On translation.

On translation.

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.

“What?”

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 –

Gone.

         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.

On the value of religious misinterpretation.

On the value of religious misinterpretation.

David Kishik begins his lovely theological meditation The Book of Shem by pondering the inverted grammar that opens Genesis.  Instead of a typical subject verb direct object construction, the first sentence of the original Hebrew text is arranged adverb verb subject direct object.

Wrote Kishik, “This is an odd grammatical construction, not only in English (compare ‘Yesterday walked Joseph’) but also in Hebrew.”  Odd, although not totally outlandish.

Kishik questions whether the grammar was actually strange, however.  What if the book of Genesis opens with a perfectly normal sentence that is intended to convey a bizarre idea, instead.  The first word, which everyone presumes to be an adverb, might instead refer to a power above even Yahweh himself (“Bereshit” in Hebrew, commonly rendered as “In the beginning” in English). 

We would have something like:

InTheBeginning created (a) god, the heavens and the earth.

It seems implausible that Kishik, or anyone, would consider this translation to be what the original authors of Genesis intended.  Even if the translation itself were more plausible, this interpretation is divorced from the actual religious practices that treat Genesis as a foundational text.  Religions use the book, but no religion is defined by a text alone.

It might seem bizarre for InTheBeginning, the mysterious pre-civilized force, to be mentioned only once, at the moment when he creates our Lord.  But Kishik pursues this idea through an entire arc of environmentally-conscious speculation.  If InTheBeginning created Yahweh, then Yahweh’s formidable jealousy becomes comprehensible.  We can understand why Yahweh might compulsively, almost tic-ishly, appraise the quality of his own creations: … and God saw that it was good.

Kishik begins by misinterpreting Genesis, but this allows him to make interesting discoveries along the way.  He concludes that, just as InTheBeginning was a pre-human, pre-lingual force able to create God, there must be a symmetrical post-human, post-textual void for the world to return to.  Although God made a covenant (Genesis 9:11) promising not to destroy the planet, He does not possess total control.

God will not kill us.  But he may not be able to save us.  We humans might destroy this world ourselves.

Indeed, we’re well on our way.

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I was raised in a mostly secular household, and I’m still wary of mysticism (despite my own belief in free will).  I’m quite obviously an outsider to every religious tradition.  But religions shape the way most humans approach the world, so it behooves all people, myself included, to learn and think deeply about them.

Even outsiders must occasionally appropriate the right to critique these texts.

It’s important to understand their standard interpretations.  But, even from the perspective of an outsider, a lot of nuance can be revealed through assiduous misinterpretation.

Kishik’s The Book of Shem, although obviously nonstandard, is an enlightening, pleasurable read.

Or consider John-Michael Bloomquist’s “The Prodigal’s Return,” a poem about teaching in jail, which includes the line:

                  I think Christ died for us

to forgive his father, who until he became a man

and dwelt among us had no way of knowing

what it was like to be Job


In the standard interpretation, Jesus was sacrificed so that God would forgive us humans.  This is a very traditional myth, with variants told by many human cultures across the globe.  Wrathful deities must be appeased through the intentional, unwarranted sacrifice of something good. 

In The Iliad, the Acheans praise Zeus by slitting the throats of a whole row of young men kneeling in the sand.  Abraham bound his son on the mountaintop; the boy survived that day, but a lot of the story’s power comes from the original audience knowing that this sort of sacrifice was common.  They would have realized how close Abraham came to plunging down the knife.  There are numerous stories about the need to murder beautiful virgins to appease volcanoes, or to ensure good harvests, or to bring back rain.

Even though Jesus’s sacrifice makes sense within the framework of traditional mythology, it seems jarring within the context of Christianity, which purports to worship a kind, merciful god.

Within Christianity, it actually makes more sense for God to incarnate himself and suffer greatly so that we humans would forgive Him.  He created this world, and this world causes us to hurt.  Until He feels some of the hurt that He has subjected us to, his apologies would seem insincere.

Loneliness, hopelessness – God subjected Job to these in order to win a bet.  He subjects nearly all humans to these travails as a matter of universal design.  He needs to know the cost that we pay.

After hanging from the cross, He could look to Job and say, I understand how you might have felt.

This is not what the original authors wanted the Bible to convey.  But we’d have a better world if it were.

