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An inexplicable addiction

6 Mar
Lydia Davis

Lydia Davis

A joy to find this passage in the Freelance slot of last week’s TLS, written by the wonderful Lydia Davis:

“In spite of having translated during most of my life, I still don’t really understand the urge. Why can’t I simply enjoy reading the story in its own language. Or, on the other hand, why can’t I be content to write my own work in English? The urge is a kind of hunger; maybe the polite word would be appetite – I want to consume the text, and reproduce it in English . . . Or is translation merely a less demanding or anguishing mode of writing? The piece exists already in the other language, beautifully conceived and formed; now I will have the pleasure of composing it in English, without the uncertainty involved in inventing it. Or is it acquisitiveness? I want to take over something that does not belong to me, and by writing it in English, claim it. I don’t have a completely satisfactory answer. The desire to translate may be something of an inexplicable addiction.”

 

 

 

Adam Thorpe and WG Sebald on Flaubert, time and sand

10 Feb

Flaubert

To a talk by Adam Thorpe, titled My nights with Emma B, in which the impressive Mr Thorpe, whose manner I found both stimulating and refreshingly self-effacing, reported back on his three years spent in the throes of translator-sickness, that peculiar ailment that has one hooked up, at times almost against one’s will, to some other writer’s creative process. During that time the translator must enter and inhabit the work more thoroughly than any other reader, if they are to produce work that is both reflective of the original, as well as contextually informed and sensitive to the needs of the present. After a stirring introduction by my friend Alexis Nuselovici, who threw down the challenge that “untranslatability was the stuff that Madame Bovary was made of,” Mr Thorpe kept me thoroughly engaged for an hour, something of a miracle considering how difficult it has been to concentrate on anything for more than ten minutes at a time over the past year. He stressed the key aspects of a successful translation: accuracy (i.e. matching the source text), style and music. I particularly liked his emphasis on the notion of rhythm, while at the same time explaining that rhythm is “the most appallingly difficult aspect of translation.” Thorpe is primarily a poet, and he understands better than most that rhythm is the single most essential feature of the creative process, something which Flaubert knew very well.

Thorpe's Madame BovaryAs for the Death of the Author – or his Absence, Thorpe was unforgiving towards the notion that Flaubert, as a novelist, was in any way “absent from the work.” “Nonsense,” he said. “I could smell him in every word. The text is saturated with him. He was a bluff, gruff companion.”

I am reminded of something, dimly, and reach for my copy of WG Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, where we learn of Flaubert’s “fear of the false which . . . sometimes kept him confined to his couch for weeks or even months on end in the dread that he would never be able to write another word without compromising himself in the most grievous of ways . . . He was convinced that everything he had written hitherto consisted solely  in a string of the most abysmal errors and lies, the consequences of which were immeasurable.” He believed that the relentless spread of stupidity in the world had invaded his own head, and the resulting sensation was one of sinking into sand.  According to Sebald’s friend Janine Dakyns (from whom the idea emerges), sand possessed enormous significance in all of Flaubert’s work. “Sand conquered all. Time and again, Janine said, vast dust clouds drifted through Flaubert’s dreams by day and by night, raised over the arid plains of the African continent and moving north across the Mediterranean and the Iberian peninsula till sooner or later they settled like ash from a fire on the Tuileries gallery, a suburb of Rouen, or a country town in Normandy, penetrating into the tiniest crevices. In a grain of sand in the hem of Emma Bovary’s winter gown . . . Flaubert saw the whole of the Sahara.” The Blakean synecdoche of this image sets the heart racing. It gives a glimmer of the kind of inclusive, detailed understanding of the universe that so fascinated and appalled Flaubert.

