No 1 - Winter 1994-5
Bad Language: Poetry, Swearing and Translation
Translation, like politics, is the art of the possible - with all the inevitable compromise implicit in that parallel with politics. The main reason for this can be summed up in a quotation from Tender is the Night. At the moment when the tendresse between Nicole Diver and the martial Tommy Barban is about to harden into something more sexually definite, the pair flirt between languages:
“Talk English to me, Tommy.”
“Parlez français avec moi, Nicole.”
“But the meanings are different. In French you can be heroic and gallant with dignity, and you know it. But in English you can’t be heroic and gallant without being a little absurd, and you know that, too. That gives me an advantage.”
“But after all - “ He chuckled suddenly. “Even in English I’m brave, heroic, and all that.”
Barban is right, or translation would not be possible at all. But Nicole is right, too. French comes, as in this passage, with italics. The spirit of each language is different. Cognac, as it were, somehow becomes whisky. And occasionally cognac becomes a ginger beer shandy or a lager and lime - a phenomenon noted by Bruce Chatwin in his profile of André Malraux, where he remarks that Malraux’s rhetoric is magnificent in French and fatuous in English. So what is possible?
Famously, pithily, undeniably, Robert Frost long ago found that poetry is what is lost in translation. And it was many years before D. J. Enright made his pragmatic rejoinder that even more is lost if you do not translate. Translation, then, is better than nothing.
As an answer, this is better than nothing. Nevertheless, Frost has the better of the argument. And if Henry James anticipates Frost, at least by implication, it is because Frost’s truism happens to be true. In The Portrait of a Lady, Edmund Ludlow, a New York lawyer, has the following exchange with his wife Lilian about her sister, Isabel Archer. Lilian mildly grumbles: “I don’t see what you’ve got against her except that she’s so original.” Ludlow replies: “Well, I don’t like originals; I like translations.” We can tell from this that the translation is staider, thicker-waisted, less pliant, less athletic, slower on its feet than the original stuff. More of a home-body, in fact.
This is particularly true of poetry, true even if you translate from English into English. Consider Arnold’s ‘Sohrab and Rustum’, where the River Oxus is, at one stage, perceived to be a “foiled circuitous wanderer”. How much less roundabout the Oxus would be, how much less intricately complicated if you substituted “roundabout” for “circuitous”. Pasternak has a poem called ‘Hospital’ which describes his heart attack and begins with what he can see from the window of the ambulance: militsia, ulitsa, litsa. In English, the linguistic blush, spreading from word to word to word, is unsustainable: police, streets, faces.
Swearing is another example of untranslatability, though a recent one because latterly swear words were expunged before they needed to be translated. Before swear words, however, there was the exclamation - often untranslatable in an identical way. When Santiago has lost his harpoon in the first shark and then sees the first pair of sharks, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea gives us this disquisition on translation: “‘Ay,’ he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.” In Little Dorrit, Dickens observes the same phenomenon: “‘ALTRO!’ returned John Baptist, closing his eyes and giving his hand a most vehement toss. The word being, according to its Genoese emphasis, a confirmation, a contradiction, an assertion, a denial, a taunt, a compliment, a joke, and fifty other things, became in the present instance, beyond all power of written expression, our familiar English, ‘I believe you’.”
Swearing is a more extreme instance of untranslatability. Let me give you four examples. Fuck to bloody shithouse. Shite and onions. I besmirch the milk of thy duty. What are you doing now, you lazy drunken obscene unsayable son of an unnameable gipsy obscenity?
I hope no one has taken any of these last four tetchy remarks personally. I offer them generally, in a forensic spirit, as part of an investigation into the nature of language and the limitations of translation. And I venture to say that only one brief expletive runs the risk of personal offensiveness to an English-speaking audience. All four are quotations, but only one is echt, or pukka or authentic. It is “shite and onions”, a personal coinage of Simon Dedalus in Ulysses. Because Dedalus is an English speaker, he has what used to be known as a generative grammar: he can work a plausible variation on the vernacular, a variation which is readable to the rest of us, if we, too, are native English speakers. All swearing possesses its proper penumbra of impropriety and “shite and onions” is reasonably versatile. Yet the tragic note is well beyond its range and it is impossible to imagine it replacing Lear’s brute howl as he bears the dead Cordelia in his arms. No, as English speakers we know from our bat-like linguistic radar that the tonal range of “shite and onions” is resticted to the expression of rueful exasperation at the contingencies and incongruities of fate. “Shite and onions” is never tragic, most often wryly comic, and very occasionally expressive of the note of incredulous sternness. Shite and onions. This last variant I can say but I cannot write.
