Saturday, February 2, 2008

Lost in Translation

From time to time during my recent reading of Bernhart Schlink's new novel, Homecoming, I would set the book down to dwell on implications set before me in the text, which is to say I would compare my responses to those of the narrator and the individuals he interacted with, his relationships with and feelings toward them, his goals, his passions. As I read along, it was clear to me that the principal narrative voice was European, had European experiences, and European attitudes. None of these things kept me from feeling a bond with if not an empathy for the principal narrative voice. Because of the insightfulness and clarity of the narrative voice, I could relate to him and his needs in much the same way I, a childless male, could relate to yet another European, fellow name of Lear.

In equal easure, from time to time, it was not lost on me that Schlink's native language is German, that he wrote in German, indeed that his German text had been translated. By more counts than I find relevant to list here, the translation performed an admirable rendering of the issues and ambiguities involved. The translator, by my estimation, walked that lovely cusp between Ezra Pound's instructions for translation and Mark Twain's admonition for "the right word" and his pejorative intent against "it's second cousin."

I am not a complete stranger to translation, more a matter of qualification than a need for specifics here. Nor am I unaware of the Italian trope traditore traitore, he/she who translates me betrays my intent. All the more reason, as someone who sets foot on university grounds to encourage, lecture, and otherwise direct students, to consider a major intent of deconstructionism as a literary tool--to divorce the author from the text, to let the text speak for itself. (Although I have some emotional and theoretical grievances with deconstruction theory, I must admit that at an earlier age, still an age where I sought the notion of writing as the key to my professional life, I was unknowingly a deconstructionist. Digressio to continue: Then I became by degrees a Marxist, a modernist, a post-modernist--all without consciously being aware of such things until I was assigned classes in literary criticism.)

Back to present time again, and whatever I have evolved to: The translator is the 2008 equivalent of Odysseus returning home, of the hero/heroine on a journey or quest, of Don Quixote, seeing George W. Bush behind every windmill. In his or her hands is a responsibility of doing the equivalent for readers of what Robert Kennedy did in the less affluent sections of Indianapolis after Martin Luther King had been assassinated. That particular word, assassinated, is a good case in point; I use it with the intent of dignifying MLK and his legacy. I could just as well have said he was murdered and some unknown-to-me cyber translator would render it in, say, Spanish, as murder just as well as assassination. Dead is dead, dignifying it does not make it any less irrevocable. So how is my theoretical translator supposed to know my intent? In some ways, it is a no-win situation. If I say Dr. King was assassinated, am I not trying to use euphemism to cover up racial insensitivity and madness by a pussyfoot word? If I say Dr. King was murdered, do I undercut the very cause I appreciate?

As a writer, editor, and teacher of writing and editing, I am bathed in the American version of the English language. I read and admire English writers, but have had occasion to consult Brit friends for nuances, thus even a translation from American to English is risky and indeed, if you were to ask for a torta in a Mexican restaurant you would expect to be served a sandwich; the same order in Spain would bring you an omelette or scarmbled eggs. American or Brit, you could look at some length for useful and resonant instructions on writing than George Orwell even though, as an American, you might find those instructions available from, in rverse chronology, Kurt Vonnegut, E. B. White, and Mark Twain.

Decisions, decisions, decisions; the holy trinity for the translator, his or her version of the mantra location, location, location. A translator has decisions to make, is in many ways the quintessential John Le Carre spy-narrator, George Smiley. Indeed, Le Carre's real name is not Le Carre.

Nothing is as it seems, thus What's a writer to do? Where does the writer start? How does the translator support that vision?

A translator is the politician write large, he or she entertains enormous risks, wields enormous power, and the lovely irony is that as much as we who love to write and to read continue our love of writing and reading, we are aware of the irony that few care. What matter if a translator is lost along the way, whether by IED, the Writers' Guild strike, or a troglodyte school board? And thus the translator emerges as the marginal man or woman of our time because, as Ezra Pound put it "...all things are flowing/Sage Heraclitus says/and a tawdry cheapness shall outlast all our days..."

So how will you bring a translator to story in light of all this?

Remember, the contract on the Cro-Magnon project is signed and in process; mayhap it will trigger a look to the distant past to bring the metaphor of the translator to a point where there is some moral risk, some reason for caring.

Maybe the translator becomes yet another kind of Sam Spade or Philip Marlow or V I Warshawsky.

Quien sabe?

Quel giorno piu, non vi leggiamo avanti.

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