I would like to return to a topic I wrote about many moons ago, and that reared its ugsome head once again as I was reading Umberto Eco’s book Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation (Phoenix, 2003). The book is a series of essays on various aspects of translation, material which he had presented at the Weidenfeld Lectures at Oxford in 2002. On the whole it is quite useful as an introduction to many of the questions literary translators will face. A few sections of the book struck me as dull but this is perhaps to be expected… In the introduction he states his conviction that “in addition to having made an intensive study of translations […] translation scholars should have had at least one of the following experiences during their life: translating, checking and editing translations, or being translated and working in close co-operation with their translators” (1). As someone who has been in all three of these positions, he has a somewhat unique perspective on matters of translation.
What I want to focus on are just a couple pages in the book that gobsmacked me, in particular a single line translated by the late, celebrated Italian-to-English translator William Weaver.
Discussing the problems of translating “profanities or vulgar expressions” into different languages, Eco states,
There are languages (and cultures) in which it is customary frequently to name God, the Virgin and all the saints by associating their name with vulgar expressions (usually this happens in Catholic countries like Italy and Spain); others that are pretty indulgent with curses related to sexual and scatological affairs; and others that are definitely more demure or at least extremely thrifty in mentioning Our Lord and His saints. Thus an exclamation that in Italian can sound acceptable (at most very rude but not unusual) in German would sound intolerably blasphemous. (39)
To illustrate this, he looks at how his various translators have dealt with a line from his novel Baudolino. Eco describes the scene in which the line occurs, before giving us the blasphemous line and its six different translations:
In the second chapter […] Baudolino, on his horse, enters the Church of St. Sophia in Constantinople, and to express his indignation for the simoniac behaviour of the crusaders who are pillaging the altar cloths and holy vessels, shouts some horrible profanities. The effect, at least in Italian is intended to be grotesque because Baudolino, in order to charge the crusaders with blasphemy, utters words that Our Lord would not approve of. But to an Italian reader Baudolino appears as a scandalised (albeit excited) good Christian, and not as a follower of the Antichrist. (39-40)
Here is the line Baudolino delivers, followed by the various published translations:
Ventrediddio, madonna lupa, mortediddio, schifosi bestemmiatori, maiali simoniaci, è questo il modo di trattare le cose di nostrosignore?
Ventredieu, viergelouve, mordiou, rèpugnante sacrilèges, porcs de simoniaques, c’est la manière de traiter les choses de nostreseigneur? (French, trans. Schifano)
Ventrediós, virgenloba, muertediós, asquerosos blasfemadores, cerdos simoníacos, es ésta la manera de tratar las cosa de nuestroseñor? (Spanish, trans. Lozano)
Ventre de deus, mäe de deus, morete de deus, nojentos blasfemadores, porcos simoníacos, é este o modo de tratar las coisas de Nosso Senhor? (Portuguese/Brazilian, trans. Lucchesi)
Pelventre dedéu, maredédeudellsops, perlamortededèu, blasfemadores fastigosos, porcos simoníacs, aquesta és manera de tractar les coses de nostre Senyor? (Catalan, trans. Arenas Noguera)
Gottverfluchte Saubande, Lumpenpack, Hurenböcke, Himmelsakra, ist das die Art, wie man mit den Dingen unseres Herrn umgeht? (German, trans. Kroeber)
God’s belly! By the Virgin! ‘sdeath! Filthy blasphemers, simonist pigs! Is this any way to treat the things of our lord? (English, trans. William Weaver)
Eco’s point in collating these translations is that the French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan translators faced no problem at all — they could for the most part rely on cognates and did not have to worry about a tonal or truly blasphemic shift in meaning that would occur. Weaver, Eco says, “tried to be as blasphemous as an English speaker can be” (40), and as we can see he mitigated the effect a truly literal translation from the Italian would have had. The German translator has avoided any perception of blasphemy altogether, in line with the tendencies of the German language and culture, and his strongest curse is Himmelsakra, “Heavens and Sacrament” (not so strong, Eco tells us). “This is another case in which the translator must accept a definitive loss,” Eco concludes.
Curiously, Eco passes over Weaver’s use of four exclamation points, where there were none in the original, and none in the various translations, without so much as a mention of them. I have not read Eco’s Baudolino but to me those exclamation points are quite jarring and they suggest another register altogether than the one Eco intended — one of ridiculous puppetry and farce. Is Baudolino like that? I can’t say. But my rule of thumb when it comes to translation is to observe the punctuation tendencies of the original as much as possible. Not only has Weaver added exclamation marks and changed the tone of the passage, he has also broken up a single, sentence-like unit of words into five choppy ejaculations.
One might object that Weaver did the best he could under the circumstances and that the exclamation points were a necessary negotiation. Perhaps, perhaps. What I see is an attempt to do the reader’s work for him/her — the original lets the reader sense the exclamatory nature of the remarks from their content, whereas the English translator red-flags it. Moreover, since the text is a pseudo-historical one, I would think it is relevant whether or not exclamation points here are historically verisimilar — I would say it is extremely rare if not impossible for exclamation points to occur in any usage from the time period Baudolino draws on, that of the 12th century. It would appear rather that the exclamation mark “was first introduced into English printing in the 15th century” (if we are to believe the encyclopedia I have nearest to hand). What is most surprising to me about all this is that Eco didn’t find Weaver’s deviation from the punctuation of the original worthy of remark.
