Tuesday, July 08, 2014

On translation

•David Bellos:Is that a fish in your ear? Translation and the meaning of everything.
New York: Faber and Faber, 2011; 978-0-86547-857-2

for Richard

DAVID BELLOS IS a professor of French and Comparative Literature at Princeton University, where he directs the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication. Although he is a respectable, even a powerful presence in literature, having written biographies of Georges Perec, Jacques Tati and Romain Gary, and having translated a number of Perec's books — no mean feat.

I am a Perec enthusiast, though I confess I know his work only in English translation. For that reason I haven't read his best-known novel, La disparition. Perec was a member of Oulipo, the "experimental" workshop in litterature potentielle which is often written under arbitrary, amusing, and ennabling constraints; and La disparition, by no means a short novel, was written without using a single "e." Since the English translation respects that constraint — it's titled A void — I've determined to read it only in parallel with the original; and I'm afraid I've bogged down a number of times.

I read occasionally in other languages than English, which is of course my mother language. I can get by, by ignoring subtleties, slang, and jokes, in French or Italian or sometimes in Spanish or even in Dutch — but only with dictionaries, or the Internet, or best of all with a translation into English at hand. A couple of years ago, for example, I read the first book of Don Quixote both in Spanish and in a recent, well-received translation into English by Edith Grossman. It was easy to see that Grossman respected Cervantes's text, maintaining his slightly formal irony but also the fluidity of the narrative. (There's an interesting discussion of her translation, contrasted with John Rutherford's of two years earlier, online.)

Similarly I've worked my way through a few books by Geert Mak in both the original Dutch and English translation, and novels and stories by Moravia and Pirandello in both Italian and translation, always with the hope that one day this process will enable me to rely only on the originals — a hope as illusory as elusive.

(I'm also engaged on a publishing project, hoping to bring out the complete Skagen un roman de l'europe by the French author Jean Coqt, as translated into English by Charles Lunaire: but so far only the first two installments have been sent to me, and I can't say much more about this just yet.)

So translation is a matter often on my mind, and I looked forward to reading Is that a fish in your ear with a good deal of eagerness. In many ways I wasn't terribly disappointed: Bellos writes easily, interestingly, ranging over a number of my own enthusiasms; and there's plenty of humor in the book — beginning with the title, of course.

("Say — is that a fish in your ear?" No answer. "I said, Is that a fish in your ear?" Again no answer. Louder this time: "Hey! Mister! IS - THAT - A - FISH - IN - YOUR - EAR?" Pause; then "Sorry. You'll have to speak up. I have a fish in my ear.)*

But his book centers on the problem that lies in its subtitle: "The meaning of everything." In nearly every one of his short, engaging chapters — many of which sound like class lectures, approaching such individual subjects as dictionaries, dialects, vertical vs. horizontal translation, interpretation, and the like — he seems determined that translation is at bottom a matter of communication, of re-stating the content of a text in a like text in the second language.

The big question that's begged is of course the meaning of meaning. It's addressed in an early chapter, "Meaning is Not a Simple Thing," where Bellos writes "an adequate translation reproduces the meaning of an utterance in a foreign language," and goes on to investigate various kinds of meaning. Symptomatic meaning — "the kind of meaning that things have just by themselves": Jacques saying "bon jour" means, among other things, that he speaks French. Contextual meaning. Meanings latent in the very grammatical forms of the "utterance" in question.

And then, toward the end of the chapter: "No sentence contains all the information you need to translate it." You have to know the genre of the text, apparently — poem, novel, speech, timetable, movie title, for example — so that you can approach and frame your work appropriately.

Poetry is notoriously resistant to translation, at least, Bellos writes, in the popular mind. He denies that it is impossible. Last week a French friend asked me to translate a little poem from French into English, and the request triggered a short discussion in e-mail:
Amélie is convinced that it is impossible to translate Poetry : "you have got to respect the polysémie of the words and if you do one traduction litterale it doesn't work into the other language"
To which I replied
I agree with Amėlie you can't translate poetry

You can however translate poems

you can only translate a meaning and poetry tends as Amėlie points out to be polysėmique, perhaps there's an English word for that, I don't think so, "to have many layers of meaning"

So a true translation would be a number of versions perhaps

Then there s another big problem about translation, the fundamental one

The idea that it can exist presupposes the idea that you can kniw what a statement ( sentence, poem) means

With only a few exceptions (huis clos, sens unique, STOP) I think you cannot, can never
and then I went on to translate the poem. (I'll set the two versions at the end of this post. It is by the way not my first attempt at translating poetry: earlier this year I made an attempt at Horace's Diffugere nives, where the attempt was to preserve meter and formality of the original. But more about that another time.)

