Jul/Aug 2016 Nonfiction

On Collaborative Translation

by Jascha Kessler

Photographic Artwork by Victoria Mlady

Photographic Artwork by Victoria Mlady

This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me,—
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.

Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me!

    —Emily Dickinson

Some years ago, I came across an essay by the philosopher V.V. Quine, in his collection called Ontological Relativity. Quine does philosophy in the tradition of radical, empirical skepticism of the positivistic sort, as I read him; his essay here is no exception. Its central illustration may be taken as a metaphor standing for the whole problem of translation, translation au fond. In fact, it may be taken as a metaphor that applies much more widely and deeply, addressing itself ultimately to the problem not only of communication of meanings on the verbal level, whether the messages are literary or otherwise, but to communication between sentient beings like ourselves. Assuming we send messages through or across the barrier or border of our skin—I assume we are always doing that—and assuming they are "replicated" in the process of their decoding and, so to speak, their reading out, are the messages we send received and understood as intended? Quine makes up the example of an anthropologist who visits a tribe somewhere, say Africa or the South American jungle, is welcomed and takes up residence among its people. This anthropologist sets about acquiring the tribe's utterly unknown and singular language. He intends to make a dictionary, so that he can construct a grammar, and thereby speak its language and come to understand this people's culture. Now, we know that something like this has been done over and over again, for dozens of languages, indeed hundreds of languages that have not achieved the literacy of writing. The linguists have been at work systematically for some centuries now. But—Quine raises the question, and perhaps it is the question, whether it is even possible to be certain that when the indigene uses the word rabbit, or some word that the anthropologist takes to mean rabbit (in English, of course), he actually means what we mean by our word rabbit. In short, how does one acquire an equivalent noun, for example, with any assurance that X = rabbit? For we also know that our word rabbit means not merely, or only, the rodent with the long ears, the bunny that goes hippity-hoppity, but conveys a host of connotations metaphorical and historical, folkloristic and mythical and agricultural, of hunting and eating and dreaming: in short, ontological connotations that may not, and probably never can, coincide with those of Creature X, which the native points at in the presence of the lexicographer-anthropologist.

The implications are, I suppose, immediately apparent: that which language, or art, or other forms of signifying expression may be ontologically private systems whose relations are at best only very relatively, approximately congruent. It may be that languages contain private worlds known but to their speakers... and a literary audience like yourselves will recognize how little even the same family of speakers of a language may be able to convey. Messages, to borrow communications lingo, are degraded in quality as they pass through one border and enter into another entity. Something is lost, even with the finest playback equipment. We deal, in short, with bare approximations of the original utterance or sound. For many purposes, the core meaning, the skeleton structure as it were, the formula perhaps, will suffice. A drawing is good; music better; a mathematical statement perhaps the best, so far as communication goes.

Notwithstanding all this, philosophically considered, we who write and read Literature—lyrical, epical, dramatic, prose, or verse—have to try to see what can be done despite our limitations. We know that translation is a different problem as soon as we are concerned with messages that are not simple declarative statements of matters of fact. As was mentioned, even naming a rabbit is fraught with difficulty. We know, of course, that many matters of fact are in our world complicated and nuanced by their statement in the necessarily contingent, existential world of culture and politics, the differences in situation between the utterer and the hearer. We all know that to take a work of literary art, a song, for example, and to carry it over and reproduce or replicate it approximately in another language may in an ideal world be done best by a writer who has learned both languages from a poem uttered in one language, the same mother—as if the writer were imbibing, say Hebrew or Hungarian, in the very milk while from one breast of the mother, and English with the milk from her other breast. That would be our ideal, but rare indeed—how many bilingual mothers are there who nurse literarily an infant? And how many bilingual mothers will be found who have not themselves been suckled by a bilingual mother? George Steiner has worried this question: We have always lived after the fall of Babel's tower.

Well then, usually a translator has acquired a second language relatively early in life: or learned it later by dint of deep study. One has been acquainted with the polyglot who speaks several languages, and even writes well in them. But, the effort of the communication in literary translation requires more than a few polyglots, if poetry, for example, in one language is to be made widely known. (One assumes it should be—for cultural, social and political, not only historical and esthetic reasons.) I will take it for granted that is useful, indeed necessary in this rapidly shrinking world, for people, or at least literary people, to find ways to enter imaginatively into the heritage of others, into their way of expressing the way they are in this world. There is great benefit in that for everyone, collectively, but primarily for us individually.

