… it is the words into which she is translating, not those from which she is taking her leave, that create her problems … [she] must keep the receiving language even more in mind than the original one …Horace is one of my favorite poets, though I frankly prefer to read him in translation — Burton Raffel, How to read [and write] a translation,” The Forked Tongue
‘Speech,’ she said, ‘is but broken light upon the depth
Of the unspoken — George Eliot, The Spanish Gypsy
A translation is an acceptable match for an utterance made in another tongue — [but then what is a match, acceptable, & what must the text crucially match] — Bellos
A pre-Internet multilingual translation dictonary — useless because it contains too few words from particular languages, sold to bargain-hunting people not serious translators, who don’t understand the art of translating for real
Dear friends and readers,
As the year draws to a close, I know there have been several books I read important to me, that helped change the way I think about reading, writing and life too, but I’ve not blogged about them because often it’s precisely such books whose significant matter is hardest to convey. One such is Franco Moretti’s Atlas of the European Novel (it enabled me to write a proposal for a paper on Trollope’s imagined maps); another egan to be John Desmond’s Adaptation: Studying Film and Literature. Meant for students, this one had directions for essays that enabled me to push students into comparing films and books on a concrete literal basis, no impressionism and I was beginning myself to learn and teach before I was cut off from teaching.
I hope Bellos’s has a happier fulfilled conclusion. It’s a third. David Bellos’s Is that a Fish In Your Ear? is not just brilliant but fun (fun to read). In a way he doesn’t say much beyond what I intuitively would agree with and might even get to think myself, but he explains why most talk and expectation about translation is still so wrong. (We are improving on our understanding of film adaptations of books.) I’ve been wanting to write a blog on his book because many of his insights are these sudden utterances with accompanying paragraphs that I’d like to keep in mind and refer to. The book is there but not in my mind in a state that’s useful to me, only on my desk physically. And to go through the book this way is to make nonsense of it, asking to looking for sparkling needles in a haystack
David Bellos’s Is That A Fish In Your Ear is thus hard to grasp — like his title, apparently an allusion to a line in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe which include a Babelfish: if you put a babelfish into your ear, it instantly translates all languages into whichever one you want. When I bought it, partly attracted by the witty title, I thought he was referring to how when you machine translate a phrase you can come up with utter nonsense since the context of an utterance is central to how we understand its meaning, both literally and suggestively, how we use it to.
An outline of the book’s story or argument moves through the topics of general areas of prevailing misunderstandings of what translations are, how they function, what is a good translation, how one goes about translating, laws and customs governing publishing translations. He begins with the idea that we can’t avoid translations most days of our lives and that we don’t most of us know what a translation is, nor why it is that a given utterance can have many different translations (use different words using the same receiving language) and yet all be valid as translations. There are at least 7000 languages in the world; in practice many of these small groups of people also know one of 80 vehicular languages, a language learned by a larger group of people which enables them all to communicate with one another. Nine of these are spoken by a large majority of people; add 4 more to get to 13 and you’ve covered most of the people of the world.
Learn 13! One of these is English, the second most common French and after that German — the three most translated-into languages in the world.
He then goes on to make the obvious observation (but important) that different kinds translation are appropriate for different texts and situation (say a legal report versus a poem; or a subtitle in a movie versus a novel). At the end of this section he offers a translation of a poem and asks us why we call it a translation since if you look carefully most of the words have been changed into words of another language that have a different literal content — so the above dictionary would not have gotten you to them. A thesaurus would be much more helpful. Groups of words occupying the same terrain of meaning. And the book has barely begun.
His highway (main argument) offers information on why the particular languages most texts have been into and when, why these choices. Not only are translations influential (and still invisible — we pretend we have read Tolstoi when we read Constance Garnet) and can change the language translated into a (target or receiving language) but the language which has been translated (source language). “Continuing waves of translated works in particular fields leave the receiving language … in a different shape” (p. 187). Consider the impact of the translated Bible on Shakespeare and the Elizabethans.
It matters whether you are translating a text into a dominant language (up) or less prestigious language (down). Translations into prestigious languages (up) erase the source’s foreignness; translations into less prestigious languages (the less widely disseminated vehicular) try to keep a residue of the source.
More important to me — who can only translate into English and only from French and Italian anyway — are the paths that move away from and return to the road. In these he drops remarks and demonstrates important truths not paid sufficient attention to. What I want to do is go through the book typing out the brilliant convincing passages or utterances (as he might call them). Partly it would be good for me to have these nuggets before me as I study, evaluate or write about translations. Bellos gives me courage and helps me know my views are valid even if in most places I read contradicted by what others assert, including (especially perhaps) academic circles where the crib is still what’s wanted and thought to be the aim of a translation. He offers me insight into how to go about it too. Look at translation as a equivalent, a replacement text, originally creative in its own right with its own language’s arts. …
To offer a few:
How should the foreignness of a text best be represented in the receiving language? (p. 41). This depends on the nature of the languages you are translating from and into. If it’s from English to French, w/o being perceptively anomalous, give a sense of the French phrases in the source by some literalness P. 50)
Our first learned language is the one we begin to speak when very young; it’s conveyed by the people who surround us intimately when very little. Our operative language is the language we speak when we go to school, read, learn to write to be comprehended by others.