Punctuation, or lack thereof, is an aspect of written language, and any theory or methodology of translation must account for it.
Check out issue #5 of the UK literary review Hotel.
It has new work by Joshua Cohen, Iain Sinclair, Agustín Fernández Mallo, Thomas Bunstead, Sophie Lewis, and Noémi Lefebvre — a few familiar names there. My contribution is a translation of a prose piece by Hélène Frédérick, a Quebecois author now living in France. Her piece was originally titled “A bras le corps: une histoire de crédit,” which became in my translation “Tooth and Nail: A Credit History.”
Hotel #5 will be published shortly.
My translation of Géométrie dans la poussière by Pierre Senges (Verticales/Le Seuil, 2004) will be published in three months. April, 2019, that is. The publisher is Inside the Castle. The translated edition will reproduce the 26 eye-popping illustrations by Killoffer that feature in the original. I announced this on twitter but I don’t think I have announced it here.
It is a book about cities. Around 100 pages.
I consider Inside the Castle to be very much at the vanguard of publishing in the USA right now. I first became aware of this press a few years ago when I had a translation published in Vestiges_02. John Trefry (founding editor, designer, etc) also had a piece in that volume. Before sending my manuscript to Inside the Castle I sent it around quite a lot and it accumulated many rejections. So it is very gratifying to see this work going into the world. I think a good cross-section of the readers and writers who have been following the releases of Inside the Castle will appreciate it. Their audience, as imaginary as it is real, I like to think of as a cult, and it is a cult to which I am happy to belong.
If you would like a review copy of the book when it comes out, drop me a line.
Emilien Bernard: Aside from Antoine Volodine, whose work I know you appreciate, are there other contemporary French writers you’re passionate about?
Eric Chévillard: The list would be too long and I would have to cite some friends. But I was recently impressed by Fragments de Lichtenberg by Pierre Senges. A remarkable book, masterful from start to end and yet totally backwards, full of digressions and glissades. I’m afraid it didn’t receive the welcome it deserved, which says a lot about the state of criticism and the incuriosity of readers. Such a book illustrates, though, what literature can be when it is fully comprehended. It seems to me that such a high ambition would have sooner been recognized in former eras. But the enormous contemporary laziness before this ample and generous book will have once again only noted its weight and size.
— from a 2008 interview with Eric Chévillard (my translation)
I have no doubt also been remiss in failing to observe here the English-language publication of Fragments of Lichtenberg by Pierre Senges, translated by Gregory Flanders. Here is a book teeming with intellectual farce and madcap encyclopedism that, in the year since its English-language publication in January 2017, has eluded the notice of every traditional outlet for bookish criticism.
Part of my own hesitation to herald the book’s publication was due to my expectation that said heralding would occur elsewhere. I imagined that, once Senges had effectively made his English-language debut with such an ambitious work, six hundred pages of zany erudition and irreverent jokes (and this just one month after the publication of my translation of Senges’s The Major Refutation) — well, I imagined that some publication or publications with a considerable readership would herald, yes, herald Senges as the next brilliant French writer in a long line of brilliant French writers. (In 2009, François Monti had insinuated that Senges was French literature’s “best-kept secret,” for instance.) But this has not come to pass. Neglect has been the fate of many brilliant writers, no doubt.
Only a few independent bloggers and a handful of adventurous readers seem to have noticed the book’s publication, either at their blogs or at GoodReads. Reviewing the book from galleys, the Complete Review called the book “dizzyingly entertaining, very funny […] the best sort of literary fantasy, and an entertaining satire of (so-called) literary scholarship.” Likewise, The Modern Novel appreciated and recommended the book, as “a brilliant pastiche of both literary researchers and of Lichtenberg himself. It is is thoroughly original, incredibly inventive, very learned and very funny.”
I was tempted at times to don my reviewer’s cap and proselytize for the book myself, but I demurred, and I still demur: having translated many of Senges’s words, and two of his books, I know that I’m far from impartial. Nor do I think myself capable in this instance of impassioned advocacy, perhaps veering into rant territory. Anyways, the season of the book’s publication — as well as of that of The Major Refutation‘s first appearance — has long passed.
And so I will leave the reader with just the following eyebrow-lifting passage from the book, one of my favorites. Perhaps it will incite some of you to track down this nonpareil tome.
P.S. In no way would I wish to downplay the power of blogs and bloggers to register and influence literary reception; but I do make a distinction between one-person venues (writer, editor, and publisher being the same individual) and venues where the indulgence and efforts of at least two people are required to publish an article. But why do I? I suppose I cling to the belief, or the hope, that the literary ‘establishment’ will take note of good work. Perhaps a little more cynicism is called for.
The audio of Pierre Senges discussing The Major Refutation at Shakespeare and Company is at Soundcloud. The event was in November. A few readers of this blog may be interested in that discussion, with Shakespeare & Co’s astute commentator.
The Major Refutation is a nonpareil book that I came to translate. It was published in late 2016 by Contra Mundum Press. It’s a fake Renaissance treatise arguing that the newly discovered Americas don’t exist. Pierre Senges is brilliant.