John-Michael soon learned that being inside a jail – even as a visitor, there to read poetry for ninety minutes and then leave – was miserable.  But he kept going for an entire year.  The people in jail are suffering on behalf of all U.S. citizens – which meant, on his behalf – so he needed to suffer too.

Psychiatry students were once encouraged to ingest many different medications, so that they would understand what the compounds they’d prescribe felt like.

Shared experience – especially painful experience – can bring us together.

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The author(s) of the Ramayana intended for Rama to be the greatest possible man.  Within their philosophical framework, Rama is unambiguously good.  The story is a triumph of the hero.

But it’s helpful to look at the myth with modern eyes and willfully misinterpret it.  When we read the story now, Rama seems flawed because his world was flawed.

Near the end of Rama’s saga his path is blocked by the ocean.  His wife is held captive on an island kingdom; Rama feels helpless, trapped on the shore.  And so he threatens violence against the very waters:

Now, launching a powerful assault, I shall with my arrows dry up the ocean together with its fish and sea monsters and its masses of conch and oyster shells.

This lord of the ocean, abode of sea monsters, thinks that, because I am endowed with forbearance, I am weak.  To hell with forbearance for people like this!

Fetch my bow and my arrows, which are like venomous serpents, for now in my fury I shall convulse the imperturbable ocean.

This passage was translated collaboratively by Robert Goldman, Sally Sutherland Goldman, & Barend Nooten.  And it is troubling to see Rama, the ideal man, threaten physical violence to ensure that the world conforms to his desires.  Goldman and Goldman include the following footnote:

This episode, in its rendition by Tulsi Das, is the setting for his famous verse about how certain things and creatures, including sudras and women, only perform when beaten.  This verse has been the subject of critique and controversy among members of the women’s movement and Dalit advocacy groups in contemporary India.

If we castigate Rama for his words, we are clearly misinterpreting the text.  Rama is good within the text, because this behavior was good within his world.  A man, head of the household, was allowed to beat his wife or servants if they did not meet his expectations.  

Most people would find it difficult to read Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” with a straight face now.  But, in another revealing misinterpretation, proponents of the Dravidar Kazhagam movement have found parallels between the Ramayana itself and a Kipling-esque tale of colonial conquest and oppression.  In the Ramayana, light-skinned north Indians execute a south Indian king, subjugate the local populace, and install their own ruler.  (I’ve written about this interpretation previously, here.)

Hinduism itself, along with the oppressions of the caste system, seems to have reached south India in this way.  The original conquest probably occurred around the time that the Ramayana was composed, although the spread of Hinduism was not yet complete even many centuries of years later, when Kipling’s British white men arrived to make matters even worse.

In Ants Among Elephants, Sujatha Gidla writes that:

When I asked my mother and my uncle about our ancestors, they started with their grandparents’ generation, the earliest one they’d known.

Their grandfather and grandmother were born in the late 1800s in the Khammam district, within what later became the state of Andhra Pradesh, where they lived as part of a nomadic clan.  Their clan did not practice agriculture.  They subsisted on fruits, on roots, on honey, on whatever they could catch or snare.  They were not Hindus.  They worshiped their own tribal goddesses and had little to do with society outside the forest where they lived.

When the British cleared the forests for teak plantations, my great-grandparents’ clan was driven out onto the plains, where the civilized people, the settled ones, the ones who owned land and knew how to cultivate it – in a word, the Hindus – lived.  The little clan, wandering outside the forest, found a great lake and settled around it.  There was no sign of human life for miles and miles.  They took up farming.  The land around the lake was fertile and gave them more than they needed.  They called their new settlement Sankarapadu, after one of their gods.

But soon the civilized people took notice of them.  They were discovered by an agent of the local zamindar – the great landlord appointed by the British to collect revenue in that area – who saw the rice growing in their fields and levied taxes, keeping the bulk of what he extracted for himself.

But that was not enough for this agent.  He and his family and his caste people moved nearby and set about stealing the land by force and by cunning.  They loaned the clansmen trivial sums at usurious rates to buy small necessities such as salt, seeds, or new clothes for a wedding.  Unable to pay off these debts, the villagers gave up their land acre by acre.  My ancestors, who had cleared and settled the area, were reduced to working on their old fields as laborers.

