What we regard must seduce us, and we it, if we are to continue looking

from “The World is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation” by Jane Hirshfield

Knowledge is erotic. We see this not only in the Bible’s dual use of the term “to know,” but also, as classicist Anne Carson has pointed out, in the Homeric verb mnaomai, which means both “to hold in attention” and “to woo.” What we regard must seduce us, and we it, if we are to continue looking. A great poem creates in its readers the desire to know it more thoroughly, to live with it in intimacy, to join its speaking to their own as fully as possible. We memorize it, recite it over and over, reawaken it with tongue and mind and heart. Many translators describe their first encounter with their chosen authors as a helpless falling in love: a glimpse of a few translated fragments can lead to years of language study in order to hear directly the work’s own voice. And in matters of art, it seems, Eros is generous rather than possessive: the translator wants to reciprocate this gift received, to pass the new love on to others—and thus the work of translation begins.

On Translating “Bluetooth” from an essay by Art Beck

Want to understand the mysteries of translating cultural idioms? A friend sent me this wonderful essay from the journal Rattle, “The Deep Pulse of Idiom.” Go mark the page and read the whole thing when you have time, but for now read about how some future translator will try to deal with the image of Bluetooth device in a 21st Century Poem:

IV: King Harald’s Blue Tooth

In our world everything is accelerated, and the blurring process can happen quickly. Most everyone knows—at least in passing—what “Bluetooth” does. It allows wireless connection of various electronic devices.

As a bit of background, the electronic protocol was negotiated by a consortium of major manufacturers to enable any Bluetooth device to “talk to” any other without regard to different individual software or competitive formats.
But why the name Bluetooth? Because the consortium of competitors named it after the tenth-century Danish King Harald Bluetooth, who “united warring factions.” Even knowing this, who thinks of King Harald when they use a Bluetooth device? Not even the most nerdish among us, I’d guess.

In the nature of things, Bluetooth, like VHS and Beta will, sooner probably than later, pass into the graveyard of old technology. But let’s say that before that happens, one of us became inspired to use Bluetooth in a poem. Maybe a love poem entitled, say, “Electricity”:

… our fingers didn’t need to touch,
when we glanced, our eyelashes were already entangled.
Your whisper was Bluetooth tickling my tongue.

Well, I pulled those lines out of my butt, but say they were better and that something came of the poem, that it got good enough to be anthologized, and some fifty or a hundred years from now someone wanted to translate it into German or Chinese. Let’s say five hundred years from now, long after the minutiae of today’s high tech is as obscure as the highly engineered parts of ancient racing chariots. Think what fun a 26th century translator might have with “Bluetooth.”

Think how impossible it would be for someone in another culture and separated by five hundred years to get it right. In the context of accelerating change, the average educated reader knows more about the minutiae of the Classical world than the seventeenth or eighteenth century, mainly because up until that time our ancestors had longer cultural memories and wrote all this stuff down. If change keeps accelerating, how could someone five hundred years from now hope to research a technology that probably will last less than ten years?

So think how many ways there might be in 2610 to get the Bluetooth whisper wrong. Was Bluetooth a drink? Obviously. Some sort of vodka, no doubt. No, a type of oyster, ergo a late twentieth century euphemism for a forbidden sexual practice.

An intuitive poet-translator might simply finally choose to ignore “Bluetooth” and, taking a cue from the title, emend the line to “your whisper was electricity tickling my tongue.”

In fact, saying that, I’m thinking that “Bluetooth” might make a better title for the poem than “Electricity,” and electricity is better than Bluetooth in the line. But then translators could argue about the title. Is “Bluetooth” a woman’s name, perchance? A disease? Some sort of dental tattoo?

But what if, five hundred years from now, a translator did stumble on not only the definition but the etymology of Bluetooth? And what if that translator decided to utilize the image implicit in Bluetooth: King Harald uniting the warring factions.

Then, we’d have something like: “your whisper was a truce tickling my tongue.” On the one hand, maybe a more interesting, more complex poem—and a better poem? But if so, isn’t the translator mining something that wasn’t really there? Adding an embellishment that wouldn’t have occurred to any twentieth century reader.

But why not, if it adds to the 25th century translation? If it produces a real poem that resonates with 25th century readers, what harm’s done to the long since worm-eaten original poet? To the competitors who coined the word, Bluetooth was, above all, a productive detente. A format that avoided expensive, needless product wars. To its users, Bluetooth, with its strange alliterative name, evokes a sort of magic, an electronic ESP. A glowing tooth of sorts. Cool electricity. But these are the kind of resonances that will be hopelessly lost five hundred years from now. If the hypothetical Bluetooth poem is somehow resurrected in that hypothetical future, other—as yet unimagined—resonances will have to replace them.

You can’t get it right, so the only thing you can do is make it better.

