Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Dark Road by Ma Jian

This sophomore novel by Chinese writer Ma Jian is a look at how the Chinese still hold onto their proud lineage and male dominated society and how their one child policy can conflict with their conservative thinking. Giving the reader a grim look at how this policy is enforced. The novel centers around a family headed by a man named Kongzi who believes he is a descendent of the philosopher Confucius. Kongzi already has his heir, a girl named Nannan, but a girl isn’t an adequate heir for Kongzi. So he needs his already pregnant wife to produce a son for him and his line. Unfortunately, Kongzi impregnating his wife for a second time has broken Chinese law so he and his family are forced to live on the lam until his second child is born. It’s important to translate a story like this because it gives westerners a look at what pressures future parents can have when dealing with issues like the gender of a child and proper decedents. A way of thinking that seems archaic to most people living in the West. This story should also help give the reader a better perspective of themselves as westerners since having multiple children is so common because of our comfortable populations. All from someone who can give a first hand view

Monday, February 17, 2014

"What's your problème?": The problem with translating ideas

At times, there is a word we run into when translating that poses a difficulty not only because its meaning is more complex in one or other of the languages, but because the cultural understanding of its meaning is also different. My encounters with these words happen mostly in French, and I am thinking specifically of the French word "problème" which gets translated into English as several different words, depending on context: "problem" "question" "difficulty" "issue" "trouble" "debate," among, probably, others. This word is not simply a false cognate, it is so much more. And it is a cognate that is not entirely false. The complexities in translating this word do not arise simply because English has more ways to say what the French say with one word, it is that the French don't have "problems" the way Americans do. Take, for example, this paragraph from Madame Bovary:

Puis ils [les hommes] avaient quitté la dépouille des bêtes, endossé le drap, creusé des sillons, planté la vigne. Était-ce un bien, et n'y avait-il pas dans cette découverte plus d'inconvénients que davantages? M. Derozerays se posait ce problème.
[Then they [men] had left the corpses of animals, put on a sheet, dug some furrows, planted a vine. Was this really a good thing? Weren't there, in this discovery, more inconveniences than advantages? M. Derozerays [presented this problem to himself] or [asked himself this question].]
Problems, in the modern French mind, are more philosophical musings than tactile difficulties. Flaubert puts the word "problème" (which occurs only twice in the book) into the mouth of a minor character, a common agricultural worker. In a novel where the magnificent is muddled ironically with the banal, the characters who believe themselves to be divinely inspired are beset with "difficultés,"and the plebeian characters are the ones with the "problèmes." This works within the terms Flaubert's irony because "difficultés" are the common obstacles of life, the hang-ups we deal with every day: running out of eggs, a child who won't stop crying, your spouse running into your paramour at the market. "Problèmes" are the sort of hang-ups one would rather have, if one is a romantic character: oscillations of the soul, a questioning of one's reality, struggles to define words like "love" and "virtue." Emma Bovary likes to believe she is the one with "problèmes," but her author never gives her the luxury of this word, no matter how long he has her languish in front of her mirror in pensive poses.

In English, a problem is a more quotidian thing. We tell the doctor, "There is a problem with my stomach," are assigned "problems" to do in math class, ask our fellow chest-thumping neanderthal at the bar if he's "gotta problem, man?" We slog through life's problems so that we can, maybe one day, staring at ourselves in the mirror, begin to have questions, concerns, and irresolutions. We would never call these problems. Problems are the several bottles of nail polish that roll to the floor as we slide our elbow across the vanity in an attempt to bring ourselves closer to our selves. In French, on the other hand,  "Ce qui m'est un problème" is not necessarily "what I have a problem with (what I object to)" but "what is confusing to me, what I don't understand." The "problematique du cours" (course description) is so named because it is a space to address French "problèmes," in the sense of questions, concerns, or meditations. They are thoughts which produce or provoke interest.

Still, the French don't limit their use of this word to these more positive thought-acts. A French "problème" can be a bad thing, as in this Kristeva quotation:
Puisque vous restez irremediablement différent et inacceptable, vous êtes objet de fascination : on vous remarque, on parle de vous, on vous haït ou on vous admire, ou les deux a la fois. Mais vous n'êtes pas une presence banale et negligeable, un M. ou une Mme Tout-le-monde. Vous êtes un problème, un désir: positif ou negatif, jamais neutre (Kristeva, "Toccata et Fugue pour l'Étranger").
[Since you remain irresolutely different and unacceptable, you are an object of fascination: you are noticed, spoken of, hated and admired, or both at once. But you are not a banal or negligible presence, a Mr. or Mrs. Everyone. You are a problem, a desire: positive or negative, never neutral].

