across the necessity of translation — rather than, what, wading into it to rest in its midst and contemplate things from that perspective, mid-hurdle, as it were — we miss so much that we might learn, not just about the stories themselves, the storytellers, and the cultures from which they hail, but also about ourselves and our relationships with one another.

Translation and Exile

Many metaphors for translation seem to imagine it as a kind of travel, a movement with baggage across some national, cultural, linguistic, and/or geographic boundaries, usually from an imagined foreign territory to one’s own home turf. In that foreign territory—so these metaphors often go—one discovered something or was given something, and in translating that something, one tries to carry it across from over there to right here, provide it a new home perhaps, new neighbors, if not a new life altogether.

This set of spatial relationships has created a very fertile ground for metaphors of translation, with some of the oldest tapping into the notion of the translatio, or transfer, of a saint’s relics from a site of discovery in the Ancient World to a newly created cathedral as part of a city’s myth of origin. St. Mark in Venice comes to mind, and that episode adds the intriguing idea of thievery to the mix, as two Venetians supposedly stole the remains from Alexandria in the 9th century, bringing them to the Lagoon as part of the official origin of the city. Translation and/as theft is a topic for another post.

I suspect these sorts of travel and new life metaphors, in the U.S. and perhaps the Americas in general, have been inflected somewhat by the notion of immigration. The roots are over there; we are transplanting things to this soil; there is rupture involved, great distances, perhaps some heartache, something like nostalgia for a lost past, regret, displacement. A lot like exile. But I want to ask what has been exiled exactly? The text itself? The translation is a new text, another text. The source is back safe at home and hasn’t gone anywhere at all. Or is the idea that its spirit somehow still exists latent in the translated version, despite the fact that all the words are different? Does a translated text evoke nostalgia for its own lost past or for some sort of ghost or doppelganger of itself? How else might translated works be thought of as exiles from their homes?

The problem I find in such notions has to do with a kind of instability at their center, which we tend to turn into certainty, definiteness, especially when we talk about that thing we always seem to talk about when we talk about translating: the original. Textual scholars, people who study the histories of individual works, from Homer’s Odyssey, to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, to the poems of Emily Dickenson, any serialized nineteenth-century novel, and so on, have developed a detailed and sophisticated apparatus for discussing how unstable and variable the genesis of any work actually turns out to be. As Karen Emmerich has rightly pointed out, all of that instability of the source disappears as soon as we start talking about translation. At that moment, the original becomes one thing, when it never was one thing—it was always a mixture of things, editorial versions, and authorial revisions, textual redactions, and second, third, fourth editions, and so on.

The unstable nature of the source also pertains to the metaphors used as the basis for talking about translation. Who this St. Mark actually was is not entirely clear; whether those stolen or “liberated” bones were actually his is even less clear; and what relationship the bones might have to the person, even if they were once located inside the body that was his, is probably the least clear thing of all. I want to ask, what do bones mean? What is their relationship to spirit, let alone soul? Don’t you have to invent a story, perhaps lots of stories, about them in order for them to mean something? And of course this pertains at least as much if not more to the stories of immigration to the new world, the sort that might evoke nostalgia, which in turn is based on stories about the old world, that dubious source once again, invented stories, interpretations that only come to look definitive when we translate them, turning them into “the original.”

So far I’ve only been referring to the source. Once I start thinking about the act of translation, things become even less stable. Say you have a source, just one, and you read it carefully, study it, look up all the words and references you might not have known, then what? It’s in your head in what form exactly? Presumably you’ve somehow made sense of it to yourself, which means you have an interpretation, at least an implicit one, and it’s sitting there in your head. Now what? Well, if you’re a translator and not merely a reader, you’re going to have to write all that down. And as we all know, things immediately start to change as soon as one begins to write. You start making little changes, interact with the author and/or a series of reference works, colleague-readers, maybe a group of workshop participants, an editor, a copyeditor, a teacher, a designer maybe, a marketing department maybe, and the book that results—we’re assuming you finish it despite all these distractions—turns out to be a mixture of many different people’s ideas, suggestions, agendas, theoretical engagements, as well as the conventions of editing, publishing, and literary production and consumption in the receiving culture.