Should’ve posted this link a while back; I really wish that I could embed the file to display here tidily, but no dice, it plays havoc with the CSS layout.
It’s an amazing coincidence I guess, but a member of the audience seems to accuse Senges of being complicit in the mythologization of America at the very end of this recording. It’s like he stepped right out of the book, Guevara’s shadow.
Three weeks back I tried to type up an end-of-the-year post as usual, summarizing my year in reading. No sooner had I written the essential of it, or at least drawn up the list of 7 or so titles, than I thought, what’s the use. I didn’t read very many extraordinary books this year. I will only mention three: Pope Joan (1866) by Emmanuel Royidis (trans. Lawrence Durrell), Amygdalatropolis (2017) by B.R. Yeager, and Angel in the Forest (1945) by Marguerite Young. I’ve written a little about all of them in various places. I trust curious readers can inform themselves whether or not those titles might suit their taste.
In 2017, not very much activity here at bibliomanic, as far as I can tell. I published 40 posts, 11 of which were monthly reading logs, 6 of which were just photos, while the rest were just tiny squibs, little jottings — nothing much of substance, then. A post with some basic information on Réjean Ducharme. And apart from translations and the introductions I’ve written introducing them, nothing much published elsewhere.
Here is the translation work, some with introductions:
- Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon. “Dishes.” I Never Talk About It. Quebec Fiction, fall 2017.
- Pierre Senges. Paris Seen from the Centre. Podcast being produced by the Centre Pompidou, 2017-2018.
- Pierre Senges. Monster Rhapsody. Play for radio. Radio France, brochure. Spring 2017.
- Pierre Senges. Excerpts from Etudes de silhouettes. Hotel #3. Aug 2017.
- Pierre Senges. The Author Viewed from Below. Music & Literature #8. Fall 2017.
- Pierre Senges. Undertaking and Renunciation. Prodigal Lit Mag. May 2017.
- Pierre Senges. On the Electrophorus and the Tohu-Bohu. Gorse Journal #7. Jan 2017.
Apart from this translation work, in early 2018, I have a recently completed 10,000-word article on the life and work of Paul Metcalf being published in the annual Scribners American Writers supplement series. I’m very happy about that, though plagued in mind by the usual misgivings as to language, quality, coherence, and so on. I think it’s a very strong piece of writing but I can’t tell. It’s done at least. I’m not yet sure how widely available or easy to access it will be to interested parties, but that’s really none of my business.
I intended to review one book this year, Debths by Susan Howe, but I decided I don’t actually want to review it for a handful of reasons. Vexed maybe. And I remained this year a Twitter junky, despite my very ample misgivings. Could be part of my problem, though it also keeps me in touch with a few dozen like-minded aesthetes scattered across the globe, which I think is wondrous.
In terms of visitors, bibliomanic remained more or less the place it’s always been. Some of the top posts were as follows: the squib Jefferson’s Swivel Chair from years ago got 287 unique pageviews, Joseph McElroy’s bookshelf got 174 views, and Adopting Paul Metcalf got about 100 views. On the Major Refutation got 124 views, and A Pierre Senges miscellany got 94 views.
I’m grateful for the friendships and acquaintances I’ve made here and on Twitter. The world would be a lonelier place without you. May the New Year hold more of the same. Best wishes to you and yours, and hope to see you here more in 2018.
So I discovered this glorious book probably through The Major Refutation, which includes a section praising Pope Joan for her imposture. What’s that, you’ve never heard of a female pope, let alone the Pope Joan? Well, have I got a treat for you…
This is a story written by none other than Emmanuel Rhoides (who gets a pretty short entry at Wikipedia), based on an old legend about a woman who assumed the papal throne as an impostor in the ninth or tenth century.
Of course this translation is out of print and hard to obtain. (That’s the way of the world, isn’t it, the law of scarcity increasing the value of the commodity?) Earlier this summer I read all of it, Lawrence Durrell’s “translation and adaptation” of the 1866 original. I found it to be utterly compelling, beautiful, and devilishly funny, too.
Here’s one of the many passages that left me in awe, almost incredulous.
This Thursday, November 2, 7:00 pm, Pierre Senges will be at Shakespeare and Company (the famous Paris English-language bookshop) discussing and reading from The Major Refutation, English version of Refutatio major, attributed to Antonio de Guevara, 1480-1545.
Full details here. I believe the book’s publisher, Rainer Hanshe of Contra Mundum Press, will be attending & in conversation with Senges. Should be interesting. I, the book’s translator, would most certainly be going if not for the wee duck pond separating the New World from the Old.
A description of the book here, taken from the Shakespeare and Company website:
Written in the form of a long letter addressed to Antonio de Guevara on behalf of Charles V, under cover of anonymity, The Major Refutation refutes the existence of a new continent with arguments ranging from the most serious to the most extravagant. In a postface, the narrator raises doubts about the author of The Major Refutation. Is the letter from Amerigo Vespucci, Jeanne la Folle, or others? The text closes with a coda where various theses are evoked: for example, doubts about the sex of Homer, or about the true identity of the author of the plays signed Moliere. Infused with wit and irony, The Major Refutation reminds us of the passion of men for ignorance and the eternal opposition between dupes and non-dupes, or those who believe themselves such.
