Translating Amanda Gorman

Non-translators might not have paid much attention to the recent controversy over the projected translation of U.S. National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s first book of poetry into Dutch, but many of us who translate have been following and discussing it quite a bit. The basic story is that the contracted publisher (Meulenhoff) hired author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld to do the job, a choice Gorman appears to have supported. Rijneveld announced being excited about taking on the work on social media, then some folks criticized the choice, including Dutch journalist Janice Deul, who wrote in de Volksrant, “Isn’t it — to say the least — a missed opportunity to hire Marieke Lucas Rijneveld for this job? She is white, non-binary, has no experience in this field, but according to Meulenhoff is still the ‘translator of dreams’?” and elsewhere: “Not to take anything away from Rijneveld’s qualities, but why not choose a writer who is — just like Gorman — a spoken word artist, young, female and unapologetically Black?” (I’m afraid I don’t know who translated these quotes from Dutch; they are in many of the English-language stories online, however, so thanks to you, invisible Dutch-English translator!) Rijeneveld resigned over the criticism, and the publisher announced that they’ll be working with a team of (as yet unnamed) others to do the work.

Rather than re-hash some of the most often repeated (and rather superficial) reactions about the pernicious cancel culture that forced the translator to resign, etc., I’ve been drawn, as always, to more fundamental translation issues in this episode.

One is an unstated but ubiquitous implication that translators, especially translators of poetry, need to have some sort of deep “simpatico” relationship with their author, even to the point of being of the same age, race, gender, political persuasion, and so on. I’m not pronouncing judgment on this idea, only pointing it out, because, as I just noted, it is often there without our perceiving it clearly. (In any case, Lawrence Venuti has critiqued it quite a bit already, and anyone interested in this line of thought should consult his books with an eye toward the use of the word “simpatico.”)

The forms that this basic notion takes are wide-ranging and can sometimes be spotted in translator introductions and afterwords. One of the most fascinating instances I have read was in Ciaran Carson’s brief preface to his translation of Dante’s Inferno, where he notes, with disarming frankness, that when he began his work, he really didn’t know any Italian, and then proceeds to make a case for his experience in the Troubles of Northern Ireland as somehow akin to those of Dante in 13th-century Florence: the implication that two poets with kindred experience trumps the mere linguistic expertise of the Italian specialist is hard to avoid.

This move, I say, is more common in poetry translations, where the persona of the translator often matters a great deal, than it is in prose, where the translator’s role is frequently erased altogether, such that we might think we are reading the words of the author, not those of the translator. It’s a fascinating kind of translation-reading magic that publishers, especially large publishers, have tended to encourage historically, often neglecting to even note the presence of a translator in the book’s creation, putting a picture of the author on the cover, not including the translator in the publicity materials, and generally doing everything they can to encourage the illusion that the work has not been filtered through another’s mind and writing practice, let alone the editing, publishing, and broad political context of the receiving culture, which transforms it into something “acceptable” (so publishers hope) to readers in that culture. Let us call this the illusion of limpidity (thanks to my friend David Depew for coining this phrase), which is especially strong in what are often thought of as canonical works of world fiction.

Poetry, however, especially the poetry of well-known authors, seems to often require more of the translator’s ethos in order to be accepted. In some ways, this is a marketing and publicity phenomenon, which is on display in the Gorman-Rijneveld case as well, as publishers are hoping to put books into people’s hands, and that won’t happen if readers and critics reject the product out of hand. This means that either the publishers need to find a well-known name in their own publishing environment whose credentials are likely to be accepted as adequate to the task (e.g., a poet refugee from East European totalitarianism translating another East European poet refugee), or they need to pick someone whose background and public persona are perceived as somehow matching that of the individual whose work is being translated. If they can do both, that is of course ideal. It’s worth noting that doing both is likely to be much easier in a place like The Netherlands or France (partly because of their colonial past) than in a place like Japan or Saudi Arabia, where the notion of “simpatico” translation, if it exists at all, is likely to take very different forms from in New York, Paris, or London. (This is probably also why readers in Japan, for instance, read translations with greater charity, as it were, knowing that the translators are almost invariably Japanese by both birth and heritage, and not having any expectations to the contrary.)

These sorts of marketing and publicity motivations, however, are for the most part, short-term attempts to capitalize on the moment. They are about selling books in the first months (it used to be years but now it’s months) of a release and getting good revues from prominent voices in important venues, which are all key aspects of the contemporary publishing business. It is in this context that the optics of who is selected as a translator for an up-and-coming artist with an enthusiastic following tend to be very important. The longer term, however, is anyone’s guess. It could be that the book becomes extremely popular in another culture over time, but that is very difficult to know, and publishers are generally not thinking about such things these days, when the idea of “building a back list” is rather rare. In the same way that time has tended to annihilate space in our hyper-commercial culture, so the timeline of what counts as success in publishing has tended to become shorter and shorter. Perhaps the time is coming when such success will happen even before the book comes out. Maybe we’re already there.

Of much greater interest to me are the embedded assumptions, in these discussions, about the skills of translators as being either portable or not, as well as a clash of sorts between those who think of translation as art and those who think of it more as a trade or vocation. The portability and vocation advocates might make a claim such that, in principle, any experienced translator should be able to translate anything by anyone. Those who claim for translation the status of art may very well cringe at such an idea, which makes it sound like all one needs is to be certified by an appropriate body, pass some tests, hit some numerical markers, while such intangibles as inspiration and poetic sensibility, which are frequently the reasons a poem ends up “singing” or not in the receiving culture and becoming part of that culture over time, cannot, in fact, be measured, let alone certified. It’s entirely possible, moreover, for one person to hold all these views at the same time. Translators are a complex lot — talking and listening at one and same time does things to you.

