The Art and Craft of Translation

‘Translating a text which is close to being unreadable in the original is a paradoxical but not particularly difficult task, since ordinary readability is hardly an issue’. (David Bellos, introduction to Georges Perec’s the art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise)

Two Translations

Following up on last week’s Y Yippo discussion, I came across the following sentence in Huwam’s review:

This calculation would seem to have been made after the success of Yippo’s third novel, published last year in Turkey, but yet to be translated (the title roughly translates as ‘Why I am Slightly Smaller Than You Think I Am’)…

Which leads us, of course, to the question of whether Yippo’s new novel remains in the giant pile of the un-translated. And the answer? In short, no. To be more exact (god bless exactitude!) there has been some debate over who owns the rights to the English publication, with two rival publishing houses having produced a translation, which neither is confident enough to publish. How did things get so complicated? No one really knows. What we do know is that the original deal was managed by Yippo’s ex-agent, Thomas Bola. The less said about Bola the better (though I should state that, as things stand, the man is ‘missing’).

Result of the above: the book remains un-published. An interesting side-note, however, is that the publishing houses in question have both come up with different translations of the title. One goes for In Which My Size is Explained; the other for My Smallness; Your Tallness. Huwam’s suggestion (noted above) has been strangely overlooked.

Hector Spinkel/Louise Margreta (Pet’s Corner No.3)

As we all know, professional eccentric Hector Spinkel (see here) owned a Bornean Whoolah Bird. This bird was trained to ‘recite “scientific” speeches’, which it did so dutifully, without so much as a shadow of an idea of what it was squawking on about. Off the cuff comments there were none: the bird knew three speeches, and this was all. It could not answer questions, or respond wittily to interruptions. It was, essentially, a living tape recorder.

Talking of ‘living tape-recorders’, I believe this same analogy was employed by Swiss writer Louise Margrêta when questioned over her own relationship with the animal kingdom. In this case, however, it was she that was the recorder – and not the animals. ‘I am a device through which animals speak,’ said Margrêta, memorably: ‘I have no creative talents whatsoever, beyond the ability to record what others have created’.

Others, in this case, referred exclusively to non-human creatures, whose ‘stories’ were collected in her 1997 work, Translations: an unforgettable compendium of absorbing, moving and frequently amusing narratives. Most critics credit Margrêta for the quality of the book, but she is loath to take it. ‘These stories were written by my pets,’ she wrote in the preface, going on to describe, in slightly tedious detail, the personal histories of said scribes, amongst whom we find four cats, three pigs, two dogs, two sheep, a horse, a cow, a goat and a nightingale. Later, with more grace, she recounts the manifold difficulties of her ‘art-form’. ‘Anyone who has attempted to transcribe a moo, a meeow and an oink will understand me when I say that it is a rather complex affair. Rather complex indeed’.

Well, yes: ‘indeed’ is probably the right word.

Mysterious Telegrams (2)

Picking up on yesterday’s postage: whatever could have provoked an able-minded thinker such as Johannes Speyer to send a seemingly absurd telegram to the equally-significant sage Michael von Stürker? ‘Butter gone rancid. Off to the docks’, read the strange message in question, sent in early 1973 from a personal telegraph machine given to Speyer by a lady who went by the name of Joy (though her actual name was Hephzibah). Oh yes indeed, Speyer personally owned a telegraph machine: on its own an interesting fact, make no bones about it – but, more importantly, why send missives to von Stürker, and why this particular one?

For years it puzzled; and even now sense oozes only slowly from the set of facts we find before us. Speyer and Michael von Stürker were not the best of friends, but for some years (four, to be exact), they did get along relatively well. During these four years they quite often communicated, sometimes by letters, sometimes by the telephone – but most often by telegram. For yes: von Stürker too owned a telegraph machine, which he used for two purposes only – petty flirtation with girls in their early twenties, and messages to Johannes Speyer.

If Speyer’s telegrams tended to lean against the queer cliff of absurdity, the same could certainly be said of von Stürker’s. I will not, can not list them all, but here are a couple of choice examples: ‘Fourteen eagles. I run merrily’ and ‘The egg is canned. Callous jaws collapse’. Intriguing, no? What a weird way for two middle-aged academics to communicate.

Or is it? Not when you realise that Speyer and von Stürker shared a passion for two particular things: early seventeenth century Japanese poetry – and the idea that art should be filtered through unfamiliar mediums (an idea which led Speyer, eventually, to the concept of Active Reading).

Aha. Now it all becomes clear, does it not? These peculiar telegrams are, in fact, poems translated. Or to be more exact, the poems of one Kokimizu Ishu (1681 – 1739), translated into English from the Japanese, by Speyer and von Stürker, friendly competitors in the complex art of Ishu translation. I say competitors: it is interesting to note how many of the telegrams sent between these two appear to represent the same poem. Consider the following from von Stürker: ‘It has become cheese. To the harbour I fly’. Surely a correction of Speyer’s ‘Butter gone rancid. Off to the docks’?

Perhaps this explains why their friendship finally fell apart – and why the ‘Ishu Telegram Project’ never got further than a series of retrospectively curious messages representing a fascinating attempt by two great writers to resurrect interest in a Japanese poet who was, and remains, sadly forgotten. Or perhaps it was something else entirely…

Stripping Style

For those who care about such things, the second novel by the Lauserre brothers will be published, in French, at the end of next month (otherwise known as September).