I have 7,000 words of translation in Hotel #3, just published. If that ain’t good, I don’t know what is. Now, if only I could sell a publisher another project…
Check out the introduction I wrote; I explain in what ways Pierre Senges is ‘Borgesian’ and offer up an elliptical view of his work. It’s pretty good.
And right here is where you can buy the issue, with the 7,000 word translation. Other contributors include Gordon Lish & Nick Cave…
“After experience had taught me the hollowness and futility of everything that is ordinarily encountered in daily life, and I realised that all the things which were the source and object of my anxiety held nothing of good or evil in themselves save in so far as the mind was influenced by them, I resolved at length to enquire whether there existed a true good, one which was capable of communicating itself and could alone affect the mind to the exclusion of all else, whether, in fact, there was something whose discovery and acquisition would afford me a continuous and supreme joy to all eternity.”
First paragraph of the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect by Spinoza.
I picked up from my desk The Order of Things by Michel Foucault to consult a favorite passage, the edition in question being the Vintage Books, 1994 edition. (Original French title: Les mots et les choses, 1966. Literally, Words and Things.) This is a book I have never been very interested in finishing, since I initially abandoned it way back in… college? It was hard going then and it’s not so tough anymore but now I don’t care to read it through.
Quickly locating the marked page, I read it while saying to myself yes yes very true indeed and considered posting an excerpt here. (Another day, perhaps.) I went to see who did the English translation and was quite bewildered to learn that the party responsible for the translation is neither named on the book’s title page, nor on the copyright page, nor the front nor the back cover, nor in the library record for the original 1970 edition, published by Pantheon. Nowhere that I can see.
This is almost unheard of in the contemporary era. I’m sure that with some targeted keyword searching I could ferret out the desired information, but now I’m more interested in this anomaly than learning who did the deed. There are surely some other instances where the translator resides in anonymity, especially in past centuries, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head.
Let me know if you’re aware of any such anomalies, I would be most interested…
“This is a difficult book to describe: it is a book of fictional invention masquerading as historical artifact, further masquerading as scholarly treatise. It never flinches, it has not one single tell that it is anything but what it appears to be: a 16th century work, of questionable authorship, that methodically and systemically argues against the existence of the ‘New World.'”
Writing a translation, publishing a translation:
Hesitations and doubts play no small part therein, and not just before the piece goes to press… All truth told, I can’t read a translation I’ve had published without itching to revise (read: correct) it.
For this reason, I’ve begun to conceive of translation as a series of progressive revelations, with ever a film of impurity remaining on my eyes, akin to a cataract: a permanent, partial blindness (so irksome).
One irony is that some of the revisions or corrections I would introduce, I would just as soon repeal or overrule, one fortnight on. Though I earnestly seek it, I find no stable ground.
The first book I translated, The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges (La réfutation majeure, 2004) is at long last available for purchase from the publisher and many fine booksellers.
The full title is The Major Refutation: English version of Refutatio major, attributed to Antonio de Guevara (1480–1545). The publisher is Contra Mundum Press (on other occasions the publisher of Miklós Szentkuthy and lots of other interesting authors). Here is the publicity page at Contra Mundum’s website, where you will find a link to a free 25-page sample.
The better part of this book is essentially a Renaissance treatise addressed to Charles V. According to its author, the New World would be an illusory, non-existent land, the object of a collective fraud perpetrated by a coalition of cartographers, merchants and government actors, all greedy for gain. Sound familiar? Plus ça change…
It took a long time – many months, much worry over etymologies and syntax, a touch of my sanity; a willing editor/publisher; countless queries to the author, who encouraged me in my efforts. All that and much more. It took a special perversity, too, to refute the continent of my birth, and a special pleasure.
Is that journey over, now that the book is published? I think it stays with me. So many of its passages are seared into my mind. They are already starting to fade from memory. Then perhaps some years from now I will pick up the book, and remember the sentences anew.
The retail price of the book is $16 or $18 USD, depending on who you buy from. Give a copy to that special truther in your life. Ask your local librarian to acquire a copy. Tell your colleagues at work about it to make them suspicious. Read it in the bath. Read it for fun.
I enjoyed reading Lawrence Venuti’s article in the most recent issue of Translation Review, though I found myself at odds with its academic jargon at times, its incessant referring to “the global circulation of texts,” “the global hegemony of English,” and what I take to be other abstractions.
Recounting his experience of translating J.V. Foix’s Daybook 1918 and seeking a publisher for it, Venuti makes the claim — in no way contentious, I do not think — that the work in translation of authors writing in a minority language (as Foix in Catalan) faces an additional hurdle to earning the attention of readers, especially that special class of readers: editors and publishers.
I took bittersweet consolation in reading of Venuti’s bootless attempts to publish his translations of Foix’s prose poems, which met with a “succession of rejections” from publishers “unable to appreciate Foix in English (or perhaps my English).” A bittersweet consolation, because as a translator I too have received a “succession of rejections” from publishers, and because I learned that the difficulties I face there are faced equally by the likes of someone as accomplished as Venuti. Of course that latter point could just as soon be reason for discouragement as for consolation: if Venuti in his laurels can’t get a contract for his Foix book, I’m not likely to fare much better, lowly upstart I am.
