Insert Pun Here

June 27, 2009

I’ve been putting off responding to a number of things I’ve spotted around the internet, and now that our latest issue is officially launched (see our previous post), perhaps the moment has arrived.

In Three Percent several weeks ago now, Monica Carter reviewed Douglas Hofstadter’s retranslation of Françoise Sagan’s La chamade, which in typical Hofstadterian fashion he rendered with the anagrammatic title That Mad Ache. Carter and Michael Orthofer at the Complete Review are both somewhat dismissive of the novel itself — Orthofer, who is more aggressively critical of Sagan’s sophomore effort, describes it as “hardly worthwhile” — but both also dedicate a fair bit of space to a discussion of Hofstadter’s lengthy essay on translation, Translator, Trader, included in the volume.

Hofstadter is one of the most exuberant translators out there, and while his irrepressible love of wordplay and colloquialisms can get in the way of his translations, I appreciate his enthusiasm and his willingness to muck around in a text in ways many translators would consider inappropriate and even disrespectful of the original. And however mediocre Sagan’s novel, the publisher’s decision to include such an extensive discussion of the translation in the same volume is a wonderful change from the silence in which the translator usually labors. Translators know the books they translate as well as anyone in the world, and I am certain that most of them could provide all sorts of fascinating insights into their texts, but it is the rare translator these days who is even given the space for a brief note.

Translator, Trader, then, could be declared a success for its mere existence. That said, Carter and Orthofer both have their misgivings about the essay, many of them centering around the way Hofstadter seems to generate puns as a default setting, leaving him oblivious to the tone of the work he’s translating. Carter notes that Hofstadter considers himself a “hot” translator (as opposed to a “cold” one on the scale he’s devised), “meaning that he likes to take quite a few liberties with the original text to make it more interesting,” and says that this often pulls him away from the “authorial vision” of the original. She quotes Hofstadter discussing his own translation:

In Chapter 13, Lucile is replying with indignation to a question Antoine has asked her. She thinks the answer is self-evident, and where Sagan has her say, “Bien entendu” (meaning literally “of course”), Westhoff has her say, “Of course.” That’s fair enough. My first inclination, however, was to go much further than this—namely, “Well, what do you think—is the Pope Catholic?”

Hofstadter was talked out of this option by his friends, but notes wistfully that by switching it out for “Well, what do you think?,” the temperature of his translation “fell from 100° to 75°.” Stodgy, faithful room temperature.

While Hofstadter is a bit too enchanted by his own puns for my taste — I’ll never forget the moment in his translation of Eugene Onegin when someone(s) “cast their nyets” — I am nonetheless bored by Carter’s insistence that he hew close to the original. I have no way of judging his version of Pushkin against the original, for example, but for me his translation ultimately failed because the incessant japery was tiresome, not because it was “unfaithful.” And I am content to let the translation stand or not on those terms, rather than demanding that Hofstadter honor, as Mike described it in a post a couple of months back, a standard approach to translation, and that he value and emphasize the same things as everybody else.

That sort of demand (for “faithfulness,” inevitably) largely springs, I think, from translators’ feeling that they should be producting a “definitive” translation, as if that were possible or even desirable. Hofstadter seems to be admirably free of that neurosis. While I certainly don’t blame translators for feeling that one of their roles is as ambassador for a work of literature, even for an entire language and culture, and that they should therefore strive to represent it accurately, I nevertheless wonder how much it also hamstrings translation and limits its creativity.

Orthofer finds Hofstadter’s essay more interesting, but doesn’t agree with him any more than Carter does. In fact, he goes further, calling himself “an ultra-literalist — with notable caveats — . . . who believes in the primacy of the (source) text.” (Ultra-literalist? He can’t really mean that, or he’d be headed into the realm of experimentation again.) He finds Hofstadter’s approach “outrageous” and, like Carter, is bemused by Hofstadter’s conviction that he’s going about things the best way possible.

Without having read the essay myself, ultimately I suspect I come down on the side of Hofstadter’s critics. I can’t see why prizing “hotness” above all things (especially one’s personal, subjective definition of it — Hofstadter may find his text “interesting,” and yet I have found his linguistic shenanigans repetitive and even boring) would be less crippling than prizing newness or shock value or . . . faithfulness — or any other single value to the exclusion of anything else. And Hofstadter has certainly shown himself to be somewhat tone-deaf when it comes to characters’ personalities or the mood of a narrative.