An additional divide, no less stark in my experience, tends to set freelance translators (those who make a living from translation) against those who have day jobs, e.g., as editors, teachers, publishers, and so on. The former rely on translation to pay the bills and often simply cannot afford to turn down a job. While they are also all (in my experience) highly ethical people who care about the social and cultural effects of the works that they translate, it is impossible to predict the long-term effects of a translation one takes on, for whatever reason. In this context, I cannot help thinking of the negative example of the distinguished translator Angelo Treves, an Italian Jew, who translated Hitler’s Mein Kampf into Italian for Bompiani in 1934. How could he know? The divide here comes at least in part from the fact that some have another job that pays the bills, which allows a kind of distance and critical stand that might not be as readily available to those who need that translation contract. It is easier for those of us with day jobs to critique the actions of those who live by translation, an often unstable and inconsistent way to make a living.

Finally, this episode has brought to mind a rather contentious exchange between Cherrie Morraga and Bob Shacochis that I witnessed at a conference on the promise of empathy at the University of Iowa in early 2002, in which Shacochis insisted he could “imagine his way” into the point of view of anyone as a way of writing a piece of fiction, including, for instance, an antebellum slave woman on a Georgia plantation, while Morraga equally insistently claimed that he could not, and if he did, he would be exploiting the suffering of people who really had experienced that imagined point of view. At the time, at least, there was no common ground. The artist claimed he could do it. The activist said don’t you dare.

While I suspect the conversation would be different today, I have found myself thinking about how a translator’s role might fit such a situation, especially when it is assumed, as the Gorman-Rijneveld case highlights, that the translator in important ways can stand in for the poet in the receiving culture, taking on not just the poet’s message but also the poet’s mission.

Workshop Meets Gogol

The fifth of the seven chapters in George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (which, I will repeat here for those who have not been following, I am enjoying immensely and learning a lot from) features Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose.” This was a risky move on Saunders’ part because the basically rational and construction-focused approach he has adopted, exploring “the physics of the [short story] form,” for his book does not seem to match up well with much of Gogol’s work, “The Nose” perhaps least of all, with its tendency to veer away from rationality and structural consistency, to exhibit — let’s call them — bulges, protrusions, and assorted eccentricities that make it difficult to analyze from any sort of efficiency-minded standpoint.

In part this is because Gogol’s language is idiosyncratic, which highlights issues of language per se, making it difficult to translate, on the one hand, but also difficult to discuss without invoking language, on the other. Saunders appropriately brings in the notion of skaz here, and remarks, parenthetically, that there are “American variants” of this narrative technique in Mark Twain, Sacha Boren Cohen, and others: an intriguing idea, but this supposed parallel is mostly about point of view, not language. And if one is approaching the text as if it were written in English (see this earlier post), then we’re left with a conundrum, something Saunders indicates with disarming frankness when he remarks, “It’s kind of problematic to be talking about the language of a piece we can read only in translation” (p. 286). My inner translator wants to agree with him with something like what he writes in response to the narrator’s admission that “there is much that is improbable in [“The Nose”]”: “‘Uh, yeah.” But another, more rational voice has a better response: “Well, it depends on what you want to say about it.”

I recall the rigorous reading practice of a fiction writer colleague of mine, who used to help me evaluate stories for publication at The Iowa Review: if he noticed a rich, exuberant style at the beginning of a submission, he would immediately be on the lookout for structural flaws; if he read through the whole of it and found the piece structurally sound, he would read back through it to see whether the language held up all the way through. This is a version of Saunders’ approach, which is focused on the form’s perfection, its lack of superfluousness, where every detail is where it is for a reason, and one can always ask the question, as he does often in the book, usually to good effect, “What is this doing here?” Saunders refers to this as a “rather hard-ass model of a story [that] says that every part of it should be there for a reason” (91), an idea of the form that is consistent throughout the book — except for in the chapter on Gogol, where it falls apart.

Notions of rationality and efficiency anchor this approach to writing, which some have critiqued as the “workshop model” or, in Mark McGurl’s formulation “program era” fiction, a sort of institutionalized high Modernism whose best precursors include writers like, well, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. This approach is on display in Saunders’ attempts to read “The Nose,” which comprise the only twenty pages or so of the 400 plus in the book that seem to ring false. He asks many perfectly reasonable and rational questions about how and why things are the way they are here — “How did [the nose] get out of the river?” “Why does the nose feel the need to leave town?” “Why is Kovalyov thwarted [at the newspaper office]?” “What caused [the nose’s] reversion to nosehood?” And so on. Much of this is the sort of questioning that would take place in a workshop, where, as Saunders notes, “one of the first critiques that will be made about a story is that it doesn’t make sense.”

This story, says Saunders, again in a perfectly rational comment, “doesn’t add up.” All this is fine and correct enough, but by comparison with the nuanced analyses of the formal aspects of Chekhov, Turgenev, and Tolstoy that we might have got used to in the earlier portions of the book, here one could easily lose patience. The amount of time spent on this somehow does not seem worth it, such that when he notes, about a short segment in the newspaper office, that it is “not essential to the action of the story,” I even grow a bit frustrated: What in the world is essential to the action of this story? The question, which comes out of the particular method of writing short stories, has completely overtaken the manner in which we read short stories, and with this story it is inadequate and mismatched.