Unfortunately, too many translations are made simply to carry over mainly mere meanings, if there is such a thing in literature as a mere meaning. These come from persons who are content to get it done, who either have a weak grasp of the original language of cannot write well in the language or the translation. Too much, we know, is lost. And we always worry about the fidelity and accuracy of most translations even as we read. Most of us are bored by what is known as "translatese," meaning the thing is badly written in English. And, how well is the original approximated? Critics seize upon terrible errors in condemning a translation. Too many translations one reads are boring because they are merely wooden. And so on. Even the best of translations are subject to misreading and misappropriation in the light of some current vogue or some reader's inevitable cultural bias. The critical theory popular today is the notion that the only possible reading is ineluctably a misreading of a text, any text—even a text native in English! We cannot, according to Professor Harold Bloom's dicta two decades ago, help misreading anything per se. Our skepticism is in short Pyrrhonic.

Given that, I, and many others as well, over the past 30 years or so, took the dilemma by the horns, or rather, went between its horns, perhaps altogether avoided the dilemma by simply ignoring it as far as possible. In my case, rather than translating from French, Italian or German, I translated from languages I cannot read or understand: Hungarian, Persian, Bulgarian. My method is simple enough; in point of fact, it hardly constitutes a method.

The position of Hungarian literati has always been that there are great works of world-class poetry written in Hungarian, a unique language spoken by a people of Central Europe. Hungarians, an exotic yet European people, a small nation of about 10 million, and millions more in diaspora. They are by necessity assiduous translators, trying to partake of the culture of their great neighbors. Around 1970, the Institute of Culture in Budapest decided to try to make other nations aware of their important poets' achievements, especially their contemporary, post-war generation. They undertook to invite poets from Great Britain, Canada and the United States to Budapest; to support them for a month at a time, to entertain them and make them personally familiar with their writers, so as to work at translation. I think that was a means to have translators physically present in Hungary. That way they have revealed to them at least the physical ambiance of food, clothing, voices, manners, monuments, landscape. By the time I made three visits, I had translated more Hungarian poems than I had made of my own. It is of course easier to produce, or reproduce others' work, simply because there is the a priori assurance that the great creative effort was already made: the poem was brought to conclusion by its author. One feels secure, because no matter how difficult the task, at least there is an end in view: the completed poem exists. One way or another one can set it all down: ontologically, it pre-exists. It does not need to be discovered; it only needs to be revealed again, uncovered, as it were, or said out in English, if possible. Not paraphrased; not reduced; not expanded; not even copied. Rather, recreated. Yet in some sense, some real sense, it is already here, just as some child already exists as a later potential human being in the genetic code of the combined spermatozoon and ovum. We do not have to invent the human species, or wait as it evolves.

What technique works for me? I ask for the poem in its original text. In the case of Persian, which is written in Arabic script, I ask for it rendered in Roman alphabetic. That makes it possible to recite aloud, to get some sense of its tonality, meter, and rhythm. Next, I ask for a word-by-word rendering In English mirroring the original's syntax. The resulting words and phrases, so far as Hungarian, Persian, Bulgarian, German, whatever are concerned, are not at all English, and seldom clear. Notwithstanding, in that way one may see and hear, in English, how the work goes in its original. One can also avoid the mediation, so far as possible, of the native-speaker who renders the ''raw" text. I do not wish that person's interpretation or understanding to occlude the text.

At the same time, the intermediary must have some literary acquaintance with English, and of course a good literary training in the arts of the native language; in short, no layman (usually called the "informant"), but a scholar, or at least an advanced student. That person must be able to comment on the original poem, the poet and the poet's time, the literary tradition, mindful of facts, ideas, even relevant notions. Because I ask for a good deal of explicative annotation: dates, sources, comments regarding metaphors customs, proverbs, and linguistic information bearing on the text. One must be helped and guided into acquaintance with etymological items that illuminate a poem's resonance and nuances. After which the task is for the translator to try to say what the poet says, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, in terms not merely comprehensible—any prose trot could do that—but as poetry in English equivalencies not always available; obviously the Hungarian hare, or better, Hungarian paprika is not grown in America. Native soil is the essence, as the later Heidegger insisted, alas for his political philosophy. And everything is different that grows in another ground, another climate. What wine growers call le terroir. It is not the same, and cannot be the same. But wine is wine, speaking generically. The translator's job is to make poetry, as it were, generically. Sometimes, though I cannot say I fully believe it, the poet claims the poem in English is better, qua poem, than the original Hungarian. If so, it is an exception, mirabile dictu. In any case, how can one tell? And how can the poet tell? Well, poets can be interesting people, if not as persons.

