The Politics of Translation

Marina Warner

  • This Little Art by Kate Briggs
    Fitzcarraldo, 365 pp, £12.99, September 2017, ISBN 978 1 910695 45 6
  • Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel, translated by Ros Schwartz
    Les Fugitives, 150 pp, £10.00, November 2017, ISBN 978 0 9930093 3 4
  • Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto by Mark Polizzotti
    MIT, 168 pp, £17.99, May 2018, ISBN 978 0 262 03799 0
  • The 100 Best Novels in Translation by Boyd Tonkin
    Galileo, 304 pp, £14.99, June 2018, ISBN 978 1 903385 67 8
  • The Work of Literary Translation by Clive Scott
    Cambridge, 285 pp, £75.00, June 2018, ISBN 978 1 108 42682 4

In the early 1960s, David Hockney made a series of etchings inspired by the poems of Constantine Cavafy; he went to Egypt to discover the places Cavafy had drunk coffee and picked up lovers, but in the images it’s mainly Hockney’s own life and friends who figure. The etchings touch on rapture, and the frankness of their erotic pleasure at the sight and memory of boys in bed brought Cavafy to a new, wide readership. Hockney had found an exemplar, a kindred spirit and an alter ego through whom, you could say, he re-created himself. His Cavafy – the man’s bespectacled face, his world, his city, his life, his sound, his gestus – constituted a double translation of the poetry, into the portable art of etching via an English version of the original Greek text. The Tate, which owns a set of the prints, says that Hockney found a copy of the poems in Bradford public library in 1960, but it doesn’t say who the translator was. Many contenders have tried to render Cavafy, but the edition Hockney came across must be John Mavrogordato’s, published by the Hogarth Press in 1951 (Rex Warner wrote the introduction). When Hockney’s prints were published a few years later, in 1967, Stephen Spender, a friend and early advocate, collaborated on a new translation with the publisher Nikos Stangos, himself Greek and a poet, of 14 of the Cavafy poems, which were illustrated by 12 of the etchings.

The transmission of the poems, from the cultural revolution of the 1960s to Pride today, could well lead many admirers to imagine Cavafy never wrote in another language. His most famous poem, ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, has settled down in English as if native-born – in my experience, the translators are never credited. The poem, written in 1898, has only grown in meaning: its closing line, ‘They [the barbarians] were a kind of solution’ rings with terrible significance after World War Two. That a translated work should pass into common quotation like this represents some kind of achievement, one most potently foreshadowed by scripture; the history of the Bible – in English, in German – demonstrates how a work of translation can become the real thing, so much so that the derivatives become imbued with the original’s aura.

The prestige of translators has risen since the time when they remained nameless as well as underpaid (that has not really changed). Translation prizes, such as the International Man Booker, now share the money equally between author and translator, and translation studies are growing vigorously in universities, a new vine twining up the withered trunk of foreign language study, which has been gasping for life in England and Wales since the requirement for a language to be studied at GCSE level was dropped (everlasting shame on New Labour). A translator’s interest is often key to the appearance of a writer’s work in another language; it may make their fortune: Anthea Bell (Englishing Sebald) and Ann Goldstein (voicing Elena Ferrante) propelled the authors to cult status beyond their own shores. Like a shrub moved to a sunnier position, writers may thrive when transplanted. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Human Acts have won startling numbers of readers in the translations by Deborah Smith, in which the underspecification, repetition and starkness of Korean have been, by Smith’s own account and with Han’s full approval, enhanced by ‘occasional interpolations’ after she listened ‘more carefully to what it [the text] was telling me’.

