The Politics of Translation
- 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.
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Vol. 40 No. 21 · 8 November 2018
Marina Warner refers to ‘crucial instances of overdetermination’ in biblical translation, citing the notorious case of Jerome’s rendering of the Hebrew ’almah at Isaiah 7:14 as ‘virgin’ when it ‘simply means young and nubile’ (LRB, 11 October). This overdetermination has thundered down the ages. The word ’almah illustrates the Roman Catholic Church’s inability to take a step forward without taking at least one back: the New Vulgate, published as recently as 1979, deliberately kept ‘virgo’. In an article published in 1990, the former secretary of the Pontifical Commission for the Revision of the Vulgate, Bishop Pietro Rossano, tried to justify the retention of ‘virgo’. He ignored the plain meaning of the original Hebrew, and appealed instead both to the authority of the Greek version of the Bible, the Septuagint, which renders ’almah as parthenos, and, no less important for his case, to the quotation of that passage in Matthew 1:23. His argument was that ‘there is no cogent reason for excluding the meaning “virgin” from the Hebrew.’ Such wilfulness reflects precisely the type of inverted or backwards logic that inspired the preceding 16 centuries of Christian anti-Jewish polemic.
Warner adds that the same word, ’almah, ‘is also used to describe the dancing girls at Solomon’s court’. There may be some overdetermination on her part here. The word ’almah (plural ’alamot) occurs rarely in the Hebrew Bible, and never with any obvious reference to dancing. Is Warner perhaps thinking of the line in the Song of Songs (attributed to Solomon) 1:3, where we read, in the Hebrew, that ‘therefore do the ’alamot love thee’? Here the word is rendered by King James as ‘the virgins’. Jerome, however, is not to blame for this: King James’s men were translating ‘out of the Originall tongues’. Jerome, to his credit, rendered this as adolescentulae – which ‘simply means young and nubile’.
Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee
Marina Warner mentions that the field of translation studies is ‘growing vigorously’ in universities, but I fear readers may get the wrong impression. Literary translation is just one of a huge range of translation-related topics you would hear about if you attended a translation studies conference: editing the outputs of machine translation; preparing the translations of written materials accompanying new drugs; translating the help files for new versions of software; courtroom interpreting; tracking the eye movements of professional translators as they work in order to understand their mental processes; examining the work of journalists who translate news-wire stories and simultaneously edit their content to suit their home audience; and so on.
Translation programmes at universities are similarly wide-ranging. Most of these are dependent on fee-paying students who are training to become professional translators of legal, medical, technical, financial, administrative or marketing texts. Friedrich Schleiermacher, in a lecture at the Royal Academy of Science in Berlin in 1813, pooh-poohed this kind of translation work: ‘The translator of newspaper articles and the common literature of travel … risks becoming ridiculous when his work begins to make larger claims and he wants to be recognised as an artist.’ With such texts ‘there are rarely any doubts that cannot be immediately dispelled as to which expression in one language corresponds to an expression in another. Translating in this field is therefore almost a mechanical activity that can be performed by anyone with a fair to middling knowledge of both languages.’ Similar opinions, still frequent, are uttered only by people who have never translated non-literary texts.
York University, Toronto
Vol. 40 No. 22 · 22 November 2018
Marina Warner is perhaps being ironic, but it’s important to say that tens of thousands of Ephraimites were not killed because they ‘failed to pronounce the “Shibboleth” in the way [the Gileadites] thought was right’, but because they were Ephraimites, and were trying to deny the fact (LRB, 11 October). As the passage in Judges makes clear, the aim of the Gileadites in demanding that men attempting to flee the battlefield over the River Jordan say the word ‘Shibboleth’ was to force them to give themselves away. Ephraimites ‘could not frame to pronounce it right’, as the Bible puts it, and came up instead with ‘Sibboleth’.