AT THE BOTTOM of my problems with Bellos's discussion of translation, the art of, is the assumption that one can know meaning, can extrapolate from an utterance — perhaps even simply an event, natural or artificial, but let's not complicate things even further, not just yet — can extrapolate from an utterance a meaning intended by the speaker. This seems to me to be a great leap of faith, involving taking an utterance at its word. Poetry, humor, irony, negotiation, and other everyday uses of language depend, I think, on a disparity between statement and intent, deliberate or casual.

The problem goes even further: Can we know what our own statements, even thoughts, "mean," even to ourselves? Does their "meaning" not unfold, over time, through contemplation and discussion, evolving as they conform — or don't — to their changing context? (Perhaps this is one reason for the frequent assertion that every generation needs its new translation of standard "classics," to "keep them fresh", relevant to a changed societal context.)

If meaning evolves, there must be aspects of the utterance — the text, the expression, the thought — that have yet to be known: ineffable, if only provisionally. Bellos addresses this:
Some people doubt that there are any affects or experiences that cannot be expressed, on the commonsensical grounds that we could say nothing about them and would therefore have no way of knowing if they existed for other people. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein presumably meant to adopt an ag-nostic position on this issue in the famous last line of his Tractatus when he wrote, "What one cannot talk about must be left in silence." The infinite flexibility of language and our experience of shared emotion in reading novels and poems and at the movies must also cast doubt on whether there are any human experiences that cannot in principle be shared. On the other side of this thorny tangle is the intuitive knowledge that what we feel is unique to us and can never be fully identified with anything felt by anyone else. That inexpressible residue of the individual is ineffable—and the ineffable is precisely what cannot be translated.

Translation presupposes not the loss of the ineffable in any given act of interlingual mediation such as the translation of poetry but the irrelevance of the ineffable to acts of communication. Any thought a person can have, the philosopher Jerrold Katz argued, can be expressed by some sentence in any natural language; and anything that can be expressed in one language can also be expressed in another. What cannot be expressed in any human language (opinions vary as to whether such things are delusional or foundational) lies outside the boundaries of translation and, for Katz, outside the field of language, too. This is his axiom of effability. One of the truths of translation—one of the truths that translation teaches—is that everything is effable.

To which Wittgenstein would reply — the young Wittgenstein, anyway — well, you know. (And this is the problem with Wittgenstein's remark: we cannot remain silent, even (perhaps especially) confronted with that of which we cannot speak.)

Bellos ends this particular investigation with a breathtaking statement:
From infancy to the onset of puberty, children of every culture have always known that animals have things to say to them. There's no folklore in the world that doesn't similarly break the alleged barrier between human and other. But in our Western script-based cultures, growing up (which is so heavily entwined with formal education that it might as well be treated as the same thing) involves unlearning the instinctive childhood assumption of communicative capacity in nonhuman species. No wonder our philosophers and priests have long insisted that language is the exclusive attribute of humans. That self-confirming axiom makes children not yet fully human and in real need of the education they are given.
In other words, language is communication and must be effable. But is Bellos's final sentence, in the previous quotation, "meant" literally? Does meaning not lie in signals as well as statements?

*Or does the joke go some other way entirely?

The French poem and its translation:
Une main chemine dans mes cheveux
passe / arrache
devant les yeux
la mèche
sous les franges des filles
pour tes regards sur le haut de mon dos
Ma nuque courbe l'échine
racines sèches
shampoing après shampoing soin
Ta kératine
coupe-coupe court
rase petit sabot
de près petit salaud
des bigoudis plein le front
j'ai mis de l'air dans mes cheveux
brosse à bout rond en poils de sanglier pour brushing "sans électricité statique"
blond vénitien roux flamboyant brun auburn blanc mort
perruques en authentiques cheveux de filles perdues
filez doux longues chevelures : le temps des crânes est revenu
jolie itsi bitsi tini ouini tête crépue
tu tournes en boucle bourrique
ton cuir est dur
vieille chevelure
On reprend la coupe?
                          —Emmanuelle De Baeck
A hand traces through my hair
through / and out again
before my eyes
the unruly bleached lock
of hair
under the girlish bangs
The bones of my nape curve
that you may glance at it
dry roots
shampoo conditioner hairspray
your keratin
shave it short
with the close clipper
really close you little bastard
curlers over the forehead
i’ve put air in my hair
soft round brush, boar-bristles, to avoid static electicity
venetian blond flame red auburn brown dead white
wigs made of real hair from lost girls
away long hair it’s time for skulls again
pretty itsy bitsy teeny weeny frizzhead
you go round in circles like a mule
your scalp is leathery
old hairdo
shall we do it over?
Suggested improvements are welcome.

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