The method of reading we’ve grown accustomed to in earlier portions of the book, where we analyze pieces and see how they fit, does not work well here, and Saunders is left making grand generalizations about how Gogol is a “supreme realist,” but for no demonstrable reason other than that, for example, “‘The Nose’ suggests that rationality is frayed in every moment, even in the most normal of moments.” Well, yes, that could be, but the person making the claim hasn’t offered evidence of the same quality as that used for the other big claims regarding Chekhov and the others. The basic problem here is that this story doesn’t align with the conception of the short story introduced in this book. It doesn’t fit.

And when Saunders tries to make it fit by attempting to make “sense” of the irrational in Gogol’s story, he essentially makes the rather sweeping argument of Vissarion Belinsky regarding the stretching of reality via the grotesque, which, Belinsky claimed (in the 1840s), was a way of making a social critique that reached into the everyday and reflected its distortions. Life was so out of whack (because of serfdom and the other deformations of humanity produced by the Russian autocratic state) that everything in the world was distorted, and Gogol was simply describing that distorted reality: he was a “supreme” realist. While Saunders updates this idea of what it all means to include the horrors of the mundane in the Holocaust, the Russian Revolution, and Stalinist purges, it is still a version of Gogol as a social satirist who uses the grotesque in ordinary life as his primary tool.

This could be a reasonable way to make sense of Gogol’s work — others have used it — but it is just one way, and the narrowing of Gogol’s rather open-ended verbal slapstick, nonsense, lyricism, sloppiness, caricature, absurdity, sound painting, and sometime carnival wackiness down to this one idea is unfortunate. The strengths of other parts of the book, moreover, come from the closeness of the connection between the manner of reading, the specifics of the details analyzed, and the claims about the overall effects of the stories, their broader meanings, expressive richness, and emotional impact. That connection is largely lost in these twenty some pages, I think, because there’s no real way to do it well without delving into the language.

But then, just as I find myself giving up hope that Saunders might have anything new to tell me about Gogol’s story, he has an afterthought (No. 5), and in the course of the six pages that follow, a bit like a Bach chorale in the St. Matthew Passion, he gathers up the loose threads and launches me into the next section. It is almost not even about Gogol, at least not ostensibly, and feels more like a set of free associations on his own writing practice, where he “follows the voice.”

An idea for a voice appears, and off you go. You just ‘feel like’ doing that voice. (And you find that you can.) Sometimes the inspiration for that voice might be a real person. Sometimes it’s a tendency in myself that I’ll exaggerate […]. Sometimes it’s a fragment of language that came from elsewhere” (306).

Here I’m making associations with things I know about Gogol’s writing practice: his tendency to keep lists of unusual words and expressions; his notoriously entertaining readings, where he would do the voices of his characters; his inability to come up with plots of his own, imploring his friends to give them to him — all he needed was a start and off he would go. And I’m waiting, for three pages of this afterthought I wait, and there’s no mention of Gogol, only reflections on Saunders’ own practice, on stories he’s written through this method, until he gets to this:

So, one way to get a story out of ‘the plane of its original conception’ is to try not to have an original conception. To do this, we need a method. For me, (and, I like to imagine, for Gogol, when he was in skaz mode) that method is to “follow the voice.” (p. 308)

This little remark, in a parenthetical aside no less, seems the strongest part of the entire analysis of Gogol’s “The Nose,” a story so clearly rooted in voice that structurally it would not hold up in workshop. Because it does not make the right kind of sense or exhibit the typical coherence, measure, and balance of the workshop’s models or pristine products.

Teaching Tolstoy’s Master and Man

In the three decades or so that I have been teaching works by Tolstoy, I don’t remember ever teaching the one known in English as “Master and Man.” This could be because it didn’t speak to me when I first read it or because I have consistently felt there were other, more effective works that I already had in my classes, I’m not sure. I’ve thought about it more seriously as I’ve been reading George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which I’ve already written about a few times in these posts (with maybe two more to go–I can’t skip what he has to say about “The Nose” and “Gooseberries” so more soon). Having thought about it, I still think I won’t teach this story, but the exercise has clarified some things for me.

First, the existing best-known translation has some serious flaws, not least of which is the title itself, which I don’t want to delve into too much at this point: titles are always tricky, and this one appears to have been filtered through the “Tolstoy the great spiritual thinker” prism, distorting it a bit from something in fact rather mundane into the grand sounding (please imagine my voice dropping a full register to pronounce) MASTER AND MAN! Well, it could be that, but Хозяин и работник could also be “Owner and Laborer” (Tolstoy the anti-capitalist) or even “The Owner and the Worker” (Tolstoy the fabulist). But this is for another discussion.

Now, I have frequently written about my distaste for the translation police tactic of cornering a single word or phrase to pronounce a translation inadequate, and I refuse to do that here. But there is a key line in the story, in fact the line on which the entire story pivots, when the main character appears to be transformed. So getting this line right is very important.

The two principal characters, lost in a blizzard, are in a crisis. One (the worker) appears to be near death. The other, the hitherto selfish owner, opens his coat and lies down on top of the first in order to warm him. This is done, as Saunders characterizes it in his reading and I agree, as “kind of a miracle of writing,” after Tolstoy has put himself “in a tough spot,” needing “to pull off a transformation [of the character] in which we can believe, one that mimics the sort of transformation a real-life stinker might actually undergo” (239). So far so good.

But then Vasily Andreevich speaks a line that overwhelms him and makes the transformation meaningful: “‘There, and you said you were dying! Lie still and get warm, that’s our way….,” upon which “tears came into his eyes and his lower jaw began to quiver rapidly. He stopped speaking and only gulped down the risings in his throat. ‘Seems I was badly frightened and have gone quite weak,’ he thought. But this weakness was not only not unpleasant, but gave him a peculiar joy as he had never felt before. ‘That’s our way!'” he said to himself, experiencing a strange and solemn tenderness….” This is the Maude translation, which is what Saunders uses, and the passage is on pp. 211-212 of his book. (I’ll have more to say about the translations Saunders uses in another post.)

