Many people probably heard about the study of how the language we speak shapes the way we think a couple of months back. The article I saw at the time focused on gendered nouns and the different adjectives speakers tend to use to describe those nouns in different languages. The word for “bridge,” for example, is masculine in Spanish and feminine in German, and while Spanish speakers tended to describe bridges as being “strong” and “sturdy,” German speakers thought they were “beautiful” and “slender.” The same effect was observed in reverse for “key,” which is feminine in Spanish (“little,” “lovely”) and masculine in German (“hard,” “jagged”).

At Edge recently Lera Boroditsky posted a more complete presentation of the study, and some of the results are really fascinating, especially when it comes to how time and space are perceived by speakers of different languages.

Instead of words like “right,” “left,” “forward,” and “back,” which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space. This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like “There’s an ant on your southeast leg” or “Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit.” One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is “Where are you going?” and the answer should be something like ” Southsoutheast, in the middle distance.” If you don’t know which way you’re facing, you can’t even get past “Hello.”

. . . we gave people sets of pictures that showed some kind of temporal progression (e.g., pictures of a man aging, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. If you ask English speakers to do this, they’ll arrange the cards so that time proceeds from left to right. Hebrew speakers will tend to lay out the cards from right to left, showing that writing direction in a language plays a role. So what about folks like the Kuuk Thaayorre, who don’t use words like “left” and “right”? What will they do?

The Kuuk Thaayorre did not arrange the cards more often from left to right than from right to left, nor more toward or away from the body. But their arrangements were not random: there was a pattern, just a different one from that of English speakers. Instead of arranging time from left to right, they arranged it from east to west. That is, when they were seated facing south, the cards went left to right. When they faced north, the cards went from right to left. When they faced east, the cards came toward the body and so on. This was true even though we never told any of our subjects which direction they faced. The Kuuk Thaayorre not only knew that already (usually much better than I did), but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time.

While this particular anecdote might be said to be a result not of language but of some cultural factor that the language reflects, the architects of the study were able to test some differences and demonstrate that language itself did play a role. “This suggests that patterns in a language can indeed play a causal role in constructing how we think,” Boroditsky writes. “In practical terms, it means that when you’re learning a new language, you’re not simply learning a new way of talking, you are also inadvertently learning a new way of thinking.”


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.


Mirrors & Masks, Spring 2009We are pleased to announce that the new issue of eXchanges, Mirrors & Masks, is now available online. It contains fiction, poetry, essays, and demented manifestos translated from Turkish, Bulgarian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic, Italian, and Latin, plus an interview with former eXchanges editor Becka McKay. Enjoy!

-the editors

In The Day, an interview with Ukrainian literary translator Olha Seniuk. Some of the issues seem to be shared between the American and Ukrainian publishing industries:

We know that you are trying to share your professional experience with young translators and that you taught at a school for translators in Yaremcha. 

“Sharing this experience is easier said than done. Sometimes I think that there is no continuity left in the realm of literary translation here. The impression is that the younger generation has categorically discarded everything previously achieved in Ukrainian literature and that these young people are starting from scratch.

“Furthermore, if there were market demand for literary translations in Ukraine, you could make demands on young translators. Literary translations are adequately appreciated [sic?!], so they have nearly dropped to an amateurish level. Besides, our publishing companies keep economizing and no longer hire style editors, so translations are publishes with a multitude of mistakes.”

People talk about a surge of interest in translation and I get all giddy and optimistic, but my inborn cynicism responds to statements like Seniuk’s. Here’s hoping the giddy optimisim is right on this one!


Since getting a Ph.D. in translation studies is something I still idly consider from time to time, I was very interested to read B.J. Epstein’s description of her doctoral program in Wales. Coming from an M.F.A. program, however, which by definition focuses on the practice of literary translation, I find this statement incomprehensible:

I have met many people who study or work in the field of translation studies and yet have never translated and have no intention of doing so.

I’ve heard people say this before, and can’t really fathom it. Myself, I have no particular insights into moviemaking, despite having seen hundreds of films over the years . . .


