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?
January 19, 2009 § 1 Comment
Just finished: The Question of Bruno, by Aleksandar Hemon.
Reading next: Villette, by Charlotte Brontë.
I find it somehow hard to write about Hemon’s work. This is not for lack of interesting ideas or techniques or even a lack of correspondence between my interests and his. If anything, there’s too much to say: I like thinking about his idiosyncratic methods of narration, his strange way of inserting himself and/or people with his name into his stories, his kinship with the great Bruno Schulz, his treatment of memory and childhood, his crazy surrealistic flourishes, the very specific details of Chicago in his stories, etc. And yet somehow he defeats me: I could write about all of these things, and would like to, but it seems somehow beside the point.
This is a good thing, I think.
The experience of reading Aleksandar Hemon is strange. I read Nowhere Man (his second book, after this one) a few years ago, and had the same kind of feeling then. It always seems both vitally important and beside the point who is telling a Hemon story: the story typically works, and works beautifully, as the product of an anonymous Bosnian narrator, but can have additional resonance or a transformed meaning if a specific narrator is deduced. For someone as interested in espionage and the breakup of the Soviet Union as Hemon is, the ways in which he reveals or seems to reveal his stories’ tellers can create a fascinating narrative of its own.
For instance, “The Sorge Spy Ring” tells of the great, non-fictional spy, Richard Sorge, a Soviet agent in Japan before World War II. It tells Sorge’s story in footnotes, which are entertaining but more or less scholarly in tone and nature. The footnotes, provoked by incidental correspondencies in the main text (the word “mother” leads to a footnote on the character of Sorge’s mother, along with the Sebaldian touch of a photograph of her), occur in a text about a boy who loves spy games, and comes to suspect his father is a spy in Tito’s Yugoslavia.
There’s reason to believe that the boy telling this story is Jozef Pronek, the protagonist of “Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls,” the masterpiece at the heart of this book, and also of most of Nowhere Man. Pronek’s story is narrated by a self-consciously omnipresent (but only semi-omniscient) “We,” which operates like a surveillance team, switching camera angles to view him and dropping in comments on his thoughts and predicaments. There’s also this surreal touch, as Pronek looks at the miniature rooms in the Art Institute of Chicago:
…he was the only one to see a minikin figure, with long white hair, and an impish mini-grin, running across the miniature room. Pronek could hear the tapping, the barely audible, evanescent, echoes of the creature’s tiny steps, which then disappeared into the garden.
Doubtless, a hallucination.
Is this an operative, monitoring Pronek? Is Hemon equating fiction with espionage?
Perhaps because they are so often matter-of-fact about horrible and beautiful things alike, his stories can sometimes seem flat, or somehow I’ll read them and not be immediately affected by them. It’s only when I look back at them, review and reread sections, that they gel for me and I see how brilliant they are. In this collection, “Islands” and “Imitation of Life,” the first and last stories, were especially like that for me. But really, I can open to any page of this book and find something incredible that my mind somehow passed over. For instance, I open to p. 184, scan, and remember how the words “rotting,” “decay,” and “filthy” seem to be everywhere in “Blind Jozef,” and how strange this seems, considering that Jozef has escaped from Sarajevo into Chicago. And yet it is somehow just right: uncannily correct, like so much of Hemon.
I feel like the key to all this might be that the stories tell themselves so effectively that my words seem beside the point. The experience of reading them cannot be recaptured by my breaking them down into their constituent parts: they’re gestalt-ish, I guess.
December 29, 2008 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit.
Before reading this book, I’d never thought of irony as a form of hypocrisy. But hypocrisy is one of the major themes of this book, and Dickens handles his most hypocritical characters with such a huge helping of irony that I couldn’t help but make the connection.
It’s most obvious with Seth Pecksniff, who really is eminently loathesome. Pecksniff is a hypocrite of the highest order: he pretends even to himself and his family that his motives are pure, his intentions godly, his actions just. When we first meet him, Dickens already dislikes him enough to show him in a bit of slapstick: the wind slams the door of his house in his face, pushing him down the stairs. However, he’s introduced as “a moral man: a grave man, a man of noble sentiments and speech.”
