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On Translation III: Nimrod’s Gibberish

Esther Allen and Matthew Reynolds

On Translation I






In the final instalment of their conversation about translation, Matthew Reynolds and Esther Allen discuss different frameworks for translation, metaphorical and theoretical. The preponderance of metaphor in descriptions of translation might be a way to embody the translator—so often, otherwise, an invisible performer—while it is possible to understand that sense that translation might at heart be resistant to theory as a conflict between the generalities of theorising and the necessary respect for particularity that literary translation entails.

Matthew Reynolds: The attempt to describe translation breeds metaphor—and there are some good examples in In Translation. You co-editor Susan Bernofsky talks of hearing “the text’s heartbeat”, while Michael Emmerich sees the translator as a “ghost”, and José Manuel Prieto (translated by you, Esther) says that, when translating Mandelstam, “it’s as if the poem were a tree and we could only manage to transplant its trunk and thickest limbs, while leaving all its green and shimmering foliage in the territory of the other language.” This proliferation of metaphor fascinates me—my book The Poetry of Translation was an attempt to explore and explain it—and I wondered what you thought about it: why do translators so often reach for metaphor when they talk about what they do?

Esther Allen: In a recent talk, the eminent Japanese translator Motoyuki Shibata spoke of a project a group of Japanese scholars once proposed to the literary estate of T.S. Eliot. They wished to gather the 10 or so best translations into Japanese of Eliot’s poems and publish a volume in which all 10 would appear side by side. (This, by the way, is quite similar Eliot Weinberger’s approach in The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, which presents classic poems in multiple translations by Pound, Williams, Rexroth, Snyder, etc.) The Eliot estate, however, refused permission, suggesting that these Japanese Eliot enthusiasts would do better to establish the single best translation of each of Eliot’s poems and publish only that.

When Shibata asked the audience whether or not they agreed with the estate’s decision, I proposed the first counter-example that occurred to me: if Shakespeare were still under copyright, his heirs would provoke considerable outcry if they were to instruct all English theatres to determine which production of each play was the best one, then endlessly replicate it. Shibata responded that the key distinction between the hypothetical Shakespeare situation and that of Eliot’s Japanese translations is that theatrical production involves the bodies of actors in their physical assumption of their roles: no single theatrical production can possibly be replicated very far across time or in space so the Shakespeare heirs’ stance would be patently absurd.

Shibata is absolutely right: its particular disembodiment is, I think, one reason cultures like ours pay much less attention to translation than to other types of performance. As Michael Emmerich says, we translators are ghosts. In one sense this can be beautifully liberating for the translator. It’s unlikely anyone would ever cast my dear co-editor Susan Bernofsky in the role of Robert Walser on a stage, nor would José Manuel Prieto be a likely choice for the role of Osip Mandelstam—yet no one can object to Susan or José re-performing their writing on the page in another language.

In another sense, of course, this disembodiment leads to what Gayatri Spivak has called “the obliteration of the figure of the translator.” That’s one reason why we’re always seeking new metaphors for translation: simply to re-embody it, and thereby help ourselves to perceive both the process and the person who carries it out. With respect to English in particular, the proliferation of metaphor may also be an ongoing attempt to refute the metaphor inherent in the word translate—”to carry across”—as if an utterance were a heap of stones to be transported across a stream.

MR: This question is (I think) related to the last. One of your contributors, Peter Cole says that,

the best translators I’ve read, worked with, and known, even those who are well versed in theory, ultimately rely as they translate on instinct, not ideology. Trained by long apprenticeship to attention in language, they let themselves be led by a feel for the words before them.

Now, I imagine some readers might be inclined to dismiss this as a cop-out: I imagine that Lawrence Venuti, for instance, might see it as an instance of what he criticises in his contribution, “the prevailing tendency among contemporary translators to make fairly impressionistic remarks on their practice.” But Peter Cole’s words also seem to me to be indisputably true. Do you think (as I think I now tend to) that there is in translation a central resistance to theory—that the practice of translation continually eludes theoretical description? But why should this be?

EA: In a 2009 essay on the future of philology (published in Critical Inquiry 35), Sheldon Pollock, whose staggeringly vast philological projects include the Clay Sanskrit Library and the new Murty Library of Classical Indian Literature, very rightly speaks of “the hypertrophy of theory over the past two decades, which often ended up displacing its object of analysis.” It’s been suggested that this hypertrophy may be one way of understanding the huge decline in enrolments in the humanities in universities across the United States, and I agree with Pollock that a move back to philology and the practices associated with it, such as textual criticism and translation, may be one way of restoring interest in the humanities.

There is a kind of oxymoron in the notion of “translation theory,” isn’t there? I have no quarrel with a lot of what theory has given us—with, say, what Derridean deconstruction has to say about différance and the deferral of meaning, which rather accurately describes what I as a translator deal with in my work. Yet the academic disciplines in the Anglophone world that ardently embraced and endlessly debated deconstruction back in the day, at the same time often discarded the practice of translation as unoriginal and of little or no scholarly value (except where the translation of theory itself was concerned). Meanwhile, Derrida’s own summation of the importance of his work was “Plus d’une langue.”

