Monday, February 26, 2007

The Humor (and Poetics!) of Mistranslations

While reading Walter Nash’s The Language of Humour: Style and Technique in Comic Discourse, I noticed a short passage on mistranslations. Mr. Nash refers to the humor that can come from the “excessively literally or misguidedly ambitious” translation. Surely we’ve all sniggered at poor translations in users’ manuals for items manufactured in other countries or while on vacation, whether in hotel rooms or on menus. Maybe some of us have even attempted to politely inform the managers of the restaurants or hotels that the translation was not correct. What’s interesting is that these mistranslations can inspire artists, as in the poem by Robert Graves referred to by Mr. Nash.

Apparently Mr. Graves noticed a badly translated tourist guide and let himself be inspired by it:

«¡Wellcome, to the Caves of Arta!» by Robert Graves

‘They are hollowed out in the see-coast at the muncipal terminal of Capdepera at nine kilometer from the town of Arta in the Island of Mallorca, with a stuporizing infinity of graceful colums of 21 meter and by downward, which prives the spectator of all animacion and plunges in dumbness. The way going is very picturesque, serpentine between style mountains, til the arrival at the esplanade of the vallee called «The Spiders». There are good enlacements of the railroad with autobuses of excursion, many days of the week, today actually Wednesday and Satturday. Since many centuries renown foreing visitors have explored them and wrote their elegy about, included Nort-American geoglogues.’ [From a tourist guide]

Such subtile filigranity and nobless of construccion
Here fraternise in harmony, that respiracion stops.
While all admit thier impotence (though autors most formidable)
To sing in words the excellence of Nature's underprops,
Yet stalactite and stalagmite together with dumb language
Make hymnes to God wich celebrate the stregnth of water drops.

¿You, also, are you capable to make precise in idiom
Consideracions magic of ilusions very wide?
Already in the Vestibule of these Grand Caves of Arta
The spirit of the human verb is darked and stupefied;
So humildy you trespass trough the forest of the colums
And listen to the grandess explicated by the guide.

From darkness into darkness, but at measure, now descending
You remark with what esxactitude he designates each bent;
«The Saloon of Thousand Banners», or «The Tumba of Napoleon»,
«The Grotto of the Rosary», «The Club», «The Camping Tent»,
And at «Cavern of the Organs» there are knocking strange formacions
Wich give a nois particular pervoking wonderment.

Too far do not adventure, sir! For, further as you wander,
The every of the stalactites will make you stop and stay.
Grand peril amenaces now, your nostrills aprehending
An odour least delicious of lamentable decay.
It is poor touristers, in the depth of obscure cristal,
Wich deceased of thier emocion on a past excursion day.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Translating Primo Levi

Readers of the New Yorker might have noticed that quite a few recent issues have included stories by late authors, two of which were by Primo Levi. Ann Goldstein translated one of those stories from the Italian (Alessandra Bastagli translated the other one) and she talks about his work and the translation of it on the New Yorker’s website.

In this interview, Ms. Goldstein discusses, among other things, Mr. Levi’s “precise” language and his use of scientific terms; she says that she chooses scientific words in English that the reader may not know rather than simplifying them because she is aware of the fact that Italian readers, too, wouldn’t necessarily recognize all those terms. Thus, she attempts to retain Mr. Levi’s intentions.

An interesting note is that Ms. Goldstein seems to say that her first translation from Italian was published in the New Yorker. I’m sure many of us who work as literary translators, or would like to, don’t ever get published in that magazine, much less with our very first job! She is now one of the translators of the forthcoming collected works of Primo Levi.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Translation and Censorship

I’ve never compared translation to censorship before, but this interesting quote from poet Joseph Brodsky, which I noticed in the book Translating Milan Kundera by Michelle Woods, does just that:

“What translation has in common with censorship is that both operate on the basis of the ‘what’s possible’ principle, and it must be noted that linguistic barriers can be as high as those erected by the state.”

Obviously, the major difference is that censorship attempts to keep something out, whereas translation has to find a way to get around the cultural and “linguistic barriers”. That’s the challenge involved in being a translator – you have to escape the censorship that cultures and languages attempt to impose, whether they do so intentionally or not.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Learn a New Language and Concentrate Better

Like many people, I have heard it said that those who speak two or more languages aren’t really fluent in any language. That has never made much sense to me, and when parents have used that reasoning as an excuse not to teach their children their native tongues, I have thought it was misguided and sad. Well, this recent article says that research into bilingual people suggests that they are in fact able to operate in more than one language, and also that they are better able to concentrate. So while it is true that there can be interference between or among languages (and I have certainly spoken or written the wrong language to people more than once, so I know what an embarrassment it can be), the potential benefits seem to be stronger. Hopefully there will be more research on this soon, but in the meantime, we can all safely continue learning foreign tongues!

Monday, February 12, 2007

More on the Ethics of Translation

I always find the ethics of translation to be a fascinating topic, so it was interesting to see it come up for the second time within a year in Randy Cohen’s Ethicist column in the New York Times Magazine.