A more recent example of a Shibboleth has given its name to the ‘Parsley Massacre’ of 1937, in which thousands of Haitian migrants to the neighbouring Dominican Republic were slaughtered. It was said that in order to distinguish the Haitians from indigenous, Spanish-speaking Dominicans, the soldiers of the Dominican dictator, Trujillo, would hold up a sprig of parsley, in Spanish perejil, and ask what it was called. If the Haitians, speakers of a French-based Creole, were unable to pronounce the ‘r’ sound in the Spanish manner, producing instead the characteristic French uvular fricative, they were killed.
Brian Mossop writes in support of non-literary translators, one of whom I have been for some forty years (Letters, 8 November). He disparagingly quotes Friedrich Schleiermacher as saying, in a lecture in 1813, that a non-literary translator risks becoming ridiculous when ‘he wants to be recognised as an artist.’ Such opinions ‘are uttered only by people who have never translated non-literary texts’, says Mossop. But I think Schleiermacher was broadly right. I tend to equate what I do to the work of a gas fitter, providing a basic service which I have studied to master. Proof of this is provided by the triumph of the CAT-tool, which remembers what you have done in the past, thus saving a percentage of the labour involved in ‘mechanical’ translation of a word in the source language into its usual equivalent in the target language. There is more to non-literary translation than mechanical activity, but that doesn’t make the people who do it artists.
Vol. 40 No. 23 · 6 December 2018
Tim Marr rightly fine-tunes my account of the massacre of the Ephraimites in the Bible, emphasising that differences in pronunciation of the word for ‘river’ (shibboleth) were used to separate Them from Us (Letters, 22 November). He also refers to the more recent episode when Haitians in Dominica in 1937 were ordered to say ‘parsley’, perejil, and those who couldn’t roll their Rs Spanish-style were killed. In 2010, the poet Caroline Bergvall created a prescient performance piece called Say Parsley, which is invoked in the catalogue of the exhibition Say Shibboleth! at the Jüdisches Museum Hohenems (until 17 February 2019, then in Berlin). Language can be used to draw ‘an invisible border carried in our mouths’, the editors write.
As Bergvall’s piece warned, linguistic fingerprinting, far from being a horror of the past, is used in current legal inquiries, especially over immigration. The show includes an installation of Conflicted Phonemes (2012) by the British-Lebanese artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan; he charts and maps the verdicts of a Dutch tribunal which tested asylum seekers’ claims by listening to their accents, then deciding whether they truly came from Yemen, Iraq, Somalia or Syria. He contests the whole enterprise (it has echoes of Bertillon’s criminal taxonomies) and points out that displaced persons, especially when young, pass through many countries, absorbing local languages and their characteristic lilt.
Abu Hamdan has worked with Eyal Weizman and the Forensic Architecture team at Goldsmiths to trace the UK’s similar use of aural forensics back to the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE), which allowed audio recordings as testimony instead of verbal transcription. In an essay in the Say Shibboleth! catalogue, the literary scholar Emily Apter comments: ‘Though PACE was intended to reduce opportunities for falsifying records, the fact that it bolstered a presumption of scientific accuracy in the measurement of accent authenticity turned it into a compliant technology for racial profiling and ethnic pigeonholing.’ You could add class to this list. Witness the furore in the 1950s about U and Non-U words and phrases, homegrown shibboleths that were funny to some, but were and still are markers of exclusion for others.
I was very pleased to be reminded by Brian Mossop and Robert Walkden of the everyday encounter with ‘non-literary’ translated stuff (Letters, 8 November and Letters, 22 November). I’m confident that neither of them is personally responsible for the instructions in almost any manual that’s crossed my path – entertainment if you don’t need to understand, but misery if you are trying to set up your new flat-packed something. On the other hand, there are riches to be had from the mysterious languages of tourist menus, heritage notices, tabloid headlines, business speak, street signs, clothing care instructions, ingredient labelling, and increasingly inventive guides to the flavours of chocolates (‘caramelised coconut nibs’, ‘crispy praline with popping sugar’). ‘Piétons, attention, traversez en deux temps’ struck me a few years ago as a surprising use of the word for time; currently ‘backstop’ seems to have baffled French reporters, and not only as to what it means.