Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Coetzee on tender passions, Corngold's Werther

In his introduction [to his new translation of The Sorrows of Young Werther] Stanley Corngold spells out some of the procedures he follows. He does each page "cold," then checks it against extant translations (he lists the seven he has principally used). He follows Goethe's German closely, even at the risk of sometimes sounding foreign. He takes pains not to use words that were not part of the English language by 1787. [...] Corngold's scholarly concern about anachronism raises a wider issue: With works from the past, how should the language of the translation relate to the language of the original? Should a twenty-first-century translation into English of a novel from the 1770s read like a twenty-first-century English novel or like an English novel from the era of the original? [...]

I cite one telling instance. In his very first letter Werther mentions a former woman friend, and asks rhetorically: "Was it my fault . . . passion formed in her poor heart?" (Corngold's translation). [Daniel] Malthus [in his version of 1779] renders these words as: "Am I to be blamed for the tenderness which took possession of her heart . . .?"

We are in the sphere of the tender passions, and the word at issue is eine Leidenschaft. Leidenschaft is, in every sense of the word, "passion"; but what is "passion"? Why does Malthus mute "passion" to "tenderness" [...] where we, observing the tender passions at work, see passion predominating, an educated Englishman of the 1770s saw tenderness. A translation of Werther that is true to our twenty-first-century understanding of Goethe, yet in which readers from the 1770s would have felt at home, is an unattainable ideal.

[Nonetheless!] Corngold's new translation is of the very highest quality, punctiliously faithful to Goethe's German and sensitive to gradations of style in this extraordinary, trail-blazing first novel. 
-- J. M. Coetzee in The New York Review of Books (V.LIX, No.7, p.21), reviewing The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, translated from the German by Stanley Corngold (Norton, 2011).

The afterlife of translational error

In the translation of political communications, the bungling of a single idiom can upset state relations, disrupt negotiations, or risk international… incident. In 2005,  news agencies reported that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking at a “World Without Zionism” conference, claimed that the nation of Israel should be “wiped off the map” – in fact, on closer scrutiny, this seemed to be an example of inaccurate translation. (See this 2006 article in The Guardian, in which Jonathan Steele succinctly explains the facts and interpretations involved: “So there we have it. Starting with Juan Cole, and going via the New York Times' experts through MEMRI to the BBC's monitors, the consensus is that Ahmadinejad did not talk about any maps. He was, as I insisted in my original piece, offering a vague wish for the future.” See also this WashPo fact-checker analysis.)

The matter of the map-wiping misunderstanding would simply be a cautionary tale, if at the time it hadn’t led to hostile rhetoric on all sides of Iran-Israel (-US) relations… and if it didn’t continue to make the rounds as an unquestioned piece of historical evidence, proving that Iran’s intentions have always been bellicose. Most recently:
  • April 25, 2012: Carlo Strenger in the Huffington Post: "Iran's clerical regime makes sure to promise every other week that Israel will be wiped off the map"
  • May 16, 2012: Myron Kaplan, in a piece concerning disinformation and "C-SPAN's Israel/Jewish Problem": “For example, on Oct. 26, 2005… [Ahmadinejad] vowed that ‘Israel must be wiped off the map’” (published on the website of  CAMERA: the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America)
  • May 17, 2012: A wire piece from AFP, hosted on Google News: “Ahmadinejad has repeatedly stated in recent years that Israel will one day be ‘wiped off the map’ and cast doubt on the magnitude or actual occurrence of the Holocaust.”  
Even when a journalist acknowledges that “Iran’s leaders have sometimes been quoted inaccurately or out of context,” it is hard to know to what extent this translational error has poisoned the well – as when the just-quoted author, Shmuel Rosner writing in the NYTimes Latitude blog earlier this month, goes on to note: “[T]hey’ve had plenty of opportunities to set the record straight and haven’t seemed to want to.”


In most literary acts of translation, the stakes of a wonky rendering are aesthetic. As in, for example, this discussion in The New Yorker of L'Etranger; should the first sentence "Aujourd'hui, maman est morte" be brought into English as "Today, Maman died", or, "Momma died today"? It matters, a bit, beyond the simple matter of the meaning, because we are to understand something about cultural and colonial tensions in Algeria at that historical moment, given  the characterization of the protagonist as more or less estranged from feeling. There is, however, a significant difference between "politics of translation" and "the translation of politics", to the end that you don’t often see a book reviewer arguing on the grounds of a translation of Camus that war between (e.g.) France and America is inevitable.