Dickens more or less sticks to his strategy of having his narrator superficially present Pecksniff as an honorable man (so far, at least, halfway through the book), although calling someone moral “especially in his conversation and correspondence” is a rather funny way of calling someone moral. He lets the man’s actions and demeanor do the dirty work for him. (Finally, 350 pages in, he resorts to a footnote to differentiate Pecksniff’s convoluted self-justification from “the Author’s” own beliefs; this is, I believe, the first time the narrator repudiates Pecksniff without using irony.)
Dickens wrote Chuzzlewit after visiting America for the first time, and his disillusionment with the New World seems to be the driving force behind the entire book. The overwhelming hypocrisy of a “free” country justifying slavery to itself appalled Dickens. (So did the lack of clean tablecloths, proper manners, and party politics, apparently, and Dickens does occasionally harp on these points in the American sections of the book. It seems rather petty of him.)
On the other hand, the book also has its anti-hypocrites: whereas Pecksniff and Montague Tigg/Tigg Montague put on airs whenever possible, Tom Pinch and Mark Tapley serve and are never satisfied with their service, never sure they’re doing enough for those they consider as doing them a good turn (who have typically wronged them). Tapley, especially, is a model anti-hypocrite: he seeks opportunities for “credit” for being “jolly.” Of course, it’s no credit to one’s character to be jolly when things are going well, so he comforts himself in the worst of situations by reminding himself that his good spirits and service to others (especially the selfish, oblivious Martin Chuzzlewit) will finally give him the opportunity to stand out in a world which seems mostly happy, to him. Both Pinch and Tapley think the best of others, or at least act as though they expect the best of others.
Dickens’s ironic descriptions of his characters and situations fascinate me in all of his books — that droll, frequently indignant, quintessentially Victorian voice, laying all that’s improper to delicate waste — but especially here, when attacking the very tactics he seems to employ. I always wonder how much Dickens really did think it best not to say the worst of what we think of others, even when dealing with his own creations, and how much he simply knew his audience well enough to know they’d eat up these tactics. Of course, Dickens is never one to play close to the vest, not really: his sympathies and antipathies are always clear, reading just below the surface, and he takes his vengeance mostly through incident, often brutal or deadly. He is somehow a remarkably subtle and remarkably broad and obvious author, simultaneously; and it seems to me that his irony, especially his ironic stance toward his characters, is one of the things that keep me reading him.
May 24, 2008 § 1 Comment
Just finished: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
One last brief note on Gibbon’s book. I was happy to find a glancing reference to one of my favorite passages in the whole work in the final chapter. Early in the work (chapter ten), Gibbon speculates on the origins of the Goths, and of the Nordic religion. He proposes that “we can easily distinguish [in the Edda] two persons confounded under the name of Odin — the god of war, and the great legislator of Scandinavia.” Things get really fun after that: Gibbon speculates that, if a real, human Odin had existed, he may have been the chief of a tribe dwelling near the Black Sea, until Roman troops approached. I have to quote directly from him after that:
It is supposed… that Odin, yielding with indignant fury to a power which he was unable to resist, conducted his tribe from the frontiers of the Asiatic Sarmatia into Sweden, with the great design of forming, in that inaccessible retreat of freedom, a religion and a people which, in some remote age, might be subservient to his immortal revenge; when his invincible Goths, armed with martial fanaticism, should issue in swarms from the neighbourhood of the Polar circle, to chastise the oppressors of mankind.
A real-life Odin creating the dark, bloody Nordic religion and ethos as a way to, eventually, avenge his expulsion from his native lands by the Romans! A flight this fanciful is fairly uncharacteristic of Gibbon, and it carried him away, I think, just as it did me; he clarifies in a long footnote that the story “might supply the noble groundwork for an Epic Poem, [but] cannot safely be received as authentic history.”