Maurice Blanchot once wrote that translators are ‘the silent masters of culture’. Kate Briggs amends this, commenting that Blanchot wrote ‘hidden masters of culture’ and that it’s ‘our recognition’ of translators’ ‘zeal’ that ‘remains silent’. In the publishing industry, editors who read a foreign language are few and far between, while bilingual readers of ‘minority’ literature are as much in danger of extinction as the languages themselves. Recommendations, and indeed zeal, are needed from translators. In their recent books about translation, Mireille Gansel and Mark Polizzotti come close to playing the role of scouts – Polizzotti is interesting on the interconnections of translation and intelligence, and surveys a number of translators who were information-gatherers for their paymasters (Richard Burton, for example, the maker of a steamy Arabian Nights). Briggs lobbied hard for the job of translating Roland Barthes’s famous lecture series at the Collège de France, and, in spite of being a newcomer to ‘this little art’, was commissioned. Her engaging memoir unfolds in unnumbered, untitled, unstructured short chapters: a pillow book on the translator’s love affair with words and writers, it ventriloquises Barthes’s late style of ‘biographical nebulae’, which aimed ‘to put a little bit of “psychological” affectivity back into intellectual production: to give the “Ego” a bit of an opportunity to speak’. In disciple-like fashion, Briggs explores his idea of ‘writing as a radical practice, an obsessive labour, a way of life’.

Her artless title is taken from a letter Helen Lowe-Porter wrote to Thomas Mann after she became his English translator. She was, she said later, an ‘unknown instrument … which … must … serve him to change the garment of his art into a better one which might clothe her for the marketplace until times changed’. ‘Like a lady’s maid,’ Briggs writes, before adding: ‘I know nothing, really, about lady’s maids.’ The domestic simile is of a piece with the equivocation of her title, and both belie her book’s passionate belief in the translator’s high calling. Lowe-Porter was a target of scholarly derision on account of her weak grasp of German and resulting misreadings, but Briggs defends her warmly, seeing her relation to Mann as a model of near mystical commingling with the writer as well as the text. Dwelling on the delicacy of Dorothy Bussy’s love for André Gide, and invoking her own mediumistic absorption with Barthes, Briggs can sound like a visionary; this note is also struck in another translator’s memoir: that of the intrepid multilingual translator Mireille Gansel. Working to translate poets into French, Gansel also touches on the mystical relation to the word as professed in Judaic thought. In Singed, a poetic essay on books lost in a fire, the writer Daniela Cascella has suggested the neat coinage ‘trancelation’, the state of self-dissolution some translators reach. Briggs very much identifies with Lowe-Porter’s admission that she was a ‘would-be writer who refuses to let go of her translations until she feels she has written the books herself’.

In Sympathy for the Traitor, his acute, pugnacious manifesto, Mark Polizzotti takes issue with the adage traduttore traditore: translators aren’t traducers or traitors, ghosts or parrots, or helpmeets, but writers in their own write (as John Lennon put it). The longstanding ideal of the good translator’s self-effacement behind the towering original fails to take full measure of their vital role in recognising their parity with the author: ‘It takes respect for one’s own work,’ Polizzotti writes, ‘belief that one’s translation is worth judging on its own merits (or flaws), and that, if done properly, it can stand shoulder to shoulder with the source text.’

Polizzotti is an editor (of publications at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) as well as a long-serving translator who has rendered Raymond Roussel, Patrick Modiano, Marguerite Duras and many others. ‘A good translation,’ he writes, ‘offers not a reproduction of the work but an interpretation, a re-representation, just as the performance of a play or a sonata is a representation of the script or the score, one among many possible representations.’ At times, he sees his task as life-giving: ‘The point is to allow Catullus and [René] Daumal to speak as best they can across nebulous cultural boundaries, and not lie mute and moribund on the page.’ For Gansel the work is pastoral: Translation as Transhumance refers to the nomadic shepherd’s practice of moving flocks between summer and winter pastures and encloses the ideas of the human and of the earth (humus). ‘So it is with the transhumance routes of translation, the slow and patient crossing of countries, all borders eradicated, the movement of huge flocks of words through all the vernaculars of the umbrella language of poetry.’ Born in 1940 in France, she began with German, a language of her Mittel-European family, and her work is an act of mourning for the lost culture of her father and mother, aunts and great-aunts, and the vanished, interwoven Jewish world to which Kafka belonged when, living in Prague, he chose to write in German.