After all this, it’s no wonder if the translation feels it is an exile! Or rather, if it feels like an exile. (These metaphors are never really adequate.) Not all translations, however, are like exiles in the same way. They are more akin to expatriates in this regard. Some expats wear an eternal mask of carefree nonchalance on the outside, but they are alone and yearning for home underneath. I would put Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin here. Others are completely happy in their new home, even more than that, they are happier than they were where they started out; they’ve found a new community of peers, not to mention readers, one they never had before. I would put Michael Henry Heim’s translation of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being in this category, or Barbara Wright’s translation of Queneau’s Exercises in Style.

Translation as an activity, I suspect, often makes translators feel like exiles, too. They travel to that other place, the place where the source lives, often physically and at a young enough age for it to be formative and transformational for them, and there they discover or are given something, and they try to bring it back with them. They try to give it to others, the whole thing, just as they experienced it because they want to share that experience. They accept it in a way into their heads, and sometimes their hearts, and then they try to write it down so others can take it into theirs. I won’t say that this is an impossible thing to do—that’s too simple.

But there is something fundamentally unstable with the basic terms here as well. As if translators were the same in one culture and at one point in their lives, as they are in another. We are barely the same when we move from one social role to the next in a single culture. It’s a bit ambitious to assume we might maintain even greater identity when moving across different ones, taking up different verbal and meaning making systems, socializing with different friends, using different gestures, tones of voice, experiencing a different pace of life itself. Why would we assume a work would mean the same thing to us there and here, even if we could somehow make it the same thing in both cultures? The instability of the source points to the instability of us, and if there is nostalgia for some lost source in this scenario, it might just as well be for our own past selves as for some supposed original text.

I have moved us from a spatial to a temporal metaphor, I realize, from exile in space to exile in time, and to the inevitable nostalgia that accompanies such displacement. It is not the way I usually think about translation; it does not make me happy to think about it in these terms. I prefer to focus on translation as being more about creation and gain than about transfer and loss. But nor do I think that it is wrong—the baggage you bring back with you from that other culture, that other life, is with you still; it has a weight to it even if it is immaterial, and it has a volume despite its lack of extension in space. Inside that volume are thoughts and ideas, experiences, and desires that are or were your own experiences of reading and understanding that culture and now this work comes to stand in for them, maybe just a little bit, maybe a lot. And they make it clear to you that you never completely came back from there, and also that you did, and as a translator you’ll never be either altogether there or altogether here again.

On Translating Word Play

I’m on my way to the AWP conference later this week and will be speaking on two panels, one on translation and word play, the other on translation and exile. Here are some thoughts about the first. Basically, it’s what I’m going to be saying in the first part of my comments. Then I’ll have some examples. This means that if you’re planning on coming and you’re reading this, you’ll have time to think about other examples, if you agree, or counter-examples, if you don’t.

Karen Emmerich has a passage in her 2017 book Literary Translation and the Making of Originals where she is commenting on the language of a contract she was given for a translation from the Greek, in which the publisher required “a faithful rendition into idiomatic English” of the work in question, stipulating that the translation should “neither omit anything from the original text nor add anything to it, other than such modest verbal changes as are necessary in the translation into English.” After noting that such language, including the “modest verbal changes” phrase and injunctions against omitting from or adding to the original text, are quite standard for translation contracts in the U.S. and the U.K., she points out that this stance rests upon a misconception that is both deep and widespread. “Translation,” she writes, “has no truck with modest changes. The entire translation is a text that didn’t exist before: all the words are added; all the words are different.” This line reminds me of the Steve Martin joke about those arrogant French people who have a different word for everything!

I mention this at the start of my comments because it might be seen to clash with one of the AWP’s guidelines regarding the use of one’s “own” work:

Moderators are asked to ensure that “presenters who read from or discuss their own work during a panel discussion, as opposed to an event designated as a reading, do so in a limited capacity (not longer than 5-minutes), and only to expand upon the discussion of other texts, authors, or subjects.”

