Archive for the ‘*Rob’s Posts’ Category
Author, Addie J. King, breaks onto the contemporary mythology scene with, THE GRIMM LEGACY, a romp through some new applications of what we thought we knew about storybook legends. Lawyer by day, and storyteller by night (and day, and dusk, and dawn) we’re fortunate to snag the sleeve of a very busy lady.
We’d like to thank Addie for taking the time to be part of our “5 Minutes Alone” interview series.
AuthorScoop: What was your very first publication credit?
Addie: My first credit was a short story, “Poltergeist on Aisle Fourteen”, which appeared in the anthology MYSTERY TIMES TEN 2011. It was a story about a cheerleader who solved a ghost’s murder in a grocery store…after he hit her in the back of the head with a strawberry to get her attention.
AuthorScoop: Tell us about your latest release.
Addie: THE GRIMM LEGACY was so incredibly fun to write! It’s about Janie Grimm, a first year law student, who learns that her father was murdered, her stepmother has an agenda, her professors think she’s crazy, and the talking frog who shows up at her apartment isn’t helping…he’d like to watch some NASCAR and would like some imported beer. And don’t forget the unexpected romantic attraction to the man who tries to help her solve her father’s murder…and the Foundation for Ancestry, Biography, Legends, Epics and Stories (F.A.B.L.E.S.), who help her piece it all together.
AuthorScoop: Aside from your own hard work, who (or what) else do you feel has contributed to your success?
Addie: I have awesome friends and family. They are incredibly supportive, even when they don’t quite get the writer crazy. The publisher has been nothing but wonderful even through the editing process, and I’ve belonged to some very cool writer critique groups.
AuthorScoop: At what time of day or night do you do your best writing?
Addie: I’m not sure how to answer that, because I write in fits and starts, squeezed in between a million and one different things. The best time is probably when I actually block out time and force myself to sit down and concentrate, not really any particular time of day.
I’m used to writing in the hallway of the courthouse between hearings (I’m a lawyer in my day job), with the television blasting, while waiting in line at the bank, and pretty much in the middle of mass chaos. Day or night doesn’t matter so much. It also depends on whether I’m plotting, writing a first draft, or editing. Plotting and editing are easier in bits and drabs, writing a first draft takes more concentrated blocks of time.
AuthorScoop: Finally, what advice would you give to new or unpublished writers?
Addie: There’s a word for a writer that never gives up, never quits, and keeps learning and submitting. Published.
This really is a pretty scene
But could you ask your kid to smile, please?
Sorry, what exactly do you mean?
Can you say it English?
– Joe Jackson, “Jet Set”
Now and then, I think about how it is that language is both a prism and a blind. It’s language that enables art in verbal expression. The facets and nuances of language – how we sense words in meaning, sound and feel – enable us to create and feel poetry, for example. The beauty of words, the musicality of syllables, the tension created by what is left unsaid – give a pulse, a thrill, to dumb data. Through our language, the ray of a thought refracts and plays, sometimes marvellously, on whatever blank wall we choose.
But only if we speak the language. Otherwise, all we have is a string of ciphers. Even with a technical grasp of a language, without a native speaker’s feel for the idiom, our ability to feel the full beauty of a piece of literature is heavily compromised and even perverted.
And it’s this barrier of language, the living quality of how we speak and write, that led me to wonder: How much do we owe to translators for the beauty of a work? More than that, is translation itself an art worth celebrating? Should we praise talented translators as much as poets or novelists?
Until a few weeks ago, I’d have to say that I’ve taken the skill of translation for granted. Intuitively, I knew there must be an art to it. Translation is much more than simple transcription. Otherwise, we might all be speaking one language now anyway, no work would ever be translated into a given language more than once, and BabelFish translations wouldn’t have become the Internet equivalent of a parlour game. If translation were straightforward, there’d be one edition of the Bible, no questions asked.
But there are questions asked.