During the 1960s, Gansel began going to Vietnam to study the language: she combined her renderings of its poets (Nguyen Khac Vien, To Huu, and others known only in oral form) with learning to play the monochord because she wanted to infuse her French with the ‘cantillation’ of the reciter’s traditional accompanying instrument. The work of translation, as Gansel has pursued it, becomes an act of political husbandry, ecological and conservationist; she set out to reverse colonial damage by making the larger language and culture of a former power (in this case French) sustain and invigorate the life of smaller ones, such as the songs of the Cham, a mountain people of Vietnam. More recently, she turned to the work of the poet Nelly Sachs, who chose to rinse her German in the waters of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig and their version of scripture, rather than depend on Luther’s translation; Sachs wanted to catch their ‘psalmodic breath … creating a new space for responsibility instead of being crushed under the weight of original sin’.

The gardeners of death
…………….
What did you do,
when you were tiny children’s hands?
………………
You strangling hands,
was your mother dead,
Your wife, your child?

Ros Schwartz is quoting here from a selection of Sachs in English by Michael Hamburger and others, whereas when it comes to rendering from Vietnamese, she offers the original transliterated, and then, working closely with Gansel, translates from her French versions, thereby forging a powerful echo chamber (even two steps removed it can still sound like the real thing).

Two fundamental quarrels run through these books: the first over claims about fidelity and felicity, the second over cultural appropriation and consequent monolingualism (the continued expansion of the Anglosphere). How to honour the character of the source language and its relation to cultural difference? Should a translator respond like an Aeolian harp, vibrating in harmony with the original text to transmit the original music, or should the translation read as if it were written in the new language? Pursuing this work of recovery and protection, translators like Gansel could be aligned with Platonists, committed to groping towards the elusive ur-truth of a literary work. Ultimately, the insistence on rendering the original as unchanged and untampered with as possible can lead to despair over the whole enterprise (so Emily Apter has argued in Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability). Polizzotti rejects this defeatism. While he shares Gansel’s idealism about their calling, he firmly opposes the quasi-Platonist view.

The history of translation has developed along two branches, one growing from Augustine, who endorsed precise adherence to the original, the other from Jerome, who believed in adaptation and, to some extent, invention, in order to put the meaning across more effectively. Jerome’s way, as demonstrated by his Vulgate translation of the Bible, is colourful, but peppered with crucial instances of overdetermination. For example, the prophecy of Isaiah which announces that the Saviour will be born of a virgin, uses the word ’almah, which is also used to describe the dancing girls at Solomon’s court, and simply means young and nubile. Jerome translates it as virgo, adding divine authority to the virulent cult of sexual disgust that shaped Christian moral theology (the Quran, free from this linguistic trap, does not connect Mariam/Mary’s miraculous nature with moral horror of sex).[*] The apple Eve offered Adam, Polizzotti amusingly points out, could have been an apricot. Or an orange or a banana. But Jerome liked the pun malus/malum (apple/evil). There’s a haunting refrain in Britten’s opera of The Turn of the Screw, which the young boy Miles sings, spooking his governess with its enigmatic repetitions:

Malo I would rather be
Malo in an apple tree
Malo than a naughty boy
Malo in adversity

‘Why, Miles,’ the governess exclaims, ‘what a funny song! Did I teach you that?’

The boy’s chant is eerie and fills her with dread, yet the lines are a simple mnemonic for learning the meaning of the Latin homonym in different forms and cases. Instead, the enigmatic riddle on apples and naughtiness makes the words sound like a spell, couched in the kind of gibberish associated with the devil’s work and the speech of the possessed. It exercises the power of the unintelligible, with all of incomprehension’s capacity to inspire fear and alienation. The advocates of translation argue that their work is enlightening, that they illuminate and explicate the unknown, and that consequently translation between cultures can dispel fear of the strange and the stranger, and ease hostility. In this sense translators practise translucinación, as a Chilean poetry movement expressed it. Polizzotti reminds us that Umberto Eco once remarked that the best road into Finnegans Wake is Joyce’s own translation of it into Italian.