But what struck me most is that Venuti names names and quotes a number of prominent publishers in their rejection letters to him. (Whether he obtained their permission to do so was something I asked myself about; his commentary on their remarks I found subtly barbed, but perhaps I was projecting.) This is a lovely thing but far too specialized for our list, wrote Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I cannot get close to this work, said Jack Shoemaker, editorial director of Counterpoint Press. Nor did the project seem a good fit to Jill Schoolman, editor-in-chief of Archipelago Books, despite her appreciation of certain qualities of the work.
So the struggle that is literary translation goes on. This is just how it is.
Venuti, Lawrence. “Translation, Publishing, and World Literature: J.V. Foix’s Daybook 1918 and the Strangeness of Minority.” Translation Review 95: 8-24. 2016.
Fly on over to Quebec Reads for a short translation from Julie Mazzieri’s Le discours sur la tombe de l’idiot that I did. It’s a bizarre and unsettling book, that’s for sure. Thanks to Peter McCambridge at Quebec Reads for publishing it and to Editions José Corti and the author, Julie Mazzieri, for granting permission to do so.
A text fragment, composed as a caption to the above, can be read now at TXTOBJX. Composed first in French before being adapted to English, the text is one of a series of texts corresponding to fifteen postcards depicting scenes in and around the French village of Quimper.
I visited Quimper ever so briefly in the fall of 2004. Fine, fond memories. It was only years later, while living in Ottawa, that I came upon the postcard booklet at a used book sale. (Trigger flashback…)
P.S. TXTOBJX is seeking submissions, so why not write something short and wild and send it to them?
O how many have we seen in the court of princes, to whom it had been better for them that they had been no lordes of their will, & lesse of their desires, because sythens they did that they might & desired, begon to do that they ought not to do? If the man ye offendes vs ought to aske pardon, let euery man aske pardon to himself before any other, for in my life I found neuer none yt hurte me so muche as my self, I haue been only the procurer of mine own hurt. Who made me fall into pryde, but mine only presumpsion and fondnes? Who durste haue prisoned my sorowfull heart with enuye, but lacke of naturall gouernement? who durst haue inflamed myne inwardes with the fyer of yre, if it had not been my great impacience? what is the cause I am so great a gurmander, but that my bringyng vp was to delicate? what is the cause I haue not departed with my goodes to the poore and nedye, but the excessiue loue I had to my riches? who gaue leue to my flesh to rise against my folish desire, if my heart had not been fixed in voluptuous pleasures? O my soule, of all this domage & open faultes, to whom do you lay ye blame, but to myne owne sensualitie? Great folly it is, ye thefe beyng within the house, to seke for him without: euen so it is with vs a manifest faulte of experience, when seyng in vs the blame, and yet charge another with the occasion: by this we ought to perceiue that we shall neuer cease to complaine vntil the tyme we begyn to amende. Oh, howe often & many tymes hath vertue fought with the botome of our consciences, whiche stirred vs to be good, and our sensulitie resisted, whiche is vaine frowardnes, by the which battail folowed a darke corrupte judgement: but to conclude, we of oure selues as of our selues are very miserable.
Sunday and I am stricken with ennui. Thus this. Lines stolen from Antonio de Guevara’s A Looking Glass for the Court (a.k.a. A difpraife of the life of the Courtier, and a commendacion of the life of the husbandman, a second-degree translation of Menosprecio de corte y alabanza de aldea, 1539, Englished from the French translation of Anthony Alaygre by the “Vicar of Hell,” Sir Francis Bryan, 1548).
(Can some intrepid publisher publish this, please? (It would be nice to also see a translation of the never-before-Englished Arte de marear on the market, too. I’m not going to hold my breath.))
While working through successive drafts of my first book-length translation, I went back and forth at times about how to treat punctuation. There were some very long sentences containing commas, and at times I wanted to make them into semicolons. After discussing the matter with the author of the text I was translating and the publisher of my translation, I decided it was probably best to respect the original punctuation as much as possible.
It may be slightly more common in French than in English to string together independent clauses using a comma. That said, many native writers of English favor the comma over the semicolon, never or hardly ever using the latter, and also have no qualms about so-called run-on sentences. And conversely, many native writers of French make ample use of the semicolon. So, while there are some generalizations that can be made about the way native speakers of French and English use punctuation, I think nevertheless that the usage is not radically different. Individual authors may use punctuation idiosyncratically, and I think as a rule efforts should be made to respect original punctuation.
A case study: after checking out Go Figure by Réjean Ducharme (trans. Will Browning, Talonbooks, 2003) from the library today, I compared the first paragraph to that of the original.
Tu l’as dit Mamie, la vie il n’y a pas d’avenir là-dedans, il faut investir ailleurs. On le savait mais ça ne mordait pas. On avait le compteur trop enflé, les roues dentées ne s’engrenaient pas. On planait : c’est un état où on a beau n’avoir pas d’ailes on ne sent pas son poids d’enclume. On tenait à un fil. On ne tiendra plus à rien, c’est promis. Blottis dans le trou qu’on a creusé en s’écrasant, on a compris. On est plus doués pour s’ancrer. On ne risque rien à s’enfoncer un peu mieux en se serrant plus fort dans le lit du courant. Ça peut toujours s’emballer, en crue, en débâcle, on ne se fera pas avoir, ça ne nous en fera pas accroire.