The foreigner, or more generally speaking the stranger, presents a set of extremes: hated or admired, a problem or a desire, negative or positive. Disregarding an analysis of the essay itself (which is nonetheless very interesting and possibly deserving of its own blog post) and focusing on the language: the "problème" spoken of here is definitely negative, something to hate. Yet still, the author couches all of these descriptions under the umbrella of "fascination." As a "problème," the stranger may be hated, but is still an object of interest. A problem, for the French, is not something to counter, reject, get rid of, repair, or fix. It is something to think about, meditate on, delve into, examine, and incorporate into the construction of coherence.

These complications are not unique to this word. Several other words in French have given me similar difficulties: "étranger" = stranger, foreigner; "experience" = experiment, experience; "ennui" = annoyance, trouble, depression, apathy. Many of these seem to come from differing attitudes in French and in American culture which manifest themselves linguistically. I am certain other languages produce their own set of difficulties with their own set of words. What interests me about these words in French is that they seem to generally be related to a greater acceptance in French culture of negativity or suffering as something banal, an attitude which finds itself in conflict with the American desire to avoid trouble at all costs. Our avoidance of "problèmes," I believe, is our problem.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Labé's "Je vis, je meure…" in translation

Sonnet VIII

Je vis, je meure, je me brule et me noye :
J'ay chaut estreme en endurant froidure :
La vie m'est et trop molle et trop dure.
J'ay grans ennuis entremeslez de joye :

Tout à un coup je ris et je larmoye,
Et en plaisir maint grief tourment j'endure :
Mon bien s'en va, et à jamais il dure :
Tout en un coup je seiche et je verdoye.

Ainsi Amour inconstamment me meine :
Et quand je pense avoir plus de douleur,
Sans y penser je me treuve hors de peine.

Puis quand je croy ma joye estre certaine,
Et estre au haut de mon desiré heur,
Il me remet en mon premier malheur.

Louise Labé

Sonnet VIII

I live, I die; am burnt and submerged;
I am scorched by biting cold;
Life both coddles and abuses me.
My great suffering is entangled with great joy:

It happens all at once – I laugh, shedding tears.
Full of gladness, I am haunted still by grief.
My livelihood is fled, but ever endures.
All at once I wither and I flourish.

Thus Love is my fickle guide:
And when I see only more sorrow ahead,
Suddenly I am brought out of misery.

Then when it seems my joy has been decided,
And I am on the brink of bliss, 
Love forsakes me to my former wretchedness.

Labé; tr. Sara Balsom

Of course a great difficulty of translation is deciding whether to remain stringently faithful to the original diction, or render natural-sounding language in the translation. In translating this sonnet, I opted rather for the latter, although I find myself doubting this decision. While I like the sound of my English translation, I am afraid of having missed the point of translating this particular sonnet. Labé's diction is somewhat simplistic for the period, yet the intellectual concept of the poem is complex and striking. She describes life as a series of contradictions or juxtapositions which ultimately resolves into misery. The simplicity of the language makes this idea seem almost commonplace, the speaker almost apathetic, as if this is something one should or could learn in a school primer. The French have a history of taking a less melodramatic attitude towards suffering than the English do, and this sonnet seems to express this especially in the last line, which literally translates to something like "puts me back into my first/primary unhappiness." I don't believe that "former wretchedness" conveys this adequately, although I chose it for its half-rhyme with "bliss," which gives a truer rendering of Labé's rhyme scheme, and its metrical value, the three syllables of "wretchedness" being less jarring than the four in "unhappiness."

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Hofstader's "Ma Mignonne"

À une Damoyselle malade
Clément Marot

Ma mignonne,
Je vous donne
Le bon jour ;
Le séjour
C'est prison.
Puis ouvrez
Votre porte
Et qu'on sorte
Car Clément
Le vous mande.
Va, friande
De ta bouche,
Qui se couche
En danger
Pour manger
Confitures ;
Si tu dures
Trop malade,
Couleur fade
Tu prendras,
Et perdras
Dieu te doint
Santé bonne,
Ma mignonne.

In The Life in Rhymes of Clément Marot, Douglas Hofstader takes us on a merry ride through the process of translating Clément Marot's poem "A une Damoyselle malade," a poem to which Hofstader affectionately gives the nickname "Ma Mignonne," taking an appellation from the first line of the poem. Along the way he asks the reader to discover the problems of translating poetry, especially when the reader's interest and enjoyment of that poetry relies heavily on its structure ("Note also that a teeny bending of the norms of pronunciation was deemed allowable [in my translation]...Did you catch any of these minuscule anomalies while reading "My Sweet Maid" aloud?).

