In a mountain fastness far, far away, this writer has started watching a film about the late John Berger, "The Art of Looking," (as opposed to the title of his most famous book, Ways of Seeing): the voiceover and narration are rendered in German; Berger speaks in English; in a section about his friendship and collaboration with the Turkish artist and cartoonist, Selçuk Demirel. Demirel speaks in French; just a little later, Berger engages his daughter in French regarding a family photograph and then they both speak in English, she with the slightest of accents; he, with none. And just prior to that last conversation, Berger has spoken of a dream he had in which he discovered a secret, "how to get inside whatever I was looking at…"
In this casual confluence of languages and senses is a synesthesic moment: it is hard not to think about translation and the pleasure of engaging a translated work: the sensation of getting "inside" what it is that you are reading, "inside" in the sense of entering the world the author, with the aid of the translator, has created.
Herein are two interviews of translators, one of a prose translator, Michael Kandel, most known for his translations of Polish philosopher and science fiction writer, Stanislas Lem; and the other, of poet and translator of Turkish poetry, Murat Nemet-Nejat.
These essays are undertaken from the perspective of a curious reader and, for better or for worse, as a writer in only one tongue, English. All references to Kandel's essay and the direct quotes come from an unpaginated copy sent to us by the author.
- Bronwyn Mills
Notes on an Essay by, and Conversations with, Michael Kandel
After I contacting him in preparation for this piece, Michael Kandel, translator of Polish science fiction writer, Stanislas Lem, kindly sent us a copy of a paper he delivered at a translation conference. It will appear at the end of this year as part of a book, tentatively titled, From Translational to Transnational: Literature, Gender, Migration, and published by Central European University Press. The title of his essay, borrowed from that Jazz Age standard, "It Don't Mean A Thing, If It Ain't Got That Swing," only uses the first part of that sentence. I immediately filled in the rest in my head, all the while thinking, aha! exactly! That's the art part. To make it work, you gotta have swing.
Kandel is, it seems, a very modest man. Despite the knowledge that he had translated one of my favorite science fiction writers, Stanislas Lem, and that he edited yet another favorite, Ursula LeGuin's, work, this person was for the life of me quite difficult to picture. So, by email, I posed a few of the more mundane questions, those that supposedly dispell some unfamiliarity:
BM: What is your mother tongue? How many languages do you speak/read/write?
MK: English is the mother. I took French and German in school, then Russian, and as a Russian grad student had to take a second Slavic language: Polish.
MK: (continuing) I tried teaching myself Greek, to read Homer, but failed. I did manage to read War with the Newts in Czech. I know a little biblical Hebrew.
BM: What is your connection with Polish? And with science fiction? While we are at it, just what of Lem have you translated?
MK: Polish was not personal, but just because of grad school. I was a science fiction reader as a kid and growing up, translator of Lem, then editor of a few authors for Harcourt (Lethem, Anthony, Morrow, . . .) then author of a few novels and stories. I've translated Star Diaries, Mortal Engines (including Fables for Robots), His Master's Voice, The Cyberiad, Fiasco, and repaired or redid a few Lem translations (such as Peace on Earth). Every author, every work, every story, and I guess every blessed sentence presents a challenge. It's never the same.
BM: [Thanking Kandel for the copy of his essay.] So how does one get that swing, that you talk about, in translating?
MK: For a translator as for every kind of writer (or artist), the swing comes or doesn't. The Muse, like Lady Luck, is fickle.
Kandel's essay uses a central metaphor to encapuslate "swing": it is not instrumentation, but dance and, at that, not formal ballet or any of the studied terpsichorean efforts that draw a distinct line between dancer and audience. No, this is participatory. It is boogie-woogie; and in times past if you could boogie, you were unquestionably cool and so, probably, were your friends and acquaintances. You also probably did not learn it by going to class. However, Kandel does make a classroom analogy, and states, essentially, that practicing, studying, trying hard is no guarantee that the outcome
when you get on your feet and start moving, will be boogie-woogie…. People bump and grind and twist on a
dance floor, and yet many of them remain, for all their honest effort and physical competence, chaste.
