Translation and Exile

Many metaphors for translation seem to imagine it as a kind of travel, a movement with baggage across some national, cultural, linguistic, and/or geographic boundaries, usually from an imagined foreign territory to one’s own home turf. In that foreign territory—so these metaphors often go—one discovered something or was given something, and in translating that something, one tries to carry it across from over there to right here, provide it a new home perhaps, new neighbors, if not a new life altogether.

This set of spatial relationships has created a very fertile ground for metaphors of translation, with some of the oldest tapping into the notion of the translatio, or transfer, of a saint’s relics from a site of discovery in the Ancient World to a newly created cathedral as part of a city’s myth of origin. St. Mark in Venice comes to mind, and that episode adds the intriguing idea of thievery to the mix, as two Venetians supposedly stole the remains from Alexandria in the 9th century, bringing them to the Lagoon as part of the official origin of the city. Translation and/as theft is a topic for another post.

I suspect these sorts of travel and new life metaphors, in the U.S. and perhaps the Americas in general, have been inflected somewhat by the notion of immigration. The roots are over there; we are transplanting things to this soil; there is rupture involved, great distances, perhaps some heartache, something like nostalgia for a lost past, regret, displacement. A lot like exile. But I want to ask what has been exiled exactly? The text itself? The translation is a new text, another text. The source is back safe at home and hasn’t gone anywhere at all. Or is the idea that its spirit somehow still exists latent in the translated version, despite the fact that all the words are different? Does a translated text evoke nostalgia for its own lost past or for some sort of ghost or doppelganger of itself? How else might translated works be thought of as exiles from their homes?

The problem I find in such notions has to do with a kind of instability at their center, which we tend to turn into certainty, definiteness, especially when we talk about that thing we always seem to talk about when we talk about translating: the original. Textual scholars, people who study the histories of individual works, from Homer’s Odyssey, to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, to the poems of Emily Dickenson, any serialized nineteenth-century novel, and so on, have developed a detailed and sophisticated apparatus for discussing how unstable and variable the genesis of any work actually turns out to be. As Karen Emmerich has rightly pointed out, all of that instability of the source disappears as soon as we start talking about translation. At that moment, the original becomes one thing, when it never was one thing—it was always a mixture of things, editorial versions, and authorial revisions, textual redactions, and second, third, fourth editions, and so on.

The unstable nature of the source also pertains to the metaphors used as the basis for talking about translation. Who this St. Mark actually was is not entirely clear; whether those stolen or “liberated” bones were actually his is even less clear; and what relationship the bones might have to the person, even if they were once located inside the body that was his, is probably the least clear thing of all. I want to ask, what do bones mean? What is their relationship to spirit, let alone soul? Don’t you have to invent a story, perhaps lots of stories, about them in order for them to mean something? And of course this pertains at least as much if not more to the stories of immigration to the new world, the sort that might evoke nostalgia, which in turn is based on stories about the old world, that dubious source once again, invented stories, interpretations that only come to look definitive when we translate them, turning them into “the original.”

So far I’ve only been referring to the source. Once I start thinking about the act of translation, things become even less stable. Say you have a source, just one, and you read it carefully, study it, look up all the words and references you might not have known, then what? It’s in your head in what form exactly? Presumably you’ve somehow made sense of it to yourself, which means you have an interpretation, at least an implicit one, and it’s sitting there in your head. Now what? Well, if you’re a translator and not merely a reader, you’re going to have to write all that down. And as we all know, things immediately start to change as soon as one begins to write. You start making little changes, interact with the author and/or a series of reference works, colleague-readers, maybe a group of workshop participants, an editor, a copyeditor, a teacher, a designer maybe, a marketing department maybe, and the book that results—we’re assuming you finish it despite all these distractions—turns out to be a mixture of many different people’s ideas, suggestions, agendas, theoretical engagements, as well as the conventions of editing, publishing, and literary production and consumption in the receiving culture.

After all this, it’s no wonder if the translation feels it is an exile! Or rather, if it feels like an exile. (These metaphors are never really adequate.) Not all translations, however, are like exiles in the same way. They are more akin to expatriates in this regard. Some expats wear an eternal mask of carefree nonchalance on the outside, but they are alone and yearning for home underneath. I would put Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin here. Others are completely happy in their new home, even more than that, they are happier than they were where they started out; they’ve found a new community of peers, not to mention readers, one they never had before. I would put Michael Henry Heim’s translation of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being in this category, or Barbara Wright’s translation of Queneau’s Exercises in Style.