I sensed there was something off about the awkward phrase “that’s our way” even before looking at the source text. Tolstoy’s writing is nothing if not natural sounding, including in dialog, and when it isn’t, there is generally a reason for it in the characters. Here “that’s our way” takes readers, as it does Saunders, down a side path that leads away from one of Tolstoy’s constant preoccupations, a combination and complication of the internal and external states of a character that often makes it hard to say where an apparent transformation comes from.

Saunders wonders, “What does he mean, ‘that’s our way’? The Russian way, the way of Russian masters, the human way?” and notes “It’s beautiful: it doesn’t occur to him that this has never been his way, not at all, until this moment right now.” The problem with this line of interpretation is that the key phrase, Вот мы как (Vot my kak), doesn’t have anything about a way in it and is actually rather hard to pin down in terms of its meaning. My sense is that it has more of an emotional aspect than a denotative one (and thanks to Tatiana S. and Vika T. for confirming this for me). It strikes me as the sort of thing that a parent might say to an ailing child, comforting the child and trying to make him feel better. “There now” might do it, or maybe “Here we are then,” all comfy and warm, no need to be afraid anymore, just lie still, and you’ll feel better soon…. In other words, it’s mostly emotional, an endearing little flourish tacked on to V. A.’s, “There, and you said you were dying! Lie still and get warm….” It does not hinge on anything especially Russian, on a Russian way, or a Russian master, or even on an explicitly “human way.” But it is a trigger for the character, as if the action of comforting another, saying these words aloud, makes him feel something has hasn’t felt before, or at least for long enough not to remember it anymore.

How to interpret this is, as often in Tolstoy, a good question, and Saunders quite rightly wonders more about the “transformation,” including the possibility that Vasily Andreevich might be being consistent with his previous self in this behavior and not really exhibiting any especially radical change at all, though he himself interprets it as such. This is a good line of inquiry for a Tolstoy work. Vasily Andreevich’s emotional state here could be seen as akin to that of little Tanya Oblonsky, in Anna Karenina, when she secretly shares her dinner with her brother Grisha, who’s being punished for misbehavior, and a sense of her own “noble action” brings tears to her eyes.

Tolstoy routinely taints moments of apparent spiritual transformation, making them “real” by embedding them in specific sets of conditions that might have been different, sometimes linking them to bodily injuries, lack of sleep, and misinterpretations of someone else’s words or the natural world. This case appears to be another example, rather understated and mundane like the story’s title, complexly interwoven with the outside world (the raging snowstorm), and the imperfect but powerful words we use to say things, especially the most intimate kind, to others and to ourselves.

On Fairytales, Folktales, Wondertales, and… Tales

Vladimir Propp makes clear in his Исторические корни волшебной сказки (Istoricheskie korni volshebnoi skazki) that the subject of his study is indeed the волшебная сказка [volshebnaia skazka] announced in its title. However, in his exposition, he often uses the term сказка [skazka] without any attribute. This term happens to be the word used for “folktale,” “fairy tale,” and simply “tale” in English, which led my colleagues and co-translators Miriam Shrager, Sibelan Forrester, and me to a lot of discussion about how best to render the term in our on-going translation of Propp’s book. Alternate translations for the term volshebnaia might be “fairy,” “magical,” “enchanting,” “bewitching,” or “fantastical.” As “wondertale” has gained currency in translations into English, and as the author’s use is primarily technical rather than poetically descriptive, we have been using it as both the title of the translation and in many of the initial instances of the term skazka in the text, where it is clear he is using it as something of a short-hand for the longer, more descriptive term. But this only helps a bit around the margins and does not provide a definitive strategy for rendering the much more frequently and variously encountered skazka (without attribute) throughout the book. 

Propp’s Morfologiia skazki is known as Morphology of the Folktale in English. It is regularly cited and has come to occupy a central place in global folklore studies as such. This title rests upon an interpretive move that is not often remarked upon, an assumption about what the author intended without noting explicitly, namely, that the word skazka was an abbreviated version of narodnaia skazka (folk tale) and therefore equivalent to “folktale” in English. This is a reasonable assumption and a reasonable interpretation, but it is an interpretation all the same, as the word “folk” is not to be found in the Russian title of that book. 

While such an observation might seem on its face inconsequential to the overall translation of the work, it gathers additional weight when we turn to the translation of the continuation of Propp’s earlier begun study, which is in fact this work, with its more explicit title: Istoricheskie korni volshebnoi skazki (Historical Roots of the Wondertale). Here, in his introductory chapter, the author explicitly notes, “By ‘wondertale’ [volshebnaia skazka] I shall intend those tales whose structure I examined in The Morphology of the Folktale [Morfologiia skazki], a book that sets out the genre of the wondertale [volshebnaia skazka] with adequate precision.” 

