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.


Tiny little review of my Shez translation in the journal “Two Lines”

Every review counts, especially on a web site about international literature. Mai Schwartz found this for me, on the site for “Three Percent”:

The new issue of Two Lines, entitled “Passageways,” has just been released. All in all, it’s a pretty awesome anthology, and includes great pieces by authors like Quim Monzó and Naja Marie Aidt. There’s also a poem by Shez that is particularly touching.

Ok, so it is very small. But it is the first review in English of one of Shez’s poems in translation. And that ain’t nothing to sneeze at!

Find it yourself here.

Catching Up on Big News Events!

I’ve not been blogging much since starting a new job, so all kinds of things have been happening. Here’s the first Big News of the fall:

I was awarded a Leeway Art and Change Grant for my work translating Shez’s poetry! Yeah!

The $2500 I received will go towards funding my retreat at the Vermont Studio Center next summer. Combined with the scholarship I received from them, I’m nearly on track to both go and cover some of my life expenses while I’m on leave from work.

Again, YEAH!!!!!

To find out more about this award, and about Leeway in General, read this

but I need pleasure like I need air, now, when

Dadaism Versus Surrealism, by Romanian poet Angela Marinescu, translated by Martin Woodside in his anthology Of Gentle Wolves.

Dadaism Versus Surrealism

put your fingers between my legs
I can no longer stand the act of sex
which seems to me dadaist, whereas
fingers wander a precise surrealist
a collection agent what I hate the most
but I need pleasure like I need air, now, when
thrust on the peak of solitude
and all my generation stays in You

like a lead soldier on duty

I don’t know what else to do
but write slow and free
like the soft rain
of spring.

Why Translate?

from a presentation I did at a panel at the Drew University MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation.

Why Translate?
Elliott batTzedek

Translate, because it will make you have to learn everything possible about your own language. Grammar suddenly matters—tracking the difference between reflexive, transitive, intransitive will determine meaning. Knowing how articles function suddenly makes all the difference. This will make you a better poet.

Translator Kenneth Rexroth writes in his essay, “The Poet as Translator:” The writer who can project himself into exultation of another learns more than the craft of words. He learns the stuff of poetry.

Translate, because it will make you think harder about poetry than anything else you’ve ever done. You know those close reading essays we’ve all been assigned to write? Imagine doing the equivalent amount of thinking for each and every poem you translate. This will hone your editing and revising skills more than you thought possible, for all that thinking and analysis goes directly into the writing task in front of you at that exact moment.

Translate poetry, because doing so will force you to understand what makes an arrangement of words a poem, as opposed to a prose sentence, a pop song lyric, or a technical essay. As a poet, I’ve tended towards the too-wordy, too-explanatory, the over-thought. After a year of translating poetry, my own writing is going through huge changes, letting go of all that extra, becoming unafraid of being open to multiple meanings, confusion, uncertainty.

Yang Wan-Li, a Chinese poet, once wrote about poetry and translation: If you say it is a matter of words, I will say a good poet gets rid of words. If you say it is a matter of meaning, I will say a good poet gets rid of meaning. ‘But,’ you ask ‘without words and without meaning, where is the poetry?’ To this I reply: ‘get rid of words and get rid of meaning, and still there is poetry.’ It is that intangible that is left that is the object, I suggest, of good translation.

Octavio Paz says:
After all, poetry is not merely the text. The text produces the poem: a sense of sensations and meanings….With different means, but playing a similar role, you can produce similar results. I say similar, but not identical: translation is an art of analogy, the art of finding correspondences. An art of shadows and echoes….of producing, with a different text, a poem similar to the original.

Translation is good for the ego—your hard work, the hair you’ll tear out, the obsessing over syntax, the search for exactly the right sound, right word, right line—these are all in service of someone else’s poetic vision. I’ve found that this makes revising so much easier—separated from the original power of the creative urge, and the ways we cling to word choices, the goal of revision becomes very clear: making the best line and best poem possible. The poem is not a child I’ve birthed and am afraid to change or challenge too much, but a creative task I set myself to perfecting. This experience has made me a much better reviser of my own poems, because it is truly the poem that matters.

