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Archive for May 27th, 2022

The translator, like the original poet, is a Narcissa, who chooses to contemplate [reality, herself] not in the spring of nature, but in the pool of art — Renato Poggioli, On Translation

Dear friends and readers,

Last night I heard a conversation (sort of) between Jhumpa Lahiri and Nicoletta Pereddu on Lahiri’s latest book — so it was about translation. It came from a building once a synagogue, now a community center for the arts, via zoom, under the auspices of Politics and Prose bookstore. Despite my being irresistibly drawn to her, I didn’t expect much since the last talk I heard her give was so evasive and stilted (so it seems to me because I find the compelling nature of her texts for me inexplicable). She is a very guarded presence in her books too, more than ever in her new identity as an writer in Italian, writing in the tradition of intensely subjective women’s novellas and mostly concise memoirs.

This latest book, according to John Self of The Guardian, is another with holes in it: like Dove Mi Trovo and In Altre Parole she does not explain why she threw off English, her previous post-colonial and diasporic content, moved to Italy, became (as far as she can) Italian. They reminded me of Joan Didion in her Blue Nights: why write about something if you’ve no intention of writing about it (her daughter’s death from alcoholism, a condition she partly picked from Joan as mother and the father, both of whom drank heavily).

I’m writing this blog because I was very pleasantly surprised. She attempted to be candid, and when offered questions whose assumptions were unexamined reactionary-isms, she went to the trouble to undermine them and produce a humane reason for writing and reading good books. She was tactful and kind: it was a marvelous talk.

She said that for her translation is an origin story, an art that brings the writer back to her origins. The point of origin for her was once and still is Bengali/American. The book is a collection of essays of what she was thinking about translation while translating and writing originally in Italian. She feels you engage most deeply with an author when you translate him or her. She has been drawn by what Italo Calvino wrote of translation, Gramschi, and Ovid (strangely I thought to myself in this context — these are ceaseless stories of rape). Translators are transforming texts, says she. Echo and Narcissus provide central metaphors Narcissus is the first self, self-centered, and Eco the stronger re-producer. She quoted Borges on the idea that it’s the original that’s unfaithful to the translation — he’s giving translation priority and treating it as an original imaginative work.


Daffodils are narcissus flowers — from my very own garden on the front lawn

By moving onto Italian, it seemed she was re-alienating herself because in writing in Italian she is said to be using someone else’s language, as people claim ownership of a language if they grow up speaking it. Only if it’s your mother tongue (note the metaphor) are you free and deep with it automatically. So by doing this she made her identity an open question. In the case of the language she chose (for love of it, she says in In Altre Parole, from sound to world view), the reality is Italian is so diverse. Even now there are many dialects beyond the Tuscan, which has become standard Italian. In any case she never felt she owned English (or Bengali) — these are questions that belong to discourses in nationalism (imagined delusions in part I’d add).

She was naturally asked the question about whether she had the right to translate another language with one that was not her own. Of course the person had fallen into the trap Lahiri said she denied or was avoiding. She answered that by saying, when you ask the question, Who has the right, you are flying in the face of all she believes as a writer, reader, teacher. A text (when incandescent? — that’s Woolf’s term) transcends such categories; they are irrelevant, we are all human beings together, it seems.


A recent photo

Here I would have liked to challenge her: she insisted that when she translates a man, say Domenico Starnone whose Ties (Englished version) she has translated, it does not matter that she is a woman. Implied here is there is no gender fault-line in texts. This argument is why I am putting this talk on this blog rather than my Austen Reveries one. She is wrong, and having myself read her translation of Ties, I know she’s turned it into a feelingful woman’s book despite the story being one about a man who easily drops one wife and picks up another. (His book is in dialogue with his wife, Elena Ferrante’s, or a kind of refutation of them.) By making this claim, she escapes the accusation (at the time) that when in her first book she made the center of it a traditional older woman and then a young man, she avoided delving into herself at the time, for in The Namesake we now see she was Moushumi whose identity in the end is French through the language she studied, and country and culture she went to live in. Self is probably correct to say her latest book shows curious self-blindnesses. I have bought it (from ebay) and await it eagerly.

