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.