Saturday, June 02, 2018

Educated and translated

Eastside Road, June 2, 2018—
•Tara Westover: Educated
HarperCollins, 2018
pp. 400      ISBN 978-0-399590-50-4
•Ed. Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, & Russell Scott Valentino:
     The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim & a Life In Translation
Open Letter Books, 2014
pp. 313      ISBN 978-1-940953-00-7
ANOTHER PAIR of significant books, significant for the wider cultural implications beyond their apparent immediate concerns — memoir in the case of Educated, literary translation in the case of The Man Between.

Tara Westover's memoir, out quite recently, has come in for plenty of discussion. Much of it centers on the immediate story, which is both harrowing and hopeful enough: a girl raised with six siblings by a fundamentalist Mormon family living as far from society as possible. No schooling. Virtually no friends or relatives outside the nuclear family — survivalist parents who rely on faith in their Mormon God, rather than any kind of science or medicine or, for that matter, seat belts. Through luck, the timid pioneering of the oldest brother who had had some schooling before the family dropped completely out, and a quick and tenacious mind, she manages at 15 to enter school for the first time, quickly moving through college, then graduate work.

There are two parallel stories here: the squalid background, in a desert junkyard in Idaho, and the academic progress, at Brigham Young University, Cambridge, and Harvard. The first is the more dramatic, of course, and Westover portrays her parents, siblings, and the setting dramatically and effectively — to the extent that some online "reviewers" have questioned the authenticity of the memoir. I don't; in my childhood I saw similar families, and can well believe there are still plenty of them in this country — think of Waco, think of the Oklahoma City bomber, think of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.

Westover's father seems paranoid as well as loony, but he's not really a terrorist in the bomber sense. He's simply deeply mistrustful of Government, which he thinks is out to impose its own views of reality on those he prefers to hold. But Westover's subtle choice of title suggests that she is ultimately writing about something far beyond her own story (and that of her father): the fact that there are people who are convinced that their dedication to "faith" and magical thinking is sounder than science and theoretical education. Educated suggests there is a total divide between two classes: those who are educated and those who remain ignorant.

The Enlightenment is not to be taken for granted. We who have received relatively conventional educations have difficulty believing the extent to which the ignorant suspect, scorn, and reject education, for themselves and, most poignantly and damagingly, for their children. This is not directed at those who choose to home-school in some attentive manner. Nor does it excuse more or less formal alternative school "educations" that reject science and reason.

Westover's story spins almost out of control toward the end, when her parents find themselves profiting from the kitchen remedies they cook up as alternatives to medicine following a series of disastrous, nearly fatal accidents. But even here the story offers a scary premonition of the fiery catastrophe that may be needed to resolve what seems to be our biggest danger: the failure of reason in a complex moment, and the dividing of humanity into two tribes opposed over selfishness and community, fear and invention, instinct and consciousness.

TRANSLATORS USED TO BE invisible, or try to be: there was an attitude that their work was to move a book from a foreign language into the reader's as effortlessly as possible. In the last twenty years of the 20th century that changed, as a generation of translators pushed publishers and academicians to realize that the content of a book issues from not only the author's mind, including his language, but from the cultural and societal qualities forming and influencing that mind.

To judge by The Man Between, one man was almost heroic in this evolution: Michael Heim, a quiet, eccentrically modest and frugal man who mastered a number of languages but who also had a gift for creative writing and an organizational turn of mind allowing him to formulate literary theory without freezing it into academic stricture.

The Man Between centers on this man through seventeen essays, ten of which seem to me remarkably significant as well as entertaining. Of course language and literature are fundamental to the narrative, but a bigger issue develops: the sad yet undeniable failure of the anglophone community to invite authors writing in other languages to the table. I remember such series as New World Writing and Botteghe Oscure, which flourished in their marginal way in the 1950s; and Clayton Eshleman's Caterpillar magazine, 1967-1973, as bravely continuing Ezra Pound's Modernist imperative to extend literary conversations beyond the Culture of the Now that dominated — and continues to dominate — a society more interested in distraction and entertainment than penetration and learning. But the dynamics of marketing and technology distorted commercial publishing in the decades after, as they did the art and music businesses.

Heim, the translator at the center of this celebration, was a very attractive man, clearly both loved and respected by colleagues and students. He was energetic and activist in his dedication to his art, but apparently quite egoless — to the extent of donating a quarter of a million dollars to establish the PEN Translation Fund, which supports translating projects and their translators (many of them at the beginning of their careers) on the condition that his gift be strictly anonymous: only after his death was his name identified with it. (You may be sure he never made that kind of money translating books; not even Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being.)