I don’t mean to belabor the point, but this does seem to raise concerns with regard to translation as a mode of writing, creative or otherwise. If translators are included in such events because their work is considered a part of them, then the idea that they are creative artists seems to be implicit. Why then would they get a pass on commenting on their “own” work as translators unless in fact this was a form of double-think in which that same work was simultaneously considered not theirs? Original authors appear to take center stage in this domain, regardless of how many of the words in the English translation are theirs, or someone else’s.

This question affects how translators position their work vis-à-vis other kinds of writing. Creative writing has established itself as a domain unto itself in the academy, largely with the help of organizations like the AWP. Yet the impetus to promote authorial image above all clashes with the fact of translation, where some unknown inscrutable interloper stands squarely between the “original” author (or rather her or his image as created by the translator, the editor, the publisher, and so on) and the adoring reader who wants to commune with that author’s unadulterated intentions. What we really need, I suspect, are some new fake translations to shake us up. Short of that, we can look to word play as one of the best places to show how such fictions of the reading-communing-originality paradigm break down. Word play does this especially well. Why is that?

Translators routinely need to deal with differences between the expressive systems of two cultures—different grammars and histories and literary genres and so on. One language might have a very strong way of marking verbal aspect, for instance. Another might decline its nouns to show part of speech. A third might not use articles to show number or gender or past reference. These are common enough issues, and translators will have faced them dozens if not hundreds of times in the course of translating a single page, and really they’re nothing new. But word play focuses on them in a very particular way—it’s a little bit like my putting two identical pencils in my hand, holding it out to you, and saying, “Take the pencil.”

This is not exactly playful, but it points to the use of the article and indicates that there’s something odd about that use. If you are the translator trying to translate this phrase, “Take the pencil” into a language that does not use definite articles, assuming you think it’s important and you’re trying to convey whatever that important thing is in your translation, you will have to invent something, you will have to create it. And this will be true of the vast majority of things one might play with in a language—puns, homonyms, particles, syntax. The moment there is any kind of language play going on, especially of the sort that focuses on itself, the translator’s inventive faculties will need to kick into a higher gear, and the resulting English language text will become that much more the result of a creative activity only loosely associated with the source.

A different way of putting this might be to say that if there is word play in my English version of a text, in 95% of the cases or more it will be because I made it up. And on that basis it probably ought to fit into the category of one’s own work for the purposes of a panel like this. So to avoid being reported to the authorities, I will use only one example from a translation that I wrote and then the other I will take from a translation of a colleague.

Example 1: “On the Origin of the phrase ‘Italian tears’”

How to create the appearance of an accent can be to some extent language specific, especially where a word in one language might use different consonants and vowels than an equivalent word in a different language. But as long as the general characteristics of accented speech are recognizable, this should not pose too big a problem.

Tako je govorio Lucio Fabiani: zima svoga života. S umekšanim suglasnicima, onako po talijanski, pa bi zima bila cima, svoga zvoga, život zivot, i čim bi Ćućo spomenuo cimu zvoga zivota oba bi mu oka bila puna suza. Ali ne onih koje niz obraze poteku, nego naročitih suza stajaćica, kakvih u to vrijeme u Sarajevu nije bilo, ni oko njega, na pašnjacima, među pčelinjacima, te su ih ljudi nazvali—suze talijanke, i čim bi netko u društvu spomenuo da su se kome oči napunile suzama, upitalo bi ga—je li talijankama, i svi bi tad znali o kakvoj se žalosti, o kakvom čovjeku, o kakvim se suzama govori.

Here the general characteristics of an Italian accent are what stand out, not the specific ways that it manifests itself in one or the other language. Since there is a comic effect as well, it needs to be relatively pronounced, it seems to me, and there aren’t enough consontantal markers in “winter of one’s life” for that, though “once” for “one’s” is a good start. Plus my author has every word accented. So I’ve added a bit to make it stick.

