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.

 

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Breathing and Stretching

I turned in the manuscript. I TURNED IN THE MANUSCRIPT!!! It clocked in at a bit over 400,000 words. I’m not sure what that will mean in terms of pages. Probably more than a thousand. This will depend on the editing process. But the main part is done.

I got a haircut on Saturday, and Ally asked me if I had done anything to celebrate. The question was natural but also a little unexpected. Well, no, nothing at all. Nor do I think any single thing–a dinner? a weekend vacation?–would adequately mark having completed the work. Turning it in feels good of course, but it doesn’t feel like the end at all. There’s editing and promotion work to do, the latter being the sort of thing that really never ends, and there are so many projects that have been simmering while this one was on the front burner. I am anxious to get back to them.

First up is breathing and stretching, which feels right at the moment. But while I breathe and stretch, I’m also thinking about the next two presentations I’ll be doing, in about a month at the annual AWP conference in Tampa, Florida. One panel is on word play in translation, and I’ll likely use examples from the just completed thing I worked on, for which examples are ready. The other is on the theme of translation and exile, and there I’m considering a brief exploration of the sort of self-othering, internal travel, ethno-linguistic exile from one’s “own” language that takes place when one translates, especially when one translates a lot, many short works, fewer long ones, or one big monster of a book. I suspect this is something that happens to people who learn to love a foreign culture and begin to feel estranged from their “own.” Non-translators must also know it, so figuring out what is specific to translation in this scenario will be a question to answer.

Playing with words is part of this, too, of course, so the two topics are likely to be connected in my presentations. I plan to practice them here in a few preparatory posts, so anyone who ends up being there may end up knowing what I will say before I actually say it. The AWP format does not really allow much room for expansion, and while the entire conference is focused on writing and writers, actually writing one’s comments and thoughts down and reading them to the audience is discouraged. Maybe this is ironic.

First, however, I’ll be trying to catch up on the many things I’ve let myself get behind on. And stretching and breathing of course. I invite you to join me.

A Truth about Dogs

From the last long story in Kin, “Sarajevo Dogs”:

The basic sensation of a dog, canine melancholy, the foundation of canine lyricism, is a feeling of extended abandonment. It follows the dog from the moment of birth, is repeated in an array of variations through life, and not once has a single dog ever escaped it. Even those rare ones that are loved and protected are left with it at the entrance to the supermarket when we go inside, or experience it when we go have a shower or wash our hands, when we go out to open the door for guests or shut ourselves up on our offices. This sense of abandonment is equally as horrible as that experienced by dogs on the street. Perhaps it’s even worse since it repeats every day. Dogs don’t experience time as people do. To dogs time lasts endlessly long, the canine second is a human minute, the human hour an entire canine day, a day a year, a year centuries…. Ten human years is a thousand canine ones. A dog’s life is cut through with a thousand-year sense of abandonment. In a thousand human years an entire civilization can be created, mature, and die, with its music, art, poetry, myths and folk traditions, novels and a whole history of film, and with each civilization, the consolation of people before death is born, lasts for a time, and disappears. After a thousand years, everything normally disappears. A thousand years of canine abandonment, which every happy dog lives through, is a whole human civilization.

Words, Speed, Time, Money

At the October 2017 ALTA conference in Minneapolis, Tim Parks began his keynote address by providing a counterpoint to Lydia Davis’s 19 pleasures of translating theme of the night before by enumerating 19 torments of translating. But when he got to number 19, he was on a roll so he just kept going. It was delivered as a litany with plenty of comic effect. It got a lot of laughs, too, and buried in the middle was one that I had not really realized was true of my Kin, and it went, “This page has no dialog on it!” Exactly. Most of these thousand pages do not have any dialog, and when there is dialogue, it is often buried inside a paragraph, rather than set off as its own blocked and quoted text. There are almost no quotations marks in the book in fact, an effect I have tried to maintain.

So as I worked my way through, I noticed that each page felt rather long. I tended to measure my progress by the page, especially in longer segments of the book that did not have breaks (which is about half of the total), so there were times when I could not figure out why the work was progressing so slowly. Some of that was just my being very careful, on the one hand, and not being familiar with the vocabulary of whatever the domain was that my author was using as a structuring principle, on the other, bees, for instance, or book binding, or dog breeds. But it was also this straight prose narration, which can be quite hypnotic in its consistency at times.