Years ago the journal of the Modern Language Association proposed a sort of universal recipe for what a literary scholar does, which, if I recall correctly, consisted in locating the theory that best corresponds to a given text and then applying that theory to that text: a sort of caricature of scientific research. I suspect such a recipe could not produce a good literary translation. In fact, what interests me about literary translation is that there are no recipes. Translation is a contextual, situational form of knowledge. Theory has its role, no doubt. If you think of meaning as a set of stones being transported across a river you’re quite likely to turn out a far clunkier translation than if you’d considered other frameworks, both theoretical and metaphorical, for what you’re doing. But ultimately, in a translation, what’s going to matter most is the degree to which you are attuned to the minute particularities of the text you are representing, the text you are creating, and their respective contexts. There’s no replacement for that, and no way to generalise out from one text to all the others. You have to find your way anew, each time, into the unique resonances of a given text in a given situation.

In 2005, on the four hundredth anniversary of the first publication of Don Quixote, the Instituto Cervantes in New York organised a panel with translators of Cervantes’s novel into German, Serbian, Dutch, English and two translators into French. And of course each one’s translation process turned out to be unique. For example, one of the French translators, Aline Schulman, had limited herself to an early 17th-century vocabulary, an approach the other French translator, Jean Canavaggi had deliberately opted against, and which was never even an option for the German translator, Susanne Lange, since German was not consolidated into its modern form until the mid-18th century. Schulman said of her work, “There’s no decision that can always go the same way; there’s no method.” And the reporter from El País was so entranced with Lange’s brilliance he swore to me that he was going to learn German so that he could experience the Quijote anew through her eyes.

Theory inevitably deals in generalities, doesn’t it? As I understand it, the aim of science is to look at particulars and figure out what they all have in common—to realise, for example, that the apple falling from the tree and the drifting feather are ultimately pulled downward by the same force. For me, the appeal of the humanities lies in the recognition that while there are gravitational forces exerted upon the manifestations of human culture, and theories that explain them, each cultural work also contains the potential to resist or re-align those forces in unique ways.

In the essay on translation, Polish poetry, and loss, which strikes the concluding note in our anthology, Clare Cavanagh ponders the translation of “Birthday” (“Urodziny”), by Wislawa Szymborska, a poem which “sends language scrambling, by way of frantic wordplay, rhythm and rhymes, to keep pace with the relentless form-creation that animates nature itself.” Cavanagh and her co-translator Stanislaw Baranczak themselves come up with some dazzling form-creation that echoes with Gilbert and Sullivan, Dr. Seuss, and a great deal else:


So much world all at once—how it rustles and bustles!
Moraines and morays and morasses and mussels,
The flame, the flamingo, the flounder, the feather—
How to line them all up, how to put them together?


While trying to plumb what the void’s inner sense is,
I’m bound to pass by all these poppies and pansies.
What a loss when you think how much effort was spent
Perfecting this petal, this pistil, this scent
For the one-time appearance that is all they’re allowed,
So aloofly precise and so fragilely proud.

This strikes me as compelling evidence for Cole’s point. One might describe this translation in theoretical terms after the fact, but it’s only a powerful feel for specificities of cadence, rhythm, and sense that can produce lines like these. The deep and abiding interest of literary translation lies in the particularities of the process, the unexpected and widely meandering paths it takes you down, the unique element you and the context in which you’re working bring to it. And that may be why, and how, translation—good translation, anyway—ultimately eludes theory.

MR: Finally, a light-hearted observation. You say that Nimrod’s utterance in Inferno XXXI, ‘Raphel mai amecche zabi almi’ remains untranslated in every translation of the Commedia because ‘it represents untranslatability itself: a dead language “understood by none”’. But Ciaran Carson does translate it in his (quite recent) Inferno of Dante: Yin twa maghogani gazpaighp boke“. Even untranslatability can be translated!

EA: That’s brilliant!—a sublime instance of a refutation that proves the point we were trying to make more fully than any confirmation could have. If I understand aright, Carson is replacing Dante’s Latinate gibberish with a more Anglo-Celtic gibberish. He translates the line not by transcribing Dante’s own gibberish, but by following his gibberish-producing technique within the target language, thereby making the point that gibberish is no more universal than coherent speech is. Let’s hope future Dante translators take note! Perhaps one day Nimrod will speak many varieties of gibberish rather than just two.

This series forms part of the Oxonian Review‘s special focus on Translation. This piece follows On Translation I: “On ne dit pas ‘de l’easy listening”, and On Translation II: The World and the Work.

Esther Allen has translated a number of books from Spanish and French including, most recently, José Manuel Prieto’s Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia. She is the editor of the International PEN/Institut Ramon Llull volume on translation and globalization To Be Translated or Not To Be (2007), and directed the Heim Translation Fund of PEN American Center for the first seven years of its existence. In 2006, the French government named her a Chevalier de l’ordre des arts et des lettres. She is an associate professor at Baruch College, City University of New York. She is co-editor, with Susan Bernofsky, of In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means (Columbia, 2013).

Matthew Reynolds teaches at St Anne’s College and in the English Faculty at the University of Oxford. He once laboured to revise an ageing translation of Manzoni’s I promessi sposi and felt he did more harm than good: his interest in translation has, since then, been more readerly than practical. His books of literary history, criticism and theory are The Realms of Verse 1830-1870, The Poetry of Translation: From Chaucer & Petrarch to Homer & Logue, and Likenesses: Translation, Illustration, Interpretation; his novels are Designs for a Happy Home and The World Was All Before Them. He co-ordinates New Grounds for Comparative Criticism, a research network based at Torch.