Archive for August 2011

Decision Fatigue

It’s hard to wait for a hurricane. The constant awareness of danger inexorably approaching creates a slow burn of anxiety that wears on the body, not just the mind. It may well be that New York will be spared the sort of devastation that Irene is currently inflicting on the coastal regions of North Carolina and Virginia, but it’s impossible to know what sort of storm we’ll get until it’s already here. Meanwhile I can’t help noticing that the only other residents of my building who seem truly alarmed about what may be coming our way tomorrow are the superintendent, who experienced a major storm in Puerto Rico as a child, and a neighbor from Atlanta. The native New Yorkers seem unconcerned. As for me, having grown up in New Orleans and seen my city ravaged by floodwaters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina almost exactly six years ago, I have a great deal of respect for the havoc a storm like this can wreak. Maybe you have to witness destruction like this with your own eyes to really grasp it. Even though I spent days glued to CNN in 2005 as New Orleans was flooding (a manmade disaster, by the way), it took returning to the city three months after the storm to fully understand the extent of the damage. Pictures of devastated buildings and even blocks cannot capture what it feels like to stand at the center of an intersection, looking down the street in every direction and finding not a single habitable dwelling as far as you can see. Or what it means to drive down in a U-Haul truck to salvage the contents of your parents’ house, only to realize that pretty much everything in a condition to be worth saving would have fit in the trunk of a car. Waiting for Irene is calling up these memories again; you don’t know what kind of storm you’re getting until it arrives.

Noting the physicality of these feelings reminds me of an article I wanted to blog about when I first read it in the August 17, 2011 issue of The New York Times Magazine, because it made me realize something about the physicality of translation work. “Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue?” by John Tierney talks about a phenomenon I’d often experienced but never fully understood: Making decisions – like suffering anxiety – is physically as well as mentally taxing. Tierney explores the research in the area of what social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister dubbed “ego depletion,” in particular new studies that indicate that we have only a finite capacity for decision-making, and that once this particular store of energy is depleted, we begin to choose randomly, wildly, exhaustedly, or else find ways to put off making decisions. This is why savvy car dealers will barrage buyers with a large array of unimportant choices in the early phases of the car-purchase transaction (what color upholstery? cup holders?) so that, twenty or thirty minutes later, the exhausted buyers will be more likely to allow themselves to be steered towards more expensive optional features. When exhausted, we tend to default to whatever is recommended to us. Fortunately there is a surprisingly simple way to recharge the depleted brain: add glucose. It really seems to be the case that taking a short break from the mental activity – and eating something – can help put us back in a position to think and choose to the best of our abilities.

Now think about what the translator’s work actually consists of. The sort of writing we do as translators involves constantly choosing among lists of synonyms and alternative phrasings. Translators tend to be like walking thesauri, highly conscious that language comes sorted into neat little bundles of words and phrases with overlapping meanings. Say “suddenly” to a translator, and she will immediately be able to shoot back the alternates “all at once,” “abruptly” and “unexpectedly.” A translator, more than writers of other sorts, is someone who sits at a desk choosing between alternatives all day long. And so it makes sense that translators will regularly hit the wall in their day-to-day work. And what Tierney’s article teaches us is what not to do when this occurs: Don’t just try to muscle through the exhaustion, waiting for your second wind to arrive. Much better is to respect the chemistry of your brain and body and do something that will actually improve your ability to work effectively: Step away from your desk for a few minutes, and while you’re at it, have a snack.

I wish everyone who is reading this a safe weekend. May Irene come gently.

Farewell, Dynamic Equivalencer

Amidst all the frenzy of preparing simultaneously for a new semester and a putative hurricane, I heard today that Eugene Nida had died in Brussels at the age of 96. Newcomers to the field of translation studies may not know his work, but he was indisputably one of the translation theory giants of the mid-twentieth century. I suppose it makes sense that if you live long enough, you will eventually find your ideas discredited. But I for one am still a fan of Nida’s work. And within his field of specialization – Bible translation – his theories have never really gone out of style. In fact, one might argue that they have remained in style ever since the sixteenth century: Bible translator Martin Luther’s 1530 Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen (Open Letter on Translating) expounds principles that were clear forerunners of Nida’s famous notion of “dynamic equivalence” that he describes in his seminal essay “Principles of Correspondence” (1964).

