Lost and Found in Translation
Recs & Revs 16
Since this is an entry in the Recs & Revs series, “Recs” standing for “Recommendations,” I’ll take the opportunity to make an unexpected recommendation: a new, monthly two-part series here on planet Vitruvius.
The first part of this new series will be a free post, every four weeks, on Thursdays, titled “A Reader’s Review.” In this monthly review, I will offer summary description, brief comment, and relevant quotation from the best periodical reading I have done over the previous four weeks, including on Substack. I do a lot of it, periodicals of all kinds, literary, philosophical, historical, and pop-cultural – I could go on. For those of my readers who are not yet regular Substack readers but who read only me – and I know that you are out there, not yet Substack habitués – you have no idea the wealth of creative writing, of all kinds, of creative reading and creative responsiveness to the world in writing that the advent of Substack has made available to the reading public.
In that one free post per month, then, I will offer my picks, in changeable categories, according to what I read that month and what I responded to. Will this be a best of what’s out there in the wider world of periodical writing and reading and thinking? Heh. No. Not remotely. Would that I could read so comprehensively. As in all else I write about, the selections will reflect my own not narrow but still individual interests. I do welcome recommendations, however!
Then, on the Monday after that free review of some monthly reading, will follow “A Reader’s Review: A Closer Look.” In that paid subscriber concentration (always with a substantial free portion to start), I’ll explore ideas from one of the selections in the previous Thursday’s review. I’ll dig deeper, think more widely, make connections, take issue and argue – all depending. Today, in fact, offers a kind of preview of the method (though with the days reversed and all free), as one of my recommendations below will be the subject of this Thursday’s essay.
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First, in the February 22 issue of The New York Review of Books, historian David A. Bell offers “An Unlikely Life,” which is sub-headed: “Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is a biopic that manages to omit or distort most of the central elements of Napoleon’s life and career.”
The kind of film I would normally be eager to see based on its subject and my appreciation of actor Joaquin Phoenix, and with due regard for Ridley Scott’s engaging filmmaking skill, I had so far delayed a viewing because of the mixed to negative reviews. I am now not likely ever to lay eyes on it. No, my recommendation is not for the film but the article. Here is how it begins:
Historical fiction, whether written or filmed, has more than a little in common with the art of translation. Like a translation, it can never be entirely faithful to the original source material. In both cases, artistic license is a necessity, not an option. But the nature and extent of the artistic license can vary enormously. There are translations that cleave as closely as possible to the form, the content, and even the sound of the original. At the other end of the spectrum, there are works like Ezra Pound’s Cathay poems: highly loose versions of Chinese verse that he wrote without any knowledge of Chinese, using the notes of the American Orientalist Ernest Fenollosa.
Of course, historical fiction requires a greater degree of artistic license than translations do. Unlike translators, its creators have to select which elements of the source material to use, determine how to arrange them, and offer an interpretation (much like historians themselves). But there is also pressure to remain faithful, for the same reasons that translators want to remain faithful. The most obvious is the appeal of the source material. Real events and personalities are often more gripping and wondrous and strange than those in works of fiction. The further artists move away from them into worlds of their own invention, the greater the danger that they will slide into banality and mediocrity, just as translators risk cheapening profound originals by moving too far away from them. (Not every translator is Ezra Pound.)
Bell goes on to evidence both the petty and the profound ways that Scott distorts the history. To watch Napolean, I conclude, is to view a fiction, as they say, inspired by true events. Such inspiration might be defensible and enjoyable – though not usually distinguished – when not drawn from events and lives well documented and world historical. But the likeness between translation and creating historical fiction is nonetheless striking.
At the heart of the likeness is the matter of respect for the original, the text or historical phenomenon: the reason one would choose to translate or recreate the history in the first place. There are ways in which each endeavor is a simpler one for the recreator than the other. With history, one simply needs to avoid changing and distorting known facts. In translation, in contrast, one faces the inherent and ineradicable problem of where truth even resides in the original text – in literal correspondence of verbal expression (if that’s even possible), in some spirit of the text to be found in sound, sense, and aesthetic effect, or still differently, in some more holistic effect that might be a rationale, for instance, for modernizing the language and diction of a text in order to produce it in a different time and language?
On the other hand, the rationale for translation is obvious — so that those who don’t know the original language may be granted access, as much as possible, to its literary and cultural wealth. What in contrast is the rationale for a historical tale not offered as straight historical account? It isn’t actually the same question, or the same answer, for what we call historical fiction and a traditional film biopic like Napoleon. The Hollywood tradition, in practice, is to pretend filmically to relate history in the manner of creative nonfiction, to apply the creative techniques of fiction to nonfictional narrative. Yet we know this to be a longstanding lie. Rarely do these films adhere to the facts in the face of an array of rationalizing excuses for ignoring them, to tell what is, remarkably, offered up as, we are to understand, a better story than the truth.
Historical fiction in the novel is a different matter. The motivation, from sometimes very great to far lesser degrees, is always to tell the story not contained in, or contained by, the facts: unknown particulars of events, unknown inner lives, the unaccounted details of relationships. Sometimes the historical setting, even personages, are really world-building backdrops to an almost entirely fictional story intended to capture the spirit or reveal some greater truth of the place and age. But unless the theme itself involves altering historical fact for its expression, that kind of distortion isn’t, or shouldn’t be, found in historical fiction, else the very rationale in respect for the original transforms to insult. Ridley Scott, Bell makes clear, couldn’t care less about any of this.
