that bugbear of timid technicians: the value judgment

Welcome to the next of many future posts about the issues and theory of translating. I have quite the intimidating list of hard-core theory books to read, and I need to be making sense of them even as I try to make sense of Shez’s Hebrew and create poems in English that are honest, riveting translations of them.

First up, Gregory Rabassa’s If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, 2005, New Directions Books. This is a memoir, a reflection of his many decades of translating, mainly from Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese. I’ll be posting some of his more interesting statements, ones that resonate and ones that screech like nails on a chalkboard. Among the latter is his condescending casual sexism—he uses only “he” and “his” while making fun of attempts to be gender neutral, and the only women he has described as far as I’ve read are copy editors whom he claims to respect but then describes as “fresh-fased Smithies and Cliffies.”

Umm, Greg – respect and contempt are two entirely different kinds of diction which ought not to be in the same text.

So, as a translator of his ideas to you, I’ll be freely replacing the he/his with she/her whenever I feel called to do so. And Rabassa (along with way too many other people) uses “schizophrenic” to mean feeling split or divided, which is willfully ignorant of the experience of people living with actual schizophrenia. In a poetic mood this morning, I’ve decided to translate his error into “dislocating duality.” Sue me.

Anyway, first up, an interesting passing on the role of value judgments, which are, in fact, utterly necessary to translating. The more I read and translate Shez, the more I feel that certain words in English are the right words because they feel to me how her poetry feels to me. This isn’t a question of dictionary definition, but a judgment (one that might later change as I go further into her work. Here’s what Rabassa has to say:

The translator must put to good use that bugbear of timid technicians: the value judgment. In translation as in writing, which it is as we have said, the proper word is better than a less proper but standard one. […] Translation is based on choice and a rather personal one at that. Long ago I discovered a funny thing: if you ponder a word, any word, long enough it will become something strange and meaningless and usually ludicrous. I suppose this is some kind of verbicide, bleeding the poor word of its very essences, its precious bodily fluids, and leaving a dry remnant that could pass for a five-letter group in a cryptographic message. When we snap out of it and retrieve the meaning of the word, we have, in a sense, deciphered it. This is as far as I would go in turning translation entirely over to reason since so much of it should be based on an acquired instinct, like the one we rely on to drive a car, Ortega’s vital reason.

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