A Fabulous Translation…

Or I should say a fabulous translation conference, which was this, last weekend. Why it was so good is, I think, a measure of the organization, skills, and experience of the sponsors at the Center for International Education at the translationUniversity of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Lydia Liu’s presentation on Thursday night technically preceded the conference proper, but the organizers, who have obviously done things like this before, knew to connect it as a sort of pre-conference keynote, encouraging the twenty invited presenters, the eight panel moderators, and the five year-long Global Studies Fellows at the Center to be there. In other words, they guaranteed an interested and engaged core audience and kick-started the conference before it had even begun. This worked marvelously well, and Liu’s presentation struck just the right note of archival research, detailed translation analysis, and big ideas–human rights, Post-WWII international politics, key figures and words in the construction of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights–to start us all talking and comparing notes. In particular, she spoke about Article One:

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

In even greater particular she spoke about the composition of the core working group (one American, one Canadian legal scholar, one secular humanist Chinese, and one Lebanese Thomist) that generated the drafts, argued through the language and the assumptions behind it, and also the larger group of international representatives who approved the final version. She laid particular emphasis on the relatively large number of women and the relatively large number of non-Westerners who helped to shape the document, casting doubt on the often encountered assumption that the document reflects purely “Western” values. Especially fascinating was the analysis of the manner in which the word “conscience” made it into the document, an odd word on first glance, especially given its absence from any of the historically preceding documents that might have been used as antecedents. By looking at the records of the proceedings, Liu was able to determine that the origin of this term in the English document was the Chinese term ren, which was suggested by Zhang Pengjun and translated for the other delegates as “two-man-mindedness.”

According to Zhang, “Stress should be laid upon the human aspect of human rights,” and people need to be constantly conscious of the others with whom they live. (A description of this episode can be found here). But the term conscience is not what one might expect from ren, unless it is taken in a rather narrow, medieval Christian sense, the sort of sense that a Lebanese Thomist might want to take it in (though why “compassion” would not work for this I’m not knowledgeable enough to even guess at), and, even more fascinating, the term in the eventual Chinese version of the Declaration appears to be a translation of the English “conscience” back into Chinese, rather than the “compassion,” let alone the “two-man-mindedness” that was the originally Chinese-inspired suggestion.

The idea that episodes of translation lie at the heart of world history came up several times during the conference. Another from East Asia, which Naoki Sakai discussed during his Saturday presentation, is the notion of “nationality,” which was translated from the work of John Stuart Mill into mid-19th-century Japanese with two Chinese characters, one for country and the other for body. This idea, like the idea of a national language itself, was a new discovery or invention that would have long-term consequences for both the region and the world, as this notion of nationality, or kokutai, would ironically shift from its liberal democratic origins to become linked with the Japanese Imperial system.

These moments, of which there were many more, far too many to summarize here, were drawn together by a strong, personally inflected atmosphere. The topics were all over the place in terms of subject matter, which could have easily spun out of control and made the entire enterprise feel disconnected. The reason it did not, I think, was again due to smoothness and savvy of the organization. Everything was held in the same building–a historic old house with enough rooms to spread out but not enough to get lost–and the conference was the only thing in it for the two days it took place. Breakfast and lunch were brought in. The participants came to all the presentations, as did the fellows, most of the moderators, the organizers themselves (hats off to Patrice Petro and Lorena Terando, as well as Mark Brand for the impressive logistical and tech support), and then colleagues, students, and a handful of interested community members. What became possible as a result was a conversation with a shared vocabulary, shared experiences (of the previous presentations), and shared understanding of key concepts, historical encounters, and disciplinary trajectories.

In other words, the participants came in the end to have a good feeling for one another’s work, not to mention good feelings for one another. I have encountered administrators in the past who tried to encourage collaboration by looking at resumes and attempting to match specialists up with each other. This rarely works. The truth is that fruitful collaboration, when it happens, happens on a foundation of affinity, respect, and shared purpose, and these are exactly the foundation that was laid at this remarkable event.

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

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

Here are the details:

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

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

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

Valentino’s lecture rests upon notions of how the traditional virtue ethic, grounded in property-based conceptions of masculine heroism, was eventually displaced by a new commercial ethic that rested upon consensual fantasy. The new economic world destabilized traditional Russian notions of virtue and posed a central question that Russian authors have struggled to answer since the early nineteenth century: How could a self-interested commercial man be incorporated into the Russian context as a socially valuable masculine character?

With examples drawn from the works of Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pasternak, and Nabokov, Valentino argues that Russian authors worked through this question via their depictions of mixed-up men, charting a range of masculine character types thrown off stride by the new commercially inflected world: those who embrace blind confidence, those who are split with doubt or guilt, and those who look for an ideal of steadfastness and purity to keep themselves afloat – a woman in a window.

Start: April 3, 2015 3:00 pm

Venue: NYU Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia

Phone: 212.992.6575

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

Hope to see you there (or there)!

Communication, Literature, Translation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep Translation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take the pencil.

That Damned Anna Karenina Again

Schwartz AKErik McDonald has expressed some doubts about my take on the quickly aging Gessen review of AK, so here goes–I’m quoting from his blog XIX vek, of which he sent me a snippet.