The contest between Augustinian scrupulous faithfulness and Hieronymite wilful nudging was very helpfully glossed by Dryden when he identified three different levels of translation: the first, hewing close to the original, he confusingly called ‘metaphrase’; the second ‘translation with latitude’, which he again confusingly called ‘paraphrase’; and the third and most illuminating ‘imitation, where the translator (if he has not now lost that name) assumes the liberty not only to vary from the words and sense, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion; and taking only some general hints from the original, to run division on the ground-work as he pleases.’ This ‘liberty’ may verge on travesty, but it catches the ideal aims as set out by Polizzotti, when he writes that ‘language is not all about designation.’ ‘Its real meanings hover in the spaces between utterances, in the movement generated by the particular arrangements of words, associations and hidden references. This is what literature does, in the best of cases. And it’s what translation can do as well.’ He contrasts the revered translator Richard Howard’s version of a 1930 love poem by Paul Eluard with Beckett’s rendering – and there is no doubt that Beckett’s unpunctuated cascando, composed in the heraldic mode of courtly love, and signed ‘Thine in flames’ communicates the French original’s outpouring far beyond Howard’s more accurate version.

*

The translator’s choices – between fidelity and re-visioning, between domestication and foreignisation – are distinct, but nevertheless bound up together, because a translation which remains culturally specific, keeping faith with local customs, commodities and allusions, isn’t likely to reach readers as broadly as a version which finds equivalents, and hence smooths out diversity (Polizzotti points out that in his version of Calvino’s short story collection Cosmicomics, William Weaver translates tagliatelle as ‘noodles’, which would hardly be felt necessary today). Julian Barnes, in a tough and very thorough review of Lydia Davis’s translation of Flaubert, summed up the issue: ‘If you want the book in “English”,’ he asks, ‘what sort of English do you choose? Put simply, on the novel’s first page, do you want the schoolboy Charles Bovary’s trousers to be held up by braces, or do you want his pants to be held up by suspenders?’

The longing not to thin out the ecosphere of language leads to movements such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s campaign for African writers to write in African languages, as he chose to do when he created Wizard of the Crow in Gikuyu before rewriting it in English. Tim Parks has vehemently attacked global literature as a monstrous birth of publishing corporatism, as writers in the world beyond the Anglosphere keep a weather eye on translatability into the huge English reading market: ‘At the moment we are passing towards the possible construction of an international literary tradition at the expense of a national literature tradition.’ The acquisition of languages played a fundamental part in the making of empires: where the soldier went, so too went the missionary, the scholar and the dragoman. In the introduction to his lively inventory The 100 Best Novels in Translation, Boyd Tonkin points out ‘how closely the geography of translation fits the map of colonial and commercial control.’ In their foreword to an issue on translucinación, the editors of the journal Chain ask: ‘Can translation be an act of dialogue rather than an act of imperialistic plunder?’ The bilingual Moroccan scholar Abdelfattah Kilito considers this in Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language: he likes knowing that while he knows French, the French don’t know Arabic, and can’t understand him when he writes or speaks in his mother tongue. For colonised subjects (not only by military might), opacity can be a kind of armour against others who want to know all about you.

