Translating Ancient, Humanist, and Contemporary Literature

October 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Finished: Satires, by Juvenal (trans. Niall Rudd); Sputnik Sweetheart, by Haruki Murakami (trans. Philip Gabriel).

Still reading: Gargantua and Pantagruel.

Reading next: The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre, by John Polidori et al.

I’ve been reading a lot of translated literature lately, so my recurring interest in the complexities and quandaries of translation has resurfaced.  As luck would have it, these have been 20th-century translations of works spanning two millennia: from the 2nd-century imperial Rome of Juvenal to the 16th-century France (and countless imaginary islands) of Rabelais to the late-20th-century Japan of Murakami.  Further, these have been three very different kinds of books, in genre, market, and physical format.  Juvenal I read in an inexpensive Oxford World’s Classics paperback perfect for autodidacts and students of Latin lit in translation.  Rabelais is a 1942 Heritage Press production with illustrations by Lynd Ward; Heritage was the mass-market version of the expensive Limited Editions Club editions.  Finally, the Murakami is a Knopf first American edition, with the standard Knopf gestures at and allusions to quality bookmaking (glued-on endbands, faux deckle edges, colophon) without much of the actual craftsmanship of same.

All of which is prefatory to my impression that the format and intended public for each of these works are the key factors in how the translation is made, and what I am and am not suggested to learn from and experience in them. Every work of literature is mediated by these factors to some degree, but (to travesty Orwell) some are more mediated than others, and translations are the most mediated of all — even putting matters of different languages aside.

As with most any ancient author, reading Juvenal is, for the lay reader, an act of suspended disbelief.  In many ways, ancient authors are more like mysterious bronze statues in town squares (to borrow a Hellenic image from Sputnik Sweetheart) than actual, knowable people: their features are recognizable, but they have accumulated centuries of ambergris (copying errors), bird poop (intentional removals or additions thanks to changing morals or understandings), vandalism (forgery), conservation and repair (glosses and marginalia).  It’s even more complicated than usual, with Juvenal, who fell out of fashion quickly after his death.

You can argue that Juvenal is as much a medieval author as an ancient one, given the amount of ambiguity there seems to be about what he actually wrote, and what has just been attributed to him.  (For a late but beautiful example of a medieval manuscript copy of Juvenal’s Satires, and how complicated these could be in their presentation, check this out, from Harvard’s Houghton Library.)  Niall Rudd explains in his fascinating, useful, and almost-certain-to-be-skipped “Translator’s Preface” to the edition I read that he expects most of his readers to be “students… [in] an academic course,” and that he has striven to balance a desire to make Juvenal “accessible” with a need to let his audience “know what is, and what is not, in the original text, even if that involves keeping their thumb in the notes.”

But of course there is no “original text” of Juvenal extant: there are many different copies of varying reliability and quality.  And yet the Platonic ideal of Juvenal (as of Shakespeare, or Rabelais, or even Murakami) remains the goal of translation, and the specter that every translator and reader chases, even though such a perfect snapshot of the author’s intention is forever impossible in translation.  So lines that have been deemed spurious, or interpolated commentary on the poetry taken for lines by Juvenal, have been removed from the main text to the notes, and surely there are many more that have not been included at all. We are given yet another “new and improved” text to take its place beside those many others of the past.

I greatly enjoyed Rudd’s Juvenal; there’s so much fascinating insight into ancient Rome and human nature, from greed and lust and gluttony and contempt to reminders that we’ve apparently always thought that things were about to go or had just gone to hell in a handbasket to incredible details such as those in Satire 14, presented here with the title “The Influence of Vicious Parents,” which includes mention of shipwrecked sailors begging with painted images of the shipwreck they survived, gripes about real estate in the suburbs of Rome, and the astonishing fact that parricides were punished by being tied up in a sack with an ape, dog, snake, and rooster and thrown into a lake.  But I wonder about the medieval “Juvenal,” too, and think about Satire 6, by far the longest of the sixteen, with its rampant misogyny, and wonder if it’s so long because so much was added to it by later enthusiasts.

While I have my quibbles with this edition of Juvenal, overall I found it a great value, with informative and extensive notes and thoughtful presentation.  This makes an interesting contrast with the Rabelais, which is so very different a kind of book as to be an almost completely different reading experience.  The emphasis here is on enjoyment of the work, with an introduction (by the translator, Jacques LeClercq) that devotes all of four brief paragraphs to the problems of translation and is chiefly concerned with explaining Rabelais’ life and times.  LeClercq seeks “interest and readability.”  Astonishingly, he has done so by inserting material that would be presented as footnotes in most editions directly into the text — so that, for instance, explanations of complicated idioms and phrases in languages other than French in the original are put into the mouths of the narrator and other characters.

In this way, LeClercq harkens back to the medieval tradition of the gloss or commentary: as Juvenal’s commentators would write their “helpful” comments between (and thereby into) the lines of the text or around the margins of the work, so the LEC/Heritage edition rewrites Rabelais.  (A comparison with a more recent translation by M.A. Screech reveals a massive amount of variation between the texts.) The publication history of the parts of Rabelais’s work is fully as complicated as the transmission of Juvenal’s text, and in fact the fifth book is quite possibly not by Rabelais at all (not that you’d know that from the Heritage edition).  The desire to present for ownership “The” five books of Gargantua and Pantagruel, and to make them palatable as non-scholarly works of enjoyable literature replete with illustrations by a popular artist of the time, leads to an utterly misleading text.  (Which is not to say I’m not having fun with it.  I enjoy Lynd Ward’s work, and the crazy lists and names and anti-clerical ranting and wild scatology of Rabelaisian Renaissance lit.  It’s just that I’ve felt the need, because I am a certain type of obsessive reader, to check the Screech edition frequently against the LeClercq text.)

Finally, there’s Murakami.  And here’s a question: why don’t publishers let (or, hell, make) translators include footnotes in their works?  Is it really that scary to an American reading public for translated belles lettres that I dare guess is fairly small and well educated?  Or is it actually more expensive, for some reason, to include footnotes?  Or do translators actually not want to do this?  I end up with questions about specifics of translation and cultural allusion — questions that I suspect would be easily answered by the translator, who’s doing the work of parsing these problems anyway — with just about every contemporary work I read.  For just one example: when Gabriel translates “bang!” on page 8, what’s he translating?  A similar Japanese onomatopoeia?  A sound effect seen in Japanese manga?  Or is that exact word, the use of which is, granted, not that big of a deal, but is somewhat emblematic of Murakami’s loose, pop-cultural, conversational style, at least to this reader in English — is that exact word in the original, which would be an interesting Americanism?  (Incidentally, I suspect that Gabriel also indulges in some in-text footnoting, as when the name Sumire is identified as meaning “Violet” in Japanese.  Maybe most translators do this.)

Maybe e-books will be an answer here: they would seem to have the capacity for pop-up footnotes that could be less scary to readers (or, in reality, to publishers) and could actually add value to a printed text.  Will translated literature will be the first format to take a real step forward in the e-book format?

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