This article is a transcript of a presentation Esther Allen gave at Boston University on Friday, February 22, 2013. Click here for Part I.
For the reader of the original text, the book’s origin in the Spanish-speaking world is evident in its every word and requires no further emphasis. As its translator into English, my overwhelming primary allegiance was to the Spanish language. If readers of the English translation were allowed to forget that the book was first written in Spanish—not Russian or English—and was translated from Spanish—not Russian—the book risked being denatured, stripped of all the historic and cultural meaning that derives from the specific language in which it was first written.
The translation therefore explicitly sought to emphasize the Spanish-ness of this text about Russia, but in a way that did not undermine the original’s will to leave its Latin American origins in the deep background. Keeping certain words or phrases in the source language, always an option, here became an imperative, and the English retains as much Spanish as I felt was possible. No longer the language of the text itself, Spanish becomes a key element in its polyglossia.
Another feature of the text that is present, but kept very much in the background in the original text, is its meditation on translation. The 1998 Encyclopedia concludes with the following line:
Lleno de vida hoy, compacto, visible (Whitman). (Lleno de vida hoy, compacto, visible) Yo.
The repetition already indicates that this is translation of a sort; in the first iteration, it is a line by Whitman; in the second, the line is claimed by the narrator, recontextualized into his own life experience. The fact that both iterations are in Spanish disguises the element of translation. A translator into Chinese or Russian could do the same, repeating the line twice in its Chinese or Russian version. But the translator into Whitman’s own language doesn’t have that option. What was more, this was a chance to conclude the novel with a final reminder of its Spanishness by offering the narrator’s Spanish version of Whitman as a translation.
Full of life now, compact, visible (Whitman). (Lleno de vida hoy, compacto, visible.) Me.
This solution struck me as perfect, but entrained a whole set of consequences. If the imperative of alphabetical order and the need to re-emphasize the original language was requiring me to position a source text alongside its translation here and in many of the headwords such as Pasarela, (which in my translation is followed by the English Catwalk in parentheses), the tacit theme of translation which those solutions made explicit had to become more explicit throughout—by positioning the source texts of all the Encyclopedia’s myriad citations alongside their translation into English. For if this had to be done with translations between English and Spanish (one of the less important language pairings within the polyglossia of this text), then it had to be done with all the other languages as well. When I first discussed this option with José, he resisted it, and with good reason. He worried that marking the text’s polyglossia so strongly, including citations in seven different languages, would alienate potential Anglophone readers, striking them as off-puttingly pretentious or academic. He was also laudably concerned that the incorporation of so many languages would appear to constitute a claim to fluency in all of them—a claim that neither he nor I could honestly make. He didn’t want to seem like a fraud.
The first of his objections would quite likely have been valid if this translation had been published at the same time or within a year or two of the original 1998 text. However, my sense is that over the course of the past two decades and especially in the past five years, multilingualism has acquired a marked cachet in the Anglophone urban literary sphere that is likely to take interest in this kind of novel. For examples, I’ll point out the increased use of foreign language dialogue with subtitles in Hollywood blockbuster films (of which the recent films by Quentin Tarrantino that include the Austrian actor Christoph Waltz are an instance), the rise of a foodie culture with its highly polyglot vocabulary, the increased popularity of yoga with its constant use of Sanskrit, the surging success of web-based language learning sites such as Rosetta Stone, LiveMocha, Babbel. For those readers of the Encyclopedia with some understanding of one or more of its source languages, their incorporation into the translation could only enhance the experience of the novel. And for those who understand only the English, the visible presence of those alien words on the page would constitute a kind of pictorial illustration of the confrontation with a foreign system of meaning that is the book’s fundamental subject matter.
To enhance this sense of “foreign language as illustration” I wanted to include as little transliteration as possible, but use original scripts for all source texts. This meant, first and foremost, offering Russian words and passages in Cyrillic, and including transliteration only when the words’ sound value could add some dimension of meaning or rhythm to the visual impact of the Cyrillic letters. I quickly realized there was an additional feature of the text that motivated my sense that this was necessary. The Encyclopedia includes many reflections on recent innovations in printing technology—recent in the mid-90s—such as the scanner, the e-book, and advances in word-processing technology that were eliminating the distinction between manuscript and published text. In the two decades following that first publication, those advances have made it as easy to include the Cyrillic alphabet in a publication as it is to change a text’s font on a computer screen. Low-tech, old-fashioned transliteration would have belied the novel’s own claim to expertise in the cutting edge of printing technology.