The touchstone for my inquiry was a book of poems. A while back, in an effort to practice a little more of what I preached about reading poetry, I bought a copy of Les Fleurs du Mal, by Charles Baudelaire. This edition, a 1987 Picador Classics edition reprinted from a 1982 Harvester Press edition (Pan Books, London, 1987), contains the translated English versions followed by the original French versions.
In the foreword, translator Richard Howard discusses his approach to translation. To start with, he set out to remain loyal to meter, but not to rhyme. He acknowledges others’ views of forsaking rhyme, citing another writer who observed that translation without retaining rhyme was like a tightrope walker stretching his wire along the floor. But his view was that there were other, higher purposes in Baudelaire’s work, and it was those to which he was more committed to staying true. He writes of different casts of ‘Baudelairean’ – “a sensational Satanism, is of course not the same thing as… a fashion of convulsive and confessional energy”.
Which all sounded logical and noble, but I wondered whether the distinction might be arbitrary - the translator feeling that rhyme was too constricting and not so important, but meter was significant. Perhaps, then, the translation might be pinched between retaining the meter and the meaning. Then I noticed that, for one poem I’d particularly enjoyed, he’d actually changed the title – from Bénédiction to Consecration. That, to me, seemed a liberty on the translator’s part.
So I thought I’d look up some other translations of the poem. This search was so easy that I realised my epiphany is no news at all. But what news really is news? It’s still an epiphany to me, and it needed exploring.
There is at least one site dedicated to this particular volume – fleursdumal.org – and it contains four separate English translations of “Bénédiction”, from 1936, 1952, 1954, and 1958. (The original poem was first published in 1857.) The first thing I noticed is that, in contrast to Howard, all four of these translations retain the title’s cognate, Benediction. After that, though, the versions diverge greatly.
In this discussion, I look only at the first two stanzas. This cursory glance cannot support or sustain the philosophical heft, nor the experience, insight or talent, that Howard brought to the translation. Furthermore, they may lead me to outright erroneous conclusions about the translators’ works themselves. But they illustrate my point for the sake of this essay, and they minimize my imposition on the reader.
Here’s the original, in French (and yes, the Picador Classics edition and fleursdumal.org render it identically):
Lorsque, par un décret des puissances suprêmes,
Le Poète apparaît en ce monde ennuyé,
Sa mère épouvantée et pleine de blasphèmes
Crispe ses poings vers Dieu, qui la prend en pitié:
«Ah! que n’ai-je mis bas tout un noeud de vipères,
Plutôt que de nourrir cette dérision!
Maudite soit la nuit aux plaisirs éphémères
Où mon ventre a conçu mon expiation!»
William Aggeler (The Flowers of Evil, Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954), it appears, took a literal approach. Based on my textbook knowledge of French, he appears to have translated verbatim:
When, after a decree of the supreme powers,
The Poet is brought forth in this wearisome world,
His mother terrified and full of blasphemies
Raises her clenched fist to God, who pities her:
“Ah! would that I had spawned a whole knot of vipers
Rather than to have fed this derisive object!
Accursed be the night of ephemeral joy
When my belly conceived this, my expiation!”
There’s nothing of rhyme or meter here; in places, it reads awkwardly to me, like a tourist squinting into a phrasebook, trying to order lunch.
Howard’s Picador/Harvester version, by contrast, goes for blank verse: he generally retains the original iambic pentameter, but ignores the abab rhyme scheme. The title change, I think, is significant – a consecration is somewhat more serious (or pompous) than a benediction, or blessing:
When by an edict of the sovereign powers
the Poet enters this indifferent world,
his mother, spurred to blasphemy by shame,
clenches her fists at a condoling God:
‘Why not have given me a brood of snakes
rather than make me rear this laughing-stock?’
I curse the paltry pleasures of the night
on which my womb conceived my punishment!’
He uses richer vocabulary and adjusts meanings, which clearly alters the colour and tone of this anguished rant of a poem: “indifferent” for “wearisome”, the active voice and alliteration of “I curse the paltry pleasures”. There’s more beauty and life to this version, but the vocabulary is a strange mix: we have the semi-colloquial “rear this laughing-stock” and the abstruse “condoling”.
