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.

Dangerous Post-Project Time

I’m remembering a passage from Notes from Underground that I’m choosing right now not to go look up because I’m writing and have put a do-not-disturb sign on my door (which means you, too, Dostoevsky!) in which the U-man wonders if maybe people sometimes put off finishing things on purpose, maybe out of fear, as if completing something might mark the beginning of the end somehow. This struck me as true when I first read it as a youngster, and I still think it is, but like so much else, you see that it’s not that simple when you’ve lived a little more. The Woman in the Window took me a long time to finish, but I also never struggled to do so; I worked on it steadily, turning it this way and that, refining and shifting until I thought it was right and what I had was a shaped whole.

Still, the most difficult time, I think, if not to say the most dangerous one for the project itself, was when I thought I could see the end. Was this on some deep level due to fear? I don’t think so, but it’s not easy to remember everything one feels over, oh, say, a decade or so. What I do remember is the feeling that, at certain moments in the middle, I knew what I was going to write, what I needed to write, that the argument was in a sense laid out in front of me and all I needed to do was “write it up,” as some social scientists sometimes refer to the final part of their research when the data is in, and they just need to conjure up some prose to present it. This is the most wrong-headed idea about writing there ever was, and I certainly wasn’t right in thinking that the argument and the words were somehow out there already and just needed to be put to paper (screen). But it was a palpable sense, and in that way, very dangerous because once you have an inkling of that sort of feeling, it is just a tiny step more to stop writing altogether: the outcome feels known already so why put it down, why go to all that work to slog through putting down something you already (think you) know?

As I say, you don’t know, and it’s a false feeling, and it’s wrong-headed from the start to think of writing as something you use to put down a finished thought and not, what it is, a way of working through the thoughts themselves. This means that a thought, the thing you think you’ve come to understand, changes, develops, matures with each phrase and punctuation mark that you use to try and express it, that the answers to the questions you are working through are never formed until the last revision of the last draft of the last sentence is done. That is your best answer because you’ve finally finished the writing and revising, and you can’t work on it anymore.

Not without a reprint, at least. Or a second edition. Oh, God, will this never end?