Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Lost in translation

The Jumping Frog: 
In English, then in French, 
then Clawed Back 
into a Civilized Language Once More 
By Patient, Unremunerated Toil
By Mark Twain

     In my last post on Jorge Luis Borges, I referred to an earlier post on the difficulties of translation. Upon checking, I never published or completed that post. No time like the present ...

      What spurred the post was a review of a new book, or at least a newly translated book, by Argentinian author Cesar Aira.  It sounded interesting, so I went to Amazon to see what he had in print in translation. I was surprised to see every one of his listed titles had a second author appended: Cesar Aira and ... . The second author was the translator. I don't recall most books in translation having a similar translator co-author credit, and it seems that the books themselves list the credit more traditionally, but maybe it should be a shared credit. 
    As anyone who has compared different translations of the same book can attest, translation is as much an art as an exact science. Mark Twain so disapproved of one translation of his "Jumping Frog" story that he re-translated it back to English, and published it, along with the original and the translation, as humor and/or an object lesson. (A recent similar experiment, with no satiric intent, is The Gist by Michael Marshall Smith.)
     There was some controversy a few years ago about whether Jerzy Kosinski and Vladimir Nabokov had actually written some of their early books in English or whether they had written them in their native tongues and then had someone else translate them. Both denied it, knowing that to admit it would be to diminish their accomplishments. (If true, it's hard to believe the translators kept quiet all this time.)
     I believe I have already commented on how Jules Verne was ill-served by his English translators -- they not only picked the wrong translation of a word but they also cut passages -- but even a conscientious translator can have difficulties. Even the author would have a hard time. Then, too, there would be the temptation to revise or rethink passages (as Jorge Luis Borges may have done with Norman Thomas di Giovanni).  
     It might almost be true to say that it is pointless to read translations except to learn factual information. 
     I long ago decided that it was absurd to read poetry -- which depends on rhyme and meter -- in translation, unless the original text is reproduced on the facing page. (I came to this conclusion after reading a short French poem in a translated novel. The original French was included, and even my then spotty French was sufficient to see that the second and third lines were rearranged in order for the translator to wring a rhyme out of his adaptation of the poem. I discovered similar problems with the translations of Jaques Brel songs in the show Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. The original, "Les Timides," or "The Timid Ones" -- as "Les Miserables" means "The Miserable Ones" -- was changed to "Timid Frieda" to maintain the syllable count, which changed the song from one about a group or type of person to the story of one timid girl.) I also prefer if it is a language I can at least pronounce approximately.
     Another difficulty is whether you can trust the translator. For The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, director Wes Anderson hired Brazilian singer Seu George to perform Portuguese versions of several David Bowie songs. It was later alleged that rather than provide accurate translations, George just kept the chorus and the music, writing completely different lyrics. The songs still sounded good, and I enjoy them on the soundtrack album, but if true that's not what Anderson paid for. I wonder what lyrics Portuguese listeners hear.
     I'm not sure how much a specific language matters in terms of thought and meaning, but it must have an influence. In the French film Ridicule, a deaf student makes a pun that can only be appreciated by someone who knows sign language. Some jokes likewise evade translation among languages and cultures. So that's why I'm leery when reading works in translation.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Borges and Me: Lost in Translation

Borges, 1951, from Wikimedia Commons
A Personal Anthology
by Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Alastair Reid)
(Grove Press, 1967)

The Aleph and Other Stories
by Jorge Luis Borges (translated in collaboration with Norman Thomas di Giovanni)
(E.P. Dutton, 1970) 

Collected Fictions
by Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Andrew Hurley)
(Viking Press, 1998)

     I have previously written about the difficulties of reading literature as opposed to nonfiction in translation. I think I have also written about the difficulties caused to lovers of literature by the estates of late authors. Now here's an example of what happens when the two collude.

     Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was one of the finest short story and essay writers of all time in the estimation of some. Since he was an Argentinian, he wrote in Spanish and had to be translated for most Americans to appreciate. But which translation?
     I first learned of Borges through the film Performance (1970), directed by Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell, which featured Mick Jagger reading from Borges' A Personal Anthology, a sort of best-of collection. I tracked down the book and purchased it. I didn't know it at the time, but Borges had started collaborating on new translations of his work with Norman Thomas di Giovanni, thus assuring the most accurate translations in meaning and literary feeling. I bought a volume of these stories, too, The Aleph and Other Stories, which shared some of the same contents, when the paperback came out in the late 1970s. I compared some of the translations, and there were definitely differences.
     Recently the death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez reminded me of Borges (some thought the Nobel Prize for Literature which Marquez received pre-empted the same honor for Borges), and wanted to re-read some of his stories. Alas, I discovered that I no longer had The Aleph and Other Stories, though I had the volume Borges, A Reader, which includes some of the same stories and translations. I must have sold or donated the volume in an effort to reduce the size of my library before a move. No problem, I thought, I'll buy it again.
     Then I discovered that the di Giovanni translation was no longer in print by decree of Borges' widow, who felt that the higher royalties di Giovanni received (it was after all a collaboration) mattered more than her late husband's wishes in the matter. Instead new translations she commissioned from Andrew Hurley (in Collected Fictions and other volumes) would be the only ones allowed.
     What difference does it make? To literary scholars at least it should matter a great deal. The di Giovanni translations represent Borges' last thoughts on the stories. If we prefer the last revised texts American and English authors present for posterity, then we should care about these translations of Borges as well. I haven't read Hurley's versions in detail yet, but note the differences between di Giovanni and the other translations.
     Take the piece "Borges and I" (which I believe di Giovanni and Borges originally translated as "Borges and Me," though it has the former title in Borges, A Reader), a meditation on Borges the man versus Borges the writer.

     In Anthony Kerrigan's translation, the last line is rendered:
          I don't know which one of the two of us is writing this page. 

     As by Borges and di Giovanni, it goes:
          Which of us is writing this page I don't know.

     In Hurley:
          I am not sure which of us it is that's writing this page.

     Maybe you won't agree, but the middle version is to me by far the best. It's shorter, less clunky and flows better. It ends with the revelation that Borges himself doesn't know which of his two selves is writing what we're reading, while the other versions put the emphasis on this page. Kerrigan and Hurley disagree only slightly, and their versions may be more accurate literal translations, but with fiction we don't want merely accurate. (Isaac Asimov once pointed out that in Hamlet's soliloquy, he refers to a sea of troubles when a host of troubles would be more correct, but which is more evocative, stronger, memorable?)
     It may be a small thing, but I wish the Borges/di Giovanni's version was out there to compete in the marketplace.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Vonnegut Lost and Regained

Library of America, Facebook photos stream
Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories 1950-1962
Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories 1963-1973
Kurt Vonnegut: Novels 1976-1985
(Library of America)

Happy Birthday, Wanda June
By Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
(Dell, 1970; out of print)

Between Time and Timbuktu
Based on the works of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
(Dell, 1972; out of print)