Roy Campbell’s version (Poems of Baudelaire, New York: Pantheon Books, 1952) appears to be the only one that appeared not in a re-rendering of the original collection, but in a more general anthology. Campbell has kept the rhyme as well as the meter (with exceptions) in his version:
When by an edict of the powers supreme
A poet’s born into this world’s drab space,
His mother starts, in horror, to blaspheme
Clenching her fists at God, who grants her grace.
“Would that a nest of vipers I’d aborted
Rather than this absurd abomination.
Cursed be the night of pleasures vainly sported
On which my womb conceived my expiation.
Campbell wanders further afield from literal meaning (“this world’s drab space” as opposed to “this wearisome [or bored] world”), and even contradicts it (“aborted” versus “spawned”). Arguably, the original “mis bas” – “put down” – could be read as “aborted”, though it sounds as though the others read it as “laid down” or “spawned”. He keeps that vexing word “expiation”; but, unlike Aggeler’s version, Howard’s reading provides the context that would allow a general reader to infer the meaning of expiation. This version is, to me, coherent, eloquent, and powerful by comparison.
Jacques LeClercq’s rendition (Flowers of Evil, Mt Vernon, NY: Peter Pauper Press, 1958) is looser in metric exactitude, but is thoroughly lyrical and retains the rhyme:
When by decree of the almighty powers,
The Poet walks the world’s wearisome sod,
His mother, blasphemous and fearful, cowers,
Clenching her fist against a pitying God:
“Ah, would whole knots of vipers were my spawn
Rather than this woeful abomination!
Cursed be the sweet swift night and evil dawn
Wherein my womb conceived my expiation!
The last half of the second stanza recasts the night and adds the morning after, but this passage, even with its lofty expression – sweet swift night and evil dawn is particularly seductive – stays fairly true to the original literal meaning (except, notably, that the Poet isn’t merely born: he’s walking already).
Edna St. Vincent Millay (Flowers of Evil, NY: Harper and Brothers, 1936) also keeps meter and rhyme, but she changes the shape – she changes to past tense, moves elements between lines (note the first two lines, for example – the “harassed world” is in line 1, and “decree of the high powers” is in line 2), adds another foot to each line, making iambic hexameter – and uses the extra space to magnify the rhetoric:
When, on a certain day, into this harassed world
The Poet, by decree of the high powers, was born,
His mother, overwhelmed by shame and fury, hurled
These blasphemies at God, clenching her fists in scorn:
“Would I had whelped a knot of vipers — at the worst
‘Twere better than this runt that whines and snivels there!
Oh, cursèd be that night of pleasure, thrice accurst
My womb, that has conceived and nourished my despair!
Of all the versions we’ve considered, Millay’s – with its “runt that whines and snivels there” – is possibly the most vivid in its expression of the mother’s catharsis. It’s certainly the one in which the translator exercises the greatest flourish. Is it what Baudelaire meant? Again, I wonder – is that the central question?
Which translation of these two stanzas reflect Baudelaire’s original the most accurately – and which make the best reading? I felt the Aggeler version, while the most literal, was opaque; it didn’t charm me. I originally hadn’t been concerned with Howard’s not rhyming – but the others have demonstrated so well that rhyme is no impediment to retaining (or refracting) the poem’s soul. The remaining three all moved me, and I’d choose either the Millay or the Leclercq as my favorite.
What does this exercise reveal to me?
First: Translation isn’t a mundane mechanical exercise, but an art like writing. It can attract writers and literati of the very highest calibre (at least for work of the quality and éclat of Baudelaire’s). After having formed my opinions, I looked a bit into who these translators were. The results are more than humbling:
Howard studied French literature at the Sorbonne, won a Pulitzer prize for poetry in 1970, and won an American Book Award for the very volume that prompted this essay. He’s also won a PEN Translation Prize. And the French Government made him a Chevalier of l’Ordre National du Mérite.