His book took up so much of his life — twenty years — that Gibbon had plenty of time to reconsider his earlier writing. Anyone who loves this book loves Gibbon’s last chapter, probably the best known part of the whole work, in which he discusses the causes for the ruins of Rome’s ancient buildings. He takes the opportunity to downplay the damage done to Rome by the Goths and Vandals, and in a very loosely connected footnote his embarrassment at his earlier theory is palpable: “I take this opportunity of declaring that in the course of twelve years I have forgotten, or renounced, the flight of Odin from Azoph to Sweden, which I never very seriously believed. The Goths are apparently Germans…”
Nevertheless, it’s one hell of a theory, and it would, indeed, make a great epic poem, were people still writing such things.
May 18, 2008 § Leave a comment
Now reading: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon.
I have been reading this a couple of pages at a time, before bed and sometimes with breakfast, for five years or so. Finally I’m nearing the end, and sprinting to the finish.
Gibbon is a fascinating, brilliant, infuriating, meticulous companion. He is unapologetically dismissive, even contemptuous, of Catholicism, and by and large of religion in general. He pines for the time of the Roman senators, imagining it the last period of great cultural sophistication and republican purity and meritocratic governance combined with military rigor. He combines objective standards of good government and conduct (often defending and even extolling Muslim leaders and culture) with wildly subjective, speculative claims about motivations and chains of events that “must have” led to documented occurrences.
Since I’m obviously enamored of the footnote, let me say that Gibbon is one of the foremost cultivators of the form. The footnotes are copious, diverse, and (sometimes) entertaining. He uses them to document his sources (Gibbon seems to have read, heard of, or dismissed nearly everything on his subjects), but also, sometimes, to comment on his text and insert his most acerbic, cynical, or controversial claims. A lot of his sneers at Christianity and the corruption of Catholic clergy appears in the footnotes. Sometimes he just uses them to point out interesting sidelights like the use of a historical incident in Shakespeare; sometimes he just wants to digress but not sidetrack his main text. (Of course, if you’re obsessive about reading or at least skimming everything on the page like I am, you can’t help but glance to the footnote and thereby get sidetracked anyway, if it’s more than simple documentation, which it almost always is.)
Gibbon’s style carries over to the footnotes; he has the same erudite, mannered, windy, elliptical style in them as in his main text, which is one reason they take up so much damn space. The man is the king of the semicolon, a derided punctuation I happen to love and partake in freely. Nearly any contemporary author would break his semicoloned sentence-paragraphs into three, four, five, however many separate sentences, but Gibbon partook of the idea that a sentence is the unit for completing a thought, a paragraph is the unit for discussing an idea, a chapter is the unit for covering a topic. Gibbon’s thoughts and ideas are nothing if not complex and detailed. Hence a sentence is hardly ever less than fifty words, a paragraph is typically a page or two. His chapters will speed ahead for hundreds of years only to loop back in the next, simply because he’s laying out an argument, showing the relevance of history to his current situation, delineating the paths history took in one area or another, Enlightening.
I love his style, basically. His semicolons create these gorgeous little visual breaths in a ways that those ugly periods cannot, never will: periods are always the end of something (even ellipses can’t quite accomplish the same thing as semicolons, which create a particular rhythm and space for thought that other punctuation cannot duplicate). Yes, many of his sentences are run-ons, but they’re run-ons to a purpose, run-ons in the way our thoughts run on.
And perhaps nothing speaks for Gibbon’s style like Gibbon himself, in his discussion of the survival of the ancient Greek language at Constantinople and its revival in Renaissance Italy:
In their lowest servitude and depression, the subjects of the Byzantine throne were still possessed of a golden key that could unlock the treasures of antiquity; of a musical and prolific language, that gives a soul to the objects of sense and a body to the abstractions of philosophy….