Translation as an activity, I suspect, often makes translators feel like exiles, too. They travel to that other place, the place where the source lives, often physically and at a young enough age for it to be formative and transformational for them, and there they discover or are given something, and they try to bring it back with them. They try to give it to others, the whole thing, just as they experienced it because they want to share that experience. They accept it in a way into their heads, and sometimes their hearts, and then they try to write it down so others can take it into theirs. I won’t say that this is an impossible thing to do—that’s too simple.

But there is something fundamentally unstable with the basic terms here as well. As if translators were the same in one culture and at one point in their lives, as they are in another. We are barely the same when we move from one social role to the next in a single culture. It’s a bit ambitious to assume we might maintain even greater identity when moving across different ones, taking up different verbal and meaning making systems, socializing with different friends, using different gestures, tones of voice, experiencing a different pace of life itself. Why would we assume a work would mean the same thing to us there and here, even if we could somehow make it the same thing in both cultures? The instability of the source points to the instability of us, and if there is nostalgia for some lost source in this scenario, it might just as well be for our own past selves as for some supposed original text.

I have moved us from a spatial to a temporal metaphor, I realize, from exile in space to exile in time, and to the inevitable nostalgia that accompanies such displacement. It is not the way I usually think about translation; it does not make me happy to think about it in these terms. I prefer to focus on translation as being more about creation and gain than about transfer and loss. But nor do I think that it is wrong—the baggage you bring back with you from that other culture, that other life, is with you still; it has a weight to it even if it is immaterial, and it has a volume despite its lack of extension in space. Inside that volume are thoughts and ideas, experiences, and desires that are or were your own experiences of reading and understanding that culture and now this work comes to stand in for them, maybe just a little bit, maybe a lot. And they make it clear to you that you never completely came back from there, and also that you did, and as a translator you’ll never be either altogether there or altogether here again.

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The Personal and the Historical

A major feature of the Kin, sometimes rehearsed with surprising results, comes out in the following passage quite vividly. The narrator is describing life with his mother.

She didn’t clean the apartment anymore or wipe away the dust. She only worked at her work place. And she was a good, thorough head of the accounting department. She followed the rules with strictness, in accordance with the Stubler heritage. Quite the Swabian. But in her life she did nothing more. She did not move and did not care about the current state of things around her.

This bothered me during the first years after Nona’s death. But later no. I grew accustomed by degrees to her unhappiness as an aspect of my own family circumstance. We lived together, but until the war all we ever talked about was how badly she felt. During the war in Croatia, she was at the height of menopause. A year or two earlier she had had a serious hemorrhage. She went three times to have the upper layer of skin scraped off in order to remove all the blood. I was with her during every instant of this. She had no one but me, so I experienced my mother’s menopause from beginning to end in great detail. Both the psychological and the physical aspects.

When they attacked Croatia, it had been some time since she had stopped losing blood. But she was in the depth of depression. She would take her yearly vacation time only to lie in bed for three weeks. It’s hard to live with someone who doesn’t move from her bed and doesn’t care. She said her life had no meaning and she would kill herself. She had no one else, so she had to say this to me. At night she would call a telephone number for help in such situations. This kind of line had been working for years in Sarajevo. It was started by a psychiatrist couple. But now it was someone else who answered. The other two had different jobs now. They were Ljliljana and Radovan Karadžić.

The move from the personal to the historical throughout the passage, which becomes most vivid in the final line, will blind many readers to the underlying implied connection, which is perhaps not so blatant as Tolstoy’s juxtaposition of Vronsky’s breaking the back of his racehorse Frou-Frou and the near death of Anna because of Vronsky’s getting her pregnant, but has a similar feel. I can’t remember now whether I’ve ever seen an equation of war with menopause, though as I think it about it, the blood letting that ends with the cessation of life is a natural connection that someone must have made in the past.

The Bizarre Task of the Translator

Janet Malcom’s “Socks” is the latest in the healthy or interminable (depending on your level of interest) debate regarding translations of nineteenth-century Russian fiction into English. The touchstone, yet again, is Anna Karenina, which I wrote about here some time ago on the occasion of a review by Masha Gessen. The primary target of Malcom’s essay is the translation and the stated approach of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonskaya, as well as the “obtrusive literalism” of Marian Schwartz’s more recent translation.

The essay’s basic argument and examples are consistent, and Malcom does a good job of specifying her aims in both reading AK and writing an evaluation of existing translations. When she characterizes herself as “the reader of simple wants, who only asks of a translation that it advance rather than impede his pleasure and understanding,” she makes clear a crucial sense that in order to say anything about any translation, one needs to imagine who it is intended for. Unfortunately, the dichotomy she suggests between this sort of “reader of simple wants” and the “more advanced (or masochistic) school [of readers] who want to know what the original was ‘like'” is far too simplistic. It also suggests a rather narrow parochialism that serves to reinforce rather than challenge the sort of cultural and linguistic complacency that more adventurous translations are intended to challenge. One also has to wonder what the reader’s “understanding” might amount to when it does not include an understanding of what the original text was like.

Malcom’s lack of understanding of this aspect of translation comes across most explicitly in her claim that Pevear’s notion (from a 2005 interview with David Remnick) that a translation into English should somehow enrich English is “a bizarre idea of the translator’s task.” The idea actually has a long and distinguished pedigree and has been used explicitly by translators in various times and places, more commonly in poetry circles, it is true, but not exclusively there.

Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of how the project of national language seems apropos here. Languages are characterized by forces that tend to pull them apart (like dialects, regionalisms, and slang) and those that tend to hold them together (like schools, newspapers, grammar handbooks). It is a healthy or interminable (depending on your level of interest) process, with the innovations of literature as one of the factors that have tended to create newness in language at key moments in a language’s history, and with literary translation as a factor in the innovations of literature. This idea might seem a little bizarre from the standpoint of “the reader of simple wants,” but it is one of the translation strategies always available to translators who are serious about their work as literature.

In Paperback!

New In Paperback Spring 2016

The Woman in the Window manages to cross numerous boundaries with enviable ease. The result is not just intellectually stimulating, but eminently readable.” —Eliot Borenstein, Russian and Slavic studies, New York University

“Provocative and wide-reaching, The Woman in the Window: Commerce, Consensual Fantasy, and the Quest for Masculine Virtue in the Russian Novel seeks out sometimes distant and unexpected contexts in which to reread Russian classics. This point of view is refreshingly original, and these juxtapositions, often not obvious at first, are explained pithily and convincingly.” —David Herman, Slavic languages and literatures, University of Virginia

In The Woman in the Window: Commerce, Consensual Fantasy, and the Quest for Masculine Virtue in the Russian Novel, Russell Scott Valentino offers pioneering new insights into the historical construction of virtue and its relation to the rapidly shifting economic context in modern Russia. This study illustrates 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 chapters on Gogol, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky as well as Pasternak and Nabokov, The Woman in the Window argues that Russian authors worked through this question via their depictions of “mixed-up men.” Such characters, according to Valentino, reveal that in a world where social reality and personal identity depend on consensual fantasies, the old masculine figure loses its grounding and can easily drift away. Valentino charts 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 afloat—a woman in a window.

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)!

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7

I’m giving a couple of pre-concert talks for the Indianapolis Symphony, which is performing Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, “Leningrad” on Friday, February 6 (and then again on the 7th in Carmel), under the direction of Krzysztof Urbański. It is such a perfect case of the changing fortunes of a musical work against the backdrop of world events. Here’s a little taste of what I’ll be saying.

I’ve been asked to discuss the context of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, the Leningrad Symphony, and in order to do that I would like to first ask you to imagine a situation, let’s call it a performance scenario.

We are used to being asked to silence our phones and mobile devices at live performances. Some people have very loud ring tones and beeps and dings that can be quite distracting when you’re trying to listen. Imagine a situation where it’s not someone’s phone that’s distracting you but a ring of artillery surrounding the city blasting away from seven miles out, not to mention your own artillery firing back from just down the street. And let’s add to this picture a company of half-starved musicians on the stage, not the usual philharmonic orchestra—because they were evacuated to Siberia months ago, along with their conductor. What was left was the Radio orchestra, not a bad group, but then they’ve been in the city under siege for nearly a year. Half of them have died of disease and starvation. To find more players you’ve had to go out to the troops protecting the city, find former members of regimental bands, jazz bands, anyone who can play. The score was airlifted in on a medical transport in July, and when the conductor saw it, his first response was, “We’ll never play this.” Many of the musicians were too weak to blow their instruments when rehearsals started. Sometimes they would collapse on stage during rehearsal. They would only ever manage to play the entire work once before the performance, at the dress rehearsal. The musicians just didn’t have the strength to get through the whole thing.

We can add more detail. The German forces bombarding the city did not do so indiscriminately. For hours every day, their guns range across the city, looking for crowds, people lining up at bus or tram stops, ticket windows, crossroads, factory gates when the shifts changed, entrances to theaters and musical events, just like the one being planned, the one they’d been ordered to carry out, whatever it took. And so an hour before the concert is due to begin, the city’s defenders begin laying down a ferocious barrage of artillery aimed at the enemy guns, forcing the German soldiers to take shelter. Just before the concert starts, they stop firing and are quiet. No German shells land in the center of the city for the next hour and twenty minutes, just enough for the concert to take place. It was, what Brian Morton in a 2006 book would later claim, “probably the only time in musical history that military operations were coordinated to assist an orchestral concert.”