The yearning for the lost mother tongue springs up among displaced people. Gansel’s epigraph quotes Janusz Korczak, a paediatrician who died at Treblinka with the children in his care whom he had refused to leave: ‘native language,’ Gansel writes, ‘is not a set of grammar rules and regulations, it is the child’s spiritual nourishment.’ She recalls with a fierce sense of loss hearing as a child her relatives speaking Hungarian, Polish, German, Yiddish, Ruthenian, Hebrew and Slovak. But when she identifies this powerful nostalgia with Mignon’s song about the land where the lemon trees grow, she is surely recognising its illusory quality. The trouble with these hankerings is that dreams of linguistic purity have historically been tangled up with separatist nationalisms, xenophobia and the alt-right: Mussolini purging Italian of Americanisms was following, thousands of years later, in the steps of the Gileadites in the Bible who massacred tens of thousands of Ephraimites for failing to pronounce the ‘Shibboleth’ the way they thought was right.

Many émigrés have performed acts of translation themselves, going into voluntary exile from the demands – the oppression – of the mother tongue. Polizzotti is fascinated by these ‘xenophones’ as he calls them: Beckett fled Irish-English into French, to escape the dazzle of Joyce, ‘pour avoir moins de style’, he said, and Nabokov’s linguistic displays make him the supremo among ‘honorary English language writers’, in Polizzotti’s view (though Nabokov’s Pushkin has convincing detractors).

For Clive Scott, the new proximities and the new estrangements wrought by global flows of people, goods, finance, communications – have given literary translators a more urgent part to play than ever before. It is among poorer, smaller groups that multilingualism is now common; it is speakers of smaller languages (Dutch, German) who have historically made huge efforts to translate. It is a paradox that many translators into English are joining the struggle to keep alive cultural and linguistic diversity, working from Korean, Frisian, Breton, Maltese, Icelandic, Sardo as well as from Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and the other ‘big’ languages. But Polizzotti quite rightly sounds a note of warning about upholding the moral good of translation, instrumentalising its political effects and treating writers as mouthpieces for their cultures. He warns that ‘minority language literatures … can become so many corporate acquisitions’ and that ‘translation becomes both the bridge linking civilisations and the measure – even an aggravator – of the gulf separating them.’ However, to take myself as an example, most of what I know about many places, their people and their history comes from poetry and fiction in translation – from Arthur Waley’s rendering of Chinese when I was young to László Krasznahorkai, more recently, in the versions of George Szirtes and Ottilie Mulzet, which read enthrallingly in English, though needless to say I have no way of knowing what the originals are like.

Many celebrated translators, like Gansel, carry on adding to their linguistic crane bag: Michael Henry Heim, who worked on slippery ironists (Milan Kundera, then writing in Czech, and Dubravka Ugrešić, then writing in Serbo-Croat, now known as Croatian), liked to acquire a new one every year or so and to get to grip with that language’s neglected authors. But translators agree that their art demands something more elusive than a grasp of syntax and ‘thesaurus grubbing’, emphasising qualities that lie beyond the lexicon or the primer: ‘It sometimes seems not to matter what the words are,’ Michael Hofmann once wrote of Kafka, ‘so much as the way they move, to and fro, from side to side, back and forth.’ Polizzotti sums up: ‘if we think of the source text not as a defined monolithic whole, but rather as a zone of energy always in flux, endlessly prone to different assimilations and interpretation, then we begin to understand better the work of translation, which, like any communicative act, shows itself to be not only possible but dynamic.’ He holds up for particular admiration Pound’s re-inscriptions of poems from Chinese, a language he did not know.

Some translators aspire to become virtuosos of wordsmithery beyond language, as Scott demonstrates with his ‘projective, rather than recuperative, approach’, which leads to extreme disarticulations of poems, spattering the page like Dada scores. I was reminded of a gleefully absurdist story by Nikolai Leskov called ‘The Steel Flea: The Tale of the Cross-Eyed Left-Handed Gunsmith from Tula in Russia’, which first appeared in 1881. When English armourers present the Russian emperor with a microscopic steel flea that dances, the Russians surpass them by providing tiny shoes, complete with invisible nails, for each of the insect’s feet. Leskov is the subject of Benjamin’s essay ‘The Storyteller’, where he exemplifies the vanishing practice of communal storytelling, and it is interesting that he plays with words, with pitch and register – formal, slangy, high falutin’, low life – and is tough to render into English. The various versions around are very different (Robert Chandler reprints William Edgerton’s). Translators have to give the same attention to minutiae as those metallurgists of Tula, while also communing with the writer and the work.

