Before stumbling into a life of drug addiction and bank robbery, the protagonist of Nico Walker’s Cherry served in the Army. He’s miserable overseas, but, to be fair, he was miserable in the United States, too. He eventually blames all his problems – the drugs, the crime – on a lady friend’s promiscuous behavior while he was in the service. He takes great pains to describe all the readily-available sexual encounters he forwent to stay true to her, even claiming that he would not think of anyone else while masturbating.
But he does a great job of describing the misery of military service: the trauma is understated, focusing instead on doldrums and drudgery.
Oo! Ta-ah! Here come the Warrior Medics!
The refrain was to go on indefinitely, till we were signaled to stop. That’s how it went. And from that day on, whenever the company was called to attention (something that happened no less than a million times on a given day), the company cheer was to be recited in its entirety. No exceptions. To make matters worse, after a while it got to be expected that the guidon bearer would do the robot throughout the refrain.
So don’t ever join the fucking Army.
Soon, he is in Iraq. His patrol relies upon interpreters to communicate with anyone they meet.
The patrol leader asked the mustache haji questions about what he was doing out so late and where he was coming from and where he was going. An interpreter translated.
The car was clean.
The radio said to let the hajis go on their way.
The patrol leader said to the interpreter, “Tell that that from now on they must respect the curfew. It’s for their own safety. They could’ve been hurt out here tonight and we don’t want that to happen.”
And the interpreter said something. As far as what he said, we’d have to trust him. So that was that.
American soldiers don’t trust the interpreters, feeling sure their sympathies are secretly with the other side. As it happens, the Iraqis don’t trust interpreters, either. By translating, the interpreters keep everyone safe because they allow the two sides to communicate – sometimes words can resolve disputes, instead of bullets.
But the interpreters themselves were endangered. In Sympathy for the Traitor, literary translator Mark Polizzotti writes:
As recently as 2011, the Armed Forces Journal reported that interpreters in Iraq were “10 times more likely to die in combat than deployed American or international forces,” because neither the troops they were interpreting for nor the enemy they were speaking to had complete confidence in the fidelity of what they were relating.
Both sides assumed that the translators had some hidden agenda or secret loyalty to the other. There is always the danger, when we speak for someone else, that our own interests will distort whatever message we’d been expected to deliver.
This happens even with my kids. Our two-year-old says something to me, then I tell my spouse, “She’s worried because you said that … “
“No,” she interjects.
“ mumble mumble garble digger mumble “
Well, great, kid. I misrepresented your intent, but only because I have no idea what you’re trying to say!
When translating literature, there’s an additional difficulty. Most languages have ways to communicate common human experiences – what can I eat?, how much will it cost me?, how do I get there? But literature draws upon the whole set of meanings and associations that link words to concepts. In general, there won’t be a direct equivalent between languages.
In an essay for the New York Review of Books, Perry Link writes that:
In teaching Chinese-language courses to American students, which I have done about thirty times, perhaps the most anguishing question I get is “Professor Link, what is the Chinese word for _______?”
I am always tempted to say the question makes no sense. Anyone who knows two languages moderately well knows that it is rare for words to match up perfectly, and for languages as far apart as Chinese and English, in which even grammatical categories are conceived differently, strict equivalence is not possible.
Book is not shu, because shu, like all Chinese nouns, is conceived as an abstraction, more like “bookness,” and to say “a book” you have to say, “one volume of bookness.” Moreover shu, but not book, can mean “writing,” “letter,” or “calligraphy.” On the other hand you can “book a room” in English; you can’t shu one in Chinese.
And, beyond the fact that languages differ from each other, every reader is unique. In “Does Talking About Books Make Us More Cosmopolitan?,” Tim Parks writes that:
To exist as a book, the pages with their letters and spaces need a reader. We may think of books as unchanging material objects, but they only, as it were, happen when read; they have no absolute identity. And the nature of that reading – an experience extended over many hours, then mulled over for many more, for the book does not cease to happen the moment we turn the last page – will depend, to a large degree, on who the reader is.
I grew up in the United States, speaking only English during the years when my brain would have absorbed new languages most easily, so I read a lot of literature in translation. This is suboptimal, I know. I would enjoy a richer experience of humanity if I could read more of our world’s literature in the original. But my life would be dreadfully impoverished if not for the charitable exertions of many translators, because then I wouldn’t have a chance to read many stories at all.
I am personally unqualified to translate any piece of literature, or to judge how well a particular translation conveys the sense of the original, as a native speaker who lived contemporaneously to the author might have understood it. But I am an experienced reader, and I am the reader’s premier expert on the way literature makes me feel. Occasionally I find myself musing, despite not knowing how to speak the source language, whether I might rephrase certain passages. Especially when primed with excellent notes, such as in Hayden Pelliccia’s review of two translations of the Iliad.
The Iliad opens with a word generally translated as “wrath,” yet this is the direct object of the first sentence. In Greek, this makes sense, but in English we identify subjects and objects based upon their location in a sentence. Pelliccia writes that
The very first line of the Iliad forces any English-language translator to decide immediately and to declare conspicuously whether he would rather be caught betraying his poet or his own language.
I couldn’t help but draft my own variant:
Wrath, hubric wrath of Achilles
As sung by the goddess
Wrought pain & devastation for the Achaians
Droves hurled to Hades, souls hewn from heroes
Their bodies leavings for dogs, a feast for vultures and crows –
So was His plan fulfilled
Set stirring in that moment
Agamemnon and Achilles
Parted in fury.
Obviously my second line fails to convey what Homer wanted – “sung” has a waft of fate to it, as though this story was preordained by the goddess, whereas Homer exhorts his muse to relate the tragedy after it occurred. My failure is unsurprising, considering both my lack of Greek and Pelliccia’s assertion that every professional translation available to date has failed as well. But the experience of translation was a success – another reader might well be dissatisfied with my lines, but creating them changed me for the better.
Although Ezra Pound could not read or speak Mandarin, his translation of classical poetry for Cathay had a huge influence on both his own writing and the subsequent work of other English-language poets. Although Christopher Logue could not read or speak Greek, his adaptation of the Iliad is a fantastic work of poetry.
Homer lavished attention on the myriad ways that humans might die upon a battlefield. And in War Music, Logue interlaces Homeric myth with modern nightmare:
Drop into it.
Noise so clamorous it sucks.
You rush your pressed-flower hackles out
To the perimeter.
And here it comes:
That unpremeditated joy as you
– The Uzi shuddering warm against your hip
Happy in danger in a dangerous place
Yourself another self you found at Troy –
Squeeze nickel through that rush of Greekoid skum!
Oh wonderful, most wonderful, and then again more wonderful
A bond no word or lack of words can break,
Love above love!
And here they come again the noble Greeks,
Ido, a spear in one a banner in his other hand
Your life at every instant up for –
And, candidly, who gives a toss?
Dead: pointlessly, unmemorably dead. By depicting the utter dehumanization of war – “who gives a toss?,” and female captives referred to with just the pronoun she, as in the opening scene when Achilles is enraged because Agamemnon announces that “I shall take his prize she” – he demonstrates just how precious life should be.
Logue knew no Greek, but his Iliad changed my life for the better.