In short, I imagine that the "recreation" in another language can be done, though what is termed "translation" is impossible, per se. To put it ontologically, A = A, which is to say only a thing is its own identity. A poem exists as itself; it is an esthetic fact that it is a complex artifact. Although it is said to have been recreated in or translated into another language, and one may suppose one can hear—or is it "overhear"?—meanings and ideas faintly resembling the shadow of the original body, with its detail of words and phrases: it is not identical, but different. And of course necessarily subject to misreading. That is an essence reserved for those born to the original language. Furthermore, if poetry is natively speech, oral by nature, the writing down into words is itself a loss of the primal, or primordial, that is to say, original identity. That is the fundamental flaw, it has been observed, with religions transmitted in texts, and makes faith itself a fetish of tertiary derivatives. The Druids did not write their "mysteries" down. And poets, the "memory men" of archaic societies, transmitted them to disciples who kept all the words ready for speech. And when they spoke the words they had learned, they were already doing the first translation, so to say, of the original speech uttered by an Unknown speaker.

Writers know it can take a lifetime to read a poem, to understand something of it, to comprehend or imagine we comprehend it. The task of learning to read poetry teaches us that we are constantly rereading, having changed over time, and being changed by the same text each time we read. Consider how difficult to undertake the exotic text, which though changed in recreation remains foreign. Still, it is not in vain and hopeless. Something of the whole original is made available in some form, however different. What results may be useful as nourishment, as inspirational message, as pleasurable experience. In the last analysis, in a deeper sense, we realize we are all strangers, foreigners to one another as soon as we reach beyond the border of our own skins our own private thoughts. As individual human beings, we are unique, personal, and original in our solitary existence.

In the act of reading, one deludes oneself that one comes to know something of another, and hears another speaking and thinking. How much more illusory for example is a poem that seems to mimic foreign words to concoct a reasonable facsimile, pretending all the while that they are not essentially unknowable. In doing so, we deny that it would be better to remain deaf and dumb to anything other than the musical speech of our own poets, who speak to their fellow tribesmen in the little square of the little village of their own tongue. And every language is a village, a parochial hamlet; seen in this perspective, even English, a world-language today. A poem addressed to a poet's own people, who may number no more than 100 souls hidden in some jungle bower in remotest Amazonia, is the equivalent, ontologically, of an ode by Pindar or sonnet of Shakespeare's. This being so, then how much more difficult it is to make a case for translation without agreeing that although it is impossible, it is necessary and preferable to a permanent, perpetual isolation and provincialism, and forsake hope of mutualities that offer whatever slight morsel of understanding. Without even a little understanding, what are we, and what can we hope to be? That the task of translation, literally and metaphorically, is daunting might be suggested in this way: until Sigmund Freud tried to construct what was called "the talking cure," or psychoanalysis, communication's imponderable hopelessness was not fully appreciated. Over the past century, it has been shown that even the most adept analyst may listen and converse with a person about specific matters like symptoms of neurosis, compulsion, anxiety, phobia, etc., for a decade and more and yet not be at all certain that the patient's expressions can be parsed and understood as the patient construes and utters them in language. And it may well be that whatever understanding is gained in the process results from the mirroring of language: that is, the hearing by oneself of oneself, and the comprehension by oneself of what is meant by one's words.

A last question: To whom does the poet speak? As I have suggested earlier, it can be surmised that it may not be to us. Going further, perhaps, the poet speaks not to himself or herself, but metaphorically, if not in fact literally, to the mother, to her breast, to her arms, to her heart, to her voice, perhaps to the mother as womb and from the womb. That is what is meant by the phrase "the mother tongue." The "mother" is not only the source of the poet's speech but the end of speaking. Therefore, perhaps poetry, by its coming into being, is itself a sort of translation from a language neither heard nor known: a language that is Other, as unknown, as exotic as any language one has not learned, but can try to translate into one's one. Apart from the various skills in writing poems one may bring to the task, the first principle may be simple, as a Romanian linguist once remarked briefly at an international congress on translation. There is little need for complex theory and linguistic erudition and so forth: the elementary item with which translation must be concerned is the "logeme." With that tool in hand, the core meaning of any source phrase, the rest is constructed in the target language. It is all that one can hope to do, for better or for worse.


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