This left me with a big headache. For the logic that dictated the inclusion of the Cyrillic, which José could supply, dictated the inclusion of the original Japanese and Hebrew texts in their respective writing systems as well, and that was a far more daunting challenge in which, fortunately, several friends who speak those languages very generously came to my assistance.
I ultimately persuaded José to go along with this adventure in polyglossia and include all the source texts by reminding him that translations are often published bilingually. Our narrator, I argued, is not claiming to be fluent in seven or more languages. Rather he is fascinated by language and likes to read books in bilingual editions, his eye often straying to the facing page. In other words, for the narrator, too, as for the monolingual Anglophone reader, many of the source languages are little more than pictorial illustrations of the foreign. With José’s permission, I made this explicit in the English version by adding the following phrase, in parenthesis, to a meditation on the unknowable nature of the material world and the closed cycle of cultures that appears under the headword Sea Sirens:
(the unfathomable original, there on the open page, that does not cease to trouble us as we read through its translation)
The English version of the Encyclopedia came out in January, and I must say that so far my the various intentions I’ve mentioned here—to foreground the text’s Spanishness, heighten its polyglossia, and make its meditation on translation more explicit—have been entirely ignored by reviewers and readers. None of the articles I’ve read or the readers I’ve discussed the book with have assessed it in the context of Latin American literature; none have considered what it has to tell us about translation; only one has even alluded (with considerable irritation) to the presence of source texts in various languages and scripts. Instead, the novel has been connected to various contemporary discussions of remix culture and the Internet, it has been compared to Huysmans’s A Rebours, the accuracy of its depiction of Russian life in the 90s has been debated, etc. A translator’s intentions, it turns out, are as limited in their ability to dictate the ways a text will ultimately be read as an author’s are. I have, however, had one satisfying confirmation of certain of them. The most recent issue of McSweeney’s, edited by Adam Thirlwell and published at almost exactly the same time as the English translation of the Encylopedia, is an astonishing literary romp across a polyglot universe: twelve stories are translated by sixty-one authors into eighteen languages, including Chinese, Arabic, Urdu, and Hebrew, all published in their own scripts. I had no idea that this issue of McSweeney’s was in the works as I was making my decisions about the Encyclopedia—though I do recall defending my notion to include source languages with a line from a book review by Adam Thirlwell in which he spoke of the new possibility of a “reckless internationalism” in the English language. Now that I do know about this issue of McSweeney’s, I’m happy to take it as confirmation of my intentions. In the end, I may decide that I intended it that way.
This article is a transcript of a presentation Esther Allen gave at Boston University on Friday, February 22, 2013.
Earlier this month I was invited to be on a panel about translation at a Brooklyn bookstore. The announcement promised potential audience members they would “Find out what it takes to make sure the meaning of the words that have moved us to laugh, cry and learn new things are delivered the way the author intended.” In the end, the recent blizzard made the event impossible, but even in the absence of heavy snowfall, I would have found it impossible to explain how to translate words “the way the author intended.” For—and note that I say this in the presence of the author himself and have chosen to talk about authorial intent precisely because he is here and can talk back to me—making sure to convey an author’s intentions is not something a translation, any translation, can do.
Authors themselves can tell you that more often than not whatever it was that they intended when they wrote something was ignored by readers or forgotten and replaced by a different and shifting set of intentions even in their own minds once the piece was published or in the years following its composition. (Mónica de la Torre has a lovely article titled “Unreliable self-translation” in Translation Review 81 which describes how difficult it is for the author herself to divine the author’s intentions when she switches into the role of translator.) In the case we’re discussing here, many of the most prominent features of José Manuel Prieto’s work—the extensive use of citations and intertextual references, the recurrent theme of literary production as mash-up, remix and commentary, and the use of constraints such as the encyclopedia format of the novel we’re here to discuss today—seem, well, intended, to mount a direct challenge to the idea that a book consists merely of what its author intended. Words derive much of their meaning from their context, as Prieto superbly demonstrates in the essay on Mandelstam’s “Epigram Against Stalin” that we circulated in anticipation of today’s conversation, and the intentions of those who enunciate them form only a small part of that context, particularly as the moment of enunciation recedes into the past. Prieto himself is a translator, and his work is informed by a strong sense of the ambiguous and perennially shifting nature of semantic meaning. But not every writer has that sense. A dispute flared up last year between the playwright Edward Albee and his Catalan translator, Joan Sellent, after Albee demanded that Sellent account, in a five-column grid, for “any deviation from the exact English words and the explanation why this couldn’t be directly translated into Spanish [sic], and why the words that were chosen were used.” (For more info on the spat, I refer all of you to this piece from the marvelous blog Translationista where Susan Bernofsky catalogues and comments on the translation news of the moment.)