So I’m making a note here, at least to myself so that I remember and can pace myself appropriately in the future, with regard to words, speed, and time. I have in mind the number of words on each page (when translated into English), the speed at which I have been working at various moments during the translation of the book, and the time it has taken to complete. Each page of the source appears to become a little over 450 words on average in the English version. This is pretty consistent throughout, so the total is likely to be a book of about 450,000 words. Where there are no breaks, my pace has tended to be about five pages in a day, though I have pushed it up to eight on some days. Sometimes, despite my best efforts, I have barely managed half of a single page, but that was largely because I could not divest myself from other responsibilities, not because of the work itself. A better average, for when I had the time to work on it, has been between 2000 and 3200 words per day.

What this would amount to in terms of pay were I making the per-word rate one of my colleagues mentioned she was making the other day, for prose translations from the same language, is something for another post perhaps. To contradict myself slightly from a previous post in this thread, I don’t do this for the money.

Impossible Historical Ideological Neologism Used in Passing

I’m in the revisions stage now, and going back through an earlier section, I found a parenthetical note to myself that says: “no way, samovoz,” and then the page number in the hard copy.

The English passage in question is this:

No one saw him as he was leaving, and no one knew when did so. But he left in time, when it was still possible to take one’s own car to Zagreb and onward, to who knows where.

The time in question is approximately 1944. The “he” in question is a high ranking Home Guard officer from Croatia, stationed in Sarajevo, which means he was watching the political landscape carefully to figure out when he would need to escape, as the Independent State of Croatia began to collapse. The word samovoz is where I’ve got “one’s own car,” which is not much of an attempt, I realize, to convey all the nuance of the Croatian word. The problem is that it was a neologism for car under that particular regime, created probably around 1941, as the Independent State of Croatia itself came into being.

I have toyed with three or four different possible ways of sneaking more of the ideological content in somehow. While it was probably a German car, calling it a “fascist car” seems odd and might create more confusion than it’s worth. Creating some sort of Orwellian neologism in English might be fun, but that too would likely put too much emphasis on what is, in effect, a subtle passing comment by the narrator-author, which serves to situate the text historically. It could also imply a bit of the officer’s own viewpoint through the use of the word he might have used.

This is one I think I may have to let go.

Translation as Job, Vocation, Calling

I was once accused by a translator colleague of bringing down the going rate for translation by doing it when I had another job. This person had no idea what I charged or did not charge for doing the work, and perhaps she was angry about something else, but I remember distinctly that her comment had come after I made a statement in some online forumthis was over a decade ago and I no longer remember what the forum might have beenabout my being able to choose the work I wanted to do and generally take my time in doing it. What she apparently intimated from this was that I was somehow taking the work away from someone else by agreeing to do it for less because I had a steady job as a university professor.

This is rather a sore spot among translators, more so, I think, than among fiction writers or poets, who generally understand that it is not really possible for emerging authors in those genres to make a living on the basis of the writing alone. Even after fiction writers have published a couple of books, unless they magically begin to sell many many copies, which is impossible to predict and also rare, they will almost always still need to keep their teaching job or whatever other job they’ve got to pay the bills. Translators tend to think about this differently, however.

There are actually two parts to this sort of criticism from freelance translators towards those of us who have academic jobs. Translation for us, so the criticism goes, can be part of our academic dossiers, our promotion files, our curricula (plural) vitae. We can engage in it without caring about the money we get paid for it because it is part of this other domain and we’re being compensated on a very different basis, not for the work itself but for having done the work, a bit like the future anterior tense, which skips over the present and time travels to some future moment for accomplishments that have yet to be attained, all without ever leaving the present. “When I will have completed all these things, I will be a successful academic,” and so on.

This sort of imagined reward for translations performed in the academy may or may not be true in all cases. Much depends on the institution and the nature of the dossier, but it is true that in some institutions and for some faculty members, artistic translation can form a part of such a dossier and be counted somehow, whether as scholarly or as creative work, or perhaps as something in between. And so, in our protected and self-serving manner, to go back to the criticism, we are expanding our research profile all while taking work away from those who really need it and are devoted to it. This is the criticism, not always stated in such a bald form, but implied or merely suspected, for the most part politely (translators are nice).

I suspect that this quiet criticism, which has lurked in the back of my mind ever since it was directed so uncharacteristically directly at me many years ago, has tended to make me shy away from projects that might in fact be appealing to and needed by freelance translators. My personal rule has tended to be only to take on work that I thought was unlikely to be translated if I didn’t do it. This has meant, for the most part, non-commissioned projects that I needed to research and then pitch to publishers. And that has meant probably not genre fiction (though I suspect I would enjoy translating some pf those genres), also not popular or well-known authors, and mostly works on the experimental side, unusual somehow, highly literary, sometimes quirky or idiosyncratic. Luckily, I also enjoy such works.