 

 

 

 

 

Traveller of the Century

13 May

 

Many of my readers will know that I am a fan of Andrés Neuman’s writing, and have translated some of his poetry and several of his short stories over the past two years, including for the ‘Best of young Spanish language novelists’ issue for GRANTA, and two for the innovative new mag The Coffin Factory. Having read this novel when it came out in Spanish, I was aware that there was quite a challenge in store for whoever took on the task of translating this big book, with its sweeping philosophical themes, for readers of English. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García have made a grand success of the task and talk about their translation here

I was asked to write about the book for the New Welsh Review and The Independent, so I did two different reviews. I would really have preferred to do one long one, and could have got more said. The NWR version will be available at the end of May, but the following, for The Indie, will give an idea. It is a wonderful novel, and Pushkin Press have done a great job with presentation and cover design. The edition also includes, as a kind of Preface, an article written by Roberto Bolaño about the young Neuman after the publication of his first novel, back in 1999 (but first collected in book form in 2004, a year after Bolaño died). And below is a youtube interview with Andrés, talking about the novel in London a couple of months ago:

 

 

One cold winter’s night, Hans, a traveller and translator, arrives by coach in the fictional German city of Wandenburg, intending to break his journey en route to somewhere that actually exists on the map. With him he carries a mighty trunk, packed with books. “What have you got in there, a dead body?” asks the coachman. “Not one dead body,” answers Hans, “several” – an answer that the novel proceeds to unpack.

Our hero takes lodgings in an inn, and the next day, walking around the town, befriends a mendicant organ grinder, who takes him to his cave in the idyllic countryside outside the city. Hans sups with the organ grinder and his dog, enjoying the sort of bucolic reverie familiar to poets of the early Romantic period. Returning to the town, he stays a second night and begins, almost by accident, to be drawn into its comfortable and bourgeois circle of socialites and intellectuals, and falling in love with Sophie Gottlieb, the daughter of a local merchant. Alas, Sophie is betrothed to Rudi Wilderhaus, a local aristocrat and scion of the ancien régime. Those readers with even a fleeting knowledge of Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise will already have cottoned on, and it might be of more than passing interest that Andrés Neuman, the novel’s Argentinian author, has translated Wilhelm Müller, author of the Winterreise poems, into Spanish.

But these hints towards a reconstruction of the beginnings of the Romantic movement, and of the challenges presented to Hans in his exploration of the city are misleading. Although set in post-Napoleonic Germany, Traveller of the Century is by no means an historical novel. Its author has described it as a “futuristic novel that happens in the past, as science fiction rewound.” It is, among other things, a romance, an adventure story, a survey of literature and politics in the 1820s, a pseudo-historical study of feminism, and a brilliant (although largely allegorical) analysis of Europe at the start of the 21st century. Over the course of the book’s 584 pages, we partake in magisterial synopses of entire swathes of literature and philosophy, and enjoy sparkling dialogues with the denizens of Wandenburg, a sleepy and conservative version of Fortress Europe, and a place in which the geography will not stay still, even the architecture given to fleeting, shifting behaviour, the church steeple “slanting perceptibly . . . as though it were about to topple forward.”

Sometimes something stirs and shifts in the substrata of world literature:  a book appears which has the potential to change what will follow. Sometimes it just so happens that people pick up on the ideas and emotions generated by that book and it becomes a classic and sometimes it becomes instead a cult book enjoyed, or even revered, by a few, but never catching on with the many. Traveller of the Century has already achieved impressive things for its young author in Spain and elsewhere, but this by no means guarantees its success in the litmus test of the English-speaking world, famously resistant to literature in translation. We cannot predict how this book will be received in the months and years to come, but there is little doubt in my mind that it deserves its place in the sun, a work of true beauty and scintillating intelligence by a writer of prodigious talents. On the evidence of Traveller of the Century we might well be convinced by Bolaño’s much-vaunted prediction that the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a handful of his blood brothers. Whatever one’s opinion of such elevated claims, books as stimulating, erudite and humane as this do not come along very often.

