…here is Deborah Smith in her own words in the LARB, published yesterday. Look, I started to annotate the thing in my head (because, I mean, oh man), but ultimately, I found I’ve spent too much energy on this already, particularly with this improvised rant. Smith’s essay speaks for itself. I’m tired.
This is a short note regarding, once again, after this post, the Han Kang / Deborah Smith debate. I’m writing this directly into the CMS so excuse any infelicities or oddities beyond the usual.
I do not necessarily wish to re-open the discussion about translation. I’ve had many frustrating, mind-numbing discussions with people on the topic. I’ve heard all kinds of terrible arguments. The most recent text about it, a poetically written article in le New Yorker, is interesting in that it doesn’t really try to defend the indefensible, despite praising, overall, the way Smith and Han Kang deal with translation.
The author in the New Yorker, Jiayang Fan, says at some point, “This isn’t what’s normally meant by translation.” – and she’s right. And for all I care the debate can end here. That is not what we mean when we say translation. And Han Kang’s English books, seeing as they can indeed best be described as a “collaborative work,” should have Deborah Smith’s name on the cover. I have no problems with invasive translations if they are marked as such. Look. I have two volumes of translations by Paul Celan on the shelf. They are some of my most cherished books. Celan was a linguistic marvel. BUT all of the poems read as if they had been written or edited by Celan. They are, to a very large extent, Celan poems, not poems by Mandelstam. It’s not subtle: I have two slim German volumes of Ungaretti’s poems here, one with Celan’s renditions, one with Bachmann’s. You can immediately point out which are Celan’s. It’s incredibly clear and obvious.
Look, for someone of little talent and skill like me who speaks too few languages, who travels little, lives in the country he grew up in etc., translations are necessary and at the same time a matter of trust. I trust you, translator, to render for me the work of a writer who I cannot read in his own words. And sometimes this involves overlooking some obvious issues. I adore Megan McDowell’s translations. And not because she’s such a transcendent translator: most of my adoration stems from the fact that the books she picked for translation are so good. I can see the original shine through in weird spots, but that’s fine. I trust Megan McDowell to give me the book as best she can. That’s “what’s normally meant by translation.”
Jiayan Fan, in her New Yorker article, also says “the latitude of Robert Lowell’s poetic “imitations” comes to mind.” – and that’s entirely accurate. I have written about that book of Lowell’s, and smarter people than me have pointed to its many many issues. Among the problems is that sometimes, Lowell was just re-mixing older translations. Sometimes he would translate texts from languages he didn’t speak in the first place. That is, indeed, not “what’s normally meant by translation.” And I admire Lowell’s Imitations. I think it’s one of his best books. However, none of these translations should be given to someone interested in, Say, Osip Mandelstam.
Earlier in the same article, the author dismisses Charse Yun’s careful criticism by saying that the things he notes are peripheral. They are not “the questions at the heart of Han’s work.” – Indeed, the debate about Deborah Smith’s translations goes to the heart of what we believe literature is. If we think literature is a message, some deeper content that can be paraphrased any which way, where the actual shape and color of the prose is merely incidental, then yes, maybe these are good translations. But if we think literature is made of words and words matter, then, fuck no. All translations are imperfect in some way, and to be honest, I don’t entirely believe in the translatability of poetry in the strict sense at all. But translators – we, or let’s say, I, trust them with doing their best to do this.
The article by Jiayan Fan suggests that, eh, the actual words on the page – not so important. What counts are the deeper questions and issues. The “greater fidelity” to what Han Kang has to say, not the measly detail of how she says it. It’s not an uncommon attitude. I have seen very popular short stories praised recently that were horrifically written as prose, but praised as “well written” – a statement that, upon reflection, referred to structure and the verisimilitude of the events depicted. But I, personally, don’t share that attitude. I don’t understand how anyone interested in literature can share that attitude, but I accept that I may be in the minority here. That is, I think, the basic difference and the bottom line here. That is why discussions on the topic have been so frustrating for me. I can accept that many people disagree.
And that would be all I have to say about the New Yorker article and the situation overall, but I have two remarks to add. Bug-bears if you will. One is every single review that discusses Han Kang’s “style” in English. I don’t care whether you believe the words matter (and thus we get Deborah Smith’s intense distortion of Kang) or whether you think the “deeper questions” matter (and thus we get “a greater fidelity” (to quote Smith)). Let’s be clear: under no circumstances are you getting Han Kang’s style or an approximation of it. The difference between the two positions doesn’t touch this question. The facts as raised by Charse Yun are clear. The difference between me and the millions of fans and defenders of the Kang/Smith collaborations is that they think it’s irrelevant. If you claim you’re getting Han Kang’s style you’re wrong.
The same goes for the idea that maybe Deborah Smith is a better translator in her newer books, less invasive, producing more of “what’s usually meant by translation.” This should be incredibly easy to test. Charse Yun makes clear claims: “Han’s sentences are spare and quiet, sometimes ending in fragments. In contrast, Smith uses a high, formal style with lyrical flourishes. As one critic noted, the translation has a “nineteenth-century ring” to it, reminiscent of Chekhov.” Look at the new translations. Has the style of the books changed? Is it more sparse now? Are the lyrical flourishes gone? I looked at the more recent translations and the answer is: no. And that should be immediately clear to any reader. I am honestly baffled by this suggestion of her maybe having changed her ways. It’s testable. There’s no need to throw up your hands and say “maybe!” GOOD LORD.