My first quotation, “Fuck to bloody shithouse”, is oddly opaque by comparison. It shares grammatical ambiguity with the now long-vanished legend over varnished train lavatory seats which Jonathan Miller analysed three decades ago in Beyond the Fringe. Was the unpunctuated phrase, “Gentlemen lift the seat”, a definition, an imperative, or a loyal toast? “Fuck to bloody shithouse” might conceivably be an imperative, though the context to justify this interpretation might require a Joe Orton to script something sufficiently plausible. In fact, the phrase was the favourite expletive of a boy called Charlie Wong at my boarding school. He arrived there at the age of 17 from either Hong Kong or Singapore and never quite managed, therefore, the art of swearing in fluent English. He could conduct a normal conversation. He could make himself understood. But his deep generative grammar was faulty and his favourite expletive, “fuck to bloody shithouse”, was fatally tone deaf. The finer points of the English language - swearing and poetry - were equally beyond him.
The second pair of quotations are from Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. “I besmirch the milk of thy duty” is what Agustin says to his fellow-partisan Fernando. “What are you doing now, you lazy drunken obscene unsayable son of an unnameable unmarried gipsy obscenity?” is the rhetorical question of Pilar to the morally crumbling Pablo, her consort. The two quotations are different. One is a translation, of sorts, and the other is an edited obscenity not unlike Mr. Polly’s interior monologue in which adjectives like “sanguinary” replace “bloody” over a number of lines:
“‘Arf a mo’,” said the figure, as if in response to his start, and speaking in a hoarse whisper. “‘Arf a mo’, mister. You the noo bloke at the Potwell Inn?”
Mr. Polly felt evasive. “S’pose I am,” he replied hoarsely, and quickened his pace.
“‘Arf a mo’,” said Uncle Jim, taking his arm. “We ain’t doing a (sanguinary) Marathon. It ain’t a (decorated) cinder track. I want a word with you, mister. See?”
Mr. Polly wriggled his arm free and stopped. “Whad is it?” he asked, and faced the terror.
“I jest wanted a (decorated) word wiv you. See? - just a friendly word or two. Just to clear up any blooming errors. That’s all I want. No need to be so (richly decorated) proud, if you are the noo bloke at the Potwell Inn. Not a bit of it. See?”
“You lazy drunken obscene unsayable son of an unnameable” is, of course, the bowdlerised version and yet it is more effective on the page than the more nearly accurate but also edited “I besmirch the milk of thy duty”, where, I take it, “besmirch” stands for “shit in” or “shit on”. The point about the blanks offered by Hemingway - “obscene”, “unsayable” - is that we can fill them convingly and quickly from the word-hoard of the English language. We are given the opportunity to substitute, whereas the other phrase, “I shit on the milk of your duty”, is a translation in which the force has been lost, in which the poetry has gone missing. Here is another brief extract from Hemingway’s novel: “‘Then go and befoul thyself,’ Pilar said to him without heat. ‘Thy mother,’ Agustin replied.”