This is what has happened to tribal peoples in India who try to settle down and cultivate land since time immemorial.  It still happens to this day.  What set Sankarapadu apart was that the Hindus who usurped all the fields around it did not settle there themselves.  That’s because the village is surrounded by fetid swamps filled with poisonous snakes, scorpions, and thick swarms of mosquitoes.  The landlords settled on safe and elevated ground several miles away in a village called Polukonda.

In the forest, my great-grandfather’s clan had had no caste.  But in Hindu society everyone is assigned a place in the caste system.  Certain castes traditionally own land, and others have to work for those who do.  For those who must work, the caste you are born into determines the kind of work you do.  There are priestly castes, carpenter castes, potter castes, barber castes.  The more impure a caste’s traditional occupation in terms of ritual law, the lower its status.

When the people of Sankarapadu entered Hindu society with no caste of their own and the most impure occupation of all, that of landless laborers, there was no question where their place would be: at the bottom, as despised outcastes.  Outcastes are also called untouchables because they are supposed to be so ritually unclean that the slightest contact with them will defile even low-caste Hindus.  Untouchables cannot share meals with others, much less intermarry with them, and are made to live apart from the rest of the village in a segregated colony on its outskirts.  Sankarapadu became the untouchable colony of Polukonda, albeit an unusually remote on.

The Ramayana was not meant to be a story of oppression.  But this misinterpretation has value, because it helps us understand the widespread biases of the author’s world — biases that persist to this day and still cause horrific suffering and violence.

Anachronistic critique will invariably lead us to misinterpret religious texts.  That shouldn’t stop us.  I’m curious to know what the old stories would mean if the world were as good as it could be.

On Alvaro Enrigue’s ‘Sudden Death,’ translation, and the power of narrative control.

On Alvaro Enrigue’s ‘Sudden Death,’ translation, and the power of narrative control.

A friend of mine spent a summer teaching English to Roma children in Hungary.  She was a college sophomore; most of the volunteer teachers were under twenty-one.  As you might expect from a gaggle of underage students on break from their elite U.S. colleges, these volunteers took advantage of the lower drinking age in Hungary to get uproariously wasted.

One morning, my bleary-eyed friend watched as her even-more-hung-over co-teacher asked child after child to translate a Hungarian word for him, only to have each break into nervous titters.  Apparently he, the co-teacher, had jotted down the words of a toast during the previous night’s drinking.  Then, as expected, he forgot what the phrase meant.

The toast was, roughly, “When you tip back your drink, empty it, because a half-finished drink is no better re-drunk than a half-fucked woman re-fucked.”  The word he was asking children to translate was “re-fucked.”  Ah, Stanford.  A college for our best and brightest!

51mew0IOfFL._SX307_BO1,204,203,200_In Alvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death (translated into English by Natasha Wimmer), the granddaughter of conquistador Hernan Cortés escorts her visiting betrothed out of the house on the night before their wedding.  The nervous, soon-to-be-married man had spent much of the afternoon talking to his future mother-in-law about  Cortés, but it seems he only dimly understood their conversation  He’d lived only in Spain, but the mother-in-law’s language was peppered with American slang, legacy of the bloody conquest.

As they were approaching the door where they would part for the last time before they were married, [he] asked with sincere and perhaps slightly alarmed curiosity: So what does it mean to xingar, would you say?

Of course, Enrigue has let his readers in on the joke.  A few pages earlier he presented a scene from the future mother-in-law’s own childhood.  Like all children who have lost a parent, she was curious about her origins:

And do you miss him, [she] asked [her mother] … Who?  Father.  He was old and rich by the time I had him, the poor thing; he imagined that he was a real nobleman and tried to behave like a gentleman.  [Her mother] laughed again, a bit hysterically, and said: He was a wolf in a fine cap.  But did you like him?  The widow opened her eyes wide and dropped her embroidery on her lap to underscore the drama of her words: Who wouldn’t like him; he was Hernan Cortés, so los xingo a todos.  Or, in Juana’s polite translation for the benefit of the ladies and maids who didn’t speak Mexican Spanish.  He fucked everybody.

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Alvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death is a lovely novel in the tradition of Moby Dick.  An off-kilter, obsessive narrator presents a series of essays that cumulatively build toward a new perspective on the world.