I’m sorry if this ran a bit long. Forgive me. This is not a theoretical essay, though I may have a draft of one lying around somewhere (focusing more on this aspect). This is just me sitting here being a bit upset. The best book on translation I have personally read, by the way, makes a case for translation as inspired deviance. I am not per se critical of that position. I guess I am writing as someone depending on that trust, that unspoken contract between me and the translator.
I comment a lot about translation here and I have many complaints. Maybe it’s fair to point out that the times someone paid me to do a translation can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and still have fingers left over. That doesn’t mean I don’t translate, it just means I am incredibly unfamiliar with the pressures of translation from a practical point of view.
But, as I said, I do translate, almost every day, and in various genres, like I am currently doing small translations of Marcel Schwob’s prose pieces. I like to call what I do “translating for writing” and it’s the same thing, though on a less competent level, what writers like Robert Lowell did. Lowell translated the poetry in Imitations in order to break through a block in his own writing. Now, I don’t have writing blocks per se, but I do translate in order to play with my words and to defamiliarize my syntax and metaphor routines.
Recently, I was thinking about this and I think the term “translating for writing” fits it very well. I borrowed the term from the very brilliant linguist Dan Slobin, who, a few years back, offered a weak version of Sapir-Whorf that he called “thinking for speaking” – meaning, our language does not influence our thinking maybe, but when we think in order to speak, the kind of language we speak does influence and shape our thought. I think my translations that result from the process are not “good” translations – they are shaped by my ideas about writing and not by the author’s ideas about writing, beyond what’s on the page.
As a teenager, like many well read obnoxious male teenage poets, my poetry writing became increasingly Celan-y, to the point where I mastered a certain epigonal idiom fairly well. It was then that I decided to interrupt my routines by translating dozens of poems by Creeley, an objectivist American poet. And I think it helped me develop a certain personal idiom. I have since gone back to this well again and again – not Creeley specifically, but the process of translation.
I write every day, but I also translate almost every day, and in a way, it helps me stay sane sometimes. But since I do so much “translating for writing” sometimes I worry it skews my judgment of professional translators who provide the books in all the languages I cannot read (and they are many because I am terrible). But in some sense, translating other people’s writing is, for me, not just the best way to understand their writing, but also my own.
I mean this may be old news for you, but I had somehow missed it! Rummelplatz, a messy but exciting novel, has been translated into English and published by, who else? Seagull Books. Here is my review which dates all the way back to 2011. YOU WANT TO READ THIS BOOK, trust me. I cannot speak to the quality of the translation, but here is my summary of the book from my review:
My grandfather, who worked in various mines in the area that Rummelplatz is set in remembers a time of excitement, of hopes, of possibilities. Workers often felt empowered, and skill was often more respected than seniority or clout. This is the time that Bräunig portrays and this is the energy that suffuses this incredible book. There are countless flaws, inconsistencies etc. in it, but it’s only a draft, after all, never readied for publication. Bräunig may not one of the great writers of his time. But he could have been, and that is not an overstatement. This book brims with talent. Rummelplatz has similarities to books by writers like Anna Seghers and is historically fascinating, but above all, it’s a feast of a book.
Translated by Samuel P. Willcocks
544 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2015
The German List
So I know it is Women In Translation Month and yet I may not get round to reading/reviewing a woman in translation. So instead I offer a translation. This is the first section/chapter of an untranslated but very interesting little novel about Jewishness, the Shoah, addiction and other light topics. It’s called Die radioaktive Marmelade meiner Großmutter (~ My Grandmother’s radioactive marmalade), and its author is novelist, poet and journalist Ramona Ambs.
Some people are born as junkies. They’ve always been addicted – to life and love. Addicted to home or at least addicted to a sense of security. Maybe addicted to a pink rabbit…a pink rabbit that feels like being alive…or something like it.
When Hitler stole pink rabbit, I hadn’t yet existed. And me, personally, I didn’t actually have a pink rabbit. I once had a green hippopotamus. To be more exact: I still have it. I never lost it. It is a very pretty green hippopotamus, if you must know.
Nevertheless, I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve been cheated of a pink rabbit. And that’s not the only thing I was deprived of: a whole large room full of toys.
A room full of wooden toy trains, books, a colorful carpet and a rocking horse. It would have been a room, in which people would have laughed a lot, simply because there were so many toys and in a room like that it’s easy to be loving and gentle to one another.
But that room has never existed, because when you fled Hitler, there was no way to squeeze a whole kid’s bedroom into hurriedly packed suitcases. And where there were no bedrooms, there would of course later also be no memories of them. And where there are no memories you can draw on, everything has to be invented from scratch.
That’s why my grandmother spends a lot of time in my bedroom. She looks at my toys and caresses them like a wonderful new treasure. I am not allowed to really play with my toys.
“They’ll break if you’re not careful!” she says, giving me a look of reproach with her big sad eyes which make you feel like a big ol’ heartless oaf.
Look, I’m sure if she’d had her own bedroom with toys, and if she’d been allowed a childhood in that bedroom, she would have let me to properly play with my own toys, but as it turned out, Hitler’s theft has mucked up my own childhood as well. At least my grandmother loved me, despite my occasional heartless oaf tendencies.