The Architecture of Translation

Yesterday I spent several hours with German poet Uljana Wolf – a book of whose poems I’m translating for Ugly Duckling Presse – going over the texts of the poems. This certainly isn’t something I always do with an author whose work I’m translating, but Uljana herself translates from English to German and speaks outstanding English. She also tends to have excellent ideas about navigating the thornier passages in her poems, which is particularly useful in the present case, since the book in question is an abecedary of sorts, each poem inspired by “false friends” or German/English cognates that wind up meaning completely different things in the two languages, and written in a mix of German and English. The “i” poem, for example, invokes the German word “igel” that appears doubly in English: both as its semantic equivalent “hedgehog” and its homophonic translation “eagle,” which get linked in a semi-narrative passage involving the sorts of animals that figure in fairy tales. In any case, being able to pick Uljana’s brain during the final revision process was invaluable, and certain choice tidbits in the translation are her personal contributions; in the “c” poem, for instance – a sensual take on love – the word “donut” that got deconstructed in the German into “du not go, or i’ll go nuts” (du = you) now reads, in the purely English version, “do nut go, or i’ll go nuts.” It’s a shame that the overtly bilingual character of the poems has to be glossed over in the translation, but the fact of the matter is that while most educated Germans read enough English to understand bilingual poems with ease, making substantial use of German in the translations would limit the poems’ readership dramatically. In any case, while revising we found ourselves swapping phrases back and forth and pinching out individual words and bits of lines that didn’t quite work, replacing them with others. And it invariably happened that the rhythms of these missing building blocks presented themselves before the words themselves could be found, a phenomenon I’ve written about elsewhere. While we were talking about our collaboration afterward, it occurred to us that this way of thinking about the translation process was well described by the great Heinrich von Kleist‘s aphorism: “The arch stands because each of its stones wants to fall.” Kleist described this phenomenon in a letter to his betrothed, Wilhelmine von Zenge, whom he was attempting to educate epistolarily, and even drew a picture to show her what he was talking about:The point of the arch was to serve as an allegorical symbol of human fortitude in the face of trials. Kleist recycled the image eight years later in his play Penthesilea, in which a consort of the beleaguered Amazon queen uses a quite similar phrase to encourage her regent to buck up. In any case, something in our conversation reminded me of this image, and when I quoted it, Uljana pointed out that it also described the very activity we’d been pursuing all afternoon: trying to find just the right combination of (individually fallible and failing) words that would prop each other up to hold the lines of poetry together. If you are curious to see the results of our efforts, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until approximately April for the appearance of our book False Friends: A DICHTionary of False Friends, True Cognates and Other Cousins, by Uljana Wolf. I’m sure we’ll be throwing a nice book party when the time comes, so watch this space for details.
(Photo of Uljana Wolf © Timm Kolln)

Collaborative translation = phone sex?

My poet colleague Kimiko Hahn and I were just talking about translation of the sort in which a native speaker of language X collaborates with a native speaker of language Y to produce a collaborative translation from X into Y, and she remarked, “It’s just like phone sex!” Of course translation isn’t exactly the same as phone sex – there’s no telephone involved, for one thing – but the wonderful new journal Telephone was most certainly on to something when it presented itself as a forum where poets can experiment with translation from languages they may or not master directly. The telephone simile works well to express something about the immediacy deficit incurred when a translation is created not within a single cranium but in the space between two communicating brains. Yes, even the communication between brains is mediated, because thoughts must be translated clumsily or incisively into speech and that speech uttered and heard – leaving so much room for distortion. But in fact this distortion can be productive, because it allows us some possible remedies for one particularly dire malaise that threatens translation in general and poetry translation in particular: the sort of slavish attentiveness to the letter of the original that causes the translator to lose touch with the proclivities and potentialities of the language into which she is translating. By splitting the translator into two actual separate persons, one of whom is responsible for safeguarding the original, the other for safeguarding the new text that is being engendered by the two together, the translating team can practice a sort of dual advocacy for the text’s incarnations. Of course, translators who fly solo can achieve the same effect (I certainly hope I succeed in this when I’m translating), but it’s good to be reminded of the play of directness and distance inherent in every act of translation.

Retranslating the German Classics

I was just talking with star translator (and author) Joel Agee, who confided in me that he’s flirting with the idea of doing a new translation of Goethe’s iconic play Faust. Now, trumpeting someone’s just-barely-hatched plans is not something I would ordinarily do, but in this case I’m making an exception, because I would like all of you to immediately start dreaming and praying (whatever works for you) that this comes to pass, and if you know Agee, please do everything in your power to egg him on. Publishers, take note! Granting organizations, ditto! If you read Agee’s phenomenal translation of Heinrich von Kleist’s masterpiece Penthesilea – the work that inspired me not to drop out of graduate school, just so that I could do more work on Kleist – you will know what I am talking about. The difficulty of translating Kleist’s early 19th-century verse dramas – nearly every line of which displays a knife-sharp precision of language and tone, with irony and pathos intricately interwoven to stunning effect – far exceeds that of most any other translation project one might encounter. Kleist is for the brilliant, the bold and/or the foolhardy. Agee, with his skills, was just the man for the job. The play in English couldn’t have come out better. And now he’s thinking of a Faust. Admittedly, for true lovers of Kleist, Goethe is a difficult character. Goethe was a generation older than Kleist and had been thrust onto the public stage at the tender age of 25 with his international bestseller The Sorrows of Young Werther, and soon he found himself all but universally revered in Germany. He was a powerful figure both in the literary world and on the stage – he ran the Hoftheater in Weimar for many years – and was perfectly positioned to launch the careers of young writers. In Kleist’s case, he preferred not to. Kleist’s thorny sensibility and love of nasty moral dilemmas displeased the Prince of Poets, whose aesthetics were more based on the harmony principle (though he loosened up a bit in his last major work, the posthumously published Faust II). So it’s easy for die-hard Kleistians to hold a grudge. But Goethe remains the iconic writer of late-18th-century Germany, and his Faust – the story of a scholar who makes a pact with the devil in his search for knowledge and worldly pleasures – is deservedly canonical, a truly magnificent work, and I would love to see what Joel Agee can do with it in translation. If you’re in a position to help make this happen, please act now!