In Moby Dick, Ishmael’s obsession is monolithic.  Whales!  Whales, and their killing.  Whereas the themes of Sudden Death seem manifold: tennis, Cortés, conquest, execution, painting, the upheaval of the Reformation.  Yet the novel is beautifully esemplastic.  By its end, all these concerns are interwoven.  Perhaps this is what octopus literature would be like: everything needs to be understood at once to be understood at all, and so Enrigue lets the disparate ideas tumble forth chaotically, almost haphazardly.  His goal seems to be to immerse his reader with these thoughts.

In my opinion, he succeeds.

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For the English publication of Sudden Death, Enrigue wrote new chapters about the vagaries of language (one includes the line “If you are reading this page, you are reading a translation”), which compliment a theme that I imagine was present in the original.  Translators control our experience of stories; those who control stories, control the world.  After murdering Walter Scott, a police officer composed an English-language story of the event.  A translation.  If a helpful citizen had not recorded video, the murderer’s translation would have shaped everyone’s perception.

Enrigue’s thoughts on translation are most clear in passages about Hernan Cortés, the man who destroyed an entire civilization.

Hernan_Fernando_CortesEvery second, 4.787 people are born in Mexico, and 1.639 die, which means that the population increases by an average rate of 3.148 Mexicans per second.  A nightmare.  Today there are more than 117 million Mexicans, and an unspecified number followed by six zeros in the United States.  A rough calculation suggests that between 1821, the year the country gained its independence, and the second decade of the twenty-first century, 180 million Mexicans, more or less, have been born.  Out of all of them, only Jose Vasconcelos considered Cortés to be a hero.  His unpopularity is nearly universal.

Take, for example, an inexplicable organization called the Mexican National Front, consisting of thirty-two skinheads.  The thirty-two morons who belong to the Front are admirers of Hitler – and even they explain on their website that Cortés was a bastard.

But Cortés couldn’t have done it alone.  His inability to speak any of the local languages trapped him within a bubble of ignorance.  He could function in the new world only with the help of pair of translators.  Because no one spoke both Spanish and the language of the new world, every remark had to pass through a third language, Mayan.

One of Cortés’s translators was a Spanish priest named Geronimo de Aguilar – the priest had been part of a shipwrecked expedition, watched as his shipmates were sacrificed to the local gods, but made himself sufficiently useful that he was enslaved instead of killed, giving him time to learn Mayan.  Then Cortés came and freed him.

The other translator was a native woman named Malinali Tenepatl – she had been born into royalty but was captured in a battle.  The captors relegated her to the status of a sex slave, during which time she learned Mayan.  Then Cortés came and … no, he did not free her.  But life as the personal-use sex slave of an older conquistador was an upgrade over her prior circumstance, subject to general rapine.

Cortez_&_La_Malinche

Cortés was absolutely not ready for a diplomatic conversation that first morning in Mexico.  They’ve brought gold, said the soldier, whose name was Alvaro de Campos; lots of gold.  Then I’m coming, said Cortés; wake Aguilar.  When the captain got out of bed, setting his feet on the cabin’s plank floor, there rose behind him – her hair in tangles and her skin a little bruised from the weight of his body – the face of the girl Malinalli Tenepatl, princess of Painala and courtesan of the cacique of Potonchan, skilled in arts no less valuable for being dirty.  Time to use your tongue, Cortés ordered.  She, whose polyglot brain was beginning to recognize simple orders in Spanish, asked in Chontal: On you or the gentleman?  But seeing that Cortés was getting dressed and Alvaro de Campos wasn’t getting undressed, she understood that it was her services as a translator that were required.

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During the invasion of Mexico, every message passed through three mouths.  The conquistador had a relatively simple-minded goal – gold, and lots of it – as did the local rulers – peace – but the translators had their own agendas.  With no one to contest their words, the translators could control the world.

This is what Moctezuma’s men delivered, no matter which chronicler is consulted:

  1. A solid gold sun
  2. A solid silver moon
  3. More than one hundred gold and silver plates set with jade
  4. Armbands, anklets, lip plugs
  5. Miters and tiaras encrusted with blue gems like sapphires
  6. All kinds of carved green stones
  7. Harnesses, chain mail, doublets, shooting devices, shields
  8. Plumes, fans, and capes made of featers
  9. Strange woven garments and bed hangings

Cortés thanked them for the gifts and gave them:

  1. The bracelet of glass beads

Since there was a notable imbalance between the two mounds of intercontinental memorabilia, he asked a soldier by the name of Bernardo Suarez to toss him his helmet:

  1. A helmet

When the swap was over – the Mexica ambassadors exchanging slightly disconcerted looks before proceeding, either because Cortés’s gifts were rubbish or because they would have preferred a horse to sacrifice – Cortés made a small bow and turned his back on the imperial messengers.  He was preparing to mount again when Aguilar informed him that the Aztecs had something else to add.