Now, it could be assumed that the previous book delineated a variety of folktale categories in equal measure, naming the wondertale as one of them but leaving the specifics of analysis for later. This is not the case. Actually, in fact, the entire book known by the English title Morphology of the Folktale was concerned with the wondertale (or, as rendered by earlier translators, the “fairy tale”), and the issue of the title’s ambiguity was not only known to earlier translators but remarked upon, as in Louis A. Wagner’s preface to his revised version of the book for its second edition: 

The expression narodnaja skazka has been rendered as “folktale,” volšebnaja skazka as “fairy tale,” and the words skazka (noun), skazočnyj (adjective) simply as “tale.” The chief departure from this practice is in regard to the title itself (Morfologija skazki), since a change here might have led to undue confusion. The morphology presented by the author is, of course, a morphology of the fairy tale specifically and he is careful to make note of this fact in the Foreword and in Chapter II. Thus the title of the work is, unfortunately, somewhat unclear. It is evident from the text that the unqualified word skazka is used by Propp both in the sense of tale in general and in the sense of fairy tale, depending upon context. The reader must infer the appropriate meaning in each instance. (Propp 2009: ix, emphasis added) 

In other words, Morphology of the Folktale perhaps should have been called Morphology of the Fairy Tale in its first English translation since that was its subject, and indeed the first edition’s introduction, by Svatava Pirkova-Jakobson, opened with the clear declaration, “The subject of this study, the Russian fairy tale…” (Propp 2009: xix). 

What is not clear is why the first edition’s translator, Laurence Scott, or perhaps that volume’s editor or publisher, chose to specify “folktale” in the title when everyone seems to have understood that the book’s subject was actually narrower and more specific. This strategy, moreover, had a long-term impact on the field, as evidenced by one reader of our text, a prominent folklorist who does not happen to work with Russian sources, emphasized in his comments that “skazka equals folktale.” Well, no it doesn’t, even if it might look that way from the English title of Propp’s earlier book.

The opposite tack was taken in the 1984 translation—by Ariadna Y. Martin and Richard P. Martin—of an excerpt from the Historical Roots of the Wondertale published as part of the book Theory and History of Folklore. Here the translators chose to render every instance of skazka in the source as “wondertale” in their translation, despite Propp’s sometimes more expansive use of the term. Actually, Propp uses the same word (skazka) to refer to the tales collected by Russian nineteenth-century ethnographers as well as the “fairy tales” of the Brothers Grimm, Native American stories collected by Boas, Micronesian, African, and Australian tales, and stories from the Rig Veda and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. By contrast, he uses the full “wondertale” [volshebnaia skazka] relatively infrequently in his book—many times in the first chapter, then not at all from chapters two to nine, then again a few more times in chapter ten—and as we asked ourselves upon encountering each successive instance of the much more commonly used skazka whether he had in mind “wondertale,” “folktale,” or a broader and more general “tale” or even “story,” we found ourselves occasionally hesitating. It is clear that it does not always simply refer to “wondertale,” but it is not always clear from context what he might have had in mind for each instance.  

Essentially, we have found ourselves in the hermeneutic dilemma set out by Friedrich Schleiermacher in the early nineteenth century: namely, whether to bring the text closer to readers in the receiving culture, by interpreting for them (the strategy adopted in the Martin and Martin translation), or bring the readers of the receiving culture closer to the original text, by introducing aspects of the source, including its very ambiguity and polysemy, into the English. Faced with this choice, the Scott translation, in effect compromised by translating skazka as “tale” without differentiation and leaving it to readers to decide based on the context of its usage what Propp might have meant in each case. Except for in its title, that is.

Recent translation practice has favored different interpretive and expressive strategies on the part of translators, who, recognizing the implicit cultural power and expressiveness of particular words, phrases, and other linguistic features, often leave them untranslated in the new text. We considered this idea and even partially revised our version leaving skazka or the plural skazki in the English wherever Propp used those terms without an adjective but then pulled back: it’s already a complicated text with lots of terms in it; did we really need to add another? Do we?

Prelim Praise for Kin

Here, from the Calvert Journal, is one of those pre-release teasers about “books to look forward to in X year” (which, in this case is the year 2021). Matt Janney calls it, appropriately, a “time-travelling, place-hopping epic, […] at once a history of family and an ode to Yugoslavia.” This is, well, a teaser.

Kin_PRH_Rev2.jpg (450×540)

Of a bit more substance is a starred Kirkus Review published on Feb. 10, which calls Jergović’s book a “vast, generous-spirited story of family across the face of the 20th century in the turbulent Balkans” and a “masterwork of modern European letters.” I can agree with this assessment too, and especially appreciate the notion of its “generosity of spirit.” It’s one of the reasons I have long been attracted to his work.

Both of these gesture towards the rather difficult question of the book’s genre, what it is and how to approach reading it. An epic of sorts, yes, certainly in terms of its vast size and historical scope. A history of a family, yes, especially through the domestic lenses it uses to look at what Mikhail Bakhtin, in another context, calls “great history.” An ode to Yugoslavia perhaps, but also, I would say, to the Habsburg Empire, to pre-1992 Bosnia and Herzegovina, to the Sarajevo of the author’s youth, and to the Dubrovnik of his family’s history there in the early 20th century. A masterwork of European letters, yes, this too, through its embeddedness in European literature and thought, its many references and allusions to historical and contemporary works of architecture, art, literature, music, and to the figures–some real, some imagined–who created all this.

We in the English-reading world often have trouble with this sort of expansiveness (which some might call amorphousness), feeling the need to pin it down as either “fiction” or “non-fiction.” This is a distinction that doesn’t apply consistently enough to be helpful in reading such a book, it seems to me.

There also appears to be a longish excerpt from the beginning of the book available at its Amazon page, and while the formatting is not especially attractive, it’s possible to read a bit there and get a sense of what the prose is like, at least in this part of the book.

