Jan/Feb 2015 Nonfiction

A Translator's Complaint

by Jascha Kessler

Image courtesty of the British Library's Photostream

The most vexing problem of translation lies in the fact that a word in one language standing for a thing—a flower, say, a fish, a weapon, an insect, an apple, or a rabbit—can always be said accurately in most other languages, and can be understood as accurately representing that thing, that very thing. Nevertheless, the apperception of that thing, and the understanding of that thing (the rabbit in West Africa, for example, and the rabbit in Texas) remains very much a matter private to the entire matrix of meaning, the network of history, tradition, usage, economy, religion, art, magic, music, and of whatever else (in fact everything else!) is understood to be the complete experience of that language and its speakers, from their lost origins in time (when people wandered away from the ruins of the Tower of Babel) to the present. Ontologically speaking, translation remains an impossibility, if by translation we mean an exact fascimile in one language of an utterance in another, since one cannot experience two cultures simultaneously as one culture: Identity, as Heidegger expressed it, is Identity, and Difference is Difference.

Translation may however be regarded as a superimposition of the word in one language upon a word in another, in the hope that some percentage of the information or coloration carried by the original in its own system may somehow get through, refracted, to be sure, even spectroscopically shattered, and be intelligibly received in the other (ontological) universe of the target language. I try to reproduce the original elements believably by leaving nothing out, by imitating forms and patterns, by approximating what can be approximated. Temporal alignments, for instance, are often quite strange and always frustrating, the having to place an obsolete item from one language into an obsolete word in English, even though the two archaisms are seldom from the same epoch of the calendar, or even from the same calendar, as with Christianity and Islam. I once asked a collaborator about a certain "knife " that the protagonist in a Hungarian poem stuffs into his boot-top, the boots themselves fairytale footgear, Seven League Boots, that carry the narrator out of his native village in 1940, bounding over the landscape on a day of wild adventure into distant times past. The poem was, incidentally, a fairly satiric piece about the saturation of Hungarian literature with folk and fairytale motifs: the young hero returns to his village, crashing from the heights of his exalted fantasy when the sun goes down. Surprised, my collaborator remarked, "Oh, yes, I'd forgotten; we haven't used that word for two or three hundred years; it's quite archaic!" Well, I had to find an English word for that "knife," and I tried various older weapons—dirk, dagger, stiletto, poignard (kris was out), and so on. I forget now what I finally used; but whatever it was, it was not a Hungarian blade, nor could it have been, and it wasn't from the period when it was actually used (though the poem is from the late 1960s); and certainly it couldn't carry any of the associations and connotations that it would for the hero in a Hungarian poem that sublimated Hungarian folk materials. When all is said and done, the poem as a whole still governs that image of some kind of knife stuffed in a hero's boot-top. From which I conclude that my English-language reader may yet see something about Hungary, past and present, in the translation. Not much, perhaps, but something. (A Bowie knife would have been wrong, too.) The reader will not fail to see something, if echoes from childhood reading of fairytales and folklore are part of that reader's apperceptive mass, so to say. Which brings me to my subject proper.

Let us suppose that one has made a good, lifelike, and literate—nay, and more to the point, thoroughly contemporary and literary—translation, one that can succeed in conveying the qualities of the original. What if it turns out that the translator's culture is resistant to its reception? More than resistant: hostile, or defensive, or, what seems to me the worst case, aesthetically deaf and blind? And what if the worst-case situation is a consequence of some profound alteration in cultural values, which the rejection of the transplant, these translations, seem to have suggested is the case? And what if it is not a question of a poor match between the societies of the two languages, either in time, or social development, or literary tastes (de gustibus non est disputandum), between economic or political incompatibilities, or any of the usual problems, including the failure of genius to be recognized in its own time? What if, instead, it seems to be a rather startling symptom of something that must be noticed? And questioned, or at least given over to serious consideration?

I am alluding to my own recent experience with the work of a Yugoslav writer, Grozdana Olujic, who has gained some recognition for her publications of fairytales, not only in this country, but by translations into many languages since 1980. I have put two dozen of her pieces into English during the past few years, working in collaboration with the author. Now, from my point of view, I must say that I undertook to do such work simply out of curiosity, since I had originally gone to Yugoslavia with the expectation of translating some poets from the various regions. I soon found, however, that the work of this writer was not simple, nor was it simpleminded, as so much writing for children nowadays tends to be. I found that she was making up stories that offered something to the adult too, such that were one to suppose oneself reading them to one's child, one would be reading with one's whole attention, with one's mind and heart thoroughly engaged in the wonders of the imagination... and not abstracted, as I myself so often was when I read contemporary stories to my little children years ago. Indeed, I promptly found myself thinking of the classic works in this genre, the folktales of the brothers Grimm, and the collections of folktales from Japan, Africa, China, Hungary, Russia, Ireland, and so on, as well as the synthetic fairytales of someone like Hans Christian Andersen, Perrault, Mme. D'Aulnoy, or the twentieth century American poet, Carl Sandburg. As a consequence, after Englishing the first few of Olujic's fairytales, I began to look forward with pleasurable anticipation to each new one, as much, if not more, for the sake of the stories themselves, as for the challenge to me to say them in my American English. And, of course, I thought that here was a writer who would be an immediate success in English! But...how little one knows, how naïve one is, and how presumptuous we "literary " people are in our illusions—we think we know what is excellent, we think we know what people will regard as excellent, if just because we know it is excellent! Let me tell you what happened instead, what my experience with Olujic has been, and what I think it might mean.