This was what Lucio Fabiani said: the winter of one’s life. With extra vowels and softened consonants, as in Italian, so that winter was a-winter, one’s was a-once, life was a-life, and the moment Ćućo remarked on the a-winter of a-once a-life, both his eyes would be filled with tears. Only not the kind that run down your face but that particular kind of stay-in-place tears that did not exist in Sarajevo then, or anywhere nearby, on the grazing lands, among the beekeepers, so people called them Italian tears, and anytime someone might remark in conversation about how another’s eyes had filled with tears, they would ask, Italian ones? And then everyone would know what sort of complaint, what sort of person, and what sort of tears were being discussed.

This example is at one end of a spectrum, where the play is with sound associated with letters, a particular kind of accent, which is likely to be represented differently from one receiving culture to another.

My second example, which doesn’t have a title because it has no source at all, and which is from Alyson Waters’ translation of Eric Chevillard’s Prehistoric Times, published by Archipelago Books in 2012, is at the other end of this spectrum I’m imagining, and it involves a footnote, which is one of the ways one can address wordplay in the source.

“Professor Glatt gave me the clef that opens the gate, for I am not a man to write clé when it is possible to write clef, even if in so doing I compel the translators of my tale to slow down—and I trust they see no malevolence where none intended; I would gladly let them have a full page to express this slight difference in leisurely, creative circumambages that will even further delay me taking up my post and so I shall wait until they have surmounted the difficulty” [little footnote marker here] “there’s no bad faith on my part this time, it’s simply a matter of a force majeure, which by definition, cannot be imputed to me, pace Professor Glatt; my conscience is clear, I didn’t invent writing and when given the choice between two spellings, I always, because I am an honest sort, opt for the one that serves my thought or intention better—a clef is heavy in the hand, it is dotted with rust, worn on one’s belt, unlike a clé, what I understand in any case by clé: its clink-clink like small change deep within your pocket…” and there’s more. But what the translator did here, with the permission of the publisher, was create a footnote at the spot I indicated—not an end note, which is important, because the intention is to break up the reading and focus on the language play that is going on, in this case the homonym of clé and clef, and the footnote is a free-associating improvisation by the translator in imitation of the author’s prose, only instead of the words clé and clef she goes off (or rather on and on) about the words gate and grate. I won’t quote it because it is a page long. It’s actually my favorite part of the book.

This second example, like the first, rests on an instability that is in the source text, a variation that is specific to the language in question, but at the other end of the spectrum from the question of orthographically representing accented speech, it takes up the challenge that is implicit in all word play—focusing attention on it and creating—just like those arrogant French people—all new English words to do it.

 

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.

Parks on Translators, Royalties, and Glory

Tim Parks’ NYR Daily essay “The Translation Paradox” of March 15, 2016  continues his enlightening series of reviews and commentary on the publication of The Complete Works of Primo Levi. As with his other posts on this topic, Parks demonstrates his thorough familiarity with the works of Levi, the world of contemporary literature, and the practice and pedagogy of literary translation, particularly from Italian into English. Nor does he shy away from expressing potentially unpopular opinions or poking holes in the various publicity aspects of big publishing. His readings, moreover, whether in praise or criticism, are not the sort of nit-picky “translation police” swipes (usually based on individual lexical choices) that often precede the most egregious over-generalizations about the essence of translation, the truth of some beloved work or author, or how the latest translation has got it all wrong.

As with any essay that incorporates serious analysis, however, there are moments where he goes too far, nowhere so obviously as in his claims about royalties, on which topic he writes the following:

Some translators’ associations (in Germany for example) insist that a translator ought to be paid a royalty for the translation and share in the commercial success of the work, as if the individual translator had the same impact on the work as the author. This is nonsense. Umberto Eco was better translated by Geoffrey Brock and Richard Dixon than by William Weaver, but The Name of the Rose, which Weaver translated, was an infinitely better book than The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (Brock) or Numero Zero (Dixon). Why should the one translator grow rich and the others not? J. K. Rowling, Stieg Larsson, and E. L. James are not difficult authors to translate. Would it really make sense to skew translators’ earnings by giving vast amounts of money to those doing work that is immeasurably easier than, say, Jonathan Galassi’s translations of Montale, or Anne Milano Appel’s 2012 translation of Claudio Magris’s impossibly convoluted novel Blindly? To introduce royalties would be to encourage the finest translators to drop literary work altogether and concentrate on genre novels.