 

This review was first published in The Independent on 20 April 2012.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Third Reich, by Roberto Bolaño

17 Apr

 

In La Universidad Desconocida, the collected poems that Roberto Bolaño’s widow, Carolina López, brought together after her husband’s death in 2003, she includes in the foreword an unpublished piece called ‘My Literary Career’ that Bolaño had scribbled in anguish after receiving serial rejections from all the publishers of Spain, which he lists fastidiously, and then: “under the bridge, while it rains, a golden opportunity / to see myself for who I am: / like a snake at the North Pole, but writing. / Writing poetry in the land of imbeciles.” Clearly Bolaño was under no illusions as to the readiness of the literary world to embrace his work. The poem is dated 1990, a year after The Third Reich was written, in longhand. We do not know what plans Bolaño might have had for the manuscript, which by the time of his death he had begun to type out and tinker with: it may well have come into print in a completely different form. Or not at all.

Udo, a German board-games champion, takes his girlfriend, Ingeborg, on holiday to the same hotel he last visited with his parents ten years earlier, as a fifteen-year old. They meet another German couple, Hanna and Charly, and with the help of a couple of local no-good-boyos called the Lamb and the Wolf, they do the nightclubs and bars of the resort by night and lie on the beach by day. Charly turns out to be a bit of a liability, and following a mysterious incident in which he appears to have assaulted his girlfriend, he takes his surfboard out to sea and does not return. Hanna and Ingeborg go back to Germany but Ido, a loner and a nerd, stays on in the resort, ostensibly to wait for Charly’s body to be washed up, but actually to carry out a forlorn pursuit of the hotel owner, Frau Else. At this point the narrative wavers, becoming repetitive and somewhat listless, and although there are hints towards a darker centre, there is nothing particularly threatening about the local lowlife, not even El Quemado, the disfigured South American who rents out pedal boats, and whom Ido adopts as his opponent in the marathon board game that gives the book its title. There are vague allusions towards a deeper connection with Nazi themes – notably with Frau Else’s husband, a tall, moribund character who seems oddly prescient of the writer Archimboldi in 2666 – but they only lead to dead ends.

As it is, The Third Reich, despite the promise of the opening half, is a strange and ultimately unsatisfying book. It feels incomplete, but that is not the problem: what this novel lacks is that paradoxical sense of intentional incompleteness, the unwillingness or refusal to tie up loose ends (perhaps because they retain more intensity for being left hanging) that is a marker of Bolaño’s mature style.

Ignore the cover blurb’s suggestion that this is the perfect place to begin reading Bolaño: it is not, and anyone unfamiliar with his work would be much better off reading By Night in Chile or The Skating Rink, another novel modelled on the seaside town of Blanes, where Bolaño settled in the 1980s. If it were not for the fact that it is an early work by a highly marketable author The Third Reich would probably not have been published. But for Bolaño’s many fans it displays, in emergent form, some of the themes and tropes that would be more abundantly explored in The Savage Detectives or 2666. Like those two great works, it is beautifully translated by Natasha Wimmer.

 

This review first appeared in The Independent, on 1 March 2012.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More thoughts on translation

6 Sep

Mixed Peasant? Greek with Cheese?

I began translating, in a very amateur sort of way, when I first discovered the poetry of the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos at the beginning of the 1980s. Not only was my Greek inadequate to the task and I lacked any kind of self-discipline, but I was up against the superb existing translations of Edmund Keeley. I became easily disheartened by my feeble efforts and never stuck with it. It was much more fun to decode the English on restaurant menus, as many a traveller to Greece has discovered. Among the culinary delights I have encountered, both seen and unseen, are:

Giant Beams

The Baked Thing

Greek with cheese

Bowel stuffed with spleen

Bait smooth hound

Mixed Peasant

and

Custard of the Aunt.

All of these items of food have suffered the indignity of an over-literal translation by a scribe with faulty understanding of the target language (English), and while their entertainment value might be high, you are never sure what it is you are likely to be eating, unless of course you can read the Greek.

Some years later, I started a translation of Jean Giono’s novel Les Grands Chemins (which as far as I know has still not appeared in English) but was put off both by my frail grasp of French grammar and by the quantities of argot and slang. As with most of my endeavours at that period of my life, I had an unrealistic grasp of my own abilities.