As If Written in English

In a previous post I mentioned how excited I was to take up George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain as I prepared for my Russian short fiction class. I still am, and there are plenty of strong points I have discovered so far. The book comes out of a fiction writing context, and Saunders’ approach focuses most often on questions of how the stories he’s chosen do what they do, how we experience them as readers, and how the choices made by the author create the various emotional responses we have as the stories move from one line, paragraph, and page to the next. There are plenty of quotable passages, short descriptions of technique, and clever analogies to help students understand such principles as when a story feels like a story and when it might not yet, why not, and what might still need to happen in order to get to the point at which it is, in fact, story.

But (you knew that was coming), it also has some drawbacks, the main one, which is rather a global concern, being its conflicted approach to the fact of translation. While Saunders notes from the beginning that he is not a scholar and doesn’t approach these stories from a scholarly standpoint (fair enough), he only mentions in passing that these stories were all written in Russian and that he’s working with them as translations. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. He seems to want to approach them as translations and, at the same time, as if they were written in English, and this presents a conflict as we read claims about the “effects” of certain word combinations that the author created. Here is a key moment in the opening frame:

The stories were, of course, written in Russian. I offer the English translations that I’ve responded to most strongly or, in some cases, the versions I first found years ago and have been teaching from since. I don’t read or speak Russian, so I can’t vouch for their faithfulness to the originals (although we’ll do some thinking about that was we go). I propose that we approach the stories as if they were originally written in English, knowing that we’re losing the music of the Russian and the nuance they would have for a Russian reader. Even in English, shorn of those delights, they have worlds to teach us.

p. 6

The acknowledgment of the Russian source and the author’s lack of access to it is fine and good, and I really don’t have any misgivings at all about using the translations that speak most to you (indeed, why would anyone in this context use translations that were somehow less evocative to teach from?). And I suppose admitting that he’s not going to have much to say about the accuracy of the translations he’s using is also fine. But then the paragraph, and the thinking, goes down a rabbit hole and gets lost in it, as if this “faithfulness” bugaboo flipped a trap door. Now we have shifted to a “rhetoric of loss” that clashes with the book’s overall tenor and, it seems to me, purpose. It’s as if he’s saying this is the best we can do, these texts being in their derivative Englished form, “shorn of the delights” of the Russian sources with their attendant “music” and “nuance.” I mean, are we going to approach them as if they were written in English or not?

If we do in fact approach them as if they were written in English, then they haven’t “lost” anything. We are looking at what they do in English, how they resonate in and by means of the English language, among the body of English-language literature. There is a source context we need to be aware of, that of the period and the place where they were created, but we’ve now put the language outside of this domain by approaching these works as if they were not written in that source language context but in this one.

Questions of effect now take on a different aspect. An example will help, I hope. On page 5, in the context of arguing for the renewing power that “fastidiously constructed scale models of the world” (those of well made short stories) can have on the ways we appreciate our place in it, Saunders quotes Isaac Babel: “‘No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.'” That’s a great line. The thing about it is that the right place might be different in different languages. Thinking that the sentence period works the same in one language as in another would be like thinking the music and rhythm of one language are the same as another’s. And who decides where to put the period in the English text? Not the author of the Russian text, certainly not the author of the nineteenth-century Russian text.

The English stories we are now working with, in this rhetoric of fullness and effectiveness that we’ve adopted to sell the idea of this book, comes from the way all these periods have been placed in the English texts. And obviously not just the periods, but the titles, the possible synonyms, the word order, sometimes the paragraphing, the dialog markers, the dashes, and commas, and more. Who made these decisions that have created these English-language effects, the phrasing, the pace, and so on, in short that have helped these English stories to be effective as stories in English by means of the language itself?

Sixty-two pages in, and I haven’t read one of their names mentioned even once.

How Loving Your Source Can Make Your English Translation Into Doggerel

I think that some translators must have a terribly sad streak inside, but let me start with doggerel since it’s lighter. By doggerel I don’t only mean the unintentionally funny or the inventive and exploratory. To get a sense of these, for the funny end of the spectrum, try William McGonagall’s “The Tay Bridge Disaster”: 

It must have been an awful sight, 
To witness in the dusky moonlight, 
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray, 
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay, 
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay, 
I must now conclude my lay 
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay, 
That your central girders would not have given way, 
At least many sensible men do say, 
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses, 
At least many sensible men confesses, 
For the stronger we our houses do build, 
The less chance we have of being killed.

Then, for the exploratory and inventive end, imagine a bass and drums background and a rap artist delivering, “I must now conclude my lay by telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay….”

But it’s hard to salvage much else (beyond those two lines) for serious purposes from the overwrought rhetoric, uneven meter, poorly matched lexical registers, grammatical and syntactical stretches, triteness, logical lapses, and willful rhyme scheme (which can be called a scheme only because of its humorous effect). This is one of two ways to make doggerel. It is characterized by errors so obvious that they make us laugh and the juxtaposition of the seriousness of the form with a degree of perceived narrative buffoonery. (This can also be intentional — imagine a holiday party where one makes up verses for one’s co-workers….)

The other is by doing almost the opposite, taking a poem from another language and time period, and translating it so regularly into English — matching exact rhymes to exact rhymes, and regular meter to regular meter — that nothing ever varies, making it into something that sounds like a sing-song ditty. This is of course fine if it’s a sing-song ditty in the source culture. But it’s likely to become doggerel if it was anything other than that, an epic, say, or a love lyric. This way of making doggerel is much harder to provide examples for, or rather, it is hard to say why this way of translating might come across as doggerel to a listener or reader, probably because it is not “over the top” in the manner that McGonagall masters in his oh so ill-fated bridge. It also results from cultural assumptions about equivalencies of meter, rhyme, punctuation, and form in general that are difficult to name explicitly.