Tu madre is a serious swear-word, like madonna putana in Italy, but the literal translations, “your mother” and “madonna whore”, are without force, without patina, without the weight of tradition, without the context of Catholicism. One of Hemingway’s linguistic projects is to write in Spanish using English. I myself once began a translation of Marina Tsvetayeva’s ‘An Attempt at Jealousy’ in which I aimed to write a kind of Russian-English, without articles and reproducing the Russian word-order. In the event, Tsvetayeva’s subject matter, jealousy, interested me more than the linguistic project and I ended up writing a traditional ballad, though in another poem, ‘Purge’, I did my best to recreate the linguistic surprises of the Siamese-English spoken by a lodger at my mother-in-law’s house, the tricks and tropes of which I had noted down a decade previously. Hemingway, clearly, can sense some such linguistic spin-off when he has Robert Jordan discuss the psychological requirements of the saboteur as follows: “In this you have to have very much head and be very much cold in the head.” It isn’t English, but we know what he means and that he is really speaking in Spanish. Of course, we also know that Jordan, though fluent, is not bilingual. Were he bilingual, the texture of foreignness would disappear. The feel of the language would feel like English to an Englishman, but where would that leave Hemingway’s vaunting expertise? It would leave it unadvertised. And is this actually what we want? Instead of the flavour of foreignness, would we prefer it if Agustin said, for example, “You can take your sense of duty and stick it up your arse, sunshine”? When Tom Stoppard reviewed Hemingway’s posthumous The Garden of Eden in the Observer (8 February 1987) he noted the “flourishing of small expertise” and referred to E. B. White’s famous parody in which the Hemingway figure takes a girl to Schrafft’s “where my old friend Botticelli is captain of girls and where they have the mayonnaise in fiascos”. Stoppard then quoted Hemingway’s description of gazpacho: “it came in a large bowl with ice floating with the slices of crisp cucumber, tomato, garlic bread, green and red peppers, and the coarsely peppered liquid that tasted lightly of oil and vinegar. ‘It’s salad soup,’ Catherine said. ‘It’s delicious.’ ‘Es gazpacho,’ the waiter said.” Hungry? Or perhaps you’d rather have the paella from For Whom the Bell Tolls: “we ate in pavilions on the sand. Pastries made of cooked and shredded fish and red and green peppers and small nuts like grains of rice. Pastries delicate and flaky and the fish of a richness that was incredible. Prawns fresh from the sea sprinkled with lime juice. They were pink and sweet and there were four bites to a prawn. Of those we ate many. Then we ate paella with fresh sea food, clams in their shells, mussels, crayfish, and small eels. Then we ate even smaller eels alone cooked in oil and as tiny as bean sprouts and curled in all directions and so tender they disappeared in the mouth without chewing. All the time drinking a white wine, cold, light, and good at thirty centimos the bottle. And for an end; melon. That is the home of the melon.”
Gazpacho, paella, both brilliantly described, both expertly evoked. I side with Stoppard who wrote: “Well, it isn’t Hemingway’s fault that you can now get the stuff in cans at Safeways.” And I would want to add a codicil to Stoppard’s defence. It is this. Open the can from Safeways, cook the paella-in-the-packet and neither will have the authenticity of Hemingway’s account: art transcends life in a way which would have brought a QED to Oscar Wilde’s full lips. It is said that some gourmets read recipe books as if they were pornography. Hemingway’s descriptions of food are a kind of paunchography with strong sexual undertones. Take that melon, for example. Fernando disagrees with Pilar. “‘The melon of Castile is better,’ Fernando said. ‘Qué va,’ said the woman of Pablo. ‘The melon of Castile is for self abuse. The melon of Valencia for eating.’”
Which returns the argument to the role of swearing in translation theory. In Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, Ubu refers now and again to various obscene instruments in his possession: “le croc à merdre” and “le cisaux à merdre”. If we can, so to speak, leave the strangely singular “cisaux à merdre” at the back of the bathroom cabinet, we can concentrate on “le croc à merdre”. How exactly do we translate this obscenity? It is, literally, the “crook” for “shit” or the “shit crook”. Were I a translator of the Nabokov persuasion, I should leave the matter there, accurately rendered but scarcely Englished. The “crook for shit” doesn’t even convey a kind of Frenchness as Agustin’s “I shit in the milk of your duty” conveys an unmistakable Spanishness as it strikes the English ear. I have given “le croc à merdre” considerable thought, convinced that the novelty of Jarry’s French must require a similar novelty in English, however free the translation. Turd tongs, shit pliers, shit shifters, a bowel probe are some of my suggestions. My final choice, however, is that Ubu should reach for his No. 2 iron.
