When Translators Do Math

There are so many different forms of literary experimentation, and sometimes translating the works that result from them can force the translator to walk the tightrope right behind the author. Just think of all those Oulipoian texts written around the use of constraints, the more constraining the better. The genesis of such a text might look like this: “Write a novel without once using the letter e, in French!” Well, we already know that such a lipogram cannot include the directive that produced it, since “write,” “novel,” “once,” “letter” and even “the” are all verboten. Instead we might read: “Script a book not containing this off-limits sign.” The constraint limits comprehensibility, and when practiced with skill can result in texts whose underlying strangeness lends interest to the narrative, as in the famous example of George Perec’s 1969 novel La Disparition, translated by Gilbert Adair as A Void (since the word “disappear” had to disappear, along with “disappearing”).

And what about when authors do math? Translator Gregary Racz was recently interviewed about his translation of the poem “Profecia alfabético-numeral” (“Alphabetical-Numerical Prophecy”) by 19th century Uruguayan poet Francisco Acuña de Figueroa, for which Racz was awarded the Alicia Gordon Award for Word Artistry in Translation by the American Translators Association. Acuña de Figueroa’s rhymed poem assigns each letter a numerical value and tallies them up to arrive at the grand sum of 1847, a significant date in the poem.

Here are the first lines in Spanish:

12. 1. 21. 12. 5. 22. 20. 1. 21. 4. 5. 5. 21.
L a s l e t r a s d e e s

22. 5. 1. 12. 6. 1. 2. 5. 22. 17.
t e a l f a b e t o…………….243

And in Racz’s English:

12. 15. 20. 8. 5. 1. 12. 16. 8. 1.
L o t h e a l p h a

2. 5. 20. 19. 12. 5. 20. 20. 5. 18. 19.
b e t’ s l e t t e r s………243

The underlying line “Las letras de este alfabeto” becomes, cleverly, “Lo, the alphabet’s letters.”

It looks simple enough if you ignore the constraint. But constraints are interesting: they force the brain to apply its cognitive powers to something other than narrative and “meaning” – which turns out to be a good strategy for the production of literature. If you don’t believe me, just think about the success of all those crazy artificial verse forms poets are always forcing their imaginations to conform to: the sonnet, the terza rima, the villanelle and – my personal favorite – the sestina.

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  1. Oh, I so wish I could be at your seminar this afternoon! It’s very true what you write: I think the emotional experience the writer has can often be much richer for these texts than that of the reader, unless the texts turn out rich enough to transcend that. But I think the translator can wind up back in the realm of emotional engagement, which is interesting. I should interview Adair. But that’s also what makes automatic writing a good jumping-off place (rather than destination) for writing projects, e.g. I’m thinking of the poems in Christian Hawkey’s Trakl book whose first drafts were homophonic translations and whose final drafts were Christian Hawkey poems with a faintly recognizable trace of Trakl still left in them.

  2. Dara says:

    This causes me to wish you were instantaneously transportable to Amherst so you could meet with my seminar to talk this through some more. The psychology/human nature aspect of it I’d like to dig into. E.g…..it seems more emotionally gratifying for the one who’s writing within the rules of the game; for the one who’s reading how it unfolded it seems more distant, possibly at times as if one is relegated to a position of checking to see if the rules are being followed, I know I’m simplifying. This is exciting. I’d like to quote you, is it possible you might send me a word document of what’s above? [email protected] With best wishes, DW

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