However, I am nothing if not persistent, and having tried Greek and French and been found wanting, like a serial re-offender I thought I should try my hand at Spanish. When I had acquired enough of the language to read poetry without constant referral to the dictionary, I set about translating (or should I say despoiling) Antonio Machado – a bad choice, not only because he had been a challenge to far better translators than myself, but because his Spanish is, well, utterly embedded in the thought and landscape of Spanish – and I did not really appreciate or understand this at the time and thought that I was just not very good at translating poetry. However Machado really is more untranslatable than most, and perhaps this is the reason Don Paterson opted to go for much looser versions or interpretation in his collection The Eyes.

But with another Spanish poet, Jaime Gil de Biedma, I felt my translations begin to ‘work’ and moreover I could

Jaime Gil de Biedma (1929-90)

sense an affinity with this writer that extended beyond the act of translation. There were English translations of his poems available but they seemed weak to me, and I wanted to make something better, do justice to his work in a way that his American translator had not: such is the arrogance of the beginner. So I worked on a few, sent them to a magazine, and they were accepted.

Later I was asked by the editor of the same magazine to work on skeleton or ‘crib’ versions of poems from Lithuanian and Slovakian, and make English poems of them. I agreed to do it, but it seemed a very risky affair, and nothing much to do with translation, more like playing darts with the lights off. I didn’t much enjoy the experience, but I have since taken part in workshops, working with poets who write in a language I do not speak, and if their English is good enough, it is possible to hammer out a good poem using an intermediary version – this is what the organization Literature across Frontiers manages to such good effect: in addition practitioners use a ‘bridge’ language, so that poets who speak distinct languages but share a third language in common (English, German, Spanish) can combine forces with a native speaker of the bridge language to make new versions of their work. It sounds complicated but it can be a very rewarding (as well as a tiring) process, and it must be said that a lot depends on the individuals gathered together on these occasions, and whether or not they happen to gel as a team.

But the kind of work done by Literature across Frontiers is at a far remove from the sort of translation done by individuals who work directly from a language which they know well into a language in which they are fluent, which is the daily round of the professional translator. I do not claim to be any such animal, but three years ago I became so interested in the act of translation that I put myself through the ordeal of preparing for and sitting the Institute of Linguists’ Diploma in Translation, the gold standard qualification for translators in the UK, and one with an astonishingly high failure rate (which I suppose keeps the Institute’s coffers topped up). I passed, so am now legitimately able to call myself a translator, although like nearly all the achievements I have realised over the years, all the hurdles I have overcome, there is always a sheen of scepticism about my own status, and I never quite manage to believe that the person with all the qualifications (and the nice suit and the office), the one called ‘Dr Blanco’, is actually me, but rather, he is an illusion.

What I am trying to say is that, like many people who do not admit it publicly, I think of myself as an impostor, a person impersonator, for many hours of the working day, and for this reason, ‘translator’ seems a very appropriate occupation. And why is this?  Is there an association with the trickster, the coyote figure, or the dissembler? I think – and hope that I am not alone in thinking this – that there is something intrinsically fraudulent in the act of translation. You are trying to pretend that something is what it is not. So the trick is to make it sound as though it were not something that it is not, otherwise you end up writing translator-speak, with which we are all familiar from the study of Greek menus and garden furniture assembly kits.

The idea of translating into English is to make the words sound as though they were composed in English, which of course they were not, in the first instance. So we pretend, and share the pretence. If the translation is any good then we forget we are pretending. Simples.

But more than that, there is the profound satisfaction for the translator – something akin to the breaking of a code or the unravelling of a puzzle – when the correct phrase or expression slots into place, which makes translation, when it is going well, such a rewarding occupation. In Tim Parks’ absorbing essay ‘Prajapati’ (to be found in the collection Adultery and Other Diversions) he describes the pleasures and torments of translating Roberto Calasso’s Ka, on a very hot day. And at one point, as he kicks off his sandals to feel the cool of the tiled floor, he begins to spin off into the kind of meandering meditation that the act of writing often incites:

“I realise I am fascinated by models of the mind. By consciousness and representations of consciousness. Prajpati’s, Mahidasa Aitareya’s, Calasso’s, they are all hugely different minds from each other and from mine. I was never convinced by Leopold Bloom. And I sense that translation has something to do with this, this constant attempt to grasp difference, to overcome it, if only for a few moments, if only in the slippery surface of a text, to appropriate, but also to expand, to be there in Calasso’s study, understanding Calasso understanding Mahidasa Aitareya understanding the Rg Veda understanding Prajpati. Did they all find flies as irritating as I do?”