Behind Jarry’s “le croc à merdre” are lined up a host of untranslatable things, objects and concepts, which have no currency outside their county of origin. Of course, “le croc à merdre” has no currency in its country of origin, but it serves as a symbolic hook to join poetry and swearing to those other untranslatable things, things.
Recently, I have been translated into Dutch, Polish and American. I leave the American translation till last. My Dutch translator is a poet who has translated John Donne’s songs, sonnets, elegies and holy sonnets, as well as work by contemporary English poets for every Poetry International at Rotterdam. His name is Jan Eijkelboom and the consensus is that he is the best Dutch translator of poetry. He had two problems. My poem ‘Gauguin’ is a linguistic experiment, not unlike Hemingway’s desire to reproduce in English certain Spanish qualities. I wished to invent a kind of pidgin, inspired by certain brilliant and possibly apocryphal pidgin periphrases like the pidgin for “helicopter”, “mixmaster blong Jesus Christ”, or the pidgin for playing the piano, “man in bockis, you fight him, he cry”. My poem’s subject was sex:
He stickyout number2tongue
because he magnetized to she.
Which she hide in shesecrets,
Because she magnetized to he.
And so on. In Rotterdam, Eijkelboom told me that the poem was impossible to translate because the Dutch language has a dialect of pidgin - which would be seen as racist. The problem of connotation is like that associated with swearing - but in reverse. The neutral and harmless, when translated, becomes lethal and poisonous. The other Dutch problem was disclosed by a member of the public who wrote to me after he had seen Jan Eijkelboom’s translation of my poem, ‘In Modern Dress’, in which I describe a small child trailing a comforter across a muddy garden so that the child looks like Sir Walter Raleigh laying down his cloak for Queen Elizabeth. My correspondent told me that in Dutch my child was now sucking a dummy, a different kind of comforter.
In Polish, the problem for my brilliant translator, Jerzy Jarniewicz, was a stanza largely consisting of the names of English sheep breeds - Devon Longwool, Derbyshire Gritstone, Beulah Speckle-Faced, to name three from a list of twelve or more. Obviously these local sheep don’t exist in Poland and my translator at first decided to leave the bulk of the stanza in English. Then he discovered that although Poland had no Hill Radnor or North Country Cheviots, it did have its own comparably varied sheep strains which he was able to use instead.
My experience of being translated into American came as more of a surprise, even if, years ago, I had a similar experience in Poetry Chicago, to whom I had given a poem called ‘The Explorers’ that included the line “tights as tight as a Durex” to describe some ballet dancers. At the suggestion of the editor, I altered this to the more alliterative, “tights as tight as a Trojan”. (You will recall that Bette Midler once said of her all-women backing group that the only thing they knew about classical literature was Trojans.) In 1991, I wrote a profile of Seamus Heaney for Vanity Fair and had an educational encounter with Wayne Lawson, the magazine’s executive literary editor. For instance, the acronym D-I-Y means nothing to an American audience and has to be expanded to Do-It-Yourself. The allusion to “a line of Keith Douglas has to tote extra, necessary information, so little known is Douglas to American readers: thus, “Heaney evoked a line of Keith Douglas’s poem ‘The Marvel’ in one lapidary phrase”. The concept of the “review front” had to be explained to Americans as (the slightly inaccurate) “Lowell’s poetry could command a review on the front page of the arts section in a national Sunday newspaper” - whereas what I intended was a reference to the publication of several of Lowell’s Imitations on the front page of the Observer’s review section, rather than a review as such. Similarly, what one of my informants described as “a kind of desolate secondary school” became “a kind of desolate secondary intermediate school”. Other things simply had to be dropped. For instance, praising Heaney’s fine ear and his ability to capture sounds like a tape-recorder, I quoted one of the Glanmore sonnets which refers to “the sibilant penumbra of close-down”. American radios are different. The thing doesn’t exist: no sibilance, no penumbra, and close-down is called something else. I referred also to a Derek Mahon poem which describes a pub singer with one hand to his ear and the other earthing himself through his girl-friend’s hand. The American verb is “grounding”, not “earthing”. More recently, I have discovered from the copy-editor of Doubleday that “caliper” means “dividers” in America - and if you have polio there, your leg will end up in a brace, not a caliper.