     Few writers who could be claimed by the science fiction genre were as feted in their lives as Kurt Vonnegut Jr. During his lifetime his titles were sometimes put in the Literature section of bookstores. Not just fiction, but actual high-fallutin' lit'rature.
     He died just seven years ago last Friday (April 7), but already the prestigious Library of America has put out two volumes of his collected works, with a third scheduled for later this year. This is more impressive when you consider that most of his books haven't been in danger of being unavailable, although many are no longer in hardcover editions.
      The novels included are Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan and Mother Night in volume one; Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions in volume two; and Slapstick, Jailbird, Deadeye Dick and Galápagos  in the forthcoming volume three. That's a pretty good assortment of his novels, including all but his final three. 
     I wish there were more short stories included (there are six in volume one -- “Report on the Barnhouse Effect,” “EPICAC,” Unready to Wear, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” 2BR02B, and “Harrison Bergeron” -- and three in volume two -- Welcome to the Monkey House, Fortitude (though this might be a play) and The Big Space F***), but perhaps the editors didn't consider enough of his short fiction worthy of preservation, or at least not enough for a separate volume.
     They also didn't make room for his play Happy Birthday, Wanda June, which is out of print and I think deserves preservation. 
     Based (as Vonnegut explained in an introduction) on the story of Odysseus returning home and slaying the suitors of his wife, Penelope, the play concerns another Penelope, the presumed widow of Harold Ryan, a Hemingwayesque adventurer, missing for more than eight years and now declared dead. She has a son and two suitors: Herb Shuttle, a vacuum cleaner salesman, and Norbert Woodley, a physician (with whom she is secretly affianced). Harold returns home, along with a friend who was also missing, Col. Looseleaf Harper (who is said to be the pilot who dropped the bomb on Nagasaki). 
     (By the way, although Penelope declares this play is a tragedy, it's a comedy.) 
     Who is Wanda June of the title? She's a little girl who died when an ice cream truck hit her, so consequently her parents never picked up her birthday cake. Coincidentally it is Harold's birthday also, and Herb buys the cake to mark Harold's birthday for the son. Wanda June appears as a ghost, speaking to the audience almost like a Greek chorus, as do other spirits, including Harold's dead first wife and a Nazi soldier whom Harold killed during WWII. 
     In the original cast (photos of which appeared in the book), Kevin McCarthy (from the 1957 Invasion of the Body Snatchers) played Harold, Marsha Mason (many Neil Simon plays and films) played Penelope and William Hickey (an elderly mob boss in Prizzi's Honor and a semi-frequent guest star on TV's Wings) played Col. Looseleaf. 
     It's a very stagy play, with the characters frequently speaking directly to the audience. In his introduction, Vonnegut says there isn't a villain, and that may be a problem for some readers. Worse, there isn't really a hero either. Harold is the obvious villain, but he's also pitiable. His main antagonist in the play, his wife's physician suitor, doesn't get out unscathed either. Penelope isn't quite active enough to be a hero. 
     The villain may be the whole idea of heroism. Harold is a hunter, proud of his he-man ways, but Woodley points out that he didn't kill them defending his home. Harold's dramatic and maybe heroic killing of the Nazi soldier didn't affect the outcome of the war and resulted in an entire town being destroyed in retaliation. Col. Looseleaf killed more people than Harold, thousands, with one bomb, but doesn't feel it was a heroic or significant act; he was just following orders. 
     There was a film version, which I haven't seen, with Rod Steiger, Susannah York and Hickey reprising his role. It's not currently available on DVD or Blu-ray.

     Hickey also starred in a teleplay based on Vonnegut's works. Vonnegut didn't write it (though he did have input), so it's understandable that it isn't included. It's also out of print but I think it worth preserving.
     Between Time and Timbuktu mashed together elements of almost all of Vonnegut's novels to date (plus Wanda June). Poet Stony Stevenson wins a cereal box top contest to become an astronaut and travel through space to the chrono-synclastic infundibulum (if memory serves), a spot where you can exist in different times and places simultaneously. Once he arrives, he becomes unstuck in time like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, and appears in scenes from other Vonnegut works, including Cat's Cradle (a meeting with Bokononon, played by Kevin McCarthy, and a discussion of Ice-Nine between a scientist and a general), the everyone-is-equal dystopia of "Harrison Bergeron" and an encounter with Wanda June in the afterlife, ending at Stony's tombstone that bears the epitaph: "Everything was beautiful, nothing hurt."
     It's at times very funny -- some of it was ad-libbed by comedy duo Bob and Ray, who play TV announcers covering the rocket launch -- but it's also a good, entertaining introduction to some of Vonnegut's concepts. 
     To  my knowledge, the telefilm has never been available on VHS, DVD or Blu-ray. Pity.

     The scripts of both works are available for borrowing through the Suburban Library Cooperative, including the St. Clair Shores Library. 

     While researching a post on Edward Gorey (who died 14 years ago April 15), I ran across a forthcoming Kurt Vonnegut title I had to mention.

     Kurt Vonnegut DrawingsIntroduction by Nanette Vonnegut (The Monacelli Press) features drawings (duh!) by the late author, I believe his illustratrations graced a few of his book jackets ion recent years, and he extensively illustrated his novel Breakfast of Champions (the original hardcover edition at least).  He wasn't Aubrey Beardsley or N.C Wyeth, and I don't think you could argue he should have given up his day job and become a graphic artist, but it's another interesting aspect of his creative muse to explore.