Margaret Schwartz, whose translations of Macedonio Fernández we published in an earlier issue of eXchanges, has been working on the Argentinian writer’s most famous work, The Museum of Eterna’s Novel, which will be published by Open Letter Books next January. The latest issue of The Quarterly Conversation includes an excerpt:

Horrible art and the accumulated glories of the past, which have always existed, are a result of the following: the sonorousness of language and the existence of a public; without this sonorousness, only thinking and creating would remain; without a clamoring public, art would not be drowned. Under these conditions, Literature would be pure art, and there would be many more beautiful works than there are at present: there would be three or four Cervantes, the Cervantes of the Quijote, without the stories, Quevedo the humorist and poet of passion, without the moralizing orator, various Gómez de la Sernas. We’ll be liberated from the likes of Calderón, the Prince of falsetto, from lack of feeling, which is poor taste itself; from the likes of Góngora, at least from time to time, with his exclamations of “Ay Fabio, o sorrow!” We’d have three Heines, each of sarcasm and sadness, or D’Annunzios to limitlessly versify passion. Happily, we would have only the first act of Faust, and in compensation various Poes, and various Bovaries—with their sad affliction of loveless appetite, despicable and bloody—and this other, lacerating absurdity: Hamlet’s lyric of sorrow, which convinces and breeds sympathy, despite the false psychologism of its source.

Good stuff! Congratulations, Margaret!


Susan Bernofsky has a wonderful article in the Wall Street Journal in which she describes Donald Duck’s runaway popularity in Germany (including a group called the German Organization for Non-Commercial Followers of Pure Donaldism, or D.O.N.A.L.D.), and attributes it largely to the translator, Erika Fuchs, and her reworking — some might even say shameless improving — of the comic books. Whereas in English the language is straightforward and even plain, Fuchs made Donald a literary, philosophical duck, “a bird of art and letters,” as Bernofsky puts it, who quotes Schiller, Goethe, and Hölderlin.

Dr. Fuchs raised the diction level of Donald and his wealthy Uncle Scrooge (alias Dagobert Duck), who in German tend to speak in lofty tones using complex grammatical structures with a faintly archaic air, while Huey, Louie and Dewey (now called Tick, Trick and Track), sound slangier and much more youthful.

Fuchs applied alliteration liberally, as, for example, in Donald’s bored lament on the beach in “Lifeguard Daze.” In the English comic, he says: “I’d do anything to break this monotony!” The über-gloomy German version: “How dull, dismal and deathly sad! I’d do anything to make something happen.”

Fuchs also inserted political and ethical issues into the comics that were mostly absent in the original. Bernofsky describes, for example, what happened to The Golden Helmet, a childhood favorite of mine, which is about a treasure hunt for a legendary Viking helmet that conveys possession of the United States upon its owner. While the human (or duckly) lust for wealth and power certainly drive the plot of the English original — I recall Donald fantasizing about charging for breathing (“a sigh, a nickel; a gasp, a dime!”) — Fuchs makes the tale a metaphor for German nationalism:

In Dr. Fuchs’s rendition, Donald, his nephews and a museum curator race against a sinister figure who claims the helmet as his birthright without any proof—but each person who comes into contact with the helmet gets a “cold glitter” in his eyes, infected by the “bacteria of power,” and soon declares his intention to “seize power” and exert his “claim to rule.” Dr. Fuchs uses language that in German (“die Macht ergreifen”; “Herrscheranspruch”) strongly recalls standard phrases used to describe Hitler’s ascent to power.

The original English says nothing about glittering eyes or power but merely notes, “As the minutes drag past, a change comes over the tired curator.” Even the helmet itself, which in German Donald describes as a masterpiece of “Teutonic goldsmithery,” is anything but nationalistic in English: “Boys, isn’t this helmet a beauty?” is all he says. In an interview, Dr. Fuchs said she hoped that a child who “sees what power can do to people and how crazy it makes them” would be less susceptible to its siren song in later life.