It is, however, a translation, whereas “the sibilant penumbra of close-down” cannot be translated from English into American-English because the thing itself doesn’t exist. In the same way, English potato peelings differ from American “potato peels” (see Mary Karr’s essay ‘Against Decoration’ in a 1991 Parnassus) which derive rather from the English orange peel - all of which differ from the untranslateable “dacha”, a word which is defined in Marcus Wheeler’s Oxford Russian-English Dictionary as “dacha (holiday cottage in the country in environs of city or large town)”. A “dachnik” is defined as “(holiday) visitor (in the country)”. “Chalet” is the only English word to come within megaphone distance of “dacha” - and it is fatally associated with the sea, whereas “dacha” is firmly associated with the countryside. In Ronald Hingley’s translation of Chekhov’s ‘Lady with a Dog’, Gurov, on his return to Moscow after his seduction of Anna Sergeyevna, lapses into a gross unspirituality: he can eat a whole plateful of “Moscow hot-pot”. Constance Garnett’s version of this coarse materialism is a whole plateful of “salt fish and cabbage”. S S Koteliansky prefers to stay with the original Russian: “he could eat a whole plateful of hot sielianka.” What Chekhov actually wrote was selyanka for which Wheeler’s Oxford Russian-English Dictionary gives: “(culinary) hot-pot; (fig) hotch-potch, hodge-podge.” In other words, Hingley’s translation is more accurate than Garnett’s “salt fish and cabbage” or Koteliansky’s muffed transliteration. However, perverse as it may seem, I think “hot-pot”, even with the prefix “Moscow”, has connotations too restricted to Lancashire. Selyanka, like dacha, is in reality untranslateable. In the same story, Hingley has “ENTRANCE TO THE CIRCLE” whereas Garnett and Koteliansky prefer, incorrectly in my view, the more accurate “TO THE AMPHITHEATRE”. That patrons of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden can see the sign “TO THE AMPHITHEATRE” every time they go there still doesn’t make it acceptably universal. What these examples show is that general rules are very difficult to establish, but that accuracy is less important than effect: “TO THE AMPHITHEATRE” is correct, but makes the effect of translationese; “hot-pot” is correct, but makes the effect of coarse Englishing, as if “sausage roll” was used to translate “piroshki”. “Piroshki” are best described using French vocabulary: they are like a brioche with a savoury meat filling, a million versts away from sausage rolls.
On the whole, I think it best to transliterate the original where there is no equivalent entity in the host language. In Chapter 2 of The Gift, Nabokov sensibly writes: “the greasy, clayey zemskaya (rural district) road.” On the same principle, it might be better to translate sirnik not as “curd fritter”, the suggestion of Marcus Wheeler’s dictionary, but as sirnik (a cheese fritter). “Curd” in English has stronger sweet connotations than sour ones: we think of lemon curd before we think of curd cheese. In this limited sense, it can sometimes be better for a translator to know his own language better than the foreign original.
Even a great writer like Nabokov makes mistakes in the move from his “infinitely docile” Russian to the less flexuous English language. In The Gift, we read: “the paired pack-loads of equal weight are seized twice with lariats so that nothing can shift.” Elsewhere, a young man “in his hard, sinewy way” is “remindful of a gundog”. Nabokov doesn’t give us the development of a friendship, but, pursuing the photographic idea, “the exposure of their friendship”. I wonder, too, exactly what distinction he is making when he writes that Godunov-Cherdynstev’s father “could not stand procrastination, hesitation...” The translator must be good at the language he is translating from but perfect in the language he is translating into. With this saving thought in mind, I want now to quote from a letter written to Ian McEwan by one of his many translators. I deliberately refrain from disclosing the language into which the translation is being made:
“Dear Ian, I’ve just (three minutes ago) finished to translate your ‘The Comfort of Strangers’. It’s been a real hard job, not because of the language, your english is translator’s delight, but because of the story. I’ve told the publisher I’m not sure I’m going to translate your next works, because there’s too much gap between us, and I believe it’s real better when you feel what you translate. I’ve already had it bad with ‘The Cement Garden’, and since it seems that every new novel or story of yours is a lil’ bit crueller and more full of corpses than the one before, what next then? Anyway, you’re real great writer.”