Martin Luther insisted that the translator should observe the way ordinary people speak (dem Volk aufs Maul schauen) and translate accordingly. He rejected the attribute “full of grace” for the Virgin Mary (remarking: “full of grace the way a barrel is full of beer?”) and hailed her instead as Holdselige (sweet/dear/gracious/lovely one). Not mincing words, he declared his adversaries who preferred to “let the Latin language teach them how to write German” to be Esel (jackasses). Obviously Luther was successful as a translator – his tendentious translation of the Bible launched a whole new branch of Christianity. And Nida, too – who was ordained as a Baptist minister the same year he completed his PhD in linguistics – was profoundly devoted to communicating the word of God. Nida’s notion of “dynamic equivalence” (a.k.a. functional equivalence) was based on the idea that no two languages correspond exactly to one another and that the translator must therefore be attentive to the goals and strategies of the original text, seeking out phrases and concepts in the target language that will achieve a parallel act of communication. This approach makes sense, particularly if you are, say, a missionary who wishes to import religious concepts into a culture in which they are unfamiliar. Local points of reference are then sought to ease in understanding. The ideals of Nida’s “dynamically equivalent” translation include clarity and naturalness of expression. He is not primarily concerned with literary translation per se.
Now, translation of Nida’s sort stands in direct opposition to the approach advocated by a very different sort of theologian, my hero Friedrich Schleiermacher, and it is Schleiermacher’s ideas (centering around the aim of preserving cultural and linguistic specificity in translation) that have dominated late-twentieth century translation theory, particularly as practiced by leading theorist Lawrence Venutiand his followers (myself included). Just this past winter I attended a lecture by Venuti entitled “The Ruse of Equivalent Effect” at the American Literary Translators Association conference in which he attacked Nida’s ideas using what wound up striking me as a logical fallacy. Venuti argued that an example given by Nida himself to illustrate dynamic equivalence was flawed, and concluded from this that the principle itself had no validity. It’s quite true that the example in question is offensive to our Schleiermacher-schooled sensibilities (Nida praises J.B. Phillips for expressing the notion “greet one another with a holy kiss” in Romans 16:16 as “give one another a hearty handshake all around”). This translation transplants the cultural context of Biblical times to what makes me think of Connecticut in the 1960s. Obviously this is a grievously outdated way of thinking about translation. But at the same time, Nida is right to recognize that this “holy kiss” is something that won’t make sense to modern readers and to conclude from this that the translator must find a way to address this discrepancy. As I see it, there has to be some way to communicate the essence and function of the kiss while also communicating something about the context in which it served as a form of greeting. In short, I don’t believe that one should have to choose between a Nidean and a Schleiermachian approach to translation as mutually exclusive alternatives. Each of these two theorists proposed goals that are important for the translator to keep in mind. Ideally, I would like to achieve such a high level of skill at Schleiermachian translation that my work will also ring true to an adherent of dynamic equivalence.

Incidentally, religion is not the only sphere in which dynamic equivalence is of crucial importance. The one time I had the fortune to experience Eugene Nida in person – in the spring of 1988 at the University of Zurich, where he had been invited to lecture by Mary Snell-Hornby – he spoke about his most recent project at the time, which involved training translators to work at the U.N. It turns out that in questions of international relations, clarity and naturalness of expression are high on the list of desiderata, just as they are in church.

Shaken or Stirred?

Translationista has been on vacation for the last three weeks, but now that summer is drawing to a close, I’m ready to get back to my mission of making the world safe for translation. Not that things feel that safe in New York these days. We just got shaken up by an (admittedly tiny) earthquake, and are possibly about to get whirled around in circles by Hurricane Irene, unless she peters out on her way up the coast, as I certainly hope she will.