In the sack of Constantinople, the French, and even the Venetians, had despised and destroyed the works of Lysippus and Homer; the monuments of art may be annihilated by a single blow; but the immortal mind is renewed and multiplied by the copies of the pen; and such copies it was the ambition of Petrarch and his friends to possess and understand. The arms of the Turks undoubtedly pressed the flight of the Muses: yet we may tremble at the thought that Greece might have been overwhelmed, with her schools and libraries, before Europe had emerged from the deluge of barbarism; that the seeds of science might have been scattered by the winds, before the Italian soil was prepared for their cultivation.
The man is terribly saddened, even enraged, by the irrevocable loss of works of art and science due to greedy wars, religious “fanaticism,” incompetent leadership. His work is so massive, detailed, digressive, encyclopedic, and meticulous because he wants nothing lost; he wants the valuable studied and cherished, the charlatans exposed and dismissed, the improvement of this world valued above preparation for a potential next world. He saw his work as another notch on that golden key.
May 5, 2008 § Leave a comment
Just finished: The Wet Collection.
Do yourself a favor and find this book. Many of us are brainwashed into thinking that small- or independent-press collections must be twee or regional or otherwise lesser, in one important way or another. ‘Tain’t always so, or even often so. This book is proof. It’s damn good.
Of course, this book happens to scratch one of my major itches. Tevis and I share a deep fondness for Melville. There’s only one overt reference to him here, but the book is (dare I say) Melvillean, in his Mardi and Moby-Dick style: digressive, allusive, concerned equally with the outer world of natural history, human history, religion, and the inner world of relationship, psychology, religion again, making the time to make important points you don’t quite notice until you’ve made a connection dozens of pages later. (Another alternate title for M-D: The Whale Collection.)
“Barefoot in a Borrowed Corset” is one of my favorites. It involves footnotes, in a good way. It pulls together stories about spelunking, Da Vinci, the Eucharist, the Old Testament leper Naaman, Crater Lake, and an underwater town in South Carolina. (The interplay of the very dry — the Last Supper fresco, leprous skin — and the very wet — bathing in deep lakes, watery towns — runs through the whole collection, and is used to great effect here.) But then there’s the footnotes, used here in an almost DFWian way, to create another layer of narrative, largely about the author, and about the construction of the story.
That story is largely one of armchair adventuring, the vicarious and allusive life most of us live. The first footnote, after the section-title “Spelunking”: “After reading, in a borrowed house, a stranger’s National Geographic.” And then the experience of spelunking is compared to insomnia, awake in a dark house, coming to grips with living with another person. Reference is later made to a “cave tour.” And later, there’s an extremely tangential reference to FDR, obviously one of the author’s personal heroes. His Civilian Conservation Corps recurs throughout this book: blazing trails, building cabins, creating parks and dams and roads. I suspect many nature books would heap scorn on this kind of work, cleaning and distancing and colonizing nature. Tevis seems to consider it one of the great projects of the twentieth century, and genuinely appreciates the vantage points the work of those Depressed workers has given her on the land, the country, the world.
This would all make Mr. Melville smile, I think, the mixture here of lived experience and mediated experience and experience of others’ experience. Oh, he sailed the seas, but then he cribbed so much of what inspired him from the books he voyaged in, as well, and from other adventurers’ stories. He took what he needed and was concerned with the deeper truth he saw in it, not primarily its supposed “authenticity.”
Anyway, this is a dangerous strategy: are you mythologizing or aggrandizing mundane life? Are you making specious, superficial, fragmented demands on decontextualized narratives? Are you, most important, boring me with your life? I think this story (and this book) avoids those pitfalls. So much here is about orientation: the self on the earth, the individual to the history, the human in nature. The wanderer to home. Way back when, we learned that the author wanted to “live a biblical life” (note that lower-case b) and a “prophetic life in conjunction with another.” Religion is very important throughout; the simmering Christianity of the South is all over this book, the relationship of earth to deity; but God does not seem nearly as important to Tevis as his cast of characters, and the lyrical words his prophets were inspired to write.
Bedrock concerns, all. The balance in the prose and the narrative between the colloquial and the heightened (pseudo-biblical) seems right, here. I don’t know: it’s silly to parse these things, sometimes. We’re talking art here. It works or it doesn’t. Here it works.