You said it, Mammy, there’s just no future in life, we’ve got to invest elsewhere. We knew it, but it didn’t sink in. The engine was racing; the gearwheels wouldn’t engage. We had our head in the clouds: it’s a state in which it makes no difference that we have no wings, we don’t feel the anvil of our own weight. We were hanging by a thread. We won’t hang on to anything anymore — that’s a promise. Hunkered down in the hole that we hollowed out when we crashed, we’ve got it figured out. We have more talent for taking root. We risk nothing by sinking in a bit deeper while snuggling up closer to each other in the river bed. The waters may break, in a flash flood, in a debacle; we won’t let ourselves be duped; they won’t pull the wool over our eyes.
The original uses no semicolons, whereas the English has three (each of them replacing a comma). He also converts a comma into an em dash, and adds in two new commas. (Actually, if you count the first sentence — “You said it, Mammie” — three.)
Right now I’m trying to gauge whether these changes are improvements for the reader. One thing is clear, which is that they weren’t necessary changes; the text would still be as comprehensible if the original punctuation had been respected.
Browning’s translation, if it followed the original punctuation to a T, would look like this:
You said it Mammy, there’s just no future in life, we’ve got to invest elsewhere. We knew it but it didn’t sink in. The engine was racing, the gearwheels wouldn’t engage. We had our head in the clouds: it’s a state in which it makes no difference that we have no wings we don’t feel the anvil of our own weight. We were hanging by a thread. We won’t hang on to anything anymore, that’s a promise. Hunkered down in the hole that we hollowed out when we crashed, we’ve got it figured out. We have more talent for taking root. We risk nothing by sinking in a bit deeper while snuggling up closer to each other in the river bed. The waters may break, in a flash flood, in a debacle, we won’t let ourselves be duped, they won’t pull the wool over our eyes.
My point in writing this post isn’t to call out a noble translator, Will Browning (who has translated and continues to translate much of Ducharme’s work) for what I see as some egregious error. I don’t see the modification of the original punctuation so clearly as all that.
I understand that the fidelity of the translator is often a fidelity to the self-consistency of the translation, not just the original alone. And I also know that editors can be a little, oh, anal about punctuation. And that a translation is never just a literal transcription of a text. But I also wonder what it means to respect and stay faithful to an original.
I’m going to continue to reflect on this and, who knows, if we’re lucky I may post again soon on a related vexatious punctuation-in-translation topic: the dubious, idiosyncratic French colon.
If anyone wants to chime in as to their feelings about punctuation, I am all ears.
It’s a fact that books by women are translated and published less than books by men.
In honor of this fact, I would like to call some attention to some previous bibliomanic posts and articles I’ve written for other publications, all on the topic of books by women, written in French.
On Nelly Arcan’s Hysteric.
On Marie NDiaye’s All My Friends and Self-Portrait in Green.
On Madame de Lafayette’s The Princess of Cleves.
On Anne Garréta’s Liquid Skies (not yet available in English).
On Marguerite Duras’s Ecrire.
“A Slightly Vain Exercise in Style,” by Pierre Senges, appears this month in print in Vestiges_02, in a translation by yours truly. You can purchase it now if you are so inclined at the above link. Lots of stuff in there. I haven’t seen the table of contents yet, just the list of contributors.
The anthology is themed around the topic of boredom, and it was something of a coincidence that I had a translation of “A Slightly Vain Exercise in Style” approaching completion when they announced the call for submissions. The fit is more or less perfect — when one feels bored, what better antidote than slightly vain exercises in style? Although, let me say, it is never boring to read Pierre Senges.
This piece really shows Senges at his best in short form, the freewheeling style, the impudence, the irony, the proliferation of allusions to the history of art and literature.
Sometimes, on Sundays, not having any mass to celebrate, nor to profane, no church in the vicinity to scandalize with his presence, no guests expected, no lunch to plan for Tuesday or Wednesday, nothing else to do, then, but find an outlet for his immense solitude, his eternal and majestic solitude of centuries past and the castle, Count Vlad Tepes of Romania, last name Dracula, used to give himself up to slightly vain exercises in style. Sometimes, in winter, along the coasts of the Black Sea, when the ice had frozen every river to its mouth and made even the water in the wells inaccessible, when the cold had sealed shut the door of his house, and bestowed on straw the rigidity of iron, when the snow piled waist high supposed immobility, when there was no choice but to stay in bed and revisit for the thousandth time memories of happy, sun-drenched Rome, exclusively inhabited by couples in love, Ovid used to give himself over to slightly vain exercises in style […] Every single day or nearly, after purging herself of commonplaces, of lies, confessions, jeremiads, idle gossip, repetitions, imitation, of speech, clichés, clichés of every sort, and of a certain naïve confidence in the power of her pen, Emily Dickinson used to give herself to slightly vain exercises in style.
I think Black Sun Lit has a really interesting aesthetic, and I’m glad to be in Vestiges again, alongside so many others. Last year they published my translation of Mallarmé’s long, typographically radical poem, “A Roll of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance” in their inaugural issue, Vestiges_00. Check it out.
When my copy arrives in the mail I’ll post some snapshots. Looking forward to that day.