Among the many things amiss here, the beginning of the last line stands out, as it makes it sound as if royalties for translators are something virtually unheard of except among the nonsensical German translators association. This is simply not true. Translators all over the world have long received royalties for their work and not at all because “the individual translator [has] the same impact on the work as the author” but because it is fair and right for translators to share in the success of a work that might actually sell copies. In fact, there are many different ways that translators are compensated for their work, royalties among them. (How much, or rather how little, literary translators tend to make is another question, one that renders the “growing rich” part of Parks’ claim above at least as suspect).

But even more disturbing is the latter half of that final sentence, which implies that translators of literature are only ever motivated by how much they receive in compensation for their work. Why not make the same argument for authors? Since one can apparently do much better by being a successful author of genre fiction than a successful author of literary fiction, the introduction of royalties would be to encourage the finest authors to drop literary work altogether and concentrate on genre novels. This is as strange a claim to make for translators as it is to make for authors, neither of which is so one-dimensional a body as to be purely defined by the bottom line. There are as many different motivations behind the work of the finest translators as there are behind that of the finest authors, and this is a completely separate question from that of fair compensation.

There is much more to say about this particular paragraph (e.g., the rather strange claim that translators who translate “easier” works should not make more for their work than those who translate “harder” ones), but I’m trying to stay within my self-imposed word limit, and I still want to address the crux of the “glory” question that Parks implies throughout the essay. The argument, if I were to restate it in somewhat blunt terms, seems to go something like this: Some translators are celebrated when their work is not as good as that of some other translators, who are not celebrated as they ought to be; this happens because our non-linguistically savvy culture does not know the difference between good and bad translation and because of all the hype and promotion of the contemporary publishing industry.

I think Parks does an excellent job of supporting his own claim here. I would only add that we could probably find plenty of evidence for the truth of a corollary, namely, that some authors are celebrated when their work is not as good as that of some other authors, who are not celebrated as they ought to be, and that this happens because our non-literarily savvy culture does not know the difference between good and bad literature and because of all the hype and promotion of the contemporary publishing industry. Sic transit gloria mundi.

An Unfortunate Episode in the Rhetoric of Re-translation

Or, to be clear, it would be that thing in my title, if the book had been re-translated, but this is not really a re-translation, so mostly this is about editing. Unfortunately, the editor in this case, Mark Thompson, has chosen to position his work along the lines that are often reserved for the rhetoric of re-translation and certain forms of marketing of translations that appeal primarily to accuracy and authenticity. (I will refrain from putting these words in quotes but please imagine them there; this is about rhetoric and the ways we present claims about translation, translated texts, translators, and so on.)51LJpC-v39L

The claims typically suggest that the previous translation was seriously flawed and, as a result, created a wrong impression of the work in question, such that its reception was somehow skewed if not missed altogether. Then they imply that the current translation rights the wrongs of the earlier work, giving readers proper access to the original in a way that they were somehow denied it before. This is exactly the rhetoric Thompson uses to critique Heim’s work (in the second half of his talk).

I was curious to know what precise translation experience Thompson was basing the larger claims in his critique upon, but unfortunately I could not find any book translations by him, only a portion of Dubravka Ugresic’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, published in 2011. Of course there are very good editors of translations who have not translated entire books themselves, though I have not been able to find any other translations edited by Thompson either. Still, he has written an excellent biography of Danilo Kiš, the author of the book in question, so there’s no reason not to pay careful attention to his critique of a translation of that author’s work by someone else.