What were Heim's beliefs about his art? That "A good translation will allow a person who has read a work in the original and a person who has read the work in translation to have an intelligent conversation about it."

"Principles, not rules,” he told Maureen Freely, who took over the class he was prevented, by his final illness, to have given.

Everything he did in the classroom was obased on an assumption that there are principles you can extrapolate from your work, that you can work with material a systematic way.” His overriding principle was that “languages have a genius of their own — something that makes them different from other languages.” He encouraged his students to “characterize their nature’ and to see all other languages in terms of genius, too. The genius of English, for example, was its rich vocabulary. “You need to keep that in mind. If you don’t take advantage of it, you are losing a resource.”

He elaborated his other principles as he talked me through two student translations, drawing from the examples he found on the page. Pay attention to rhythm, he said. Think about register — is it appropriate? Is it consistent? Modal auxiliary words (should, might, may, etc.) were important in relaying nuance, so it was important to get them right. Pay close attention to tense, he said. Different languages used them in different ways. Then there was punctuation, which offered different challenges for translators, because it was so important to keep the flow. “We need to make sure that our punctuation is creative, but based on certain rules. Punctuate long sentences extremely carefully. No colons unless it’s very long and complicated. Use the punctuation of the target language but at the same time, stretch its rules.” When his students drew back from that challenge, he would try to push them forward. “I tell them they can do it. If they want to, they can.”

Concision was another thing to keep in mind."You're translating from a language with a certain genius and sometimes that does take more words. So balance it with concision." And not to forget logic. "Always make sure that what you're saying makes sense in English." There were also what he called “first and second tier choices” It was important to use the word that reflected how English-speakers spoke, and not the word that seems at first to be its obvious counterpart. For example, German speakers use the word auch a great deal more than we in English use the word also. If you translate every auch as also, the text might be correctly translated, but it will also sound German.

Always allow space for the imagination, he said. “For the idea that comes from oneself, as the Germans say. If a student has done something really good, point it out. Tell them it’s a beautiful solution.’

Above all, they should understand what an important service they were providing. “I believe in translation.” It is thanks to the work done by translators that we have access to literatures from across the world. Without translators, even those of us with four or five languages would be shut off from whole continents of great literature. "When I think of all the authors I would never have read... ,” Mike said, his voice trailing off. And then it came back again: “It’s literature that’s my passion.”

Esther Allen, one of the editors of this book, notes that Heim
neither deplored nor resented the dominance of theoretical discourse within the humanities during his lifetime and spoke with considerable admiration of a number of colleagues whose theoretical studies mattered a great deal to him, among them Mikhail Bakhtin, Roman Jakobson, Pascale Casanova, David Bellos, Barbara Cassin, Lawrence Venuti, and his dear friend Efrain Kristal. Their work bolstered the cause and, as he says of Bakhtin in A Happy Babel, “helped me to see things in books . . . that I would have missed otherwise”. He was grateful for that but had little interest in engaging directly in theory himself. He understood translation itself as an enactment of the issues the theorists debated in the abstract: the inherent ambiguity of language, the relationship of signifier and signified, form and content, the politics of the world republic of letters, the ownership of the translation, the question of untranslatability… Mike preferred situational particulars to generalities: his mind focused on individual words, grammatical structures, narratives, literary works, writers, languages, situations of cultural interanimation… "A translator must deal with every single word," he said.
Heim may not have been interested in theory, but Allen doesn't hesitate to propose a series of nine "theoretical positions" consistently underlying his forty years of work. They are:
• All literary canons are fluid and must be continually renewed with new material.
• Literary fiction can afford us a crucial understanding of history.
• Literary translation is a primary, necessary form of literary scholarship.
• Literary translators need formal training in the practice of translation itself.
• Literary translators must be proactive agents of cultural mediation.
• Translation is a central component of literature itself, which is revitalized by support for translation.
• The publishing marketplace is not only a necessary object of study but an arena for action.
• Translation into English enhances the literary and scholarly capital of all languages by allowing writers and scholars to continue to work in their first language, while still reaching a global audience.
• The boundaries between disciplines and fields of knowledge are artificial constraints that must not be allowed to define or limit one's own interests and areas of endeavor.
• Translation enriches texts by transforming them.
These are more than bullet points, and Allen fleshes them out with interesting, often surprising examples drawn from specific situations. A triumph of both Heim's work and his teaching is its specifiticity, its practicality, its workmanship. I don't see how any writer, or any reader interested beyond his own back yard, could fail to be fascinated, entertained, impressed, or enlightened by this collection.

No comments: