Tuesday, May 30, 2006

In the Company of Dead Languages

Ola Wikander has written a book called "I döda språkets sällskap" (ie "In the Company of Dead Languages") which I am reading right now. One item of note that I have gleaned in this book: the world's first known named author is Enheduanna, a Sumerian woman, writing in 2300 BC. And the first grammar is a Sumerian one, written for speakers of Accadian, who needed to know Sumerian after conquering Sumeria and in the process taking on Sumerian culture (by the way, ancient Sumeria is located in the area we now know as Iraq, and one of the pieces of writing in Sumerian, a stele, talks about a horrible war, the worst known ever, in which hundreds of men took part! How times have changed, now we have hundreds of thousands).
I was interested in Wikander's book, since I've studied a number of dead languages myself over the years, under the tutaledge of Joe Voyles, a professor of historical (Indo-European) linguistics. If the language is dead and Germanic, I've done it. Old Saxon, Old Icelandic, Gothic, Old English...
Studying dead languages puts a perspective on the language issues of today. What we speak as English is a language that the writer of Beowulf never could have imagined, and Shakespeare would also be hard-put to understand our babbling away in modern American English. In five hundred years, the language we now call modern English will be something else. No amount of wishing otherwise will change the fact that English never was a pure and stable linguistic phenomenon, and it will continue to change, differentiate, and, most likely, become a classical dead language.
The language Beowulf spoke almost a thousand years ago is, except for a die-hard enthusiasts, is as dead as dead can be, hence the need for Seamus Heany's translation. In five hundred, six hundred, seven hundred years, students of Classical American English will be sweating over their dictionaries, trying to figure out what the heck we were writing about. Or if they managed to tranfer DVD technologies, what we were talking about.
The language ideation in the United States, what with the recent legislative action and the brouhaha about the National Anthem in Spanish, is a lost cause from the beginning. Our great-grandchildren will be speaking something else than the English we speak today anyway (just a quick glance at Lincoln's Gettysburg Address will bring to mind much change we have already encountered in American English over a mere 140 years).
On the other hand, English, even as it changes, is the language of success in this place and at this time, which is why I think that folks who intend to live here for the rest of their lives have an obligation to learn it, just as someone moving to Sweden ought to learn Swedish, or learn French in France, or Spanish in Argentina, or Chinese in China. But in the end, all language is a living process that is constantly changing, constantly adapting, and becomes something other than what we ourselves speak (or, rather, once we're gone and buried, have spoken). Then our children and children's children will have issues of their own with the language policies of the day.
Does anyone remember that English won over German as the language to be used in the United States by one vote? Certainly the dominance of German in the United States has changed from the 1780s to now, and the issue of whether the national language should be German has definitely died out, along with the large number of colonists who spoke it, though their great-great grandchildren live on speaking an English they would not recognize from their own era. The dominance of German as the second language spoken in the United States lasted for a long time, though, I must point out. Its place as the mother tongue of a great number of Americans did not end until 1960. By the 1970 census, Spanish had overtaken German for the first time. During the First World War, German speakers were encouraged (if that is the right word in this context, since laws were made and books were burned) to switch to English in church services, newspapers and book publishing, which was the beginning of the end of American-born native German language speakers. No one born now would ever imagine the huge presence German once had here in this country.
And a thousand years from now?
The American English that we speak will have vanished. As all the languages now being spoken will have mutated into different forms, different sounds, different expressions. (Even, maybe, Icelandic will change!)
It's inevitable.
Sumerian, anyone? Or Accadian?
Or for that matter, Beowulf? Chaucer?
Dead languages have much to say about the future of language.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Book of Hours / Libro de Horas

No exaggeration: this is one of the most beautiful books I have ever seen: Poems and paintings by one of Mexico's most original and accomplished artists, Alfredo Castaneda, translated by the greatest living translator of Mexican literature, Margaret Sayers Peden. But-- oh, this world of Philistines!---it does not have a US distributor. Margaret tells me it can only be purchased from Castaneda's gallery in New York, Mary-Anne Martin Fine Arts. It was published by Artes de Mexico and has a prologue by Alberto Ruy Sanchez. (Ruy Sanchez's essay on Oaxaca, by the way, appears in my anthology, Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion.) In the prologue, Ruy Sanchez writes,
The ritual of Alfredo Castaneda's Book of Hours is permeated with a modern, ironic smile, no less disturbing and profound than the questions he poses before the abyss of being. It includes poems of abounding love, of liberty, doubt, mystery, and astonishment. In its lines time blows like the wind, and the horizon speaks to us. Light literally grows brighter with each page of this volume, because it composes an illuminated space which, when drunk in by our eyes, lights our steps as we move forward through it. This Book of Hours is one of those unique works of art that inscribe their mark on time.
I couldn't have said it any better.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Global Wording

German translator Lee Chadeayne sent this link to a very fun, very quotable article from the Smithsonian Magazine.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Swedish Translation Fun at SASS

I have just returned from Oxford, Mississippi, home of Faulkner and the most recent conference of the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies, which included a panel on Swedish translation put together by yours truly, moderated by Marilyn Blackwell and with additional panelists Johannes Göransson and Rochelle Wright.
Johannes discussed his translation of Aase Berg, and Rochelle her translation of Kerstin Ekman. A lively discussion ensued which addressed the entire spectrum of translation, such as word play, cultural context, what makes a "good" translation (ie readability versus accuracy) and Swedish peculiarities.
The never-ending question of readability versus accuaracy is one in which I will now add my two cents. I am all for readability first and foremost, with accuaracy an accessory to art but not its master. When I translate a work, I want the emotional impact of the original to resonate with the reader of the translation. If that is sacrificed to accuracy, art dissapears. We are not solely intellectual beings, but also emotional and spiritual ones, and these latter aspects of humankind are just as important to a work of art as the intellectual satisfaction. When folks ask how I see my work of translation, I call it "gut-to-gut" translation, meaning that the whole person must be included in the work of translation, whether as translator or as reader of translated literary works.
A work of translation cannot be entirely accurate, because the entire cultural context cannot be translated. If the reader understood the entire cultural context, they would also be reading the work in the original, since language is part of culture. At best, we translators are approximating the original as best we can into a new cultural context, and we must take the cultural resonances of the new language into account. A translation is a glimpse of another place, but cannot take the place of the original language. But translate we must, since we love the original so much that we do not want our own culture to miss out completely on the literature that we love. Without translation, our readers would never see the worlds that our authors have created.
Criticising a translation is like shooting fish in a barrel. There is always something to find that is not to the critic's liking, and we translators must develop a tough skin to withstand the withering critiques that are inevitable. There it is, that's life.
Back to translating now, hard workers in the field of literary transfer!

Monday, May 08, 2006

The main discussion list for Slavists often fields questions about which translations people recommend for course use. Lately, there has been a minor flurry of emotions over Tolstoy and War and Peace in general and, in particular, over a recent review of the new Anthony Briggs translation written by someone with no known knowledge of Russian.

Stephen Pearl, contributed an excellent extended comment, which I’m quoting below with his permission, that raises questions about the very question being asked. What do we mean when we ask for the “best” translation. Do we really understand our criteria? Having served on numerous translation prize juries, I’m not so sure we’ve reached any kind of consensus. Pearl’s mention of Oprah is a reference to the fact that she chose the Anna Karenina translation by the team of Pevear and Volokhonsky for her book club, thus giving them her powerful seal of approval and generating millions in sales. This is by way of introduction. Here’s what Mr. Pearl wrote:

In this interesting and provocative discussion of the merits of the various English translations of War and Peace, there seems to be a tendency to overlook the rubric under which it is taking place, namely: "The Best WAR & PEACE English translation of All Time". A British philosophical school which flourished about six or seven decades ago, whose leading light was Alfred Ayer ["Language , Truth and Logic"], held that the fact that a language allows certain questions to be formulated, does not mean that all possible questions, such as "What is Truth?", "What is Beauty", "What is the Sound of One Hand Clapping", "When did you stop beating your wife" and "Which is the best English translation of W&P of all time" ? "are necessarily meaningful or answerable; although they have certainly engaged philosophers in sterile wrangling down the ages.