Then as a translator, she said, face with your text you are translating: you are always just arriving, upon arrival. I thought of Naipaul’s Enigma of Arrival, a beautiful book about his time spent near Stonehenge in a cottage, deeply burying himself in the English world he wants to be part of. So the act of translating is an enactment of the diasporic condition after all. For her in the act of two languages coming together in her head, there is an intensely compelling experience, a crucible. She re-enacting the intensely passionate stories of her Bengali-American career by acting out language in a different way. It emerged that she has also been studying Latin, and she is not just reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but translating the text — presumably into Italian! What she finds, even in two tongues so close in linguistic forms, is the text resists her, it resists her modern substitution. Getting inside a new language challenges your/her reality. She cannot learn to talk it as she has Italian, for there is no world where people are talking Latin any more.

There was a modesty and humility in some of her comments and tone. She said each translation is an attempt and so an original text can be re-attempted, and it is is as ages pass — the mystery of how an original text remains itself but when you are translating it, somehow you need to put it in contemporary target language or it’s pastiche. This line of thought of course would seem to move in direct opposition to Borges’s claim. Still translation remains transformation and what happens is the previous text (the original) disappears, or at best, lies behind the translated text and only someone who knows the original language can see the previous peeping out as it strains against the translated language.


I’m reading Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth in the Italian version/translation for the sake of Anita Raja’s (Elena Ferrante) postscript …

But Borges was there again in her idea that translations erode the idea of authorship, especially when they are masterpieces in their own right or occasionally better than the original text — I saw that in the Italian translation I read of Goncharov’s Oblonsky. To this day I don’t know the name of that Italian translator but dolce vita values of Italian itself made the Russian book lyrical. She offered the idea that the translator is liberating the original text from its first author. (For myself I think some literary critics do that for primary imaginative texts and great movies for great books.) She came out with this idea in response to someone who in her question has talked about how a translator must “honor” the original author (reminding me of the demand people sometimes make of movies that they be “faithful” to the original source book).

Lahiri’s idea is that there are a range of ways of translating — of course there are. This brings us back to Dryden with his distinguishing the metaphrase (very close, nearly word for word, the danger here is the translator can fall into translationese), the paraphrase (free enough to write in the target language in a creative way appropriate to the genius of that language) and the imitation (or freer adaptation we might say, the appropriations of modern transposed into other times movies and 18th century satires called Imitations). The writer-translator is paying attention to the original text for the sake of the readers who want to reach that original insofar as it’s possible. The translator has to allow the text to read the reader or the reader to find in the text what he or she can read.

She did talk in abstract ways and showed that she has led a privileged life — there was an austerity and idealism about her approach which suggested someone who has not had to bend to the commercial world or the limits of understanding in undergraduates, or average readers. But I suppose that was refreshing in itself — the professor questioning her produced these roundabout self-grandiose commentaries filled with flattery of her. I thought it admirable that Lahiri could pick out of Pereddu’s gobbledyguk a clear point or points and questions. Pereddu’s hair (so I’m catty) was a vast mop of overdone curls obscuring her face; her clothes ever-so-elegant. The present style for tenured women faculty who want to look young is sexy-fashionableness. So here was a European version.

At one point Lahiri compared the translator’s encounter with a new or other language to an encounter with a landscape: as you learn the language through translating into it, and deeply study, become your text through translating faithfully. I liked that idea very much you see. I translated 600 of Vittoria Colonna’s sonnets and poems into English, 90 of Veronica Gambara’s (see my essay from many years ago), some twenty years of my life in study — using French as an intermediary sometimes.


A reimagined land- and seascape of the island Procida, Italy

I’ll never actually meet this woman (Lahiri) nor would she offer me the respect I’d like, but I have myself followed a similar path (even to ending in the same language) to create an identity of sorts for myself.

Ellen

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