It’s been going on two years since I first inveigled myself into the business (sic) of literary translation. This I achieved mainly by cunning and deception: the truth being that, if you want to be a literary translator, you have to present yourself as one, credentials or no. Credentials? The classic conundrum: to be a literary translator you need to have published literary translations; but to publish literary translations — well, to get the permission to do so — you need to be a literary translator, who has published… literary translations. Round and round we go round the mulberry bush. — I was not, however, entirely uncredentialed; I had a university degree in French literature, I had taught French in a high school, I had studied contemporary French literature in graduate school, I had lived in France and achieved fluency, and I had even taken 3 credit hours of a translation course, way back in… 2005? (a disheartening experience, truth be told). But experience?
A little rancor, a little bile now, but without getting too carried away; hmm, let’s say I happen to be a literary translator who wants to do literary translations and publish literary translations. I need to find some texts I want to translate, I need to determine whether a) they are in the public domain (fantastic; but wait, does anyone want or need another translation of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Louise Labé? etc.) or b) under copyright, in which case let’s find out who owns the copyright and ask for rights. Let’s just say things there go swimmingly, permissions are granted with the wave of a wand, to translate! What could be easier? Nothing! I make a rough draft, I correct it, I revise it twice, thrice, then some more and some more and then I go back and second-guess every single choice I’ve made and now let’s say it’s perfect. Merveilleux. Now, to send out this thing I parasited myself onto. At whose august feet shall I depose my monstruous offering? Let’s see, there’s Journal Hoobastank, a leader in publishing literature in translation, one of whose editors once queried me to ask if I would like to review for them a title of my choice “on a trial basis,” after which, if all goes great, I would be eligible to receive US $25 for my second review. (Scratch that, they don’t take open submissions.) OK, my pride is still smarting a little from that underhanded query, I’m not going to submit there and apparently I can’t anyways, who’d a thunk… — but fear not! there are many other great editors eager to read my monstruous thing. Like Granta… or not. Granta has had one of my submissions for about five months without yet even opening the file. OK, Granta is the establishment, they are miles above scrappy, up-and-coming translators and writers like me, I’ll go cold-calling again. But wait! what are my criteria? How am I going to determine whether or not it’s more desirable to publish in Journal Zibbazazza or Hubbahubba Mag? Lists! A spreadsheet! — (Alright, I’m not actually going to reveal my spreadsheet and all the sensitive information it contains.) And I’m running low on vitriol.
Let’s put it this way: I am interested in the tacit (often unspoken) motivations that lead writers and translators to view publication in one journal as more desirable than another. Let me advance some hasty generalizations, my own:
- The prestige or desirability of a given publication is socially determined; if I see that a lot of people whose viewpoints and tastes align with my own are saying good things about Rub-da-Dub Journal, I’m going to tentatively look into it, and unless I see anything that clashes with my sense of quality or my own ideas of what a good journal or magazine is, I’m probably going to tentatively agree.
- However, if I read an article (or two!) in a journal, and I find said article totally repellent, my interest in having my own work in said journal is probably going to diminish. Equally so, if the author of said stinker of an article/essay/story is the co-editor of Zoobabang Publication for the Avant-Garde Arts, I’m going to make a special note of it so that I don’t forget.
- If I discover a relatively new journal or publication that looks promising, I may be more excited to submit there than to one that’s been around and is already part of the so-called establishment. The older, more well-established journals that seem to connote prestige are swamped with unsolicited submissions and they have a slush pile out the door. I might even feel a little antipathy towards them, since they are so loath to pay me any notice.
- Publications edited by university students: Could go either way; on the one hand, it’s a little humbling to think about people who are probably much younger and less experienced than I am, both in life and in books, rejecting my offerings; but on the other hand there happen to be some very good publications run by undergrads (or so I’m told — I’m a little on the fence about what I think of, say, Ribbit Ribbit Mag).
- Submittable: as I mentioned elsewhere online, I was a little stunned to realize recently how few of my accepted translations have gone through Submittable. That ultrasleek look and rapid loading time just about had me fooled! Well, I’m batting something like 3 for 20 there, which probably isn’t bad if you compared it to other writers’ and translators’ acceptance rates. But the greater part of my accepted translations have been through email submissions. The explanation? publications that can afford to use Submittable are swamped with submissions and said submissions are more likely to get lost in the melee. Other reasons too.
- While I’m on the topic of submissions, I would like to say a word of thanks to the publications that have accepted and published my translations in the past year or so: Black Sun Lit (Vestiges), Numéro Cinq Magazine, Gorse Journal, CB Editions (Sonofabook), The Brooklyn Rail InTranslation Series, The Collagist, The White Review, 3:AM Magazine, Ambos, and Contra Mundum Press (Hyperion). AUX ARMES, CITOYENS.
- Lastly, if you are a translator or writer, or not, I would invite you to leave a comment about your own criteria for selecting journals to submit to. I am well aware that there are many websites that keep lists of translation journals or places accepting general submissions (Entropy, ALTA, PEN, I believe), but I would be most curious about more personal criteria that govern your decision to submit to Ribbit Ribbit Magazine and its peer publications.
I thought of Aimé Césaire’s Solar Throat Slashed for some reason – how I love these lines:
As for me should they grab my leg
I vomit up a forest of lianas
Should they hang me by my fingernails
I piss a camel bearing a pope […]
(Lines taken from “Preliminary Question,” in Solar Throat Slashed: The Unexpurgated 1948 Edition by Aimé Césaire. Trans. A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman. Wesleyan University Press.)