Speaking of translation but moving on, if you enjoy international literature and thinking about the challenges and rewards of translation, you will want to be reading Words Without Borders: The Home for International Literature. According to the WWB website,
Words Without Borders is the premier destination for a global literary conversation. Founded in 2003, our mission is to cultivate global awareness by expanding access to international writing and creating a bridge between readers, writers, and translators.
There is a full educational component, and translators and writers can submit.
Words Without Borders publishes original translations into English of contemporary fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, and interviews, and related multimedia. We also publish critical essays, book reviews, and interviews written in English.
You can subscribe to the newsletter, just like Homo Vitruvius, as I have for years.
Next, among the many groups “read-alongs” currently taking place on Substack, of classic works of literature, one of the two most massive and ambitious is the year-long reading of a work in translation, Leo Tolstoy’s Russian War and Peace, at’s Footnotes and Tangents. Only one month in, it is far from too late to join the reading and discussion. There are currently 11 translations into English of the massive work, and when I sought to determine whether to stick with my updated 1980 Rosemary Edmonds translation, I made my way through scores of online evaluations to We Love Translations: World Literature in English, by far the clearest, most detailed and comprehensive of the comparisons I found. I decided to stay with Edmonds. (Simon, not by the way, is also leading a year-long read of Hilary Mantel’s much-honored English language Wolf Hall Trilogy, about the life and career of Thomas Cromwell.)
Of shorter duration but massive in significance has been the five-week-long guided read, finishing this week (but always “live”), of the Old English epic Beowulf, led byat Personal Canon Formation. John, a professor of English at the University of South Alabama and a medievalist, has been leading us through modern Irish poet Seamus Heany’s English translation. John’s always clear, succinct, and enjoyable discussions have opened up the power of this first great epic in the English language, six centuries before Shakespeare and Milton. A translator of Old English himself, John offered along the way four different translators’ versions of a brief, crucial passage, including some of his own word choices, as instructive of the challenges and influence on reading and reception of variant translations. See what there is to learn as to meaning in just these linguistically technical but fascinating paragraphs.
There is a lot to say about every line here, but we will focus on the key differences between our translations. In Seamus Heaney’s essay about the poem, he suggests that in this moment as the poem moves toward its conclusion there is “a revenant quality to [Beowulf’s] resoluteness.” His translation reflects this reading. Compare his version of lines 2419b-2420a to Kevin Crossley-Holland’s, whose rendering is “His mind was most mournful, / angry, eager for slaughter.” Heaney gives us: “He was sad at heart, / unsettled yet ready, sensing his death.”
Either of these is a legitimate choice, considering the problematic OE diction here. Wæfre occurs only three times in the entire preserved corpus of the language. We find it twice in this poem. The first instance occurs in the context of Hrothgar’s description of Grendel’s mother: she is a “wælgæst wæfre” (line 1331), which Heaney translates as “roaming killer.” (I translate it as “restless death-ghost,” because I think it sounds cool.) The other instance is the poem Daniel, which tells the Old Testament story and uses the word to describe the flickering nature of the flames in the furnace. So it could mean “angry” or “restless” or “agitated” or “unsettled.” Wælfus is a compound, which occurs only here. Wæl can mean “battle” or “slaughter” or “death.” Fus can mean “ready” or “anxious for” or “waiting for.”
You see the problem. Our understanding of these individual words makes a big difference here. A Beowulf is who is “angry and eager for slaughter” at this moment is quite different from a Beowulf who is “restless and ready for death” (my translation). For me, the previous half-line favors the latter interpretation: “him wæs geomor sefa.” This clause appears earlier in the poem, in the context of Shield’s funeral (line 49), and so this would seem to support a reading that posits Beowulf’s foreknowledge of death.
Also at issue is the proximity of fate, or wyrd, which all of our translators agree is very close. What they do not agree on, however, is whether or not Beowulf knows that it is there, hovering over him. The text in question is the OE clause: “wyrd ungemete neah, / se ðone gomelan gretan sceolde.” Here, Roy Liuzza translates most literally: “the doom was immeasurably near / that was coming to meet that old man.” And Heaney makes the boldest interpretive choice; he actually moves “fate” or wyrd to the following line to make room to expand “wæfre ond wælfus” in a way that will include the added connotation “sensing his death.” His next line then becomes: “His fate hovered near, unknowable but certain.” Here, then, is Beowulf’s revenant quality, and while this is the least literal of the four translations, to me it best captures the mood of the poem at this point, especially considering the dark speech that is to follow this passage. Beowulf is already marked: this is his death-day, and he knows it.
Finally, about translation, I posted on Notes yesterday of my having watched the excellent current film release American Fiction, directed by Cord Jefferson. Among my comments, I offered these thoughts.
American Fiction [is] an adaptation of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure. At the heart of both the novel and the film, among other related issues, is the practice of code switching, which is a form of translation (or one may reverse the terms) and both relate to writing for an audience.
More commonly in recent years discussion about code switching involved African Americans choosing (or feeling the requirement) to communicate to white audiences (which includes readers) in what is represented as standard American or white vernacular. . ..
Percival, and Jefferson after him, offer a variation on this, filtered even more finely through W.E.B Dubois’s concept of double consciousness, by offering two African American writers who choose (one willingly, one not so) to write not in white vernacular English for white readers, but in what they perceive (correctly, in film and novel) to be white readers’ expectation of what is both Black English and Black life, though neither author speaks that way and the protagonist, Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, never lived that life.
You can read the full note here. As promised at top, I’ll be developing ideas about code switching in Thursday’s essay.
That’s it for today. Faire un essai with you all on Thursday.
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