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?

Paper Matters

August 27, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: A Child Again, by Robert Coover.

I’m going to pick a nit today, because what good is having a blog if you can’t pick a nit now and then?

This is a McSweeney’s book, and as such a good deal of thought has been given to the book’s design: it’s a nice size, with cover art (no jacket, so hot right now, a trend started by McSweeney’s) that hearkens back to mid-century children’s literature.  There’s also a pocket on the back cover for a hypertext-y story on oversized playing cards.

So all I’m saying is, they put a lot of thought and effort into this book, as the folks there seem to do with most all of their productions.  As a matter of fact, I heard Eli Horowitz, publisher and managing editor for McSweeney’s, speak at a conference this summer, where he said in no uncertain terms that he feels that there has to be a reason to publish something in paper rather than online; that there has to be a reason to make a book of it.  The onus is now on the printed book, in other words, to justify its existence: by being beautiful, being cool, being interesting to look at and hold and read.

So what the hell’s up with the paper, here?  I am not a bibliographer; I am not a bibliophile of the kind that obsesses over the details of bookmaking materials (and yes, they are out there); I am not even all that picky, really, most of the time, when it comes to this sort of thing.  I read crappy paperbacks and books bound in library buckram all the time.  But the paper on which this book is printed is way too white.  Blindingly bright.  And there’s something about the feel of it, combined with the font (which seems to be the standard McS font, which I should know but do not — someone help me out here), which makes reading this book feel like reading a very nicely bound bundle of computer printouts.

Maybe it was just a mistake.  I don’t know.  Or maybe costs have to be cut somewhere when you’re paying for nice cover design and a pocket so Coover can have his crazy card-story.  Or — I wouldn’t put it by them — maybe McSweeney’s decided to include a wider variety of paper brightnesses and colors in their never-ending quest to invigorate American letters.  Whatever the case, it’s amazing how glaringly obvious an inappropriate book paper is.  A good paper, easy on the eyes, is one of those things you take for granted until it’s not there anymore.

The Decadent Book, or the Book of the Decade?

July 14, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski.

I will get into the specifics of what this very strange book might be about and how it might work soon, but first I can’t resist talking about the book itself: its physical form, its extravagant typography and layout, and the experience of reading it.  And in fact, as in all books, but especially in this strange one, that experience is a very large part of its subject and function.

Only Revolutions is a Choose Your Own Adventure: there is no set way of reading it.  Although there is a publisher-recommended way, the reader has to make many choices based simply on the book’s unusual presentation.  There are two title pages, one for the “story” by Sam, the other for Hailey.  The Sam-story and the Hailey-story start from opposite ends and meet in the middle, then go back the other way: the story you’re not reading is always upside-down on the page.  From the jacket flap: “The publisher suggests alternating between Sam and Hailey, reading eight pages at a time.”  They rather strongly suggest that — or, I suspect, Danielewski does — by introducing every ninth page with a large initial letter, intimating a break at the end of the previous page.  (And yes, I’ve followed this suggestion.)  But of course, you can start from either end.  And you can certainly disregard the advice and read all the way through one story, then all the way through the other.

But further, there is also more than one section of text on every page: there’s a main body of varying size and layout which looks suspiciously like verse, but always mostly right-justified on versos and left-justified on rectos.  In the gutter of each page is a sidebar, in small (different) font: a chronology of real-life national and world events, from 1863 to 2005.  (There are also empty sidebars up to 2063.)  These sidebar snapshots can be rather cryptic, given the space restraints and the author’s stylistic preferences: a typical line from World War II reads “6 German saboteurs go” (go being a multivalent word in the book, but very often meaning die).  Many are even less descriptive: a simple number, the meaning of which is only revealed (or not) after later repetitions.  (I hate to do this to someone as cool as Danielewski obviously is, but the device is reminiscent of nothing so much as the wildly popular but, in retrospect, horribly embarrassing Billy Joel boomer anthem “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”)

You can choose to read these and attempt to decipher them or just skim for a sense of time and zeitgeist or utterly ignore them as annoying contrivance, simply acknowledging their perceived use in the book.  But if you do pay attention to them, you can also choose what kind of meaning you wish to assign to them: are they summarizing events contemporaneous with the personal events in the main body of text?  Are they only a kind of symbolic anchoring of the themes of the text in the history of the “real” world?  What is the purpose of the bizarre but rigorously uniform phrasing and syntax and style evident in the sidebars — a cipher or code, or (dare I dream?) a kind of Oulipian game, or merely a sort of literary ticker-tape, or what?