The main ambassador said [in Nahautl, the local language]: We bring you these valuable gifts so that you will give them to your emperor as a token of our friendship and respect; we hope that they please you and that you return to deliver them with all your men and all the terrible beasts you have brought with you; we hope that you never again set foot in our lands. 

Malinalli, [who spoke Nahautl and Chontal], who by now had her own agenda and preferred to be the wife of an absentminded old man [Cortés] than to go back to being the sex slave of a cacique and all his friends, translated this as: We bring you these very valuable gifts but in truth they are as nothing compared with what lies ahead; we hope you like them; we give them to you so that you won’t even think about advancing farther with your terrible beasts because we know that the people are so unhappy with the emperor that they would surely join your cause and not ours. 

Aguilar, [a priest who spoke Chontal and Spanish], seeing the young warriors and their clubs bristling with knives, said: They give you a warm welcome; they say that they bring you these gifts from the emperor of this land, who is troubled because his people are unhappy; they say that it’s best if you don’t help him, that in order to get anywhere you’d have to beat all the boys over there, and they are terrible. 

Cortés said [in Spanish] that he’d think about it, and everyone seemed satisfied with his response.

The conversation between the Aztecs and Spaniards continued in more or less the same vein throughout the first stage of the conquest of Mexico, which ended with the previously described stay of Cortés and his men in Tenochtitlan.  There are few better illustrations of how a whole host of people can manage to understand absolutely nothing, act in an impulsive and idiotic way, and still drastically change the course of history.

This last line hits especially hard for a U.S. reader during the chaotic reign of the 45th.  Those who control the narrative still control the world.  Although many citizens in the U.S. speak English, Fox News and Facebook can trap people in perceptual bubbles just as effectively as language barriers.

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Enrigue furthers his message with some intentional mistranslations of his own.  He includes quotations from historical documents about the origin of tennis, but these are often manipulated to fit his story; the novel is rife with falsified detail.  One chapter of Sudden Death reads, in its entirety:

On the Causes of Poverty Under the Reign of Henry VIII

And what say you of the shameless luxury all about this abject poverty?  Serving-folk, craftsmen, and even farmers themselves show excessive vanity in diet and in apparel.  What say you of the brothels, the infamous houses, and those other dens of vice, the taverns and alehouses?  And what of all the nefarious games in which money runs fast away, condemning initiates to poverty or highway robbery?  Cards, dice, foot-ball, quoits.  And worst of all: tennis.  Banish from the land these noxious plagues.

Thomas More, Utopia, 1516

723px-Hans_Holbein,_the_Younger_-_Sir_Thomas_More_-_Google_Art_ProjectMy own Latin is very poor, but this passage of Thomas More’s Utopia seems instead to say, “games played on a table, games played with paper, games with a ball, a sphere, a disc; and when the money is gone, won’t their players become brigands?”

Or there’s the early (1556) English translation from Ralph Robinson:

Nowe bawdes, queines, whoores, harlottes, flrumpettes, brothelhoufes, flewes, and yet an other flewes wynetauernes, ale houfes, and tiplinge houfes, with fo manye naughtie, lewde, and vnlawfull games, as dyce, cardes, tables, tennis, boules, coytes, do not all thefe fende the haunters of them flreyghte a ftealynge when theyr money is gone?

Obviously Robinson manipulated the original text to further an agenda of his own, listing illicit sexuality as a deadly vice six separate times.  But he does not consider the haunters of tennis to be notably worse than those who gamble on other games.  Nor do modern translators (e.g. Robert Adams: “Look at all the crooked games of chance like dice, cards, backgammon, tennis, bowling and quoits, in which money slips away so fast.  Don’t all these pastimes lead their devotees straight to robbery?”).

It’s not enough to say that control over a narrative brings power, or even to show it.  Enrigue makes his point far more effectively; he uses this power.