Still, even apart from being thrilled that a publisher moved forward with including in a work of translated literature a substantial piece of writing on the subject of translation, and regardless of what I think of his translations, I think  Hofstadter’s approach to the craft opens up space and makes possible a broader discussion of what translation might look like and what values it might embrace.



In the New York Times, James Longenbach reviews Greek poet Constantine Cavafy’s Collected Poems, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn and published by Knopf. So often in mainstream reviews of international literature, translation itself is only discussed in any depth in instances where multiple translations exist and can be compared. Longenbach sees in Mendelsohn’s translation an illuminating new reading of Cavafy’s work:

Earlier translators have, to varying degrees, rightly emphasized the prosaic flatness of Cavafy’s language; the flatness is crucial to the emotional power of the poems, since it prevents their irony from seeming caustic, their longing from seeming nostalgic. But as Mendelsohn shows, Cavafy’s language was in subtle ways more artificial than we’ve understood.

I can’t speak to whether Mendelsohn is actually revealing something in Cavafy’s language or instead contributing something of his own, and I don’t know whether Longenbach has the background to gauge that, either. But that’s one of the things that’s useful about multiple translations: they can free us from a sense of slavish obligation to the original text, in which a translator, especially one working with a heretofore untranslated work, often feels a responsibility to provide a version as “accurate” and “faithful” as possible to represent the original before an audience with no access to it. But that is a social and cultural sense of responsibility, not a literary one — I would argue, at least for the moment — and does not have to guide our approach to a work of literature.

I was intrigued by Mike’s earlier argument that it is not works of literature we are protecting with our demands for fidelity, but instead a translation tradition that has prized it. Not that fidelity vs. infidelity is an innovative point of debate within the field of translation, but I think there is still more that could be discussed and pushed further.

Back to the Cavafy, at any rate: Longenbach judges it a rousing success.

Mendelsohn thinks like a poet, which is to say he inhabits the meaning of language through its movement. Listen to his translation of the famous concluding lines of “The God Abandons Antony”:

Like one who’s long prepared, like someone brave,
as befits a man who’s been blessed with a city like this,
go without faltering toward the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the entreaties and the whining of a coward,
to the sounds — a final entertainment —
to the exquisite instruments of that initiate crew,
and bid farewell to her, to Alexandria, whom you are losing.

The final line embodies the fortitude the poem recommends. While the preceding lines falter, breaking the syntax into edgy pieces, the final line is syntactically complete. As a result, the poem does not pronounce but arrives at its wisdom, making it happen to us. It is an event on the page.


New Goytisolo Translation

March 31, 2009

The Literary Saloon reports that Dalkey Archive Press is publishing a new translation of Juan Goytisolo’s Juan the Landless, and provides a couple of quick comparisons of Helen Lane’s original translation with the Peter Bush one that will come out in July. They sound very different in tone — compare “the phallus, that is correct, the phallus” with “the cock, you got it, the cock.” I haven’t read the original yet — Goytisolo is a lamentable hole in my Spanish-language reading so far — so I can only assume that Bush is attempting to capture a playfulness and irreverence that Lane’s translation doesn’t. It could be, too, that the difference comes from the apparently substantial revisions that Goytisolo has done of his novel for this new version. The Saloon also mentions that the new version is somewhat pared down.

It may be that Bush’s is a measurably superior rendering of an excellent book. Still, though, in a zero-sum publishing climate, and with all the untranslated literature there is out there, it’s a shame that this will have inevitably pushed any number of other worthy projects out of the way. But it does put Goytisolo back on my radar, so maybe I’ll finally get around to reading some of his work.


Martha Tennent, whose translation of Catalan writer Mercè Rodoreda’s short story “On the Train” we published in our Winter 2008 issue of eXchanges, has recently translated Rodoreda’s novel, Death in Spring, which will come out from Open Letter in May. Chad Post has written at Three Percent today about early enthusiastic responses to the novel and announced an event at the Ramon Llull Institute in New York on May 2, a reading by Jessica Lange:

The Time of the Doves is the most acclaimed novel by one of Catalonia’s best-loved writers, Mercè Rodoreda (1908-1983), a master when it comes to explain a story with powerful vividness. Before the reading, Martha Tennent and Chad Post will present the latest novel by Mercè Rodoreda to be translated into English: Death in Spring. Read by Jessica Lange. Directed by Joan Ollé.