When I had done about five stories, I showed three of them to a colleague of mine in the English Department at UCLA, who was a specialist teaching courses (to vast numbers of students) in "Children's Literature." Jerry Cushman, past 65, a great reader and an enthusiast, a man who knows his specialty and has traveled everywhere in the world to attend conferences devoted to Children's Literature. He read Olujic's "Red Poppies," "The Moonflower," and "Rose of Mother-of-Pearl." He returned them to me with praise and admiration; but he also shook his head sadly, warning me that it might be hard to find a publisher for such work. I was surprised. Here was one market, I thought, in the United States, which does not suffer from a depression in publishing. We publish thousands of titles a year, books for children, beautiful picture books, easy reading of all kinds, and here is Jerry Cushman shaking his head sadly at me?! Jerry kindly explained: "You see, my friend, these stories are classical. They are European: they are tragic, sad, sacrificial. They are full of passions: about love, and about dying for love; they are about sublimation of love and about the struggle to grow up, to overcome one's faults and vices, and to become adult. They are in short real pieces of real writing out of the tradition of the fairytale. It will be hard to find a publisher for them in America. Let me give you the names of two or three editors who are smart and good. Maybe something will come of it."

I took those names, and I wrote a letter of inquiry to more than 50 publishing houses in America. The letter of inquiry described the classical quality of the Olujic stories I was offering, the refined imagination, the delight and power of these stories for children under the age of ten.

I never expected such very poor results. Editors are not interested in even looking at such materials. About a dozen firms did ask to read the sample of a half dozen fairytales I offered, and each rejected the manuscript. For what reasons? These stories were either "too literary," "too sad," "too depressing," "too mysterious," "too violent," "too emotional," or "too strange." Some two or three editors, women incidentally, found themselves "intrigued by the imaginativeness," but puzzled, "unable to understand Olujic." My astonishment at such replies, my incredulity at such editorial responses can be easily imagined! I think I have by now contacted almost every publisher of children's books in America, and with the same results: I am stymied. I do not know what to think. And yet one must think about it.

I begin with two little clues. A while back, a small publisher in Iowa telephoned me to say that he proposed to inaugurate two new lines of books: science fiction/fantasy and children's stories. It is a publisher who has done fine printing of poetry, small books in small editions, and more or less hung on at it and gained recognition. He wished to publish a fine, illustrated edition of Olujic, and had selected one story ("Rose of Mother-of-Pearl") for this special volume, the first in a new series. He told me that he had been fascinated by her stories (the three I have already mentioned), and thought them unusual. In what respect? I asked. "They are so full of suffering, of difficulties, of failure and sadness," he said, "in fact they are full of frustration! I find that very interesting for fairtytales today."

Next clue: recently a woman who is a member of the Los Angeles PEN Center and heard I was translating fairytales asked me for advice as to my method of working. It seems she knows an Armenian who has shown her a number of traditional Armenian folktales that she thinks might make a small children's book. I explained my way of working, and said something about standards of fidelity to the original, the greatest fidelity technically (that is, ontologically) possible. Recently, she called me to thank me for my advice and encouragement, and said that she had sent off a half-dozen Armenian stories to an editor. How did they go? I asked.

"Well, I had to rework the versions I made."

"How so?"

"Armenian stories are gloomy, you know, very sad and unhappy. I had to change the endings in them all, or they'd never get published! "

There are my two clues, both pointing in the same direction: America wants happy endings! Of course, some fairytales have happy endings; many Italian fairytales have happy endings; even some of Olujic's fairytales have them. So there must be much more involved in this question, especially given the fact that we have seen an incredible outpouring of fantasy literature, a product of the success of science fiction in the 1970s; and we also see the success of certain fantasy movies, usually the extraterrestrial epics, and sentimental fantasies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or the phenomenal hundreds of millions of dollars' success of E.T., not to speak of the pseudo-Homeric epic of the Star Wars series. But, are these filmed and televised adventures fairytales for children? Yes and no. "Yes," if you think of their storylines; "No," because of what they cannot do for the child—develop the moral and emotional imaginative structures of the psyche of the child, certainly not in the way reading fairytales can.