Defining one's terms is crucial. In this case, there are two extreme, although not exhaustive or mutually exclusive, criteria. Do we mean by a "good" translation one that contains few errors of translation, or one that reads "well", i.e. smoothly and seamlessly in the target language, both - or none of the above?

A translation that is error free may be totally unreadable, and one that is a good read may be totally inaccurate. Fitzgerald's "Rubaiyat" of Omar Khayam is said to be riddled with "errors" and the same has been said of the King James version of the Bible, but they are both impressive works of literature.

The culture in which we currently operate - Oprah-rate? -is one where the word "loser" is just about the most opprobrious epithet going, where winning is "not the best thing, but the only thing", where "nice guys finish last", where being "numero uno" is "it" and so often determined by PR and "hype", where endless "Awards Ceremonies", which celebrate and boost the "Entertainment Industry", have themselves become popular entertainments in their own right, where a Texan bishop once declared that the people of Texas are "the churchgoingest and guntotingest people in the world", and where Oprah decrees which books shall be bought, although her writ may not extend quite as far as enforcing the actual reading of them. Indeed it is Oprah who is largely responsible for the anomalous fact that in a discussion of the competing claims of the different translations of War and Peace, such disproportionate attention is being paid to a translation team which has not actually produced one.

Among the numerous symptoms of this unslakeable public thirst for an authoritatively proclaimed victor ludorum is the The Heisman Trophy which is awarded annually to the the "best" college football player of the year, almost always to a quarterback or running back, whose glamorous and conspicuous functions are at least as different from those of their "mute, inglorious" team mates as the apples are from the oranges which we are taught not to compare. Also, the Young Artists Artists Award for instrumentalists, an award which nearly always goes to those musical counterparts of the quarterbacks and running backs - violinists and pianists. The pernicious and distorting logic of this suggests that the hapless trombonist is ipso facto a worse performer and a lower form of musical life.

One other distinction that runs the risk of being muffled is that, whoever the reviewer may be and wherever s[he] may be coming from, there is a printsipiyalniy difference between the point of reviewing a translation of a new or previously unknown work in order to bring it to the attention of English speaking readers and that of reviewing a retranslation of a classic. Essentially, a review of the former should be about the work itself and a review of the latter about the quality of the translation. A review of a translation of a classic by a reviewer who does not have the necessary linguistic qualifications ,or is not prepared to take the immense trouble of comparing the translation with the original, is at best a review of its readability, and cannot be a review of the accuracy of the translation, still less of the skill, ingenuity and inspiration with which that accuracy has been conveyed. Accuracy itself is only a necessary, but not a sufficient condition.

A reviewer who fails or is unable to evaluate the quality of the translation as such, is disqualified from making an informed judgment as to the winner of "The All Time Best Translation" Stakes; although the fact that the question can be formulated doesn't mean there is an answer - unless, of course, Oprah is asked to deliver the final verdict.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

No Man's Land

A new German literary magazine emailed us with an announcement of their new project, No Man's Land. It's a a site for English translations of German writing, and they are hoping to build an online community of translators, writers, and readers. There will also be an internationally distributed print magazine.

The no man's land project marks the 10th anniversary of the Berlin literary "laboratory" and magazine lauter niemand (www.lauter-niemand.de). Held every Sunday, the lauter niemand open mike sessions have been a fixture of Berlin's alternative literary scene since 1996, leading to the discovery of young talents for the lauter niemand magazine.