This is the performance scenario I would like for you to imagine. This was the scenario for the performance of the Leningrad Symphony on August 9, 1942 at the Leningrad Philharmonic. With this picture in our heads, it is no wonder that the Leningrad Symphony should have become one of the most powerful symbols of wartime resistance.

SoldierBuyingTicket

This scenario, however, like the photograph of the soldier buying a ticket to the performance that night, is not the whole story of the work, though it’s a very powerful one. It helps to explain why the symphony immediately became wildly popular and frequently performed all over the world, and there’s much more that can be said about this world-wide reception in the midst of WWII, and I will say more, but this is too simple a representation, too easy a way of making sense of the work’s provenance and lasting importance. It’s not complete.

Thinking of the work as something of a historical document in this manner, a representation of “the siege of Leningrad,” let’s say, makes it into something one-dimensional and maybe not even that artistic. It reminds me of the way Aleksei Karenin, Anna Karenina’s big-eared husband in Tolstoy’s famous book, approaches art. He doesn’t know anything about it and has no feeling for it, so he reads books about it in order to be able to express his opinions. We reduce the music when we categorize its meaning based on the events it supposedly depicted, and supposedly is a good word to remember.

Right, just couldn’t help the Tolstoy reference. These are in my head for the duration, I’m afraid, the fruit of reading and teaching those works so many times. Today I listened to Bernstein’s recording of the 7th with the Chicago Symphony, turning off the heat in the house just to try for a bit more atmosphere. God, what a big, bombastic and yet ambivalent work.

The Translation Police arrest Anna Karenina

Masha Gessen’s review of the latest two Anna Karenina translations in the December 24, 2014 Sunday Book Review of the New York Times is a subtle example of what Eliot Weinberger once called the translation police at work. AK Gessen reviewThe translation police are those, according to Weinberger, “who write — to take an actual example — that a certain immensely prolific translator from the German ‘simply does not know German’ because somewhere in the vastness of Buddenbrooks, he had translated a ‘chesterfield’ as a ‘greatcoat.’ Such examples,” Weinberger explains, “as any translator can tell you, are more the rule than the exception. One can only imagine if writers were reviewed in the same way: ‘The use of the word ‘incarnadine’ on page 349 proves the utter mediocrity of this book.’ This is the old bugbear of ‘fidelity,’ which turns reviewers into television evangelists.” Here is the full text of his essay.

To be fair, Gessen is both kinder and fairer to Rosamund Bartlett and Marian Schwartz, whose translations of AK published this year by Oxford University PressBartlett AK and Yale University Press respectively, are the primary subjects of her review. And her claim that “to decipher what Tolstoy wanted to say, the translator has to devise an interpretation of Tolstoy’s narrative voice in Anna Karenina” is certainly correct. But her understanding of the translator’s work appears to stop at this relatively elementary stage, which, as she correctly points out, is the same for any reader of the Russian original. What’s wrong with this is that translators don’t just read, they also write. Schwartz AKIn fact, writing is what makes them translators of — rather than merely readers of — the original book. And as any writer knows, the words that appear on the page rarely exist in finished form in one’s head. They are shaped in the act of writing them.

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.

By the end of such a translation-police-inflected review, I suspect that people who do not know Russian, and maybe also those who do, will come to the conclusion that all of these supposedly important differences don’t make that much difference really, despite Gessen’s claim about the construction of narrative voice in English. To make that claim come across in a review, she would probably need to focus on just one example and show how it carries across the entire book, both in terms of the construction of voice and in terms of an interpretation of how the work’s meaning in English is shaped by the construction of that voice. This, in turn, would show how the two translators are doing much more than the readers Gessen invokes who might reread the Russian book several times in a lifetime. Of course they create voice in their heads, but they don’t create it on the page. Tolstoy himself, when asked by Nikolai Strakhov what he had meant to express in one part of his book, responded that in order to explain that little part, he would have to rewrite the whole thing from the start. Strakhov, Tolstoy suggests, was asking about the version in the author’s head, not the one on the page.

The crucial difference between reading and writing in the translator’s work should make us suspicious of explicit comparisons with the foreign-language original in a review. Unless they are part of a careful and likely extensive analysis, they are liable to tell us much more about the version in the reviewer’s head than the one on the English page.

Hats off to Bartlett and Schwartz on their new books.