But wait!  There’s more!  The letter “o” and the number zero always appear in green ink in Sam’s narrative, gold in Hailey’s.  The page numbers — two for each page, one for each narrative — appear on the side of the page, in two circles within a larger circle; the numbers rotate 360 degrees around each other through the course of the book.  The sidebar dates appear in a kind of deep magenta.  And the word “creep” (and character The Creep) also appears in a kind of reddish-purple (which may or may not be the same as the date-magenta — I really can’t tell if there’s a difference, because of the different sizes and fonts).  Also, characters’ names (and some important objects) besides Sam and Hailey appear in small caps.  Names of animals in Sam’s narrative, and plants in Hailey’s, appear in boldface (gray boldface in the second half).

Beyond all that, the book features across its boards a gorgeous photographic collage of plants and animals in green and gold and earth-tones, and on its two dust jacket covers extreme close-ups of a green-flecked gold iris and a gold-flecked green iris.  Plus two slightly different jacket blurbs — one for Sam, one for Hailey.  Also, gold and green ribbons, for keeping your place.  And a “concordance” of many overlapping circles of words on both sets of endpapers, to be read in a mirror.

If you’ve read his first book, House of Leaves (a book I utterly adore, and a real candidate for my favorite book of the decade), this is not exactly a surprise — but Jesus, what a load of paratext!  It is tempting to read it as a conceptual poem: more like Kenneth Goldsmith‘s work than Joyce’s, even though Finnegan’s Wake is what first springs to mind as a comparison, in that its existing is as much or more the point as anything it actually says.

That’s an overstatement, because documentation of the process is certainly not the end point of Z’s work, but it leads me to one of the things I find so interesting about the book’s format.  This is a book, published in 2006, and very much about cosmic themes of birth and death and renewal and obsolescence, which is also very much about being a book published in 2006, about what a book might be.  I don’t know how much Z actually thought about the book’s publication/marketing during its composition — while I think writers don’t much like thinking about publishing, I think Z is perforce an exception — but I think the folks at Pantheon/Random House must’ve thought of the book as a way to make “the book” hip again.  I think they had to think of it as futuristic/avant-garde/cutting-edge, for promotional purposes.  And perhaps it is; it certainly would’ve been utterly impossible to commercially produce 20-30 years ago.  But it also strikes me as, possibly, a kind of death-knell: a really remarkable piece of decadent bookmaking, an example of digital typography and layout and contemporary cheap-but-flashy binding run amok, the kind of thing that gets designed and pushed by a really very respectable publisher and nominated for the National Book Award when “the book” is going through a massive identity crisis.

In some ways the book is very book-specific, in that the look of it and the rotation of the book 360 degrees to read the other narrative and the thematic import of its typography and layout are meant to be quite profoundly part of the book’s meaning — its “content.”  In other ways it’s very hypertextual: one of those works moving past the book, which only feels constrained when it’s moved from a screen where it can more fully interact with a reader or “user” to a page.

None of which I mean to detract from the work itself, which is really quite remarkable in many respects.  It just strikes me, when I look at it on the table, and when I hold it in my hand, and when I read its overflowing pages, as being simultaneously a very exciting and very sad thing.  And even though I’ve just spilled a lot of language about it, I’m still not sure I’ve quite captured why that is.

The Sportscaster in American Literature

November 9, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: End Zone, by Don DeLillo.

I’m reading this book in a weird little mass-market paperback edition published by Pocket Books in, apparently, 1973.  (The book was published in 1972.)  I picked it up for 50 cents at the Newberry Library Book Fair a couple of years ago, just because it was so damn weird.  Like an artifact from some parallel universe where Don DeLillo books are the kinds of books sold in supermarkets and newspaper kiosks. Judging by the list of Pocket Books’ other publications at the end of the text here, there’s a name for this parallel universe: the 1970s.  They also published Donald Barthelme and Bernard Malamud, $1.95-$2.25 each.  For such a supposedly philistine decade, they were sure doing a helluva lot better than us at making literature available to people.  My copy bears the stamp of a place called “Paperback Exchange” in Reno, Nevada — “We Sell — We Trade.”