Translation is good for the ego—promoting the work, selling the work, become so much easier. Maybe some of you have no problems promoting your own work, but it is, for me, a special kind of hell. But promoting the translations is so easy, since what I feel like I’m saying is, “Hey, here’s the amazing poet you don’t know yet and you’ll love her!” While this hasn’t (yet) made it this easy for me to talk up my own poetry, it has greatly increased my confidence in talking about poetry in general.

Translating is intimate. Taking up residence in someone else’s vision, words, beating heart, feels like friendship, love, even sex, for there is kind of breathing together, moving together, a patterned, ritual courtship dance. Understanding the original poem, its form and its duende, takes a combination of intellect and heart, but creating that poem anew must grow out of the wise animal that is your own body.

Translating is a moral obligation, is what we with access to social, economic, educational, and verbal privilege owe to those without. I know that much of what is currently translated is work that is also of relatively high verbal privilege, but it doesn’t have to be that way. As Audre Lorde repeatedly challenged us throughout her life, “You must use whatever privilege you have in the service of what you say you believe.”

Translating is fun. It’s exhilarating, it’s winning the chess match AND finishing the marathon AND dancing the tango.

Translating is the opposite of war. It is the open mind, the outspread hand, the risk of going outside your comfort zone, of aiming above your skill level. Translating takes a village. A village with a shelf of really good dictionaries, and people willing to help for the sake of the writing. I’ve walked around all year with questions saved up in my head to fling anyone I met who might have answers. I was very lucky to meet Mai Schwartz, my primary informant, who is bilingual and bi-cultural, but even then there were moments, passages, that remained obscure. I’d go to dictionaries, struggle with using Google Translate to find websites in Hebrew about Hebrew idioms, and Mai would call her mother and between all of that we’d come, collectively, to some kind of resolution. And Ellen was a much bigger part of the process than mentors helping me with MY writing. She kept the same thick files of revisions I kept, was engaged with these poems as if they were translations she was doing herself. The voice that comes through in English is a combination of her sensibility and mine, and they are the better for it.

Translating is magic. Serious, real, transformation of energy. Words that were unknown, unknowable, open up. Original, outside-of-our-ken ways of understanding the world come in through our front doors, as welcome strangers, long-lost cousins. Writing poetry is the work we do to make our human experience part of a collective story; translating is the work we do to actively enlarge that collective.

understanding my connection to Shez’s poetry

As I’ve been doing final (for now) edits on my translations of Shez’s poems, I keep feeling a kind of haunting—some of her words could be my own; I could definitely interweave the translations and my poems into a single, unified text. Sometimes I even dream about having my work translated into Hebrew and then doing a combined work in both languages, of letting our voices flow together like that.

The project, after all, is definitely the same—to replace the silence of the terrified girl with words that are strong, forceful, even violent enough to break the choke hold that sexual terrorism imposed on her. Which is why, even as I struggle with most of the subtleties of her Hebrew, I understand the poems, feel them deeply inside of myself, and know how to give them new voice in English.

With this always in my thoughts these days, I started reading Edith Grossman’s why translation matters, and came upon this quotation from a letter William Carlos Williams wrote to Nicolas Calas:

If I do original work all well and good. But if I can say it (the matter of form I mean) by translating the work of others that also is valuable. What difference does it make?

There is a silence that must be ended. At the end of my long sequence of poems called “Wanting a Gun” I declare: “I am writing, writing, writing.” In a poem addressed to her father, Shez declares, “You will not erase me off the page.”

The difference that is made is that now I know Shez. And soon all of you can know her, too. And hey, my hard work has made that difference. Rare enough that I let myself celebrate my own work, but today, after a couple of weeks of being trapped in some dank and musty emotional cave, I’m feeling celebratory.