Meanwhile I was delighted to see my translation of Uljana Wolf‘s False Friends prominently featured on the website of the Iowa Review, where Erica Mena has written the sort of review every translator dreams of getting. Besides the fact that Mena clearly loved the book, she writes in extraordinary, perceptive detail about the language of my translation, analyzing it both in its own right and with respect to the overall strategies of the original text. I very much like the way she reads, and am thrilled that some of the effects I was hoping to achieve in the translation worked for her. One in particular was estranging the English words used in the original poems, where they by default had an estranging function, just by being in English. I had originally considered just flipping the linguistic equation and translating the words that appeared in English within the German context to make them German within the English poems, but in the end I decided not to (with one exception that I’ll leave it to you to find). The German/English relationship is not symmetrical: Most educated Germans can read English, while knowledge of German is relatively unusual among English-language readers (though I am always surprised how many of my American poet friends do in fact speak and read some German). But the bilingualism of these poems was intended to be playful, not scholarly, so I decided to play around with the English Uljana used to complicate the relationship between original and translation in a way that would be in keeping with the overall strategy of her poems. For instance, in the “B” poem Mena cites, I transformed “out of bed” into the more ambiguous “out of hand.” And to give credit where credit is due, it was the volume’s editor, poet Matvei Yankelevich, who suggested turning “make a bet” into “fake a bet,” noting quite correctly that I was letting an opportunity for humorous estrangement slip through my fingers. As readers of this blog know, I love working with editors, particularly ones who are skilled at bringing their own aesthetic savvy into alignment with the spirit of a project; sometimes the slight distance from which an editor views a book (not having just slogged through four previous drafts of it like the weary translator) puts him/her in a position to suggest the most brilliant tweaks. Thank you, Matvei! And thank you to Erica Mena for this close, insightful reading of the poems.

False Friends is also featured in a wide-ranging new essay, “Towards a Conceptual Lyric: From Content to Context,” published by the wonderful Marjorie Perloff in the online journal of culture Jacket2. Perloff, too, writes about the “B” poem, and to my delight she describes it as a love poem. As I see it, there is a love story loosely interwoven through most of the pages of this book, which speaks again and again of distance and approach, linguistic divides and other romantic challenges, letters arriving from afar, cohabitation and compatibility. The “O” poem (in which “our lips conjoin without translation”) is even erotic. And though in general I don’t recommend relying too heavily on the authorial fallacy, I do think it relevant to note in this case that poet Uljana Wolf is married to poet Christian Hawkey, and that talking about poetics is a form of lovemaking.

Rules for Translators

I was recently invited to guest-blog on M. Lynx Qualey’s website Arabic Literature (in English). She’s begun asking translators around the world to provide her with a list of ten rules for translating, and since this sounded like a fun assignment, I signed right up. So what are my rules for translating? Click over and have a look. And then you can look to see how some of my translator colleagues responded to her request. It’s always good to hear what translators think about when they approach their craft.
Oh, and to elucidate Rule #6: Roget’s International Thesaurus is a book that belongs on the desk of every serious translator into English. I’ve been working with it for years. The great William Weaver used the same one when he was still translating (I know because I saw it on his dining room table, where he liked to work). What separates this reference work from other dictionaries of synonyms is that it is arranged not alphabetically but by category. If you open it up at the beginning and start reading, you’ll find the categories “Birth,” “The Body” and “Hair,” followed some hundred pages later by “Excitement,” “Inexcitability,” “Contentment” etc. An alphabetical index at the back directs you to the appropriate category, or in most cases categories – you’re asked to specify which sense of a particular word you’re looking for. Under “inquietude,” for example, you’re asked to choose between synonyms that fall under the sub-headings “unpleasure,” “excitement,” “anxiety,” “trepidation” and “agitation.” Under each thematic category, the words are grouped by parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, phrases. This is what makes this book such a powerful tool for the translator, since it very often happens that an idea embodied by one part of speech in the original text might best be handled in the translation using a different part of speech altogether. “What’s that verb that’s like the noun ‘indolence’?” Roget’s has some suggestions for you: “idle,” “loll” “lounge,” “loiter,” “dally,” “dawdle” and many many others, dozens of others. “Trifle,” “dabble,” “fribble,” “footle,” “putter,” “potter,” “piddle,” “diddle,” “doodle,” etc. No online synonym finder can come even close. And a shopping tip: the presence of the name “Roget’s” in the title does not guarantee an indexed edition; if the words “in dictionary form” appear anywhere on the cover, this is not the book I’m talking about.