Saturday, June 18, 2011

Thoughts about Translation

I've just read The Devil's Star and Nemesis, a couple of mystery novels by Jo Nesbo, a Norwegian writer who reminds me some of Sam Shepard. They even share musical careers early in their lives.

The books are rich with good characters and complex in their plots. There are satisfying oddities like the initial scene of Nemesis that makes a reader consider and reconsider the odd but ultimately understandable shifts in level. I'll read more of Nesbo's work in the future.

Nesbo's books have been translated into 40 languages, including the English translation I read. It's British English, which gives the books a slightly foreign flavor. Coupled with all the Norwegian words (Arne, Oleg, Lev, Vigdis, Larkollen, Valkyrie plass, etc.), the unfamiliar English words like boiler suit (for coverall) remind me that I'm immersed in the mind of someone quite different from me. Brecht worked hard in his plays to produce the effect of alienation in the audience -- in the service of thought, of reflection. I like the way Nesbo's books, in translation, do the same.

So far so good.

But then there are sentences like this one: "A publishing consultant had finally cracked on the telephone and hissed that he could no longer put up with her 'hysterical fussing.'" Cracked on the telephone?

Or like this one: "His brain might have told him it was too late, but his hands fumbled in a mixture of shock and stupidity. . . ." Fumbled in a mixture of shock and stupidity?

Since I don't read Norwegian, and since there are lots of slang phrases in British English I don't know, I can't be sure; but my assumption is that the translator himself has produced these and a good many other awkward formulations.

That's exactly what I most fear as a translator, that I'll mangle the good prose of the author, mangle it by remaining too close to the original or mangle it by drifting too far away from the original, that I'll screw it up by not understanding or because my English isn't supple enough. The fears compound when the author is Peter Handke and the text is itself about language.

Translating Peter's play Voyage by Dugout, I broke into a colder sweat with each new page, with each new draft (and there were dozens of drafts). The translated play still has no publisher (although it's being reviewed right now by PAJ Publications), so I'm not yet accountable. But the time will come, and when it does, I'll hold my breath until a reader comes up with phrases like the ones I found in Nemesis and I'll blush and curse myself.

A brief excerpt from my translation:

For more than a decade you have pissed on the same trees with your sentential piss. The beautiful Dinarian forests stink to high heaven of your piss.

First: while practicing their profession here in the war three hundred and twelve of my colleagues lost their lives or were wounded or were thrown out of the country . Second: in North Africa three to seven of my colleagues die every week for the sake of truth. Third: at this moment, across the globe, about four thousand of my colleagues are behind prison walls because of their convictions. Fourth: one of my colleagues, risking his life, saved thirteen orphans from the besieged city –

That was a film –


Let him speak. Wasn’t that the plan? – I have always depicted the atrocities on all sides. Listen to my New York Review chronicle of the events in the village of Kravica, where some of the people here were victims. He reads: “The other side” – you know which I mean – “in the neighboring village” – you know which I mean – “had become the stronger over time. Their commander, bodybuilder, former bar bouncer” – mine is a thoroughly critical perspective – “had put together a force so ruthless that it struck the fear of God into the peasants of Kravica.” Ha! “But the greatest weapon, and the commander relied on this, were the thousands of refugees displaced as the war began. Behind the first wave of attacking soldiers, the refugees fell upon enemy villages when the defenses broke down, and, get them! at them! kill them!, with knives, hoes, hatchets, most with their bare hands – impossible for the commander to control. The climax of the commander’s successes came on the day when the people from here celebrated their special Christmas, two weeks later than is our custom. The women of Kravica had worked for days preparing suckling pigs, fresh bread, pickled tomatoes and peppers. And then Christmas Eve! After dark, three thousand men of the commanders regular army assembled on the hills around Kravica. Behind them, the bold band. An indescribable noise at dawn when they started banging pots and pans. Increasingly he recites from memory: ‘Today youll get the Christmas you deserve! God is great!’, bellowed the men, screamed the women. And off they went! The forces led by the commander – who, by the way, speaks fluent English and German, the latter with a slight Bavarian accent – wearing white uniforms that glowed in the sunrise! Melting with the snow! From all sides they descended on the dumbfounded villagers and their Christmas pigs! And behind them the cacophony of the starving refugees! Revenge! God is great! The village defenders, already the minorité, were vastly outnumbered, quickly overwhelmed! Only dead and wounded in the village ruiné of Kravica and the attackers: fired into the bodies, plunged in their couteaux, smashed heads; the commandant no longer in complete control of the people he relied on. And they, stupéfiés, their thousand mouths hanging open at the sight of the Noël feast, stood there as if paralyzed by the sight of the pâtisseries, the slivovitz bottles and the roast Schweinchen on the enemy stoves: God is great! They laughed and shouted and plunged into the pâtisseries, fell on the salads, smashed the Schnaps bottles, while the ashes of burning houses sifted like snow onto the hillside and the runaway pigs sniffed at the mounds of corpses. The name of the village alone, by the way, speaks volumes: Pig-, pardon me, cow-village. And that was the commanders great triumph. He left his command-center just before it was captured by the enemy, which then committed the well-known massacre. He is now a pub owner in the capitol city of the martyrs. – Mark Winner, Pulitzer Prize.

Is there such a thing? Misbegotten language for a good cause? The end of aesthetics? The end of a sense for truth and beauty. The end of a care for form.

laughing. Of a care for form?

Of a care for form. A care for form. The world has never had a chance against you sonorous babblers. You throw your weight around because you recognize the authority of no court. You are the final judges and at the same time the criminals. That no one can depend on you – okay, thats your ideal, taken from one of your ancestors – but that nothing can be expected from you, nothing at all, absolutely nothing: Shame on you! We are saturated with hate, increasing hatred of the familiar and the unfamiliar. Because our hatred of the familiar has no outlet, it turns against the unfamiliar. And more and more is made unfamiliar and unrecognizable by daily proclamations and by a surfeit of information. And thus hatred of the unfamiliar gnaws at our bowels.

as if understanding. You wont change that. Thats the way it is. Thats the state of affairs. Thats the world. Thats the marketplace. Thats the price.

singing. Thats the price. We are the market place. We are the world. We are in power. We write the history.

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