Translation and the Tower of Babel

from why translation matters by Edith Grossman, page 17

…translation […] dedicates itself to denying and negating the impact of divine punishment for the construction of the Tower of Babel, or at least to overcoming its worse divisive effects. Translation asserts the possibility of a coherent, unified experience of literature in the world’s multiplicity of languages. At the same time, translation celebrates the differences among languages and the many varieties of human experience and perception they can express. I do not believe this is a contradiction. Rather, it testifies to the comprehensive, inclusive embrace of both literature and translation.

a few thoughts on translating, from Walter Benjamin

drawn from Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator,” written in 1923. This version was translated into English in 1968 by Harry Zohn.

1. “In the appreciation of a work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful.” Art, Benjamin says (and I’m leaving all his original gender markers here), “posits man’s physical and spiritual existence, but in none of its works is it concerned with his response.” [Note: Reader Response theory would come along a few years after this, so stick with him for the sake of the argument]. So therefore the point is not perfect understanding on the part of the reader, but that the artist creates and the reader experiences. Given this, how can a translation claim to be for readers who don’t understand the original? Only inferior translations seek to explain, and they are inferior exactly in the way they miss the transmission of art’s “inessential content.” Translation, therefore, should serve the art, not the reader.

But do we not generally regard as the essential substance of a literary work what it contains in addition to information—the unfathomable, the mysterious, the “poetic,” something that a translator can reproduce only if he is also a poet?

2. Translation is a kind of afterlife, a transformation and renewal of something living, and in the process the original itself undergoes a change. Translation is not the sterile equation of one language to another, but is a literary form “charged with the special mission of watching over the maturing process of the original language and the birth pangs of its own.”

3. The transfer of all of a poem into another language can never be total, but what can carry is that elements in a translation which goes beyond transmittal of subject matter.”

Even when all the surface content has been extracted and transmitted, the primary concern of the genuine translator remains elusive. Unlike the words of the original, it is not translatable, because the relationship between content and language is quite different in the original and the translation. While content and language form a certain unity in the original, like a fruit and its skin, the language of the translation envelops its content like a royal robe with ample folds.

4. The task of the translator consists in finding the intended effect upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original. This is a feature of translation which basically differentiates it from the poet’s work, because the effort of the latter is never directed at the language as such, but solely and immediately at specific linguistic contextual aspects. [note: with the advent of language poetry, this may no longer true]

5. Sparks of Light—Benjamin used the Kabbalistic metaphor of the creation of the world being the breaking of a vessel which released sparks of light into everything. In this understanding, redemption will come when all of these have been found, released and gathered up. Out of this understanding, he writes about a kind of original “pure” language which survives behind the scenes in all resulting, scattered, languages.

In the same way a translation, instead of resembling the meaning of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel. […] On the other hand, as regards the meaning, the language of a translation can—in fact, must—let itself go, so that it gives voice to the intention of the original not as reproduction but as harmony, as a supplement to the language in which it expresses itself, as its own kind of intention. Therefore it is not the highest praise of a translation, particularly in the age of its origin, to say that it reads as if it had originally been written in that language. Rather, the significance of fidelity as ensured by literalness is that the work reflects the great longing for linguistic completion. A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not black its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium to shine upon the original all the more fully.

6. The task of the translator

Rather, for the sake of pure language, a free translation [that is, one that isn’t literal] bases the test on its own language. It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his recreation of that work. For the sake of pure language he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language.

The first Shez translations have been published!

The Spring 2012 Issue of Trivia went live today, including the first four Shez translations to ever appear in English! I’m so happy! And, when I asked that the Hebrew be included, the editors worked hard to find a way to make that happen. Go read ’em, and stay to take in the other great writing and photography in the issue:

Trivia Spring 2012 Shez translations