Before he begins his task of translating, Hofstader provides the non-reader of French with a list of characteristics describing the original French poem, which the reader should keep in mind while perusing his multiple translations:

1. The poem is 28 lines long. 
2. Each line consists of three syllables. 
3. Each line's main stress falls on its final syllable. 
4. The poem is a string of rhyming couplets: AA, BB, CC... 
5. Midway, the tone changes from formal ("vous") to informal ("tu"). 
6. The poem's opening line is echoed precisely at the very bottom. 
7. The poet puts his own name directly into his poem. 

The biography of Marot which serves as an introduction to the translations is, charmingly, written in rhymed prose:
 "In the four-and-a-half centuries now passed since his death, Marot's carved a niche – although small, quite secure – in the vast pantheon of French literature. Le tome beau de Marot – the great book of our bard – has respect far and wide; though he's dead, he's not died. Mort n'y mord, Marot's motto: "Death, dull are thy fangs." The fellow (it can't be denied) had toupet – he had marrow and pluck, plus some luck of the dice. Thus he garnered nice blurbs from the likes of Boileau ('Il trouva pour rimer des cheins tout nouveaux' – He opened up pathways of rhyme no one knew)" 
Hofstader's transparent critique of his own translations entertains and intrigues. He gives the reader all the tools to make their own translation(s) of Marot, while humbly presenting his own examples. He acknowledges that these translations – like all translations of poetry – each fail in unique ways and succeed in other ways to convey aspects of the original to an Anglophone ear. His admissions are also written in a prose style that is nothing if not adorably endearing:
"...despite the fact that I was striving for nothing but the purest, most austere, least form-concerned type of literality, issues of form raised their little heads all over the place, like crowds of little mushroomlets merrily sprouting up in the most carefully tended of lawns." 
Interestingly enough, in pointing out his own difficulties in translating these poems, Hofstader actually (it seems inadvertently) uncovers some tiny flaws in Marot's tight verse:
"Another interesting matter is the handling of lines 20-21 (Si tu dures / Trop malade)... In a truly mindless translation, 'too' would have to modify 'sick' and the word 'long' would not enter the picture at all...Marot wanted to encourage his little friend Jeanne not to stay sick for too long a time. The idea of 'staying too sick,' after all, doesn't even make sense, for to be sick at all is by definition to be too sick."
The lines in question are not only a problem for the English-speaking translator, they are confusing in the original French. The enjambement that Marot makes in these lines is an anomaly in this poem, and one that feels awkward given the tightness of the other lines. However, Marot might have intended this moment to grab the reader's attention, for the lines in question also contain a haunting speculative clause for a girl in poor health: "If you last, ..."

The pessimistic translator may be discouraged to know that this poem exists in possibly a hundred translations, none of them, of course, actually equaling the original. But I choose to think it a wondrous thing that any one poem so simple and short can, by the process of translation, undergo a sort of self-multiplication, producing a wide range of related poems in several languages – one begins to think of the poem as engenderer of its own small world, a deity, if you will, of its kind.

Here are several of Hofstader's translations and "translations," beginning with the initial crib. (As an aside -- I encourage anyone to call their significant other "My sweet cute one feminine" and giggle at the resulting facial expression.)

1. My Sweet/Cute [One] (Feminine)

My sweet/cute [one] (feminine)
I [to] you (respectfully) give/bid/convey
The good day (i.e. a hello, i.e. greetings).
The stay/soujourn/visit (i.e. quarantine)
[It] is prison.
Cure/recovery/healing (i.e. [good] health)
Recover (respectful imperative)
[And] then open (respectful imperative)
Your (respectful) door,
And [that one (i.e. you (respectful)) should] go out
For/because Clement
It (i.e. thusly) [to] you (respectful) commands/orders.
Go (familiar imperative), fond-one/enjoyer/partaker
Of your (familiar) mouth,
Who/which herself/ himself/itself beds (i.e. lies down)
In danger;
For/in-order-to eat
If you (familiar) last (i.e. stay/remain)
Too sick/ill,
[A] color pale/faded/dull
You (familiar) will take [on],
And [you (familiar)] will waste/lose
The plumpness/stoutness/portliness (i.e. well-fed look).
[May] God [to] you (familiar) give/grant
Health good,
My sweet/cute [one] (feminine).

2. To a Sick Damsel

My sweet,
I bid you
A good day;
The stay
Is prison.
Then open
Your door,
And go out
For Clément
Tells you to.
Go, indulger
Of thy mouth,
lying abed
In danger,
Off to eat
Fruit preserves;
If thou stay'st
Too sick
Pale shade
Thou wilt acquire,
And wilt lose
Thy plump form.
God grant thee
Good health,
My sweet.