About the closest to an explanation for this phenomenon that I have encountered is something that W. S. Merwin describes in one of the prefaces to his Selected Translations (published by Copper Canyon in 2013). He seems to have begun his approach to practice with Pound, who once spoke to him “of the value of translation as a means of continually sharpening a writer’s awareness of his own language” (12). He then struggled over the next fifteen years to free himself from the idea, advanced by Pound among many others, that “fidelity in translating a poem should include an ambition to reproduce the original verse form” (168). By the end of this struggle, he notes, “I had come to consider the verse conventions of original poems as part of the original language, in which they had a history of associations like that of individual words—something impossible to suggest in English simply by repeating the forms” (169).

On the one hand, such a statement suggests that translators look for something deeper than formal equivalency or what is sometimes loosely called equivalency of effect. This is about meaning primarily, semantic translation, what Merwin touches on as “fidelity” and what some translator colleagues have referred to as “unpacking,” before they turn to the “repacking,” which is making the poem in English. That re-made poem, if it is to be effective as an English-language poem, may or may not share the same formal features as the source version. On the other, embedded in the statement is the question of effect, how an audience receives the English version, how they hear it. This is where my poet-translator friends will note that, unless there is some sort of a formal challenge that poets have knowingly set for themselves (a sestina, a ghazal) motivating it, much of the most interesting poetry published today does not exhibit the sort of regularity of, say, nineteenth-century rhymed verse, and if one tries to write such verse today, it tends to sound uncannily like, well, the nineteenth century.

Getting beyond the first kind of doggerel, the kind characterized by unintentional errors that make your readers laugh, is mostly a question of understanding the source and having a good sense of English prosody. Avoiding the second kind, which comes from sounding dull if not trite in the receiving culture, is a challenge of a higher order, largely because the more you study the source, the better you know it, the closer you get to it, and the more you tend to love it.

At this point, as a translator you are faced with a terrible truth, which is where that sadness I started with lurks. Loving your source as you do, you want to share, convey it in all its beauty, integrity, and meaning — the meaning it has had for you, the way it has moved you, been a part of your life — to others who might not have access to it. But the only way to do this is, first, to take it apart, this thing you love, word by word, sound by sound; and second, to change it, this thing you love, into something else.

On Imaginary Islands and Real Ones

For many years when they were still trying to map the world, explorers thought there was an island or even something bigger in the northern Pacific between Russia and North America. This was one of the possibilities anyway, between the land being connected (no Bering strait) or there being nothing large out there at all, which they only figured out for certain during Bering’s second expedition. Some of the maps they carried at the time still had the mysterious non-island known as “Da Gama Land” on it, and one of the two vessels, I recall reading, wasted a good deal of valuable time sailing around in the middle of nowhere to verify that the map was indeed wrong. This was the vessel that eventually lost almost all its crew to starvation and disease, including Bering himself.

I thought of this as I was searching for some actual islands (or so we assumed) in our ongoing translation of Propp’s Historical Roots of the Wondertale. After searching and searching for what he refers to as the Острова Согласия (Ostrova Soglasiia), which we had as “Concord Islands” in earlier drafts, sending us on a great exploratory voyage, I found them!

I felt like I was at sea, without access to an appropriately large dictionary that might contain the term, or a specialized one for geographical names, but I knew from his comments that it was somewhere in the South Pacific. He noted, in a second passage later, that these islands were close to the Cook Islands, and he included some quotes about practices there from James Frazer’s The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead, but Frazer didn’t actually name the Ostrova Soglassia in his text, and, it turns out, he was quoting a certain Tyerman and Bennet’s Journal of Voyages and Travels. A bibliographic mystery!

Google Books allowed me to find, first, Frazer’s quote from their book (without a date) but then their text, where they note, still without naming the particular islands, having heard about the practice in question from a local person named Auna with regard to the “Areois,” and these folks finally turn up in a regular old Google search. They are not the Concord Islands but the Society Islands!

A minor bibliographic victory. But also a good example of one of the principles of translation that makes it different from textual explication. In the latter, you can (and in fact, you should) skip the aspects of the text that don’t support your argument. In the former, you have to come to a clear understanding of the entire text, not just those parts you want to focus on. If there is something you don’t understand, you have to go out and discover it, even if it means a brief excursion to Tahiti.

Aspersion and Aspersions

While translating Propp’s Historical Roots of the Wondertale, my colleague Miriam Shrager and I wondered a bit over the “sprinkling” (окропление) that comes up occasionally in fairy tales, often in the context of crossing between this world and some other, magical one (“she sprinkled the door with water”). This, so claims Propp, is a remnant of the sorts of ritual sprinkling practiced in hunter-gatherer societies, often in connection with ritual sacrifice, rites of initiation, and, later, ceremonies associated with the dead’s passage to the next world, as in Ancient Egypt. It is the same word, and the same basic concept, as when a priest sprinkles holy water during a mass or other ceremony, where the word employed is “aspersion.” So in terms of our translation, this is the word to use.

But then I wondered why aspersion in this context is obviously a good thing to have done to one, while aspersions in the plural, as in the phrase “to cast aspersions upon,” which is the only way I knew the word until discovering its use in ritual sprinkling, is only ever a bad thing to have done to one. It turns out that the word has been rather productive in a linguistic sense, at least until around the latter half of the nineteenth century, when people stopped using it except in the negative casting and plural sense.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the first attestations in English was, appropriately, a translation, from Latin by the “martyrologist” John Foxe, of Archbishop Courtney’s Actes and Monuments: “By the aspersion of the bloud of Iesus Christ” (1570). Shakespeare uses it in his early seventeenth-century Tempest rather loosely and with a positive inflection: “No sweet aspersion shall the heauens let fall To make this contract grow” (Act IV, i, 18), while Francis Bacon employs it in an (according to the OED) obsolete sense of “the sprinkling of an ingredient” in his Advancement of Learning: “Diuinity Morality and Policy, with great aspersion of all other artes.”