Aggeler, in addition to his translation of Les Fleurs du Mal, has written several articles on Baudelaire and a scholarly book, Baudelaire Judged by Spanish Critics, 1857-1957.
Campbell, a poet from South Africa, was highly regarded by some of the most renowned of modern poets: T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and Edith Sitwell thought him one of the Twentieth Century’s best. Jorge Luis Borges said his translation of the poems of St. John of the Cross were in some ways an improvement on the originals. He knew C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and they took very different, enthusiastic views of him. Blacklisted from publication for some unpopular political stances, Campbell is less widely known than he might have been.
LeClercq was the godson of Georges Clemenceau, Premier of France (he carried his godfather’s name as his middle names), but became an American citizen early in life (graduated from Berkeley and taught at Columbia, among other credits). He published poems under the pseudonym Paul Tanaquil and was known for his translations of poetry.
Millay was a Pulitzer Prize laureate as well – one of the first women to win a Pulitzer – and a recipient of the Frost Medal for lifetime contribution to American Poetry. Thomas Hardy once said that the skyscraper and Millay’s poetry were America’s two greatest contributions to the Twenties.
Second: Meaning isn’t always lost in translation, but it can certainly be gained. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on the translator’s purpose. It wouldn’t be so good, for example, for military orders or technical instructions, but here we’ve seen several different routes (not all of them successful in my view) to the same end.
Third: Translation isn’t necessarily transparent, and transparency may not even be the translator’s goal. In sport, it’s often said that the best referee is one whose presence isn’t noticed. I used to think that the same applied to translators, but going through this exercise has changed my mind; I’ll pay a lot more attention in future to the quality of a translation, and I’ll know not to judge the poet by the translator.
Last: It’s clear to me that a translated poem is not the same as a poem; it’s an interpretation of a poem. In retrospect, that’s obvious. Given how much time I spend listening to music, where cover versions can vary so completely and interpretation can be just as interesting and enthralling as the original composition, this point shouldn’t surprise me at all. But it does.
And that’s the thing with epiphanies: sometimes they’re a matter of finally understanding – really getting – something you already know.
I’d like to close with a poem written, in English, by Mark Wakely at AbsoluteWrite. He eloquently expresses the complementary position, that sometimes translation is a bridge too far – no, you can’t say it in English. What I hope to see now is translation as what it is – either an interpretation or an approximation, and to appreciate its value in a big world.
Chinese poets paint words with
learned brushwork that capture
precise images in miniature
our translations fail to reveal.
Pots of paint, a cup of water,
paintbrushes– some with but
a few shaved hairs!– in wise hands
seize the poet’s vision in characters
that defy English, deride it.
But still we try to render
the images, our language tools
sterile and thoroughly inadequate.
All we’re left with is the ghost
of the poem, its hollow bones,
not enough to know how
birds taking wing in winter that
disturb the snow on frozen branches
can fill our hearts with joy or sorrow
like the poet’s when the poem
“Any place you love is the world to you, ” exclaimed a pensive Catherine Wheel, who had been attached to an old deal box in early life, and prided herself on her broken heart, “but love is not fashionable any more, the poets have killed it. They wrote so much about it that nobody believed them, and I am not surprised. True love suffers, and is silent. I remember myself once– but it is no matter now. Romance is a thing of the past.”
- Oscar Wilde
To be frank, recently I have felt so stupid, so dazed, so empty-headed that I have truly doubted whether I am able to write anything new at all anymore. All the tangled chaos that the musical periodicals vomit thick and fast about the music of today has come to weigh heavily on me. . . .
– Béla Bartók, 1926
N.B. In the same year, W.B. Yeats wrote “Sailing to Byzantium”. Its opening line – That is no country for old men – seems to reflect commiseration.
The complexities of producing a blockbuster novel must, now and then, create tangles that eventually catch someone out. The head that rolls, though, may not be connected to the feet that tripped.