An adequate translation reproduces the meaning of an utterance made in the foreign language (p. 67) it should contain not just the information you need to grasp not so much what is actually or literally said but what is going on in the saying of it (p. 69). Meaning does not inhere solely in specific words. (My paraphrase: you relive the utterance in the receiving tongue at its strongest even if that does not literally correspond to the source tongue; indeed differences in language means you often cannot or should not try to literally correspond.) What is literally said is only a fragment of what is going on (p. 72)
How can you tell if an utterance is meaningful. Chomsky said you can make grammatical sentences which are not meaningful: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” but students wrote paragraphs which explicated the phrase. Bellos: you can see whether an utterance has a meaning by testing whether it can be translated into another language (p. 80).
The lack of exactly matching words is not a problem for a translator because words are not at bottom names for things or ideas. The idea that words are names of things or ideas comes from dictionary making. Yes he fingers the 18th century as a century which produced dictionaries which solidified the idea that words are names for things (despite Swift’s satire). We use words to stand for classes of things and ideas (like the word “head”), and there are many things, ideas, groups that have no specific name. We often use one word for another to explain it; translators are finding the other word in another language (pp. 8589). It’s hard to say what a word is. They are not just units in social practice. He suggest that “to know a language is to know how to say the same thing in different words [with ease]” (p. 102, my addition)
There is no such thing as a literal translation. None can be that. You can word a text, word for word as they come but it will appear gobbledy-gok except for those who know the source language (that’s my paraphrasing Bellos (p. 117) Nabokov’s famous demand is him dissing translation.
Translations can be scary: when induced by powerful people to genuflect (pp. 131-32) However, we must adapt to circumstances and context and what the translation is for (this is called adaptive translation). No language is an island (p. 203). This is the business of translating from an intermediary translation and yet producing a readable living text (Marco Polo) (p. 204)
For a few more insights and elaboration, see comments.
He has charts: I have a hard time understanding charts. One on books translated between 7 dominating languages (p. 210): Swedish, Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, French, German, English. Top four source languages: English, French, Russian, German (p. 216)
All very puzzling so let me say just that English is the medium as source or target for 75.12% of all translation acts (p. 217) and culture of translation (and publishers) are concentrated in France, Germany, Britain and US.
Important realities: French has been the most widely taught foreign language in the English speaking world. France has tradition of openness to foreign cultures (will translate). Germany a cross-raods for little studied languages. Middle Ages the lingua franca was Latin, and Arabic pivotal for Greek and Hebrew; while Japanese a relay language for translations of Russian into Chinese (a prestigious language). (pp. 218-20)
It’s not a coincidence that I found a French thesaurus some years ago but can find no Italian one: Le Robert has no section from English to French (which is such a waste), it’s all in French & as in Roget’s English Thesaurus it’s families of words, words inside a terrain. It’s become an important book for me.
Example study: “To translate seemed to me a beautiful thing to do: Translation as Matching Creative Act”.
What I’ve loved to do best is translate Italian poetry by women with a French intermediary text. Part of the joy is this vehicular text (Italian is not one of the world’s 13 vehicular texts) because know French better and love it more. A while back I found on the Net Elsa Morante’s Italian poem, “Minna la Siamese”. I also found an English translation which presented itself as the whole poem but left off the final stanza and was somewhat inaccurate. I did put it on my old life-writing blog because my cats are comforting creatures when trouble arises and bought a book said to contain this poem. When it came I discovered it had several poems on cats, and the language facing the Italian texts was French. Well with an intermediary text in French by Jean-Noel Schifano I produced my own translation, using my cat’s name:
Clary the tortie
I’ve a tiny beast, a cat named Clary.
Whatever I place on her plate, she eats
Whatever I pour into her bowl, she drinks.
Onto my knees she comes, gazes at me,
turns, sleeping tranquilly, so I forget
she’s there. If, remembering, l name her,
sleeping, her ear quivers, trembles, this name
then casts a dark shadow athwart her rest.
Blitheful, she has by her a muffled
tinkling stringed instrument, crinkling thanks
so sweet in play, I pet and I scratch her
turning neck & small upheld head, nudge, nudge.
If I consider history, time, things
separating us, disquiet comes. Alone:
of this she knows nothing. If then I watch
her play with string, her eye color tinted
by the sky, I yield. Laughter re-takes me.
When days off, for people, for us, make time
festive, pity comes to me for her who can’t
distinguish. That she too may celebrate,
for her meal I give her canned tuna fish.
She doesn’t understand why, but blissful
with her sharp teeth snips, gnaws, swallows away.
The Gods, to offer her some weapon, have
given her nails and teeth, but she, such her
gentleness, has adopted them for games.
Pity comes again for her whom I could
kill with impunity, no trial, no hell
thought of, no remorse, prisons. Just not there
She kisses me so much, licks and licks, I’ve
the illusion that she cherishes me.
I know another mistress or me to her
is all the same. She follows me about
as if to fool me that I am all to her
but I know my death would graze her but lightly …
It needs improvement but Bellos’s book has made me feel my translation is finer poetry than the one on the Net and not because mine is more accurate and includes the last stanza. I’ve made a vow to myself I shall translate all her cat poems.
Bellos doesn’t mention it but I know that when western men were taught Latin, western women were taught French (and in the 19th century Italian); that women began to publish through translation as masks