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I highly recommend that you read Sudden Death.  Enrigue’s writing is erudite, comical, and cutting; Wimmer’s rendering is lovely.  And the book was written for all the right reasons.  From an authorial interlude near its end:

[This] isn’t a book about Caravaggio or Quevedo, though Caravaggio and Quevedo are in the book, as are Cortés and Cuauhtemoc, and Galileo and Pius IV.  Gigantic individuals facing off.  All fucking, getting drunk, gambling in the void.

I don’t know what this book is about.  I know that as I wrote it I was angry because the bad guys always win.  Maybe all books are written simply because in every game the bad guys have the advantage and that is too much to bear.

641px-Caravaggio,_Michelangelo_Merisi_da_-_The_Calling_of_Saint_Matthew_-_1599-1600_(hi_res)

On crashing waves of violence and Paul Kingsnorth’s ‘The Wake.’

On crashing waves of violence and Paul Kingsnorth’s ‘The Wake.’

Our world was stolen.  Current wealth, even when no recent crimes transpired to obtain it, flows from a legacy of murder, theft, and oppression.

I’m no communist, mind you.  It’s quite clear the the total wealth available to the world is not a static number.  People’s effort to create more should be rewarded.  The basic principles of capitalism are, to my mind, the best way of doling out those rewards.

For instance, the wealth of many modern nations comes from oil reserves.  But petroleum, for ages, had little value.  It was noxious black muck.  Wasn’t until the invention of machines that use petroleum as fuel that oil became real wealth.

And it’d be ridiculous to claim that the wealth of internet barons was merely appropriated.  They had ideas, and in recognition of the value of those ideas, they were given wealth.  Those inventors did nothing wrong.

The problem is, the wealth they were given is tainted.

This is easiest to see when we consider wealth tied up in land holdings.  Millions of years ago, bands of Homo sapiens ranged over relatively small tracts of land.  Many other species of humans also inhabited the planet, and the land was shared with other animals (although I’ve noticed that when my daughter shares toys with other toddlers, there’s generally less spilt blood, singed fur, and rent flesh than there would’ve been when early humans “shared” territory with wolves, lions, hyenas, elephants, hippopotamuses, etc.).

439px-Homo_neanderthalensis_adult_male_-_head_model_-_Smithsonian_Museum_of_Natural_History_-_2012-05-17
A model of an adult Neanderthal male head and shoulders on display in the Hall of Human Origins in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

As time went on, Homo sapiens spread and killed off all other species of humans, either directly, with spears through the chest and rocks concussed against skulls, or indirectly, by excluding competitors from fertile land and waterholes, letting the conquered tribes fragment and starve and slowly waste away.  The spread of Homo sapiens was a violent apocalypse for all other humans.  There were zero survivors.

Homo sapiens didn’t just kill off their human competitors.  Throughout most of the world, the spread of Homo sapiens coincided with the prompt extinction of all other large animals (Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens has a lovely discussion of the archaeological data supporting this.  You can get a pretty good sense of the impact of Homo sapiens migration by looking at the “Timeline of History” that Harari compiled, with entries like: “45,000 years ago: Sapiens settle Australia.  Extinction of Australian megafauna.”  “16,000 years ago: Sapiens settle America.  Extinction of American megafauna.”).

And then, once the world harbored growing numbers of Homo sapiens, clash after clash occurred as newcomers made forays into already-settled land.  Sometimes the newcomers were repulsed.  It’s unlikely that we preserve a record of many of those instances, because a failed invasion is generally more transient than a successful one, and the archaeological record would show no dramatic changes since the same style of architecture and artifacts will predominate in an area before and after.

At other times, the newcomers were more numerous, or brought more advanced weaponry, or were accompanied by crippling diseases spawned by their cohabitation with swine.  In those instances, the newcomers often expunged the previous inhabitants.  This happened over and over again.  I don’t know much about the history of England, but I know a bit about Stonehenge, and how the people who built Stonehenge suffered a devastating apocalypse when newcomers arrived bearing bronze weaponry  … and then those newcomers, firmly established years later, were in turn conquered during the Norman Invasion.

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Which always seems unfair.  After each wave of violence, a culture becomes established that would like for the cycle to end.  Sure, history up until now has featured wave after wave of newcomers coming and crushing and taking, but now that we are here the killing should stop.

I think this idea is conveyed beautifully by a line from Marcel Proust (trans. CK Scott Moncrieff): “But like those persons recently decorated who, their investiture once accomplished, would like to see the fountain of honor turned off at the main, Mme Bontemps would have preferred that, after herself, no one else in her own circle should be made known to the Princess.”  A gorgeous phrase, “the fountain of honor turned off at the main.”  And quite telling.  It’s incredibly common for people to buck at the idea of losing their status to others who follow their own footsteps.

