Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


Talking about books one hasn't read (in the original)

Last Thurs-eve I attended a talk in the bridge series given by David Bellos, primary englisher and biographer of Georges Perec, promoting his latest book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything. His tag-line: translation is the meaning of everything: inextricably tied to languages, cultures, and where they meet. Bellos' book is to translation as Crystal's "How Language Works" is to language, in fact encroaching on the latter's turf, blurring the boundaries; but it shoulders the additional burden of countering received pronouncements of ineffability (and other such stuff I just can't find the words for).

Rather than talking about the book, I'll talk the talk, beginning beyond the book: Bellos opened by recounting a recent trip to Estonia to assist a translator of La Vie mode d'emploi (Life: A User's Manual); upon visiting a market, he remarked to his host that the signage for wine (Wein, from the German) was close to that for distilled spirits (Viin), and was informed that the relationship was more than casual, that translation of the Bible into Estonian posed a problem in that the grape was unknown there, and so grain was substituted, leaving its trace in words such as viinapuu for grapevine (literally 'vodka-tree' (of course I mean 'literally' literally, even in referring to a figurative construction (one chapter is devoted to "The Myth of Literal Translation" (and the larger point is that there is no single definitive translation but many acceptable variants (okay, we're coming out of parentheses, brace yourselves!))))). Similar substitution (in the book) transformed the fig at the well into a banana in Malay. After a brief diversion into the H2G2 provenance of the title (and myths of untranslatability) it was back to the Bible and the Babel myth, the first verse of which falsely presupposes an Edenic language (divergence from a single root a persistent premisconception); some of the earliest cunieform tablets consist of dual word lists, cribs for translation.

On to a bit of Q&A: Asked for advice about starting out (he hates that question), Bellos said his own beginnings were "by accident": his interest in La Vie mode d'emploi led to his translation of it (the French publisher initially uninterested in granting language rights, as they considered it untranslatable), and Anthony Burgess' negative review brought it positive attention. My question about what distinguishes literary translation brought a response more provocative than in the book: "Nothing terribly important hangs on it", eliciting a collective yelp. (Of his own experience, he said La Vie mode d'emploi posed technical rather than stylistic challenges.)

My own interest is overwhelmingly in literary translation, as I depend upon it for access to innovative writing, which is not to say foreign, though in my experience ... to me, what distinguishes literature is that it creates its own context, in part in form, albeit within constraints imposed by larger contexts, so perhaps in part it's defamiliarization that makes the play more enticing. But developing the necessarily high degree of competence in other languages would restrict scope (already so many books so little time, one rendering of ars longa vita brevis). I have but small Latin and less German, but English serves me well due to its place in the translation hierarchy, and supports a reading habit more Continental than Anglospheric (over half my reading not from my language). Is That a Fish in Your Ear? has a sole chapter on "Literary Translation", but examples are more pervasive through the book, the main concern of which is not what makes a particular translation good or bad but to obviate the question of whether translation itself is good or not.


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