"Glory Is a Drag" [ALTA Conference]
OK, so I may have cocked up the title of yesterday’s ALTA post—my typing/hearing skills are pretty suspect . . . It should’ve read “Short Stop Only While Getting It Off,” although “short drop” might be a bit more, um, dirty—but I’m positive I have today’s right.
It actually came from John Nathan’s plenary lecture “Translating Style,” which was an extremely interesting and engaging presentation about the difficulties of capturing the author’s voice when translating Japanese literature. Anyway, the title of the first Mishima book that Nathan translated can be literally translated as “Tugging in the Afternoon,” but the Japanese word for “glory” is homonym for “tugging,” a bit of word play that would totally be lost in English. So instead, Nathan suggested “Glory Is a Drag,” which didn’t go over too well . . . Eventually—thanks to Mishima’s ability to come up with dozens of great titles—the book came to be known as The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea.
Anyone who reads this blog or thinks about/is involved with literary translation knows that this sort of bold departure is rather common. Translators are always faced with difficult choices—whether to cling to the original or cut and compensate in the target language, how to translate dialects, etc.—and it’s the way that great translators solve these questions through their great skill, imagination, and understanding of the literary art that makes them Great Translators in the first place.
Suzanne Jill Levine’s The Subversive Scribe is dedicated to exactly this. The first event I attended at ALTA was a special session in honor of Dalkey Archive’s recent reissue of this collection. (Unfortunately, none of the editors from Dalkey attended ALTA, although I did have a chance to meet the very cool Jamie Richards, who is one of the current translation fellows.) A lot of interesting things came up on this panel that sort of highlight what it is that I really love about translators and ALTA as a whole.
A lot of the discussion revolved around the idea that the translator is responsible for “recreating the reader’s relationship with the text.” In contrast to more academic activities and papers in which the professor tries to enact a fake sort of “critical distance” from the text they’re discussing, Jill (and translators as a whole) are much more personally engaged with the book. Aside from those instances in which loaded independent publishers use our enormous wealth to convince a translator to take on a project they’re not interested in (something that happens, well, like, never), translators work on books that they love. And they translate because they want to share that love with others who can’t experience the pleasure of reading the book in its original language.
One of the more fruitful metaphors to apply to the process of translation is to talk about it as a performance. That the original text is like a musical score and the translator the musician who jazzily reproduces the original in a new form. Obviously, there are many valid ways to “play” a text, and the art of the translator is being able to nail those verbal runs and bring the new set of readers into the author’s amazing world.
Which means that a translator has to be pretty damn creative. (Not to mention extremely talented. That’s why I’m just as in awe of great translators as I am of great authors.) And that’s sort of what Jill was getting at with her use of the word “subversive.” It’s not that she was sowing the seeds of revolution (although why not?) but pointing to the fact that translation is a creative process. That subversion = creativity. (Leading to an awesome quote about her relationship with the person who translated The Subversive Scribe into Spanish: “I was subverting him while he was subverting me.”)
(Sidenote for all who were there: I totally agree with the very awesome Erica Mena who objected to the comment that young translators have to spend a couple decades—couple decades?—practicing before they perform in this way. It’s always good to try these things with a partner, but it’s important for young translators to approach this as an enjoyable, playful, creative act. And that they should mature in the tradition of translation as jazz performance—it’ll only pay of bigger dividends in the long run.)
One of the more disheartening stories of ALTA revolved around Jose Lezama Lima’s Oppiano Licario. On a panel about Cuba, Pam Carmell—who received a NEA Translation Fellowship for her work on this translation—talked about why she translated Lezama Lima’s baroque masterpiece in the way that she did. That she made very conscious decisions to retain the baroque, stuffed, labyrinthine sentence structure of the original, instead of simplifying and boiling the book down to its basic plot structure. What I’ve seen of her translation is beautiful, and as a fan of Paradiso, I’d LOVE to read this . . . but, alas, the publisher didn’t quite agree with Pam’s approach and apparently this book is either never coming out, or is being retranslated into something that’s “easier” to understand. . . . And yes, I do know more about this particular situation, but I honestly can’t write about it here . . .
Anyway, tomorrow I’ll write a bit about Ilan Stavan’s plenary speech, which irritated me in the way that Malcolm Gladwell irritates me . . .