As I pondered the most challenging problems I confronted when translating Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia, the intentions of the author, with whom I was in frequent discussion, were only part of a continuum of factors influencing my choices, factors that also included the internal logic of the text itself—which is clearly distinct from an author’s intentions—the transformations wrought upon that logic by the process of translation into another language, the nearly two decades that have elapsed between the book’s original composition and my translation with all the historical, technological and political transformations those two decades have wrought, and my own personal sense of the literary, political and overall cultural context I was translating the text into and which of its features might speak most strongly to that audience.
The particular feature of the Encyclopedia I’ve chosen to discuss today is its polyglossia. I use the term in homage to the great Russian literary historian and theoretician Mikhail Bakhtin, whose work the discipline of translation studies would do well to rediscover. Bakhtin associates what he calls polyglossia with parody as well as with texts that incorporate multiple languages; polyglossia is the opposite of what Bakhtin calls a “sealed off and impermeable monoglossia.” “Only polyglossia,” he writes, “fully frees consciousness from the tyranny of its own language and its own myth of language.”
Prieto’s Encyclopedia de una vida en Rusia, first published in Mexico in 1998, and reissued by the Spanish publisher Mondadori in 2004, exhibits a marked degree of polyglossia. The headwords of its seventy-seven entries are in Spanish, Russian, English, Latin and German, all transliterated into the Latin alphabet. The novel includes citations of Spanish translations of texts originally written in all of those languages, and in Hebrew, French and Japanese, as well. In this novel, and to a greater degree than most other contemporary literary texts I can think of, with the exception of Vassilis Alexakis’s marvelous Foreign Words, the extent to which the language in which one chooses to speak is a central component of the meaning of what one says is illustrated again and again. When the narrator first addresses the book’s heroine in a St. Petersburg park, the concision of her reply to his query makes him think that she is “ya pensando también en inglés” (“already thinking, too, in English”). Towards the end of the book, when she tells him, in English, “Well, I’m going to New York, Joseph” he begs her to speak Russian and not to go to New York. Elsewhere, Russian housewives are infuriated by the sound of the narrator conversing in a language that is not Russian as he passes by in the street, and the fact of mastery or non-mastery of the Russian language is a continuing theme. In one of my favorite moments, the narrator is watching a video that has no sound because the person who recorded it may have neglected to engage the sound button. In the entry that, in my translation as well, appears under the headword Pasarela, the narrator comments,
My lips pronounced a single word three or four times, a word that, when I first watched the video, I couldn’t decipher. Until it dawned on me that I was speaking in Russian. Then I understood: “Horosho” “Horosho” “Horosho” (“Good! Perfect!”).
The Encyclopedia is a text that insistently reminds us of something so obvious we very often forget it: one of the primary and most significant semantic components of any utterance is the selection of the language in which it is uttered. The heroine’s selection of English for her reply to the narrator’s first advance says much about who she is and what her ambitions are, just as the fluent mastery of Russian the Spanish-speaking narrator boasts of in the volume’s first entry tells us a great deal about him. And therein lay the first challenge of my translation. To render into English a text that explicitly rejects its character’s use of English, to take out of Spanish a text about Russia that is of particular interest for the very fact of its having been written in Spanish, is inevitably to depart in a dramatic way from the intentions that lay behind that original 1998 book.
A strong feature of the 1998 Encyclopedia is the paucity of allusion to the Spanish-speaking world and literature written in Spanish. The narrator’s tropical home country is barely mentioned, and in the book’s dense tissue of literary referents, only two have any explicitly Hispanic component—an allusion to Borges and the citation of a guaracha that compares a sexy girl to a sea siren. In interviews and articles, Prieto has often stated that Russian literature has had more of an influence on his work than Latin American literature, and he describes his first three novels as his “Russian trilogy.”
Click here to read Part II.
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