The verb “to asperse” appears even earlier, again in a translation from Latin, albeit via French, this one by William Caxton, of Virgil’s Aeneid (or as his 1490 text has it The boke yf Eneydos), while the place one keeps the holy liquid for aspersing has been Englished as an aspersoir (clearly via French again), an aspergillum, an aspersory, and an aspersorium, depending on who was doing the Englishing and when. The person who asperses is an aspersor, who may or may not be aspersive in his manner, engaging in his work aspersively.

How this relates to character is obviously figurative, but the routes by which it figured are not completely clear. Almost from its beginnings in English, the term had an evil twin, which explains William Barriffe’s quip, in a 1639 article on military discipline regarding the “private & frosty nips from aspersionating tongues.” This is the sense with which we are familiar, namely, “a damaging report; a charge that tarnishes the reputation; a calumny, slander, false insinuation.” But for some time still it could be singular, as Henry Fielding has it in his 1749 Tom Jones: “I defy all the World to cast a just Aspersion on my Character” (note the linkage already here to the verb “to cast,” which will make a stalwart pairing over the next several centuries), and it could be a verb, as George Elliot has it in her 1866 Felix Holt: “Has any one been aspersing your husband’s character?”

I have only suspicions about the routes the figuring took, but it is hinted at in this phrase from Bacon’s already quoted Advancement of Learning: “There is to bee found besides the Theologicall sence, much aspersion of Philosophie,” which is echoed more explicitly in a 1781 article on friendship by William Cowper: “Aspersion is the babbler’s trade, To listen is to lend him aid.” Such pronouncements suggest a shared belief that to asperse is somehow to dabble (like a babbler), to dilute (as in to asperse Philosophie), or simply to avoid engaging in something seriously. Such an idea could have arisen from a sense that is implicit in the baptismal usage, where aspersion substitutes for the real thing, as when William Maskell points out in an 1849 history of Anglican rituals, “St. Peter… baptized five thousand on one day; but this must have been by aspersion.”

I wonder too about notions of impurity associated with speckling or besmirching, where something imagined as pure (e.g., a fox’s red coat) is “aspersed” with dark spots, which by extension might apply to the purity of someone’s character, as, for example, when an innocent character is aspersed with experiences, or, to make all this active, when someone, an aspersor (or, more likely in the context of this particular set of words, an aspersor’s pen — “What shall be done to thee thou aspersing Pen?” H. Hickman, 1673) has flung those little blots or spots at someone else, resulting in a visible stain. I find it intriguing that aspersion in the spiritual sense leaves no visible marks, while the plural figurative is almost invariably about having been defiled in the eyes of others.

I wonder too about the action of casting, which like the spreading of rumor or malicious gossip, can look a lot like the evil of contagion. This thought gives a completely surprising turn to William Thackeray’s 1843 observation (from his Irish sketch book): “The people, as they entered, aspersed themselves with all their might.” I suppose Propp might have agreed with this assertion.

From Non-Space to Landscape

I am struck by the notion of the absence of space in Vladimir Propp’s account of the wondertale. This is similar to Mikhail Bakhtin’s observation about the absence of the effects of time on the hero and heroine of romance, where they have adventure after adventure but, in the end, don’t seem to have aged or been left psychologically changed by any of their experiences. They remain the same couple “of marriageble age” at the end that they were before the kidnapping, the pirates, the crocodiles, the earthquake, and so on. This, in part at least, is what Voltaire makes fun of at the end of Candide when Cunegonde turns out to be old and ugly from having waited so long.

Propp’s suggestion is that wondertales developed from rituals in set places (the forest hut, the boundary between this world and the next, the animal and human realms) and that the “in-between” spatial elements were added only later. He describes this in an eloquent phrase: “The road is present only in the composition, not in the texture.” By this he means that while there are great spaces traversed, the tales skip over the time of movement itself, often by means of a set formula like “He road for a long or a short time, near or far…,” which, as he puts it, “refuses” to describe the journey itself in any detail.

He contrasts this to epic spatial descriptions, especially those of well-known works like The Odyssey, about which he has this to say:

For us there is no doubt that the Odyssey, for example, is a later phenomenon than the wondertale. In it the journey and its space are elaborated in the style of epic. Hence we conclude that the static elements, the stops of the wondertale, are older than its spatial composition. Space has intruded into something that already existed before. The key elements were created prior to the appearance of spatial representations. We shall see this in greater detail below. All the elements of the stops already existed as ritual. Spatial representations separated into long distances things that were actually the phases of ritual.

(Historical Roots of the Wondertale, Chapter Two; tr. by Miriam Shrager, Sibelan Forrester, and Russell Scott Valentino; in ms.)

Describing the “phases of ritual” from which wondertales emerged constitues the heart of the book, it seems to me.

But I am struck by the contrast between this primordial (in the sense of story telling) absence of space and the sense of landscape that encompasses everything for a writer and thinker like Anne Whiston Spirin, whose work I’ve been exploring. She is not alone, of course, though her work might be the most profound on this score, especially her description of the obstacles she faced in approaching landscape as language (in her The Language of Landscape) and the ways she set out to overcome them. Space here is a conceptual tool, the fundamental texture that makes composition possible.