Congratulations to Martha Tennent and Open Letter for their success.


More Oresteia

March 29, 2009

For those interested in Anne Carson’s new translation of three Greek tragedies — and a lot of the people coming to this blog lately have been looking into it — there’s a thoughtful review by Brad Leithauser in the New York Times Book Review of the translation. Leithauser is less delighted by some of Carson’s choices than other reviewers have been, finding the tone sometimes jarringly colloquial. And indeed, some of the examples he pulls are odd:

There are moments when her diction stoops so low I had trouble remembering I was dealing with men godlike in their splendor, as when her Agamemnon announces: “Count no man happy until he dies happy. / If I keep this rule, I’ll be okay.”

I think it is particularly the contrast, in this passage, between the elevated and antiquated structure of “count no man happy” with the irretrivably modern and casual “I’ll be okay” that makes it such an uncomfortable juxtaposition. For anyone who would argue that Carson’s project is precisely to pull the tragedy down to the human level, rather than have its characters “godlike in their splendor,” Leithauser makes a pretty compelling case otherwise:

As soon as characters in a Greek tragedy look merely life-size, any distinction between the soaring and the sordid tends to collapse. Agamemnon is a principal in the larger tale of the House of Atreus, which encompasses adultery, boastful murder, madness, cannibalized children, matricide — mere grisly grist for the tabloids, if it isn’t the stuff of immortal literature.

Still, Leithauser acknowledges the power of much of Carson’s language, and also wonders how the translation would work on stage.

The play opens with a night watchman, lamenting the unchanging dreariness of his task. Here is Lattimore:

I ask the gods some respite from the weariness
of this watchtime measured by years I lie awake
elbowed upon the Atreidae’s roof dogwise to mark
the grand processionals of all the stars of night. . . .

What’s lost in this combination of metrical mellifluousness and clunkiness (elbowed dogwise?) is any sense of genuine exasperation. Here is Carson, where impatience emerges like a jab in the ribs:

Gods! Free me from this grind!
It’s one long year I’m lying here watching waiting watching waiting —
propped on the roof of Atreus, chin on my paws like a dog.
I’ve peered at the congregation of the nightly stars. . . .

It’s always difficult, in reading a review — particularly of a translation — to tell whether the  missteps noted are singular instances or endemic in the work, but Leithauser’s piece seems even-handed and attentive. And Carson’s work still appears to be a remarkable and innovative achievement.


Portraying Pushkin

March 28, 2009

A couple of days ago, the London Times published Rachel Polonsky’s review of two new books of Pushkin — one, a new translation of Eugene Onegin by Stanley Mitchell, and the other Andrew Kahn’s study of Pushkin through analysis of his library, and thus his interactions with the intellectual developments of his day. While Polonsky seems not to know about Douglas Hofstadter’s cheeky post-Falen translation (it must not have made it to the UK), she writes in depth about how Onegin has been translated. Some space is of course given to the critical scuffle between Wilson and Nabokov over Nabokov’s “unreadable” translation, but she also discusses the different aspects of Pushkin’s novel-in-verse that are preserved or abandoned in different translations — generally, euphony vs. nuance of meaning. “In any given instance,” she says, “a translator’s gain is paid for with loss.” Thus, Polonsky suggests, only multiple versions can provide a more or less complete translation:

A translation is a portrait; it hints at the essence of an original. The more likenesses the better, then, for, as Wilhelm von Humboldt said, “many translations result . . . in a cumulative approximation”.

While I prefer to think in terms not of losses but of emphases, I recognize that there may be no really meaningful distinction. Still, for more on the topic of multiple translations, see an earlier post here.


The Korea Herald has an article today about Lee Sung-il’s new translation of 15 classical Korean poems. The article takes the opportunity to comment once more on the lack of Korean literature available in translation (we posted on another article on that topic a while back), and it sounds like the Korean government is very committed to bringing Korean literature to the rest of the world. This anthology, The Brush and the Sword: Kasa, Korean Classical Poems in Prose, is actually a bilingual edition published by Cross Cultural Communications, presenting the translated poems together with their originals.

“Reading literary works in translation is not the royal road in getting acquainted with a literary tradition alien to one’s own,” [Lee] said. “So long as the lines in translation echo the original verse’s rhythm and meaning, however, one must be satisfied, for then the requirement of approximation to the original can be considered to have been met.”