January 28, 2013, 9:00 pm
The Treachery of Translators

The fact is, there were always going to be a lot of fish in “Vingt mille lieues sous les mers.” When a publishing house commissioned me to produce a new translation of Jules Verne’s 19th-century underwater epic, I was confident of bringing a degree of joyous panache to the story of Captain Nemo, his submarine, the Nautilus and that giant killer squid. But I had forgotten about its systematic taxonomy of all the inhabitants of the seven seas.

Somewhere around page 3 of “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” I got this feeling that I was starting to drown in fish. There are an awful lot of fish down there, and there were possibly even more in the middle of the 19th century. Whereas my ichthyological vocabulary, whether in French or English or indeed any other language, was severely limited. The fish (and assorted oceanic mammals), in other words, far outnumbered my linguistic resources. I now know I should just have boned up on fish, the way any decent, respectable translator would have done.

(Note to the decent, respectable translator: I teach a college class on translation but I accept your critique that I am long on theory and short on practice.)

Instead I started counting how many pages there were and calculating how much I was getting paid per fish. It didn’t add up. I realize now that I should have switched to “Around the World in Eighty Days” – there are far fewer fish in that one.

My brilliant translating career hit another high when a French publisher invited me to translate Brigitte Bardot’s memoirs, “Initiales BB.” I had written a memoir about my childhood obsession with Bardot, so I said O.K. and suggested some modest revisions. It would have to be completely re-written from top to bottom and I would definitely take out all those exclamation marks. And I would put back in that affair with the English guy after she married Gunter Sachs – she should never have left that out! They took that as a “non.” Tant pis. All translators rewrite and rectify. Some even feel that they can do a better job of writing Bardot’s life than Bardot.

The law of karma is as unforgiving in the realm of translation as in any other and I was overdue for a taste of my own punishment. I had written a book about surfing in Hawaii called “Walking on Water,” which was eventually translated into Dutch. I had nothing to do with the translation and was simply presented with a fait accompli. My command of Dutch is negligible, but I thought I would test out “Lopen over water” by reference to a metaphor that was, if not my greatest contribution to literature, at least distinctively my own. There was a passage where I was drowning, but not feeling too put out about it, and I had written: “Death was warm and embracing like porridge.” I zeroed in on the sentence, but I couldn’t find anything even closely related to porridge. So I checked with a Dutch-speaking friend – could she tell me how the translator had done it?

“You’d better sit down,” she said.

The translator had not given my immortal metaphor the time of day. He had the same kind of hang-up about porridge that I had about fish. He took a shortcut right round it, passing seamlessly from the previous sentence to the one following. The porridge had not been lost in translation; it had been quite deliberately eradicated.

My first thought was to get on the next plane to Amsterdam and go and knock on his door. Maybe I could find some porridge and fling it in his face. My own transgressions, over the years, have taught me to be more tolerant and understanding. On the other hand, Herman, if you would like to put on gloves and shorts, we can resolve this matter in the ring, anytime.

It may have been this experience that caused me to write an article for a British newspaper titled, “Translation Is Impossible.” I was supposed to be reviewing a bunch of English-French dictionaries, but I happened to cite the classic Groucho Marx joke, which goes (in one of its variants), “You’re only as old as the woman you feel,” as an instance of the untranslatable. At least as far as French is concerned. You need a verb, “feel,” that functions both transitively and intransitively, and means something like “caress” and “my current emotional status” all at once. It doesn’t (so far as I know) exist in French. A couple of months later – inevitably – some friend in Paris sent me “La Traduction Est Impossible,” the French translation of my original article, which had been published in a Paris magazine.

Naturally the first thing I looked for was the translation of the Marxian pun. I was genuinely interested – I really wanted to know how the translator had pulled it off. And to think I had claimed it was impossible – I was about to be proved wrong! But translation is always an interpretation. In this case, the translator had written something like this, updating New York ’50s sexist humor into ’90s Parisian political correctness: “Here is an example of a sentence that is manifestly impossible to translate: ‘A man is only as old as the woman he can feel inside of him trying to express herself.'” So, in some sense, I felt vindicated, but also – as usual – betrayed by a graduate from the school of translation.

In my opinion, you don’t have to be mad to translate, but it probably helps. Take, for instance, the case of the late, great Gilbert Adair. He was translating into English the brilliant novel by Georges Perec, “La Disparition” – a lipogram written entirely without the letter “e.” (I had had a tentative go at eliminating the most frequently occurring letter in both English and French and failed utterly.) Adair even succeeded, for a while, in deleting “e” from his vocabulary. I met him for tea in London, while he was in the midst of it, at the Savoy hotel (it had to be the Savoy, not Claridge’s or the Grosvenor, obviously). When a waitress came around and asked if he would like “tea or coffee,” he frowned, gritted his teeth, and replied, “Lapsang souchong.”

Even his title is genius: “A Void” (think about it: He not only avoided the “e’s” in “The Disappearance,” but he also slipped in a dash of metaphysical angst and a cool play on words). The lesson I learned from Adair, a really serious translator, is this: You can’t get it right, so the only thing you can do is make it better.

Andy Martin is the author of “The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre vs Camus.” He teaches at Cambridge University.