“I personally love trying to figure out what’s causing a whole group of translators to read something differently than I read it […], and Gessen’s way of tying the two scenes together [Anna’s arm described early in the book and then very differently later–RSV] seems convincing to me. But Russell Scott Valentino thinks language should be beneath the critic’s notice:

[this is McDonald quoting me] Some readers of Gessen’s review will hear the authority of someone who knows the source and, as a result, they will essentially cede their own authority to make judgments because, well, she knows the source so she must know the right answer! They are hearing the voice of the translation police, which lurks behind every example and in fact informs the entire approach. This approach mostly involves calling up a variety of largely unconnected individual lexical items, selected by the reviewer and held forth with relative approval or disapproval almost as if she were teaching a foreign-language class and telling us which words mean what the translator has said they mean and which do not — but on the basis of a text that exists only in the reviewer’s mind. We certainly don’t have access to it. In fact, no one does. Remember, if you read the original Russian, you’re just a reader of the original Russian; the translation is created in the act of writing by the translator.

[back to McDonald here] I’m left wondering how any act of communication at all is possible in Valentino’s model. Sure, we don’t have access to a reviewer’s or translator’s or author’s mind, and written words aren’t identical to what the writer was thinking at any given moment. But we can make inferences about what other people think, know, or feel based on what they write, or why would we read or write anything?”

I (this is me now) am not quite sure where to start here. Language should never be beneath a critic’s notice. I did not claim that it should. But let me be more explicit and say that making comparisons to the foreign source in a review whose audience is likely not to know the source language is an implicit argument from authority, which says listen to me because I know something you don’t. The fact that others did in fact read her review this way is made clear in the subsequent Slate radio interview. Basically the two interviewers bow down before the authority of the person who knows the source. They don’t know it. She must therefore be right when she makes comparisons to it and pronounces some solutions simply “wrong.”

This last points to another problem, which McDonald’s comment about communication, and Gessen’s about “wrong” translations, both point to, though they get to it by different routes. Gessen gets there by a simple argument from authority. (I know what’s right and I’m going to give you a glimpse of it by telling you the correct translation of these three words.) McDonald does so by means of what 20th-century critics referred to as the intentional fallacy, which basically reduces the meaning of a work to what the author wanted to say. He defends this way of approaching a text by wondering about how communication is possible in my “model.” This conflates several kinds of actions that are not the same. Translation combines interpretation and writing in really interesting ways, but it makes very little use of the common tools of interpersonal communication, especially when the author of one’s text has been dead for over a hundred years.

Thinking about the meaning of a work as being “what the author intended” has a tendency to limit meaning and blind the interpreter to the other, often widely divergent, meanings that other readers in other times and places have found in the very same words. The intentional fallacy has little patience with polyvalence. It likes to have God, or Homer, or Shakespeare mean pretty much one thing. It likes to pronounce other interpretations wrong because they don’t understand what the author intended. This is why I emphasize the text over the author’s intention. The text is what we have. The author’s intention is what we imagine. The text, because it is made up of words that no one owns, can mean many different things to people in different parts of the world at different times. The author’s intention is limited historically, linguistically, geographically. Shakespeare did not mean to say anything about America, yet Americans find plenty of meaning in Shakespeare’s words. This is not because Shakespeare intended us to.

In no way do I want to say that comparisons of multiple translations with each other or with the source text are not worth making, or that they are “beneath the critic’s notice.” Such comparisons and explications are the sorts of things I have engaged in for much of my professional life. And when teaching translation, I frequently use comparative methods, looking at the source when my students have the linguistic means to discuss translation choices on its basis. But textual explications and comparative translation teaching methods are not the same as writing a review.

I am fascinated by the nuances of foreign words and take endless pleasure in comparing them with English ones. But I also know quite well that the moment I begin to talk or write about the details of the source in the company of people who mostly do not share that pleasure, we leave common ground behind, almost as if one of us has read the book but the others have only seen the movie.

There are much better ways to review translations than this.

Crossing Seven Silences (in two parts): 2

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

This and other moments of this have made me want to be good, to try at least, and make me wonder now why I did not start writing a book with virtue, or rather the virtues at its heart, as that, I think, is where it should all begin. The medieval moralists, following Aristotle, emphasized their practice over their contemplation in the hope that the cultivation of habit would encourage the values themselves, not just the behaviors that made one look as if courageous, temperate, prudent, just, faithful, hopeful, and loving. Father Zosima says something like this in The Brothers Karamazov, when his visitor, beside herself with grief, admits that she has lost her faith. He tries many tacks but, when nothing works, says, act as if you have it, practice, behave as if, and it will come back to you. Your acting, he seems to suggest, will become the thing, and this must be what Plato was afraid might happen to his imaginary guardians in his imaginary state, if they acted the parts of scoundrels or weaklings or liars in a play, rather than only ever acting the one role he had assigned them—that of guardians.

The seven ideals thus resemble silences, voids that cannot be grasped, only traversed again and again, in the hope that the practice will bring one closer to them, the hope that, through behaving as if, long enough, as if will become, in the end, simply as. And the crossing, the melding of them all, together in one person—or rather one persona (for we all are just acting here)—becomes the ideal of an integrated, unified virtuous whole, an ethical purity made up of mixture.

There noTiconderoga-Number-2w, everything’s in its place.

Take pencil.

Crossing Seven Silences (in two parts): 1

I am tempted by phrases such as the silence of ignorance, and the silence of hatred, but ignorance is so very rarely silent, and hatred even less so.

I am also tempted—let’s get these all out at the start—by the definite article, that “the” that would suggest these silences are the silences, the only ones or almost. A little thing, but a grand temptation, I admire its nuance and power, as when you hold open your palm with two pencils and say, take the pencil. Not the only, not quite, because obviously there are two. Just the.

I admit to an impish curiosity at what a Russian or a Japanese translator might make of this distinction, those languagess-ja-pond-a_edited-1 having no articles at all, let alone any definite ones. Take pencil. Take pencils. Take one pencil. Take one pencil we’ve been talking about. Take one I want you to take. One I’m looking at more intently. One I have in my mind. One we both know is right to take. Take either pencil. Take any pencil.

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