It does give one pause, however, when someone with little professional experience in the domain itself makes categorical statements about how translators “ought” to keep the exact tenses of the foreign language text in their English versions, or how they “should” repeat words whenever the author does. Actually, these are both rather naive over generalizations that most experienced translators and experienced editors of translation know to be so. They are as dependent upon context as any choices a translator might make, and it is simply not the case that all language cultures have the same levels of tolerance for repetition and tense variation, or that the verbal systems of different languages work the same way. Nor does back-translating in the manner he discusses clarify the process of creating the English version, e.g., finding another word in the source language that might have been used but wasn’t in order to make the claim that if the author had wanted to use that word, she or he could have, and therefore, the word used in the previous English version was the wrong one.

Listening to Thompson’s categorical assertions—which I sincerely hope are not written down in the introduction to this new edition—actually made me as irritated and angry as he claims to have felt about Heim and his translation (why he should be precisely “irritated” with Heim was not completely clear). Editing another person’s work is not the same as translating from scratch. This is important enough to write again. The very slight nod to the translator of the whole text, the one whose work he used as the basis of his revisions, came very late in Thompson’s comments and seemed rather grudging and almost an afterthought, especially by contrast to the litany of “deep flaws” he shares.

I have edited quite a few other people’s translations. It is possible to do so when you don’t have an expert grasp of the language of the source text. It is even possible to fine tune the translation in the process. But in such cases, the editor’s name does not go on the cover, at least not unless it is a scholarly edition of some sort and the editor in question has created a scholarly apparatus to accompany the text. Actually, the editor’s name is not generally mentioned anywhere in literary works, whether they are translated or not. This is the work of an editor. Moreover, even when I know what questions to ask where and which verbs or lines or articles might have diverged from a Spanish or German or Japanese (minus the articles) source, I know that translating the whole would be beyond me given my skills in these languages. This is because editing another person’s work is not the same as translating from scratch. It makes the collegial nature of editing all the more important.

The rhetoric of re-translation often formulates attempts to move its audience by means of a critique of a previous translation: it is “old,” “outdated,” “inaccurate,” and so on. These claims are familiar as attempts to justify the need for the new version. This is what is happening with Thompson’s discussion of his edited version of Heim’s translation as well, and some of his changes might in fact be improvements on the English version. I just wish it had been more graciously done. The very title of his talk is rather offensive, as if Heim was not concerned with doing justice to the authors’ whose work he translated and the works themselves. When Heim was called upon to revise other people’s translations, something that happened often, he did it without putting his name to it. Nor did he spell out all the things he disagreed with in the other person’s work publicly. This grace and discretion were marks of his work both as an editor and as a translator.

Human Rights, Translation, PEN

Fifteen thousand words into translating Jergović’s monumental Rod (sticking with the title Kin for now), I’m taking a short break to mention the PEN Awards festivities just completed in NYC last week. I was able to attend for the first time, thanks to an invitation from my friend Esther, who knew I was going to be nearby for an ALTA board retreat and suggested I stick around for a day to see the show.

The absolute best thing about the awards and the celebration, in my opinion, is their democratic character, by which I mean the degree to which they recognize a wide variety of kinds of writing, from fiction and poetry, to theater, science writing, essay writing, (literary) sports writing, and literary translation. Not all the awards that PEN gives out were featured at the ceremony. One or two of the more prestigious ones (e.g., the Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction) are saved for the fundraising PEN Gala that takes place under different circumstances, but still it’s an impressive list, and the atmosphere of the event reflects both the quality of the work being celebrated and the commitment of PEN to issues of social justice and free expression.

This commitment may or may not be coterminous with literature in exactly the manner that PEN’s logo (see below) seems to imply. PEN logoThey certainly come together in enough cases in enough ways to make it hard to argue against an essentially human rights emphasis for an essentially literary organization. I wonder, however, whether we don’t miss something by making literature instrumental in this particular way. There will be kinds of writing that fit especially well as a result, e.g., socially and politically engaged writing, or writing that comes from particular parts of the world, or writing by those who have been historically marginalized, not allowed a voice. But there will also be kinds of writing, some of it exceptional and poignant, that does not really fit that well. Just literature in other words. It can be celebrated but it is less likely to be championed when literature and free expression, or rather free expression and then literature, is the mission.