Norman di Giovanni, in his essay ‘A Translator’s Guide’ quotes Borges as saying “The translator is a very close reader; there is not much difference between translating and reading.” Di Giovanni finds this simple, clear approach to be in stark contrast to much of the talk, and theorizing about translation, which takes place, he says, on a “dizzyingly rarefied plane.”

The most helpful advice I have read on the craft of translation always keeps it simple, like Borges’ thing about being a close reader: understand the source text (decode it) and put it into language as clearly as possible (encode it). Working from these simplest of principles, and with the minimum of self-deception, are the kinds of rules even an inveterate self-doubter should find easy enough to follow.

And yet there is more, there is a twinge of excitement, almost a sense of vertigo, closely related to the type of exhilaration experienced when one’s own writing is going well (it is practically the same thing after all) which makes translation such a worthwhile occupation. Tim Parks finds this grappling with meaning to be like a constant exchange between the inchoate and the specific, between the undefined and the defined:

“Translation too is this, leaving the definition, the apparent definition, of the original, going through a state of indefinition, perhaps more original, in the Prajpati sense, than the original, where ideas are somehow held wordless, or almost, in my mind (I wish I could decide whether those ideas actually do become wordless) thence to reappear, gradually recompose themselves, from fuzz to clarity, or almost, in my own language.”

So much is contained by that ‘or almost’. Returning to Borges and simplicity, returning to the idea of an approximation. Perhaps that is the crux of all translation: it is an expression of the almost.

 

 

 

On Translation

5 Sep

The torero Julio Aparicio gored by bull, May 2010

An email from my Chinese translator in quite extraordinary English reminded me of the following article, brought to my attention by my friend Hugo Pooley last year. It is the report of a corrida that appeared in the Spanish newspaper El País on 22 May 2010. I had not realized computerized translation from google could offer such pleasures. Readers with a knowledge of Spanish will probably understand how some of the errors took place (e.g. cogida, from the verb ‘coger’ (to get, catch, gore etc) might, at a stretch, be translated as ‘a fuck’ following South American usage, but not in European Spanish, and after all El País is a European newspaper). The odd thing, as Hugo pointed out at the time, was that the machine should have latched on to that usage:

“The severity of the goring not perceived in the plaza at the time of the fuck. Gestures of pain were the bullfighter, who ran to the burladero for help, those who betrayed it seemed, in principle, a blow to the face, was, in fact, something more serious. Moments later, while still unaware of the extent of the wound, the horrifying photo published by the website of this newspaper ran like wildfire through the stands, and reassurances from the infirmary.”

La gravedad de la cornada no se percibió en la plaza en el momento de la cogida. Fueron los gestos de dolor del torero, que corrió hacia el burladero en busca de ayuda, los que delataron que lo que pareció, en principio, un golpe en la cara, era, en realidad, algo más serio. Momentos después, cuando aún se desconocía el alcance de la herida, la espeluznante foto publicada por la web de este periódico corrió como la pólvora por los tendidos, y también noticias tranquilizadoras desde la enfermería.

Then the subheading:

“Julio Aparicio is “conscious and stable” after he suffered serious fuck in Sales goring”

Julio Aparicio está “consciente y estable” tras la grave cogida que sufrió en Las Ventas

(‘Las Ventas’, the stadium in Madrid can also mean ‘The sales’ (as in shopping), which accounts for the anomaly in the last line of the English.)