Translation and Procrastination

If you’re wondering why I did so little blogging over New Year’s, the answer is quite simple: I had four translation jobs all come due at exactly the same time, Dec. 31. Now, “I’ll get it in by the end of the year” seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to promise someone in, say, August. Lots of surplus months in there. I recently heard or read somewhere that we are much more generous with the time of our future selves than with that of our current ones. Our current selves are the ones who don’t have time to grab a quick coffee with you, sorry, and probably didn’t pick up the telephone in the first place because they were doing something urgent, like blogging. Anyhow, having several jobs going at once (we’re talking short stories here, not novels) turns out to work for me, because the older I become, the more incapable I seem to be of getting anything at all accomplished if I am not, at the same time, avoiding some other, preferably even more urgent task. Yes, this is psychological, and therefore no doubt surmountable – I do understand this. So would someone please send me the step-by-step instructions that will lead to my cure? On the other hand, what is procrastination if not a form of what the illustrious Walter Benjamin described so eloquently under the name Zerstreuung (distraction)? See, so it’s a philosophical category; why would you want to mess with it? And the fact is that the faint twinge of guilty conscience produced by the knowledge that one is irredeemably shirking automatically puts one (me) on such fertile soil. I like it here – just look at that view! And these multiple deadlines have served me well these past two weeks. By avoiding two of the translation jobs, I got the other two done lickety-split, and then the sheer difficulty of the fourth (fine-tooth-combing my translation of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s long essay on translation for a new edition of the anthology in which it first appeared) frightened me into putting my nose to the grindstone on the third (an excerpt from Shanghai Performance, the new novel by writer Silke Scheuermann). Then, just as I was despairing of ever getting up the nerve to stare down old Friedrich, a miracle intervened: I received an e-mail from the editor for whom I sometimes translate art reviews, reminding me that I had promised her three short reviews sometime this week. Eureka! Schleiermacher is done.
Oh, and if anyone reading this happens to be a student of mine and you find that these thoughts about procrastination and creativity resonate with you, please note that procrastination works only when you are doing the homework for my class to procrastinate doing something else. Hey, I wrote this blog entry while procrastinating making myself dinner. ’nuff said.

The Language for the 2011 Sontag Prize? Italian!

Happy new year, everyone!
As most of you probably know, the Susan Sontag Prize for Translation, which is awarded yearly to a young (under 30) translator, switches languages each year, and the language that has been chosen for the 2011 competition is Italian. The purpose of the prize, in keeping with Susan Sontag’s well-known love of foreign-language literature, is to encourage the growth of a community of young translators by offering a substantial incentive (in the form of a $5000 grant) for young people with literary aspirations to try their hands at translation. Every year, in conjunction with the announcement of the prize, the Foundation puts on a symposium related to translation and to the literature of the language(s) in question. Application instructions can be found on the Sontag Foundation website.
This year’s deadline is March 1, 2011, and the winner will be announced on May 13, 2011.

NPR Features Translation as Artistic Partnership

NPR has just launched a new series of features on artistic partnerships to be included in their All Things Considered broadcasts, and I was delighted to see that they chose to lead off the series with a segment on literary translation. For the segment, Lynn Neary interviewed star translators Edith Grossman and Lydia Davis, both of whom reported finding aspects of collaboration in their work. For Grossman, who is celebrated for her retranslation of Cervantes’s great novel Don Quixote, literary translation is a matter of shared authorship, and she imagines sitting down to chat with Cervantes over a drink. Davis, who says her goal is “speaking in the voice and in the manner, as much as I can, of the original author,” read Flaubert’s letters while working on her retranslation of Madame Bovary to get a sense of what was on his mind while he was writing the novel. Whereas Grossman says she intentionally refrained from looking at earlier translations of Don Quixote, wanting nothing to interfere with her own sense of the novel’s voice, Davis did consult other versions of Flaubert’s novel while she was in the process of revising her own translation. She says she felt she and the earlier translators were “sitting in the room together wrestling with the same problems,” and she would have liked to collaborate with them to achieve “the final, definitive, wonderful translation.” A podcast of the program is available on the NPR website, as is a somewhat abridged print version.

Translation and Intimacy

After the Robert Walser event on Christmas Day, I wound up having a conversation with poet Dara Wier about translating and reading. People are always talking about how translating is a form of reading, and I suppose that’s true, but its actual relationship to reading is more complicated than the simple assertion of the relationship implies. Everyone reads a bit differently than everyone else. We all have our own private histories and associations and reading and listening backgrounds, so certain words (all words?) will resonate differently for each of us than they do for other people. In any case, any given word can have a range of meanings, and usually when you translate you are selecting one (or if you’re lucky, two) and excluding all the others. This means that any given translation provides a permanent record of the way the translator read the original text. “But reading is such a private thing,” Dara said, “and you’re letting everyone see you doing it.” Which raises the question: Are translators exhibitionists, constantly reading, and constantly showing off the fact that we’ve been reading and what we saw? It’s certainly the case that reading a translation puts you at the mercy of the translator’s subjectivity. As a translator, I’ll pretend to be showing you the text as objectively as I can—and in fact that’s just what I’m trying to do—but nonetheless you have no choice but to read as I read the original when you read my translation. How you read the translation itself, however, is entirely up to you.