Polizzotti is also part-cryptographer, Oulipian in tendency if not a member of the group, and he gives us glimpses of some breathtaking verbal gymnastics he executed when, as a young fan, he went to meet the experimental fiction writer Maurice Roche and found himself appointed translator of his CodeX and Compact, works which taxed his ingenuity quite as much as shoeing a flea. However, with the exception of Gansel, these writers don’t admit that free speech in another’s voice (Dryden’s third category) does not make a literal first-time version meaningless, especially for someone who does not speak/read the original language. I can just about puzzle out Aeschylus with the help of a facing-page crib, and this adds to my pleasure in what Rory Mullarkey got up to in his version of the Oresteia at the Globe three years ago, or in Oliver Taplin’s recent, rhythmic and musical translation (published by Norton).

At first, the rather self-satisfied claims of these accomplished artist-translators struck me as typical of the age of the selfie and the inflated CV, even when expressed with the verve of Polizzotti and the delicacy of Briggs’s aphoristic journal. They also struck me as a bit chippy – like Iofur Raknison, the armoured bear in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials who wants to have a daemon of his own, so he too can be human, but has to be content with playacting with a puppet. But I have to admit that, after attending to their shouts and murmurs, I’ve been won over to their view. In the lectures that Briggs has translated, Barthes retracted his younger self’s pronouncement on the death of the author and listed the different roles that a writer plays: the persona, the scriptor, the auctor and the scribens. Of these, the translator is the first to assail the status of the auctor, who is the originator of a work and the one who publicly guarantees its authenticity, since translation is a licit act of appropriation and impersonation, acting by permission to fake it. Translators also usurp the scribens, the one who writes, because they have written every word of the work in your hands that is Cervantes’s Don Quixote (Tonkin recommends Grossman’s translation). Borges, who so loved doubles, impersonations, counterfeits, paradoxes and mirrors, and himself read several languages, was a passionate advocate of the translator’s freedom to transform the source (he begged his English translator to ‘make me macho and gaucho and skinny’). Borges argued, in a resonant essay about the Arabian Nights, that the richer the literature of the target language, the richer the translation. The King James Bible profited from the fertility of English, and in turn cross-fertilised its vast progeny, which include English reinscriptions of the Nights: translators need to work ‘in the wake of a literature’, Borges writes, adding the italics himself. As Goethe, that advocate of world literature, remarked, ‘every literature grows bored if it is not refreshed by foreign participation.’ He knew that in the process of contact, both parties are changed, and he desired that fission. ‘What we want to claim,’ Scott writes, ‘is that translation changes the nature of literary knowledge. And it is also a crucial element in a participatory culture … encouraging us to approach texts for … their potential capacity to fertilise.’ Yes, much is indeed lost in translation, the mother tongue will always tug at the heart, the language of the original, irretrievable, irreplaceable, will beckon, but much has been gained and more can be, if the process is seen as intrinsic to the development of languages – the source language and the target.

For this reason, there is no need to mourn the home tongue’s capture by its new host or worry about what is being eroded and lost in the process. Better not to think of the attempt to catch the movement to and fro as forfeiting literary integrity, but as mutual cross-pollination and transformation. The relation of version to original isn’t analogous to currency conversion (never fair), but to everyday transformations. Think leaves/compost, steam/snow, insects/coral, sand/glass, clay/porcelain. ‘There is something about style, as a quality, that seems to transcend linguistic comprehension,’ Polizzotti remarks. The translator is simply another writer of the same book, for better or worse. Gregory Rabassa, asked if his Spanish was up to rendering García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, responded that the real question was whether his English was.

[*] Anne Enright wrote about the biblical translations of Augustine and Jerome in the LRB of 8 March 2018.