Chaste—what at interesting choice of words! Nothing of the mother tongue nor the bastard "target language" sullies that translation, no color as Berger might say, not much except a mathematical semantic precision. His use of Chaste seems to signify a spotlessness, a gritlessness, of a translation made with all the best intentions, a "fearful translator," clinging to his or her virginity, who gives word for word and says,
“Don’t blame me; this is what the author said.” A fearful editor sees to spelling and punctuation but looks the other
way at every solecism, malapropism, and other kind of writerly embarrassment. Both servants are useless—and
thereby actually show less respect to their master.
And that describes "a fearful translator." With no swing, this translator is merely, as Kandel says elsewhere, a "fastidious accountant of this word for that."
Yet it may not be so simple. Like John Berger's claim that we see as our culture trains us to see, perhaps our reading sustains certain kinds of conditioning—and conditioned omissions—as well. In "Don't Mean a Thing," Kandel remarks that when he was growing up, he read Dostoevsky as translated by Constance Garnett in a "vaguely Victorian style"; and he further recalls that when he was able to read him in the original Russian, he found the work "not so fevered; [the] sentences made more sense….the effect was less fantastic, less poetic. This was not my Dostoevsky."
One might ask, what—or who—was Kandel's Dostoyevsky? Reading is such a private activity: like a dog with a bone, we pick up a book and go off somewhere alone to enjoy it. In spite of all the nonsense that the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed designers of reading apps do—"share?" "X number of people highlighted the same thing you did," etc.—one does not really share until after one has read the passage, the chapter, and/or the book and certainly not on such a cold, anonymous level. And would it be going too far to say that, on rare occasion, one person's translation may be another's abomination? Finally, just as the movie version of a book—that's not my War and Peace! that's not my Father Brown—can disappoint, so too can a different translation or the later-read original of a written work.
Here's the rub which Kandel also underscores: the difficulty of the translator not being seduced into departing too far from context simply for the sake of making a text more accessible. One might even ask if accessibility alone is a worthy goal. Kandel cites the example of Crime and Punishment, where Raskolnikov, right after he committs his horrendous murder, is described with a Russian word derrived from a word meaning "to get drunk." McDuff, a British translator, notes the use of резать, the basis of that Russian word which also means, "to cut"; and McDuff "uses an expression, possibly British, although Benjamin Franklin included it in his catalog of synonyms for being drunk, that is unfamiliar to most of us: “cut” (or “half-cut”)." Subtleties are lost, Kandel tells us; for there is a darker side to the verb than in various choices of English slang for lurching out onto the street well pickled. The Russian carries the implication of suicide. In short, using "a universalizing approach to our conceptualization of literary translation" blurs some necessary nuances. That is not always a good thing.
BM: I have posed this question before and now I'd like to know from you: so what is it that excites us about work transported from another language? I kept hearing it's culture, not language, as an explanation being bandied about; but—for example—if one keeps a word in the original language, some feel it is "exoticism," "orientalism," etc. I have also observed attempts to make the original language/culture (??) sound as "hip" or "modern" as the US—or its stereotype.
MK: It all depends what your purpose is, what your audience is. In some contexts, I'm right (recreate the original for your readers); in some cases, [Lawrence] Venuti is right (don't Americanize, don't imperialize, respect the otherness, etc.). As for excitement, it's impossible to be analytical. When lust strikes, the eyes go out of focus and the jaw drops.
BM: I am tempted to push the jazz analogy a little further, as one of the known factors of that genre is its tendency to improvise. I am thinking of something I once heard that Dizzy Gillespie was supposed to have said regarding his improvising in the midst of a jazz standard: you can go all over the map with your musical riff so long as you come back to the original note. Can one
riff in translation?
MK: Nice metaphor, capturing the freedom of improvisation and the enslaving tether to the original. But most of us think of
riff as freewheeling.