I found myself mulling over such things during the ceremony and after, especially where translation is concerned. The awards for translation—there are four, one category for works in progress (the PEN/Heim Translation Awards), one for lifetime achievement (the PEN/Ralph Mannheim Award), and two for finished works (the PEN Translation Prize and the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation)—seem on first glance to be especially well suited to a human rights mission. But the criteria for these awards do not mention social justice explicitly and do not seem to be intended to champion the historically under-represented. The long lists include works from the Ancient World (sometimes frequently translated) and works from contemporary France, Russia, Argentina, or Mexico, once in a while China, Japan, or Korea, and once in a greater while India, Central Asia, or Africa. They include women and men on both sides of the translation process, though most of the authors of the original works are likely to be men. They include no or almost no translators of color (because there are almost no translators of color into English). I will leave it to someone else to actually count up the exact numbers in each category. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if just reading through them quickly as I did proves an inaccurate assessment. These are features of translated literature in general, not of these prizes in particular, so I do not mean them as a criticism.

Translation, by its very nature, is concerned with giving a voice to those who would not otherwise have one, and the goal of the under-represented is nowhere better served than by introducing the inscrutable foreignness of “all those other languages and cultures” into the complacency of the English-dominated (and often English-blinded) publishing world. I recall a grad student in fiction who didn’t want to come on one of the overseas writing workshops that Robin Hemley and I organized at the University of Iowa. He thought the presence of the translators would somehow lower the quality, taint the craft of the “real writers” in the group. Too bad for him that he did not come with us that year. He might have learned something about writing that he didn’t already know.

Translation and Rhetoric

And with the generous support of the National Endowment for the Humanities and Indiana University:

Call for Papers

Special Issue of POROI on Rhetoric and Translation

Guest Editor: Russell Scott Valentino, Indiana University

Rhetorical theorists since Aristotle have known that rhetoric is a temporally and spatially situated form of communication that forges (or fails to forge) a bond between a speaker and an audience through the use of commonplaces (topoi): canned formulas that can be varied to generate appropriate action and novel insights. The form of communication called translation offers fertile ground for rhetorical exploration. A good translator skillfully manipulates a receiving culture’s language and expressive modes, soliciting readers’ participation in worlds beyond their own.

Recognizing how infrequently the resources of rhetorical reflection have been brought to bear on the act and products of translation, POROI: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Analysis and Invention, is calling for papers for a Special Issue on rhetoric and translation.

Guest Editor Russell Scott Valentino, Chair of the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures at Indiana University and President of the American Literary Translators Association, will be joined by associate guest editors Jacob Emery, Assistant Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Indiana University; Sibelan Forrester, Professor of Russian at Swarthmore College; and Tomislav Kuzmanović, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Zadar, Croatia.

Anticipated publication date of the Special Issue is Summer 2016.

Topics and approaches are open. Papers might concentrate on issues about translators, audiences, or texts. For example, translator introductions situate both works and their translators vis-à-vis the receiving culture, using appeals to authority, language expertise, and sometimes, empathic connection; re-translations require justification, often on the basis of timeliness (language gets old, politics change; rights become available); the construction of gender, race, and ethnicity in translated works is rife with questions that are rarely articulated in any explicit form; the reception of texts requires that audiences respond on the basis of translators’ work, but reception is also affected by powerful historical, political, cultural, and institutional forces; within the field of translation practice proper, familiar topics circulate with abandon—from invisibility to “theory,” the marking of dialogue, and the comma splice. The editors hope to receive submissions from a wide variety of scholars and artists. The length and style of submissions is open.

POROI is a peer-reviewed e-journal that appears twice a year under the auspices of the University of Iowa Project on Rhetoric of Inquiry. Its platform encourages papers of varying lengths and is friendly to incorporating visual and graphic materials.

Submissions may be made through the POROI journal portal at http://poroi.grad.uiowa.edu

The final date for submission is November 1, 2015.

Papers will be reviewed as received.

For further information contact: russellv@indiana.edu