There are big advantages to this way of translating from a scheduling standpoint. For one thing, generally no one is waiting for you to finish besides your own internal critic. And that means that you can spend a lot of time and energy on the project at hand without worrying about the dreaded deadline. You can also only work on projects you find attractive and worthwhile from an aesthetic standpoint or a political or theoretical one. You can also stop working on something if it begins to ring hollow somehow, or if your views about it or about life change. These are enormous freedoms, and I don’t think I ever took them lightly.

My current project has not been like this, of course. It was commissioned. It could have been translated by someone else. It has a deadline (had a deadline, then another, now it has what I hope will be the final onenext month) from a publisher with a strong list and an eye for high quality works. The exception has both proven the rule and reinforced it. I plan to go back to the rule after this, with a clearer sense of the privileges and freedoms I enjoy in approaching translation the way I generally have approached it, without rushing too much, thinking about the work carefully, selecting on the basis of quality and what I suspect I can do well, if not to say what I will have done well afterward.

Let this serve as a new year’s resolution then, and a sincere wish for anyone else who might see the work, the vocation, the calling to translate as the privilege that I do.

 

Bitch or Female (dog)?

My local vet once referred to her dog, which was about to have a litter, as a bitch, and I thought nothing of it. Or rather, what I thought was that she, the vet, was using the word correctly and also perhaps somewhat provocatively. She, the vet, is also a somewhat unusual person, uses crystals and homeopathic remedies in her practice, and this too seemed to corroborate my dim feeling that someone else in the same circumstances might not have used that particular word. The context was clear, so it wasn’t that terribly provocative, and there was no chance that anyone would have confused her use with regard to a female dog about to have a litter of pups with using the word to refer to a female person. The provocation in this case, if I’m right in hearing it in her usage, was about using the right word for the circumstances and refusing to change her word choice just because some people today might not use the word under any circumstances for fear of being thought misogynistic. Enter translation, where the specific term for a female dog in another language might not be so loaded as the English term “bitch.” It might be loaded, in fact probably is loaded, but is also very likely not loaded in the same way.

Translationese would tend to soften and explain, and so “female” would likely rise to the surface as the best option. And of course as an isolated case, in the midst of, say, a long prose work, using the word female would not likely be seen by anyone but the most self-righteous language police enforcer as problematic at all. It would be akin, I think, to finding the right idiom for something conveyed in a very specific way in the source language, for instance, “to stand someone up” for the French poser un lapin à quelqu’un. The French phrase uses the words “put” and “rabbit” in a very distinctive way, but as long as the “putting” and the “rabbit” are not thematically relevant (an interpretation the translator would need to decide on), it would not be a terrible loss to substitute “standing” and “up.” On the contrary, this move would create other interpretive avenues to English language readers, enriching the text rather than impoverishing it. This is an aspect of the “remainder” that several translation theorists have commented on. And if the text were older, something from the nineteenth century, for instance, again there would not be much of a problem. Readers would tend to read with a principle of charity, understanding that many of the contemporary associations we might have with words would not apply to a book from a hundred years ago or more. If the story in question is both about rabbits and contemporary, however, then all bets are off.

And so in a story about dogs that take on human characteristics, a story like the very last chapter of the 2013 novel Kin, which is entitled “Sarajevo Dogs,” what is the right way to consider the use of the quite specific word “bitch”? In an earlier section of the same book, my author uses bees as the human surrogates, and bees too have their own very specific lexicon, with drones and workers and queens. Now “queen” might begin to take on some of the complicated social and political implications that “bitch” immediately conjures, but the context is clearer somehow, and this kind of slippage seems less likely. Is it because bees are not mammals? A female dog (bitch) has nipples, after all, but a queen bee is an abstraction, almost a metaphor.

At this point I am leaning towards “female” because “bitch” seems more of a distraction and because the uses of the term kuja or, even more, the diminutive kujica (little bitch?) do not appear to be laden in this text with the associations of the English term. This is my interpretation, of course. I am also aware, however, of my own reactions in reading the work, which become much harsher towards it if I allow for the possibility that such bitchy associations might be intended by the author. I don’t think they are there, but I also recognize that I do not want them to be there. And given the choice, I prefer not to have them in the English version. I am of course thinking of audience here, so this strategy can be understood within a rhetoric of translation, which I have written and published about elsewhere, most recently here.