In Sunday’s column, a woman writes that her father, a translator, was hired to translate pages from a diary of a woman whose husband suspected she was cheating on him. Was it ethical to translate the diary pages? Mr. Cohen says that the translation was legal, but not moral.

I agree with his assessment and I hope I would have turned down the assignment, but the fact is that translators don’t always get to see (or know much about) the work before they accept it, although certainly a translator could turn down the job once she or he sees the document in question. Also, some freelancers might truly be desperate for money and unable to say no to any work.

What do you think? Would you have accepted this job? When does something cross the line for you from being an acceptable job to one you feel obligated to refuse?

Friday, February 09, 2007

Translating Milan Kundera

In the last post, I quoted from a review of I.B. Singer’s work, which makes it clear that he rewrote as he translated, thus blurring the definition of translation. In the book Translating Milan Kundera, Michelle Woods describes how Mr. Kundera does the same thing, constantly translating his work and his biography in a variety of ways.

Milan Kundera is a Franco-Czech novelist who, it can be argued, primarily has readership though translation. Ms. Woods analyses his oeuvre and the various functions of translation within it through the prism of the four kinds of translation that she sees there: translation in the traditional sense (that is, between languages and cultures), rewriting (Mr. Kundera rewrites his books, reworks his earlier writings into later ones, and redefines his bibliography), writing (all writing can be considered translation, and this is especially applicable to Mr. Kundera, since he mostly writes for a non-Czech audience), and reception (how publishers and readers both in the Czech Republic and abroad understand and receive his work). Woods compares and studies Kundera’s Czech, French, and English writings, and uses them as a case study to understand all the different ways translation is involved in authorship.

What is interesting about Mr. Kundera, as with Mr. Singer, is that he changes his books as he reviews and works on the translations (he does not translate himself, but works with and supervises his translators closely – some say too closely. The books aren’t changed so much that they become unrecognizable, but they are clearly not just ‘straight’ translations. So they are some combination of rewriting, adapting, and translating. Perhaps we could call it transwriting, writing across cultural and linguistic boundaries.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Translating and Rewriting

Speaking of Yiddish, I noticed this review of a biography of Isaac Bashevis Singer in December. Interestingly, the biography itself is a translation, which is never mentioned, but the review does briefly discuss the translation of Mr. Singer’s work:

“Fame in America came to Singer shortly after, when The Partisan Review published his story “Gimpel the Fool.” Here too, though, sweetness came with bitterness. Saul Bellow had translated the work at the request of Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg. “I had seven names in all: imbecile, donkey, flax-head, dope, glump, ninny and fool,” Gimpel begins, sounding more like Augie March than someone from the old country. It’s hard not to wonder about the effect on Singer of this side door to renown. We know he never let Bellow near another story of his, doing his own translations from that time on with the help of not-so-famous assistants.

“These translations — “second originals” as Singer called them — grew to be quite different from the Yiddish texts. Singer often stripped much of the metaphysics and verbal density out of his native-language efforts, leaving a simpler mix of the imaginative and the quotidian, the carnal and the concrete, that he felt would appeal to the tastes of English-language readers. And they — especially American Jews — responded. Singer became for them an appealing combination of home-grown mystical realist and approachable modernist. In addition, he was the beneficiary of their guilt and grief over the fate of the people they had left behind in Europe.”

In other words, Mr. Singer changed his works as he ‘translated’ them, perhaps just to make small adjustments or improvements at times, and for other works, changing them for the target audience. Is something still a translation if it is a new, changed version in a new language? Where is the line drawn between translating and rewriting, or translating and adapting?

This will be discussed more in the next post.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Books on Language – Yiddish

Continuing with books on language, this post will be on Yiddish.

I read two books on the subject not long ago, and they complemented each other well. The books were Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish by Dovid Katz and Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books by Aaron Lansky.

Mr. Katz’s thick, instructive book gives the history of Yiddish, explaining where it came from, how it was used in different situations than Hebrew and Aramaic (that is, for Ashkenazi Jews; other Jews did not traditionally speak Yiddish), and how it was viewed. He also looks at Yiddish literature, who speaks Yiddish today, and other related topics.

Mr. Lansky’s book is about his personal journey with Yiddish and how he helped save Yiddish books. He was a doctoral student when he realized that as elderly, Yiddish-speaking Jews died, their children, who generally did not know Yiddish, threw out their Yiddish books. Mr. Lansky quit his program in order to save the Yiddish books, travelling around the world to do so, eventually starting the National Yiddish Book Center in Massachusetts as a library, center, resource place, and shop for Yiddish books. He has helped save over 1.5 million Yiddish books and his adventures are both fun and sad.

It was interesting to read the two books together, because first I learned about what the mamaloshen meant – and means – to Ashkenazi Jews, and then I read about Yiddish in modern times and what has happened to Yiddish books.

Let me know about other good books about languages!