Having now received three emails from China (of which more anon, gentle reader, if you can still bear to read Blanco’s blog after the shock of that horrifying photo), which have left me fearing the worst for the eventual outcome of one of my books in the world’s most populous country, I have been left wondering about the relative advantages of an automated translation, and whether it might not do a better job with my novel in Chinese than the current translators. Although inaccurate, it could actually be as effective in gaining the reader’s attention, and certainly more amusing, than the text it claims to translate.

I simply love the passage below, translated as: “hair soap, beautiful sheet, noble as they come, with a left peg luxury if he had accompanied the forces”. Found poetry.

For those interested in reading on, the automated google translation of the El País article continues below. For those able to read the Spanish, the original article can be found here:

The right-hander Julio Aparicio Seville has received this evening in a serious goring sales when faced with the first bull of your lot. The bullfighter has encountered and the bull rammed him with the horn right on the chin Toros de Juan Pedro Domecq, fourth-and fifth-back, well presented, disabled and very noble. Hats, Gavira, the second back and replaced by another of Camacho, outcast. Julio Aparicio: caught by his first bull. Morante de la Puebla: half cocked and perpendicular (silent) media (silent), two punctures and almost entire perpendicular. El Cid: two punctures and a half (applause), almost entirely fall (applause), thrust (ear). Plaza de Las Ventas. Friday, May 21. Sixteenth run of the fair of San Isidro. Full.

Everything happened seen and unseen. Actually, it was an unexpected event under the condition of the bull, named Sumptuoso, 530 kilos in weight, hair soap, beautiful sheet, noble as they come, with a left peg luxury if he had accompanied the forces. Aparicio drew out two splendid veronicas topped with half bursting with aroma. The animal showed their disability in the horse, where it was stung, came in the third of gay flags, and came to the crutch with the strength very fair. The right-hander in the media began its work with a faint first round of right hands, and continued at that hand with a lower weight. He left, and in the first stake, ran into the hindquarters of the bull, which made him lose verticality. Once on the ground instead of running away from the face of the bull, the bullfighter tried to get up pretending to wipe away the crutch. It was at that moment when the bull is found Aparicio’s face, with such bad luck that drove the peg over his chin and pulled him by the mouth. That moment that appears in the photos are not perceived in the ring, because, fortunately, the bull dropped its prey quickly. Thank goodness.

The bullfighter can tell which is the big news of the day. And it was also clear that the danger is always present in a square, but the bull has, as Sumptuoso, odor of sanctity.

It was not the only time grief. Minutes later, when El Cid crutches with his left hand to another good-natured, was hooked and tossed to the point it seemed that the horn had penetrated the right thigh up to the groin. It did not, and needed a satchel broken only under emergency sewing.

The returns that can give a bullfight … Perhaps this unknown file your exciting mystery. Who could imagine that a festival so nice on paper was about to end in tragedy. But this big-game life and death, is this party.

Haunted by the image of the python’s mouth out by Julio Aparicio, but with the quiet encouragement, continued a celebration featuring bulls Juan Pedro invalid Domecq, which, unfortunately, is no longer news. This farmer has found true, the sweetness the highest degree, to the same extent that it has lost power and greed. Two were returned, but could be more. All, yes, kind, loving, kind and affectionate. But that is a substitute for the bull. In the end, triumphed Manuel Jesus El Cid with the best of the afternoon, the sixth, but first, bullfighting was the high school veronica, great gift of the proposed lists, so many times drought hood.

She excelled, that is, Aparicio, then Morante received his first with a sweetest veronicas, pregnant packing, and, again, returned to infuriate the square with the second hat made fifth, which forced him to charge in a cape fans who knew a holy glory. And also starred in El Cid veronicas remove two extraordinary in its first, and returned to show off at the exit of the sixth.

The rest of the celebration just had the story of Manuel Jesus with the latter, which rammed and fixity length, and which understood by the right side with muletazos deep and emotional, in a work hardening and chaired by the connection. He missed the greed of the bull by the left side for the victory would have been great.

Anyway, the big winner yesterday Julio Aparicio, and with it, we win them all because the party is glad his good fortune.

 

 

 

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