When the words being translated are uttered by the heads of state, the potential outcomes of an error can be frightening. And the possibilities are especially fraught when, an error in translation being noted and corrected, the original mistranslation continues to circulate in the culture, where it continues to insinuate all the wrong things to people who are looking for translated evidence to corroborate their prejudices and pet fears.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Groundbreaking Spanish translations from Salt

Salt Publishing’s recent blog post draws our attention to its many recently published, never-before-translated poetry collections from Latin America, titles which encompass an eclectic crew of late twentieth-century poets:
  • Blue Coyote with Guitar, Juan Bañuelos (Mexican); trans. Katherine M. Hedeen & Víctor Rodríguez Núñez. “ ... creates an alternative poetics that rejects individualism, defies nationalism, and opts for the alterity of the most marginalized social subjects in modern Mexico, the Indigenous population, whose cultures increasingly determine this poetry’s vision of the world.”
  • Journal with No Subject, Juan Calzadilla (Venezuelan); trans. Katherine M. Hedeen & Víctor Rodríguez Núñez. “This poetry denounces the dehumanization of modernity, appropriates surrealistic language, questions identity and poetry itself, and dissolves the coherent, autonomous subject. Uniting political and aesthetic radicalism, Calzadilla ultimately reestablishes faith in poetry.”
  • Friday in Jerusalem and Other Poems, Marco Antonio Campos (Mexican); trans. not listed. “[I]n Campos’s poems ... morality is given priority over politics, feeling over reason, plain style over experimentation. In his case, a displacement from time history and biography toward space city and home is carried out, and poetry becomes chronicle.”
  • Reasons for Writing Poetry, Eduardo Chirinos (Peruvian); trans. G.J. Racz. “Chirinos’s poetry is marked by a wry tone and simple lyric eloquence. Accessible, ironic, and always entertaining, the poems in Reasons for Writing Poetry treat time and again Chirinos’s favourite subjects and themes: the return to childhood, the vagaries of memory, the alternative reality of dream, a fascination with animals, the utility of seeing and hearing, the writer’s place in poetic tradition, and the never-ending search for originality through innovative expression.”
  • The Poems of Sidney West, Juan Gelman (Argentinean); trans. Katherine M. Hedeen & Víctor Rodríguez Núñez. Presented in both Spanish and English. “This translation offers to English readers for the first time the splendid verse of imaginary American author Sidney West, created by Juan Gelman, one of the greatest living poets of the Hispanic world. These laments question Western assumptions surrounding death, erase boundaries between poetry and narrative, privilege the magical as a vital aspect of reality and seek the transformation of the lyric persona.”
  • The Bridges, Fayad Jamís (Cuban); trans. Katherine M. Hedeen & Víctor Rodríguez Núñez. Presented in both Spanish and English. “Jamís constructs a subject excluded from modernity who, once aware of his subordinate condition, becomes an agent of decolonization. His main task is nothing less than a conquest of the power of representation.... It is the result of an appropriation, the poet’s adaptation of the European avant-garde’s achievements to his own expressive needs. ... a poetry that is decolonizing in its content and decolonized in its form, by one of the great Cuban artists of the twentieth century.” 
  • The Trees, Eugenio Montejo (Venezuelan); trans. Peter Boyle. Presented in both Spanish and English. “Covering Montejo’s work from the 1960s to 2004[,] this major selection deals with universal themes of loss, death, family and love as well as reflecting on humanity’s relationship to nature in an ever more materialistic and urbanized world. Montejo’s poetry would be of special interest to all readers of poetry as well as to those interested in understanding a Latin American perspective on modernization and globalization.” 
  • Garden of Silica, Ida Vitale (Uruguayan); trans. Katherine M. Hedeen & Víctor Rodríguez Núñez. “Her work seeks a balance between subjectivity and objectivity, privileges intellectual capacity above that of sentimentality, and requires an active reader. Placing the intellectual subject at the forefront, Vitale's poetry offers one of the most provocative representations of women's subjectivity in the Spanish language.” 
- KA

Monday, May 21, 2012

Tim Parks on fear and translation

Apropos of fear, this still shows Ingrid Bergman and Mathas Wieman in the 1954 Rossellini film, "La Paura"
At the New York Review of Books blog, novelist and translator Tim Parks reaches into the space between fear and literature.  Observing that "in the world of literature there is a predominance of people whose approach to life is structured around issues of fear and courage and who find it difficult to find a stable position in relation to those values," he notes the split between writers who are drawn to the bookish, uncelebrated work of translation:
That certain vocations attract a particular character type is evident enough. At the university where I work in Milan, we have two post-grad courses for language students, one in interpreting and one in translation. With some exceptions the difference in attitude and character between members of the two groups is evident. The students who come to translation are not looking to be out there in the fray of the conference, under the spotlights; they like the withdrawn, intellectual aspect of translation. Often their problem as they begin their careers is not so much the work itself, but the self-marketing required to find the work.
Even when a translator can overcome his or her natural (ostensible) aversion to self-promotion, they are not helped much by standard practices in publishing or book-selling which fail to spotlight, or in some cases even to acknowledge, the translator's role in bringing a book to a new language market.


Parks is Associate Professor of Literature and Translation at IULM University in Milan. Among his many translations is The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso -- a book I own, enjoy, and consider indispensable. Parks's latest novel, The Server, translates the experience of a Vipassana retreat into terms explicable to a Western skeptic (wherein, as well, 'man meets woman'.)" - ZWB