This, as these things go, is somewhat of a big thing. Not massive, mind you, but big. Which is to say it isn’t a blue whale of a thing, or even an elephant of a thing, but neither is it a dormouse of a thing. It’s a sort of portly buffalo of a thing, if you can imagine that. I could say ‘obese bison’ if that makes it any easier. Or even ‘fat cow-like creature’. Yes? No? All right.

Having cleared up the size of the news, let’s consider the news itself. Those who know anything about the Lauserre brothers will know that their books take a long time to write, which explains the nine year gap between this work (named, I believe, The Scent of Lime) and their 2000 debut, We Are Bread. Not bad work when you consider the fact that the novel was written three times over during this period. Firstly, in French, by Philippe Lauserre; secondly, translated into English, by Louis Lauserre; and thirdly, translated back into French by Matthias Lauserre. A three-part editing process in which each brother plays a crucial role, led from the front by Philippe, the conceiver, but controlled in no small part by Louis and Matthias, whose textual transformations recast the story, twice, adding as they do a subtle sprinkling of their own personalities.

It’s a strange way to work – and who’s to say it’s the best way? After all, we never get to read the first two versions. When the English translation appears, it won’t be Louis’, but a translation of Matthias’ French version. The novel, as written by Philippe and Louis, is burnt. It is, they say, ‘meaningless’: a means to an end. They put their faith in Matthias, the youngest brother, to carry the story through to its final form.

When I say ‘put their faith’, I really do mean this. People think of the Lauserre brothers as a team, which is in many ways correct. However, in so far as it goes, they don’t work alongside each other. When they write, they don’t seek advice from one another. In fact, they don’t even talk to one another. When Philippe passes on the manuscript to Louis, Louis has no idea what it contains, likewise when Matthias receives it from Louis. Whilst working on their translations, Louis and Matthias never go back to Philippe, or turn to each other, at any point in the procedure. Matthias never reads Philippe’s manuscript: he takes his cue from Louis – and does his bit alone.

The obvious question leaps like a salmon from the dribbling stream of our thoughts. What is the point of all of this? The truth is, it’s hard to say. Since we never know how Philippe’s story differs from Matthias’ story, we can’t say what is gained, or lost, in the somewhat tortuous process. All we can say is that the brothers themselves believe that this is the best way of working. Although Matthias will never see Philippe’s novel, Philippe will always see Matthias’, for this is the version that will be published. This is the book. And Philippe is never less than confident that Matthias’ version (or the version) is far superior to his own. ‘Sure,’ he says, ‘I may create the story. The characters, the plot, the essential mood of the book is mine. Maybe even some of the style. But at the same time, much is stripped away. Not chapters, not sentences, not anything of any size. And yet everything changes, everything shifts. And this shift is for the good.’

Questioned as to whether he is ever disappointed, even slightly, by the final result, he is adamant. ‘My style is stripped in the translations. It is washed in the machine of my brothers’ minds. This is as it should be. Oh yes it is’.

Quite, Quite Mad

‘Poetry? Translated? You must be joking! Poetry can’t be translated. A great poem consists of a particular line-up of words in a particular order. This it can only be. Those words alone. Translated?! Never. It goes against the spirit of the entire thing. You are quite, quite mad’ (Doris Boshchov)

So said my wife, many years ago. And so she repeats today, bravely going in the face of, well, a large part of my career. And I’d be a fool to suggest that she isn’t right. On the other hand, have you ever tried to read Lithuanian?

Translation is, perhaps, the wrong word. It’s altogether too confident. Its meaning has been saturated by decades of ignorance. ‘Version’, maybe, might suit the situation a little better. A translator presents us with their ‘version’ of events. Make no bones about it. This is not the original.

Whilst we’re sailing on the warm seas of this subject, it will have come to some of your attentions that the British Broadcasting Corporation are having some sort of poetry season at present. Bless them. Unfortunately, the frowning hawk of rumour informs me that a one hour programme on the Bulgarian Farm Poets Movement, presented by the red-haired girl from musical combo ‘Girl’s Aloud’ (some sort of skiffle group, if my memory serves me correctly) has been cancelled. Very sad news that. If there’s one thing that Britain needs at the moment, it is to hear more about Tomas Lurgsy and the gang. Maybe those musical girls could bring some of their poetry into their songs?

Tufted Ears

In the comments to the post below, Domino unwittingly (or perhaps quite purposefully) stumbled upon a motif from a poem by Ivan Basiuk. I refer of course to his 1968 work Now Thank We All The Gods For The Squirrel’s Tufted Ears. Unfortunately this is among the large pile of Basiuk’s work which has never been translated, but I have asked my wife to work on a line or two from the thirty-seventh (and best) stanza, from which I quote:

two flags of hair
waving in the stiff
winds, singing
independence for those
patient May-time

Putting personal loyalty to one side for the moment, I’m not at all sure that this delivers anymore than ten percent of the original text, but it will have to do for now. Trust me when I say that you can really hear the wind blowing through the tufted ears of the squirrel in the Bulgarian version.

(meanwhile, go here for more on Basiuk and the Bulgarian Farm Poets Movement)