According to the theory of Bruno Bettelheim, the psychoanalyst, the folk-tale and the fairytale (and even many comic book heroes) are necessary ancillaries to the emotional development of children. Like games, like play, he believes they are essential, as creative, anticipatory forms for modeling the reality of present and future situations, enabling the child to experience the challenges, the threats and terrors, as well as the pleasures of life, which would be psychologically overwhelming, like the passions of hatred and love, were they to be presented to the child in their true, their real forms. The child can experience reality through such surrogate means and prepare its emotional capacities for the weight of manifested reality, which is sure to arrive with all its crushing gravity later on. The models are not mere fantasies, but represent through their fantastic forms the unknowns of real life in epiphanies that can be apprehended by the child in terms of the present resources of his immature emotional life. They are a kind of poetic formulation of adventure, of hopes and fears, of dangerous, gigantic grownup characters in idealized, if not always ideal, forms, in which evil and good are presented in their essential qualities, and not mixed unclearly with circumstance and the deforming shadows of neurosis and madness, such as we know in our banal, everyday adult experience.

Bettelheim, a survivor of the Nazi extermination camps, is of course European, and his medical specialty, psychoanalysis, deals in the problems of illusion, dream, and delusion—and harsh, unsparing reality. What he is saying about the psychology of the child is important, and it is from his authority that he speaks to us when he declares that folktales and fairytales, with all their strangeness, mystery, and terror, as well as their imaginary happiness, are not to be discarded as vestiges of earlier stages of human culture, as merely primitive literary forms, but on the contrary to be considered instead as primal, as permanent and essential kinds of narration without which children are deprived of basic nourishment for their proper growth. They teach about life, in short, and not about the contemporary modes of knowing adult reality in post-industrial societies: They educate, but they do not inculcate contemporary social values, which are in any case always arbitrary and at the mercy of the present rulers of society; they are not, in short, didactic in the sense that philosophers since Plato have wished education to be. And their value to the human child is inestimable. I think Bettelheim is quite correct.

If so, what then are we to make of the resistance to, the denial of, such values as are conveyed in the fairytales of a contemporary writer like Grozdana Olujic, as I have witnessed it thus far in America? It may not be sinister, though it is not good. When I consider that her work is already translated into Turkish, Hindi, Oraya, Russian, Ukranian, Swedish, French, Hungarian, German, Polish, Czech, and Finnish, I can see that those languages are spoken by and read to children who live in societies, the development of which, industrially speaking, ranges from "backward" to "advanced," and whose political structures range from oppressively totalitarian to democratically free. Why is it so hard, then, to find an editor in all of America? The stories have sold well in those other languages, after all. Is it possible that we are too advanced? I mean, advanced beyond some point of no return, in which humanistic and transcendental values, embodied in wonders and magic and miracles, in the naming of heavenly phenomena anthropomorphically, in the telling about lost love and heroic defeat, as well as stubborn resistance against ignorance and authoritarian evil, and their defeat by faith, and hope of something better, and the sublimation of tragedy into supernal triumph—all features of her work—cannot be apprehended by American adults? by American editors of children's literature, in fact? Is it possible that she had so easily eluded alert Soviet censors, who had published her first collection in an edition of 100,000, but is unable to climb our defensive wall? Are we so hardened into deterministic, behavioralistic, optimistic molds, into beliefs about "education for life" that such writings fall on deaf ears? Are we so far from the concepts of suffering and redemption through tragedy, from the idea of enlarging our human sympathies through the experience of pathos and longing, are we so saturated by the technologically marvelous present and extraordinary powers of the future that are already casting their shadows over us (and to which we are rapidly learning to adapt ourselves, or else!) that what has been part of the child's spiritual life since the beginnings of humanity—myths, folktales and fairytales—is no longer something we can even recognize? Is our developing future so strange, so neurotically incapable of seeing the world of the child, or the world that the child sees in fairytales, that such work no longer has any use? And, is it possible, when in an open, pluralistic, democratic and "high tech" culture like ours there are so many millions of adherents to irrational mystical cults and fanatic versions of familiar religions, both Asiatic and Western, and when romance and fantasy and terror, violence and mystery are so popular among adolescents and adults, that a contemporary incarnation of themes from the most ancient form of children's literature cannot even be received and published? Is it possible that the immaturity and infantility of the entertainment media in America, including books, is a direct consequence of the failure to feed the imaginative needs of children in the years they must have such stimulation?

Many hypotheses may be put forward, and I could speculate wildly about this situation, going back in search for its origins to the positivistic thought of such Utopians as Auguste Comte or Jeremy Bentham. One thing is, however, clear to me: that the failure to be receptive to such work is significant. I think it is a kind of cultural censorship. And it is certainly some kind of censorship of the culture of children. What it tells me about my society is not that it is censoring by refusing to publish something that is apparently exotic, but that by rejecting such classical forms of children's writing, it is thereby rejecting not merely what the rest of the world delights in, but what is universal to humanity—childhood itself. That is something that gives me pause. In fact, I find it alarming.


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