A front-page article in this weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald points out where Lynda La Plante’s novel, Entwined, contains a number of passages that are identical – or very nearly so – to passages from Five Chimneys, a memoir written by Holocaust survivor Olga Lengyel and published in 1947. The broadsheet version of the article shows the corresponding passages side-by-side; the web article does not. (The passages not only include similar or exact reproductions of phrases and sentences; they include exact statistical references. The similarities are, to my eye, beyond coincidence; if I can find a reference online, I’ll provide the link here.)
According to the article, La Plante responded – through her lawyers – that she hadn’t lifted the passages, nor had she ever read Five Chimneys. A research assistant whom La Plante no longer uses, they said, may have taken the passages.
The article asserts that La Plante denies intentionally plagiarising, and it adds that the newspaper makes no such accusation. It also points out that use of research assistants is common, if not universal, but that Entwined contains no acknowledgements of assistants or sources.
The article goes on to raise, or imply, several fascinating, and difficult, issues:
- The difference between plagiarism and failure to acknowledge sources
- “Forgivable” and “unforgivable” plagiarism – e.g. lifting a Holocaust survivor’s personal recollections
- The author’s accountability for the sins of the research assistant, named or otherwise
- The use of sources, such as research assistants, without acknowledgement
The biggest question, to me, is this: If the author’s name is on the cover, and no other sources are credited, is the author not accountable for every word in the book?
[Note: Ironically, I find that William's already provided a link to this story in the Friday Morning Lit Links. I must get a research assistant.]
“But it isn’t easy,” said Pooh to himself, as he looked at what had once been Owl’s house. “Because Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you.”
He waited hopefully.
“Well,” said Pooh after a long wait, “I shall begin, ‘Here lies a tree’ because it does, and then I’ll see what happens.”
- A.A. Milne, from The House at Pooh Corner
Years ago, when I lived in Boston, I twice bought my father old books as gifts. I’m sure I paid at least market price for them, but I was astounded to be able to get them at all. They were magnificent: beyond their beauty, beyond the marvel of the words printed in them – beyond the depth and dignity of their very age – they were Significant, and they deserved to be hallowed. Each purchase was around one or two days’ pay; my days were a poor standard by which to judge these marvelous works.
One purchase was a five-volume set of the complete works of Byron – published in 1817, bound in leather. They were – are – magnificent, and they are Byron. God, Byron was alive when they were published, so they weren’t even complete yet.
The other purchase was a two-volume set of the poetical works of Longfellow – signed by the poet himself. The ink, once black, had started to turn sepia, as it does.
(The autographed biography of George Washington was beyond my means.)
I was amazed not just that I was able to afford these works, but that they were for sale. For sale, among the leaning, overladen shelves of a small bookshop, in among mere mortal texts. Who, I wondered, if they had these books, would part with them?
I never knew, but it’s this awe for the old and original, the pages touched by the creator, that came to mind this evening.
I read, you see, that Charles Dickens’ writing desk was recently sold at auction, for £433,250, to an Irish entrepreneur. According to the article, the winning bid was several times the estimated selling price. The buyer, on the other hand, thought it was a great bargain at that price; after all, Great Expectations was brought into the world upon this noble furniture.
The order of magnitude is quite different, but I understood immediately how this man felt. I’m at a loss as to how one could part with such a piece, but it sounds to me as though it’s fallen into very good hands.
Lovejoy, the antiques dealer and general low-rent rogue of Jonathan Gash’s splendid series of crime novels, is a divvy. He can feel a bonging in the chest when in the presence of true antiques: they are, he says, imbued with a near life-force of their own, one that cannot be faked (Lovejoy sometimes produces fake reproductions, but much to his personal anguish, and only, er, in emergencies). Lovejoy would’ve understood too.
Oh, yes, at the end of the article on the Dickens sale, we learn of two other sales: the typescript of Churchill’s 1940 speech to Parliament on the Battle of Britain, and (ho hum) a first folio of Shakespeare’s plays.
It’s dumbfounding to realise that everything – regardless of stature or provenance – really does have its price. But it’s also heartening to know that these things exist.