I might argue that point musically, but, in terms of translation the question brings us to yet another dilemma, the difference between fearful translation and semantic agoraphobia and that of sheer invention without proper attention to (respect for?) the original. The tether, in other words, becomes a tightrope; and there is only so much boogie woogie one can do on the latter before tipping over. In turn, contemplating where the end of our tether is, leads us to a not-so-obviously related point:
BM: The instance of Christopher Logue… whose War Music has often been cited as the best translation of the Iliad (at least the section he published as such). Word on the street is that he knew no Greek. Can a person who does not know the language really "translate" from a pony?
MK: There have been husband-and-wife teams (typically the wife is the native speaker, the husband the writer who doesn't know her language) producing very successful translations. There's no formula. You might consider that sometimes the language of literature is more relevant than the language of language. (Burton Raffel has translated from a pony, I believe, and he is respected.)
Kandel's phrase, "language of literature" as opposed to "the language of language" is a striking one; and once more exemplifies the dilemma. To be a bit irreverant, one might ask, not how long is the tether, but how short is the leash? If we are talking about literature—and I presume we are—the translator does not want the result to read like a grocery list or a treatise on hard science. Thou shalt not riff. Yet, minus knowledge of the original language is the work a translation or a literary piece based on a close reading of the original, translated by someone else?
Indeed, in his essay Kandel may not allow for freewheeling; but he does allow for what some might call "taking liberties":
I buy and endorse the concept of functional equivalence: that the goal should be to communicate the result, not the
cause; convey the spirit, not the letter. If a work is funny, let its translation be funny. Explaining a joke either by adding
words in text or by using a footnote may enlighten students, readers, about a time and place, but humor does not survive
vivisection. Often, when I translated Lem, I came upon a joke that absolutely could not be conveyed; my response was to
dodge the obstacle, to fudge by creating a different but comparable joke, either in the line or passage itself or on the next or previous page. In this strategy, you are faithful through betrayal.
Communicating with Kandel, one gets the impression that there are no definitive answers to many of these questions.
MK: Often the context is the whole work. I get one essay that suddenly, unexpectedly has a chatty aside, which doesn't go with anything else: so it's a misstep. Another essay is filled with chatty asides. The frame makes all the difference.
And the context for a translation can be, also, obviously, the original.
BM: I've read so many workmanlike translations that just don't read so well in the target language. You get the meaning, but you don't get—sorry—the oomph-pah-pah. No swing. No magic.
I guess what I am struggling to get at is where one draws that thin line between fidelity to the work and fidelity to the "language of literature" in one's own tongue (the target language,) getting at the problem of translation from yet another angle. Maybe that's a writer's question, but I was visiting Eduardo Galeano when he showed me the inspiration for his Las Palabras Andantes (Walking Words); and I will never forget how he reached behind him to pull out some of the stories on a string he had collected in Brazil and which inspired the book—they smelled of cigarette smoke, of spilled coffee and cheap wine, of human sweat: by the time the book was translated it had no odor at all.
KM: I think that the message is, this is not nohow an intellectual activity. As my tai chi teacher says, "Get out of your head."
In fact, in "It Don't Mean a Thing," Kandel cautions us that,
A good translator, like a good critic, must grasp the special essence—personality of a work and then decide which tools are
needed to render it and which aspects of that work are secondary or peripheral and can be jettisoned. I accept the
inevitability of triage, the idea that translation is an act not only of interpretation but also of selection. Not everything can
be carried across the barrier.
Thus, just as it is we who have taught or are teaching writing keep telling our students about good writing, audience and purpose, as Kandel rightly insists, must guide good translation as well as those instinctive and inexplicable moves that, miraculously, seem just right:
I believe that literary translation is a practical, personal activity, not something that can be learned by acquiring an
all-purpose set of skills or taught by listing principles, though of course a skill or a principle acquired secondhand can be
helpful to one in the trenches. As any art, translation works—or doesn’t work—for a variety of reasons that are outside our
control and ultimately may not be articulable. As any other art, but perhaps more than any other art, it can be humbling.
The good news is that the position of translator was humble from the start: if you’re low to the ground, your fall will not
(Next: see our interview, II. On translation: Nemet-Nejat)