Man, person, people, or none of the above

While editing a translation recently, I came up against the following challenge. In a passage in which two men are talking about art, one says to the other something to this effect: “The artist must develop his technique to the point that he does not think about it anymore.” The source language in this case is one that has the possessive pronoun agree with the noun (like French), so if the word “technique” were actually the French feminine-gendered noun technique in the source, then the possessive pronoun would be the feminine sa. In effect, the French says “her technique” because technique is a she, even if the person who might have the technique in question is a he. English, by contrast, tends to like its pronouns, wherever they might occur, to agree with the subject of the phrase, and this raises the issue of the changing use of “their” and “theirs” as a gender pronoun preference and a possible way around this sort of gender specificity of English.

If it had been just one instance, it probably would not have been a difficult problem to solve, but this was a piece about art, and there were multiple occasions where a character held forth, beginning with “the artist must” or “the artist should,” and then listed a string of clauses and nouns that often used possessive pronouns. The translator in this case had a preference for using “their” in all these cases, but my old ears and my Chicago Manual of Style were hesitant.

The speaker in all instances was a man, apparently hetero-normative, and he was speaking with another man, also hetero-normative. The author was also a man, and he did not express a preference. In my opinion, he may not have quite seen the subtleties of what we were discussing, so it was the translator and me thinking through this together.

Like my last post on the U-Man’s possible use of “like,” which will surely grate on old ears, especially those who know the book well in previous translations, I wonder about how the possessive pronoun “his,” even in such clear circumstances, might affect people’s reading at an almost unconscious level, especially that of college students who have grown used to the gender-neutral singular they/their/theirs.

My inclination in the end was to very carefully edit the two longer passages where this sort of construction occurs, such that the issue never appears to come up. This involved a few shifts of “the artist” to “artists” and some other very minor changes that I believe only the translator and I will ever notice. This, however, is a recent book that is being offered in English for the first time. Changing something like this in an older one with many translations in print, not to mention in the regular college curriculum, for a text moreover that has seen dozens if not hundreds of scholarly treatments in books and articles, often with minute attention to issues of language based on the existing English translations—well, this is bound to elicit strong opinions.

I believe this concern, namely, how college-age readers might respond to these books when they first read them is behind much of Gary Saul Morson’s objections to the translations of Richard Pevear and Larisa Volokhonskaya, which he expresses quite sharply, calling them “awkward and unsightly muddles” among other things, in his 2010 “The Pevearsion of Russian Literature.”

It might appear ironic, but it is for a similar reason, namely, this interaction with readers at a key stage in their reading life, that I am tempted by a translation strategy that reduces the gender dichotomies of the U-man’s speech, enabling readings, especially readings aloud of the performative sort that I have suggested this text affords, that are broader, more inclusive, and in the end, more engaging for students encountering the text today.

This sort of specificity announces itself from the beginning, and as far back as two years ago when I posted the first in this series of reflections on translating Notes from Underground, I have wondered about it. What would it be like to edit along the lines of what I did for the book I mentioned above about the artist? What if the opening lines of this Notes from Underground were not, “I am a sick man… I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man,” (each phrase of which interprets chelovek as “man,” though it could also be person all three times) but something more like this:

“I’m malevolent…. I’m bad. I am not an attractive person.”

Now before we pronounce this collectively as awful, or anything at all for that matter, I ask you to read it aloud, with pauses in between each phrase as appropriate for an opening monologue. The first phrase is an announcement. The dots are there because he’s trying to shock and is waiting for it to sink in. The second one is taunting: baaaad. The third is insinuating, as if “an attractive person” were in quotes—put your fingers up in the air and say it with a Trump voice.

I’m going through my version now, version two, with this principle in mind.

Insatiable Titillation

Pevear and Volokhonsky have “inexhaustible delight,” while Jesse Coulson has “hugely delighted,” and Kirsten Lodge offers “insatiable pleasure,” all of which are renderings of the Russian “неутолимое наслаждение,” which reminds me of a Russian TV commercial for the Mounds chocolate bar from the 1990s (someone asks Mounds if he’s tried Almond Joy and when he says no, the person responds with the slogan current at the time “райское наслаждение!” (heavenly enjoyment)). But the problem here isn’t the noun, it’s the adjective, which makes the enjoyment somehow unquenchable. I think enjoyment is enjoyment and if it goes on forever, so much the better, but if it’s something that is unquenchable, unappeasable, insatiable—and this is the sense I understand from the word неуталимое—then it isn’t enjoyment, it’s something that’s almost but not quite enjoyment, and that’s more like teasing or titillation. And so this is what I think about the phrase in question.

Когда к столу, у которого я сидел, подходили, бывало, просители за справками, — я зубами на них скрежетал и чувстовтал неутолимое наслаждение, когда удавалось кого-нибудь огорчить.

There’s so much here to comment on. He was just sitting at a table. They are petitioners looking for information or perhaps documents. He would grind his teeth at them? What the heck is that? He would gnash his teeth at them? Still don’t get it. Isn’t grinding and gnashing one’s teeth something that is usually directed inwardly? Here I rather like Jane Kentish’s use of the verb “snarl.” This is what a mean civil servant would do to others, I think. And then there’s that unquenchable enjoyment, which doesn’t make much sense either.

I offer this:

Whenever people came up in search of information to the desk where I sat, I would snarl at them and feel an insatiable titillation if I was able to insult anyone.

There is no fulfillment in his enjoyment. He never quite reaches it. He is always unfulfilled. I think this is part of the point. It is implicit in the position of salaried dependency and a critique of the bureaucracy that is structured into the narrative. Russian bureaucracy and just plain bureaucracy.

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.