Of the nouveau roman authors, I think of Michel Butor as being one of the most fascinating. Without really going into why (perhaps for another post, or who knows, maybe an eventual essay), I’d like to share some pics of the books of his I have in my library.
Not all of Butor’s books are entirely successful, they can be frustrating and strange to read, but I think they are all bold in their trying to do something that has probably never been done before. In other words, Butor is a very original writer. He never used the same method twice.
Here we see:
L’emploi du temps (1956) (translated into English as Passing Time)
La modification (1957)
Portrait de l’artiste en jeune singe (1967) (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape)
Let me say first of all that I have not read La modification or L’emploi du temps, though I have begun them and skimmed around a little.
Along with the steeple chase to insanity that is Degrees, Mobile is perhaps the book of Butor’s for which I have the most affection. The typographic splay and wild heterogeneity of the material incorporated into the text makes for a truly exhilarating, discombulating ride. If I’m not mistaken, the book was the product of Butor’s stay in America, during which time he toured the country extensively.
The tendency to collate disparate material, suggesting an impression of simultaneity or of parallel or tandem reading, is also present in Portrait of the Author as a Young Ape. (Before I looked at a dated bibliography, I mistakenly thought that this book predated some of the others in this collection. Not so.)
For now I also have Inventory, a collection of essays variously taken from the first 3 vols. of Répertoire, the 5-volume set of essays published by Editions de Minuit.
More on Michel Butor in another post, perhaps. Life calls.
“In 1748, the Oneida Sheckellamy, an intermediary on the Indian-white frontier in the Ohio Valley, went to considerable lengths to converse with a German visitor. A colonist translated the German’s words into Mahican, then a Mahican woman translated them into Shawnee for her husband, who in turn translated them into Oneida. Shickellamy’s reply went through the several translators in reverse order: Onedia to Shawnee to Mahican to German. More than two thousand miles to the west, in what is now Montana, the American explorers Lewis and Clark encountered similar problems in opening diplomatic relations with the Flathead or Salish Indians in 1805. No one in the American party spoke Salish. To communicate, the Americans delivered their speech in English, which François Labiche, one of the party, translated into French. Toussaint Charbonneau translated the French version into Hidatsa; his Shoshone wife, Sacagawea, who had lived among the Hidatsas, translated the speech into Shoshone. Finally, a Shoshone boy living with the Salish translated it into their language. One wonders how much of the original speech remained intact after traveling the length of this elaborate linguistic chain.”
– Colin G. Calloway’s New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America (2nd ed., Johns Hopkins UP, 2013. P. 129.)
This week Andrei at The Untranslated posted the first installment of a really fascinating interview about Portuguese literature. The interviewee is Miguel, who keeps a literary blog called St. Orberose.
The interview is packed with information; most immediately I am excited about one of the books it mentions in particular, the Tragic History of the Sea (collected and edited in the 18th century by Bernardo Gomes de Brito, trans. Charles R. Boxer).
As Miguel describes it:
. . . a collection of 16th century reports of shipwrecks. Ships coming from India, dangerously overstuffed with spices, tended to shipwreck off the coast of Africa; the few survivors made it to land and then started long marches hoping to be saved by some Arab caravan that traded slaves with the Portuguese. These reports, written by survivors or dictated to scribes once they arrived in Lisbon, weren’t trying to be literary, aren’t jewels of language; they have the force of reportage and describe extraordinary things in simple prose; these survivors had to eat bugs, went mad, fought off Africans, were captured, eaten; some were sheltered by tribes, but not for free; the Africans were savvy enough to know Portuguese merchants passing by would ransom them back. People who read this amazing human document will acquire a totally different idea of European-African relationships than the traditional one about oppressors and oppressed (that didn’t become true until the 19th century, with colonialism).
I’m looking forward to part two of the interview, going up soon!
My translation of Géometrie dans la poussière (Editions Verticales, 2004) will find a publisher, it’s only a matter of time.
For now I would invite you to check out a chapter excerpt published a couple weeks ago at 3:AM Magazine.
I would not envy the critic whose job it is to convey or describe Senges’ humor; attempts to parse humor are so rarely humorous. If I thought it were within my abilities, maybe I would not be translating Senges’ work, I would be happy to just describe it. But alas, some things were not meant to be.
From the recently published excerpt:
The role of animals in the city is, believe me, just as delicate a question: it takes diplomacy to understand and manage it, you can’t just open the gates of the royal menagerie and let the wildcats out willy-nilly, let out the jackdaws and sparrowhawks, the apes, the parrots, the carps and the camels, the salukis and the thoroughbreds which will constitute your patrimony. Distinction and a sense of harmony are in every circumstance vital to the accomplishment of our urban project…
Joanna Walsh selected it for publication, and it is accompanied by a drawing by Sarabeth Dunton. Thanks to Joanna, and to Gallimard who granted permission to excerpt the work.
Also, if so inclined, you can find a couple other of chapter excerpts from the same book at the Brooklyn Rail: chapter 1, and chapter 3. Or in print: a selection of four chapters (2, 12, 13, 14) was recently published in Sonofabook #2 (CB Editions).