There is something as disturbing here as Koteliansky’s translation of Gurov’s name in ‘The Lady with the Dog’ as Gomov. It is difficult to feel any confidence when your translator writes that “your english is translator’s delight”. Nevertheless, I cling, charitably, to the idea that one’s real expertise should be in one’s own language. To return to swearing, I recall Thom Gunn asking me in San Francisco if I had really published a poem entitled ‘Arsehole’. I had. It was a version of the Rimbaud-Verlaine sonnet called ‘Sonnet d’un trou de cul’. Gunn’s comment was a poet’s comment on two languages. “Gee, ‘arsehole’ is so much dirtier than ‘asshole’.” Where most translations fail is by choosing what is possible in English, rather than what is right in English. “Asshole” is a possible translation of “arsehole” but it isn’t the right translation - not only for the reason given by Thom Gunn. To call someone an “arsehole” is quite different from saying someone is an “asshole”. The former is malignant where the latter is harmless. To be on a desert island with an asshole would be irritating perhaps. To be on the same desert island with an arsehole might even be dangerous.
On 16 June 1991, the Observer published an interview with the French prime minister, Edith Cresson - a reject from Naim Atallah’s book of interviews with women which suddenly became newsworthy when Madame Cresson was elevated by President Mitterand. Nowhere did the piece say that the interview was conducted in French and translated into English, but there was a moment when the internal evidence made this clear. Naim Atallah’s question was: “Appearance is also very important to men; you rarely see a rich, successful man with a woman who isn’t pretty.” The answer began: “That isn’t my opinion.” This is possible in English, but we are more likely to say “I disagree”, or “That isn’t what I think”, or “Not in my opinion”. Another question (“Do you think that, today, there are advantages in being a woman?”) received this answer: “If you know how to draw them out, I believe there are many advantages in being a woman.” I suspect that Madame Cresson meant something closer to “if you know how to make the most of them...”
In Chapter 14 of Part 5 of Milan Kundera’s Immortality, the translation from Peter Kussi gives us this: “she is at the dentist’s, sitting in a crowded waiting room; a new patient enters, walks to the couch where she is seated and sits down on her lap; he didn’t do it intentionally, he simply saw an empty seat on the couch; she protests and tries to push him away, shouting...” So far, so good. It is what she shouts which is strange - possible, but wrong. “‘Sir, can’t you see? This seat is taken! I am sitting here!’” Trying her exclamations on one’s tongue with, in Nabokov’s wonderful phrase, “the glaze-eyed solemnity of a tea-taster”, we can see that the mistake is one of punctuation. That “Can’t you see?” is a possible but unlikely question. Any of the following are more plausible: “Are you blind?”; “Look what you’re doing”; “look out”. But best of all is the Kussi with its punctuation altered. Instead of the stiffly lapidary “‘Can’t you see? This seat is taken!’” one might substitute the more fluent “Can’t you see this seat is taken?”
Translation is the art of compromise. It should be theoretically impure and practically impure. Rigid rules are its enemy. At every juncture the translator should revert, like the poet, to “the glaze-eyed solemnity of a tea-taster”. Ask your mouth to tell you not if what is written is allowable in English but if what is written is right in English. And then beware of clichés - which always sound right.
I now want to discuss the translation of Brecht’s ‘To Those Born Later’ in Poems 1913-1956 edited by John Willett and Ralph Manheim with the co-operation of Erich Fried. Many of the poems have the initials of a translator appended but this particular poem has not. The apparatus explains: “those translations which bear no translator’s initials involve a degree of collaboration on the Editors’ part which makes final responsibility difficult to establish.” This is the beginning (of ‘An die Nachgeborenen’) in the Willett-Manheim-Anonymous version:
Truly, I live in dark times!
The guileless word is folly. A smooth forehead
Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet had
The terrible news.