Anyway, here’s a shot of the cover (from LibraryThing):

Since this post is basically one big digression, let me also say that the dust jacket of the first edition is one of my all-time favorites; it’s just absolutely gorgeous and simple (also from LibraryThing):

Anyway. I can’t resist sharing the copy on the back cover on the Pocket paperback.  Books’ promotional copy fascinates me — in terms of who writes it and how it gets written, and in its status as a kind of “paratext” — and this is a great example of fairly mysterious, utterly cryptic, and wildly, misleadingly incorrect copy, although not in the way you might expect:

IS GOD A FOOTBALL FAN?

There is a small college somewhere in America where such questions have answers.  There young men gather to study the secrets of the universe; to refine their sexual techniques; to meditate on human folly — and to play hard, belting football.  And there, they learn that God himself is waiting for the outcome of the season.

So, I’m only about halfway through this short book, but I feel safe in saying that, hilarious as this is, it’s not a faithful description of what is actually going on in this book.  The illustration is actually much better for that, tying in as it does the themes of nuclear war, big Texas sky, and, well, football.  (It also makes Myna Corbett thin and pretty where she’s described as kind of fat and ugly; but at least the dress is the right color.)

Also can’t resist quoting this blurb from Nelson Algren, of all people: “If you dug Jack Nicholson’s role in Five Easy Pieces or the fables of Donald Barthelme, Don DeLillo is your man.”  Uh, sure, whatever you say, Nelson.  You’re a hip, hip, hip dude.

All of which is a long way around to saying that I still love the specificity and tactility of holding and using a specific copy of a printing of an edition of a book.  It’s somehow thrilling that this book, thin spine broken, hinges wobbly, made its way to a used bookstore in Reno, was dumped at a book sale in Chicago, and now finds itself in North Carolina, useful all around the country across a span of 35 years.

Anyway, a couple of notes before I dive into the actual text in my next post.  Turns out this book was surely some kind of influence on DFW.  I need to reserve judgment on the deeper levels of influence for now, but there are some easy referents and allusions that DFW includes in Infinite Jest.  Beyond the whole nuclear-war-and-sport connection, there’s a player named Onan and a coach named Hauptfuhrer (I maddeningly can’t find it now, although I’m certain there are a few references to a person named Hauptfuhrer in IJ, too.  Or perhaps someone just calls Schtitt hauptfuhrer?)  And then there’s the sportscaster-in-training.  Jim Troeltsch, meet your spiritual father, Raymond Toon: “…Raymond practiced his sportscasting in the room all weekend.  When he wasn’t studying theories of economic valuation, he was camped in front of his portable TV set.  He’d switch it on, turn the sound down to nothing, and describe the action.”

This is the third book this year that’s included this subplot.  There was Ché, in Vineland, admiring Brent Musberger and always framing and commenting upon her life; there was Troeltsch; and now there’s Toon, who narrates a football game he’s ostensibly involved in, as a reserve, from the sidelines, “talking into his fist.”  Troeltsch is a culmination of sorts here, in that we get a sense of the verisimilitude of his practice-sportscasting and thereby a sense of how deeply imbedded and influential event-narrators like TV sportscasters are to us, the Viewing Public.

Like a lot of kids, I suspect, I used to act out sporting events by myself and would call the play-by-play in a kind of half-whisper, half-shout, so I could be heard over the deafening crowd in my head.  (For me, it was mostly basketball and football.)  In high school, I was the P.A. announcer for the football games during my senior year.  I loved this job.  Sportscasters used to be completely ignored, the white noise of TV, but now everything gets talked about and it’s common to have favorites and nemeses, those in whom you perceive a bias and those you think are simply incompetent, etc.  It’s also common to decry the utter banality and pointlessness and clichè-ridden-drivelness of sportscasting.  And I don’t think that’s wrong, most of the time.  But I do think it’s wrong to imagine that the banality and clichèd, regurgitated phrases serve no purpose and are unintentional.  They’re a comfort.  It was comforting, shooting hoops in my driveway and counting down the seconds, or up in the crow’s nest with a view of the football field, calling out “flag on the play” and “Brauer rumbles for seven yards.”  Of course, it’s only comforting if you don’t think about it too much.  If I stop and think about how I’d soaked up so much televised sports by the time I was seven or eight that it was probably the single most familiar and approachable narrative structure in my life — that I could do an utterly convincing job of narrating my imagined sporting events, just as Troeltsch can with real events in his teens — if I think about it, it’s kind of terrifying.  But we’ll get into that in my next post.

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