3. My Sweet Maid

My sweet maid,
You I wish
A good day;
Your sickbed
Is a jail.
Total health
Please regain,
Then unlatch
Your room's door,
And go out
With full speed,
For Clement
Does insist.
Go, gourmand,
Thou whose mouth
Lies abed
Under threat,
Off to eat
Fruit preserves;
If thou stay'st
Sick too long
A pale shade
Wilt acquire,
And wilt lose
Thy round shape.
May God grant
Thee good health,
My sweet maid.

4. My small princess

My small princess, I send you a warm hello. Your stay in bed has been like a term in prison. Uncle Clement urges you to recuperate, and to get out of there soon. You've always loved sweets, so don't let being bed-ridden stop you from indulging – have some jam! And don't stay sick too long, because you'll get ghostly pale and start looking like skin and bones. God will surely bring you back to good health, my small princess.

5. Touchstones
("a pattern of words telegraphic... a chain of keys to its message will reveal what mustn't be skipped')

Vous: Cuteness; hail. Quarentine; cure. Egress; speed. Clément; insistence.
Tu: Epicurism; threat. Appetite; jams. Pallor; gauntness. Prayer; cuteness.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Introducing the Atlantean Poets Project

Of possible interest to those interested in South American letters and the esoteric, an announcement from Joyelle McSweeney:
My friend Jared Harvey did some sharp resurrection work for Beverly Pérez Rego's Atlantean Poets project. This project seeks to open an aperture on Venezuelan poetry not through translation into English but through an occult communication among poets.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

2011 New Yorker letter: Iliad, Islam, globalization

Here we are in the winterval doldrums, that time between the cheery holidays and the digging-into of the work of the New Year; a good quiet fireplacey time to set aside the hubbub of new translations and translation news, and get discursive. Chatty, even! In the spirit of such times, here's a pair of interesting letters from The New Yorker which the Pusteblume editors noted a few years ago as being worth mention, but which we failed to get onto the blog at that time:


The following letters, intersecting issues of cultural appropriation, as well as translation, appeared this week in The New Yorker: one from a reader responding to two articles (Daniel Mendelsohn’s review of a Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Iliad and a review of the Metropolitan Museum’s reopened galleries of Islamic art), and the other from Stephen Mitchell, responding to Mendelsohn's review.

Here's the reader letter:
The contrast between Daniel Mendelsohn’s review of a new translation of the Iliad and, a few pages later, Peter Schjeldahl’s review of the Metropolitan Museum’s reopened galleries of Islamic art was striking. Mendelsohn reminds us that, whoever Homer was or whatever the genesis of the Iliad, this glimpse at a polytheistic world of near-nihilistic savagery belongs to the Western canon; to him, it raises modern, even existentialist, questions. On the other hand, Schjeldahl, who describes himself as “a latter-day scion of the Renaissance wedding of Greek and Roman with Judeo-Christian traditions,” takes us on a tour of otherness; he argues that the Islamic and Western civilizations “cannot see each other.” But my reading of history is that Muhammad the monotheist is altogether more modern than the wrathful Achilles. It is the extraordinary power of serial appropriation and willful back-projection, both driven by medieval and early-modern politics, that takes the Koran (like the Iliad, an orally propagated text) out of the antiquity of Aristotle and Aristarchus. Amid the grand convergence that is called globalization, we might consider breaking free of hoary genealogiesChase Robinson, Hartsdale NY
And here's Mitchell:
Mendelsohn, in his review of my translation of the Iliad, correctly says that the received text of the Iliad is a kind of wiki-composition. No one disputes that many passages were spliced in after the text was first written down. For some scholars, as Mendelsohn says, it’s the composite text that matters; yet there are other scholars who conclude that the Iliad is primarily the work of one great genius. To me, the additions are like the accumulation of grime, touch-up attempts, and yellowing varnish on a Renaissance masterpiece. With a painting, it is sometimes not possible to strip away the accretions and see the original brilliance. But with the Iliad we often have the manuscript evidence to help us do just that. (Book 10, the Doloneia, for example, has been recognized as an interpolation since ancient times, and contemporary scholars are in almost unanimous agreement.) All English translations up to now are of the wiki-Iliad. We will always have them to enjoy. But, as I discovered in reading M. L. West’s superb edition of the Greek text, when you remove the accretions an even greater poem is revealed—an Iliad that is leaner, more dramatic, more awe-inspiring. Stephen Mitchell, Ojai CA
(Emphasis added.)