What kind of times are they, when
A talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?
That man there calmly crossing the street
Is already perhaps beyond the reach of his friends
Who are in need?
It is true I still earn my keep
But, believe me, that is only an accident. Nothing
I do gives me the right to eat my fill.
By chance I’ve been spared. (If my luck breaks, I am lost.)
Derek Mahon’s translation of this poem (in The Hunt by Night) is at first closely related to the Brecht. His inspired rendition of the Willett-Manheim-Anonymous’s “A smooth forehead/ Suggests insensitivity” shows what can be done by a good poet-translator: “A clear brow argues/ A thick skin.” Soon, though, Mahon’s impatience shows, and translation shades into version and version ends up as imitation - a Mahon poem nourished by Brecht. My own partial attempt follows. I have no German to speak of or speak with, but I have attempted my own “translation” of this Brecht poem, using the Willett-Manheim-Anonymous translation as if it were a rough literal version. It isn’t really a translation so much as a critique of the Manheim-Willett-Anonymous version.
It’s true, we live in dark times.
The unconsidered word is naive. A placid brow
Indicates callousness. The man who is laughing
Just hasn’t heard the dreadful news yet.
What sort of a world is it, when
Talking about trees is almost criminal
Because it implies silence about so much horror?
When that man there calmly crossing the street
May already be beyond the reach of his friends
Who need his help?
OK, I still earn enough,
but, believe me, that’s only luck. Nothing
I do gives me the right to eat till I’m full.
I’ve been spared by accident. (If my luck runs out, I’ve had it.)
Impudently, for a non-Germanist, I’ve tried to eliminate the clichés in the Willett-Manheim-Anonymous version (“earn my keep”, “eat my fill”) and to eradicate all those heavy touches of translationese: you can say “If my luck breaks, I am lost”, but it is better to say “If my luck runs out, I’ve had it”; “Truly, I live in dark times!” has a more pronounced German accent than “It’s true, we live in dark times”; “A talk about trees” suggests a lecture or an address, whereas “talking about trees” is idiomatic; “The guileless word is folly” might have been written by Schiller and translated by Coleridge, so I prefer the less antique “The unconsidered word is naive”. Later in the Willett-Manheim version, we encounter “But those in power/ Sat safer without me”. I’m hardly sure what this means, so odd is the English. It may be an oblique reference to show trials, but it’s a phrase of English which is hardly even allowable as the other phrases were that I’ve been quibbling over. If I knew German better, I dare say I’d be much less worried by the English. Is there a case for translation in tandem with one translator who knows both languages well and one translator who is only a gifted monoglot?
Sometime in 1987, I was commissioned by Jonathan Miller to translate Racine’s Andromaque for his opening season at the Old Vic in 1988. Miller wanted a clean, modern translation - without, for example, any of the “thees” and “thous” which Richard Wilbur uses in his version following the usage of his country neighbours in Connecticut. I began with an octosyllabic line and rhyming couplets. And I quickly realised that Miller’s simple request was impossible. One of Racine’s most famous lines, about Hector’s son, Astyanax, occurs in Pyrrhus’s first speech adumbrating the war just past:
Un fleuve teint de sang, des campagnes desertes,
Un enfant dans les fers...
The problem here is the problem identified by Chekhov when he wrote: “The Cherry Orchard is being translated for Berlin and Vienna. But it won’t be successful there because they don’t have billiards, Lopakhins or students à la Trofimov.” Nor is there room in a “clean, modern translation” for “un enfant dans les fers”: “ a child in chains” is the obvious route and that chosen by Robert Henderson but those “chains” take us out of the 20th century if not to the seventeenth century. This pressure is constant, though perhaps less obviously pronounced. The result is an idiom which is neither contemporary nor anything approaching Racine’s poetic diction, either in its genuine reach or in its artificiality. It is easy to write a kind of formal civil service speech, reaching - in anger or fear or jealous passion - for rather dated colloquialisms and the clichés of sentiment. This language is occasionally heightened but never attempts the sublime. In no time at all, “under” has become “beneath” and “on” has become “upon”. The solution, it seemed to me, was to update the entire piece in order to use contemporary English fearlessly. Miller disagreed with me and replaced my version with Eric Korn’s more literal translation which wasn’t without its resourcefulnesses. However, the night I saw the production, the audience laughed every time Eric Korn used a contemporary idiom. In the inevitable overall artificiality of the faithful Racine translation - the result of the original’s restricted vocabulary and marzipan diction for the emotions - anything remotely natural is liable to strike an audience as laughable. By setting my free version in a fictitious 1953, I could be confident of what was for me the most important thing - a clean, modern language. I could use my own voice.
Admirers of Racine will already be appalled. I wish to add, all the same, that Racine’s greatness, for me, lies less in the language than in the plot. Of course, the plot of Andromaque is full of improbabilities - like, for instance, Andromaque’s pious hope that Pyrrhus will care for Astyanax, despite her suicide, because she has gone through the marriage ceremony. George Steiner told me, when I jeered at this particular improbability, that I did not understand the code of Pyrrhus’s “parole d’honneur”. I’m afraid that I responded by pointing out that Pyrrhus has already given his “parole d’honneur” to Hermione - and broken it. By plot I really mean the system of frontal conflicts, however contrived their inception may be.
Anyone who has heard my French accent will know that my inwardness with the French language isn’t adequate to a full appreciation of Racine’s poetry. I am sure this is true. In his ‘Anniversaries’, Donne has this wonderful line: “Thinke thee laid on thy death-bed, loose and slacke.” Metrically, it would be difficult to find a looser, slacker, or deader pentameter. And the tautology there, “loose and slacke”, is acceptable to a native English speaker in the way that Nabokov’s “procrastination, hesitation” was not. This is an anthology of padding from Macbeth, all of it acceptable: “thou sure and firm-set earth”; “stop up the access and passage to remorse”; “the vile blows and buffets of the world”; “to trade and traffic with Macbeth”; “a wild and violent sea”; “a good and virtuous nature”. None of these examples, perhaps, would be acceptable outside dramatic poetry, where repetition is permissible and, arguably, necessary for audience comprehension. A foreigner, though, would be unable to gauge the linguistic allowance to be made. What is padding, what is repetition of a telling kind, and what is pure tautology? Translating Racine, I found myself, as a foreigner, unable to tolerate the tautology (as I perceived it) of the French and its total absence of economy. Act 5 Scene 1 will illustrate. Hermione is speaking after having sent Orestes to murder Pyrrhus, the man she really loves, in the temple before he can marry her rival Andromaque:
Où suis-je? Qu’ai-je fait? Que dois-je faire encore?
Quel transport me saisit? Quel chagrin me dévore?
Errante, et sans dessein, je cours dans ce palais.
Ah! ne puis-je savoir si j’aime ou si je hais?
Yet, while I found this insufferably stylised and repetitive, I noticed comparable repetition in my own version which alternated between ametrical lines and rigid octosyllabic lines with a full rhyme - the idea being to drip in and out of metre. This is my Andromaque pleading with Hermione for her son Astyanax:
I don’t want to antagonise
your royal highness. That would serve
no purpose at all. Please don’t misconstrue
straightforwardness as brazen nerve.
You have everything. You want for nothing.
I have nothing but the task
of saving my son. I’m desperate. Forgive me.
I ask because I have to ask.
I have no husband. I have only a son.
You’ll marry soon and have a child.
Then you’ll feel what I feel, what all mothers feel.
We’re not quite civilised. We’re wild,
instinct with instincts...
That last repetition is an attempt to make over Racine’s linguistic turn and return, but those immediately before me strike me as acceptable because dramatically necessary. The point is that a foreigner would be unable to gauge the weighting of each decision - and the result would be boredom. Repetition is the area of poetry where translation is the most likely to fail, where a calculated risk, full of tension, can appear in another language as “loose and slacke”.
Let me conclude this deliberately inconclusive essay with one consolatory certainty. It is a certainty which returns us to our starting point. Isn’t it wonderful that FUCK and STOP, the words for licence and prohibition, are so universally understood that they need no translation?
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