For a contemporary example, you could read Alec MacGillis’s recent opinion piece.  He provides several examples of past beneficiaries of government aid voting to end that aid for others once they themselves no longer need it.

No matter how our good fortune came about, we don’t want to lose it to others.

So, the world formed.  Then humans spread and claimed certain tracts of land as their own.  Then humans kept migrating and re-claiming land.  Taking it from others.  In relatively modern times, the argument was often put forward that previous inhabitants were not using the land well and so had no real claim to it.  This was the justification given for the slaughter of Native Americans, and the same argument is alluded to in Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake as regards the slaughter of the people who built Stonehenge:

anglisc folc cum here across the sea many years ago. wilde was this land wilde with ingegas with wealsc folc with aelfs and the wulf. cum we did in our scips our great carfan scips with the wyrms heafod and we macd good this land what had been weac and uncept and was thus ours by right

Roughly: English folk came here from across the sea many years ago.  The land was wild with foreigners, natives, elves, and wolves.  Our people came in dragon-prowed ships and then worked the land to make good what had been weak and unkept, so the land was ours by right.

But there are many ways to define what good stewardship means.  Although they did not build fences, by many measures the Native Americans took better care of their land than the European settlers did after stealing it.  And this same argument could be used by any culture with more advanced technology than another.  From the perspective of someone who discovers a more productive farming method, vast tracts of U.S. farmland could be seen as underutilized and therefore free for the taking.

We’ve had many years now of relative stability in ownership of land, but this is due in large part to the knowledge that any unrestrained attempts at conquest could now exterminate the entire species.  Yes, newspapers make the world sound violent.  But compared to the past (and especially if you weight this comparison for population density), the advent of nuclear weapons has slowed the spigot of violence to a trickle.

Still, it’s worth acknowledging that violent conquest set an initial distribution of holdings that our current allotments stem from.  That’s why it’s so valuable to consider what those conquests might have felt like for the losers.  Their tragedies birthed our prosperity.  True gratitude for our lot acknowledges what they lost.

Edwards'_DodoIt’s horrifying to consider what the end times must have felt like for the last of those people who had built Stonehenge.  Did they know that their culture was being obliterated?  Even worse, what did the end times feel like for the last Neanderthals?  The last Homo habilis?  The last Homo floresiensis?  Did they know that their kind were going extinct?  Did an individual Neanderthal know that his language would be lost forever, his myths forgotten, his lineage come to an absolute halt?

In The Wake, Kingsnorth addresses these horrors in a not-too-unfamiliar way by depicting the travails of an Englishman losing his world to the Norman Invasion.  The protagonist is wicked, the owner of large land holdings that he forces servile tenants to work for him, an occasional wife beater, wielder of a sword smithed by a revered figure who raped and murdered the innocent children of his adversaries… but Kingsnorth presents him sympathetically.  The man’s family is killed by the French.  He is driven away from his land.  And his way of life is coming to an end.  In Kingsnorth’s words,

The Norman invasion and occupation of England was probably the most catastrophic single event in this nation’s history.  It brought slaughter, famine, scorched-earth warfare, slavery, and widespread land confiscation to the English population, along with a new ruling class who had, in many cases, little but contempt for their new subjects.

As long as we restrict ourselves to considering events for which we have historical documentation, I’m inclined to agree.  The language I now speak was starkly branded by that occupation.  Some of the most telling relics are our words for meats.  The names of the animals stem from their Old English roots, because the animals continued to be raised by the conquered people.  The names for prepared meats come from French, because French speakers ate the food.  Cows and swine and sheep become beef and pork and mutton once they’re ready to be served.

Kingsnorth’s book begins with the protagonist as a man of appreciable wealth.

9781555977177three oxgangs of good land i had and two geburs to worc for me on it and four oxen of my own for the plough this was mor than any other man in this ham. baerlic i had and rye sceap and hors also i had swine pasture holt my own water aeppels on many good treows

a great man i was in my ham all cnawan me a seat i had on the wapentac and free i was from the worc of other men. this was my land it was my fathers land i will not spec of my father. geld wolde i gif but only to the gyng not to the thegn. sum lytel worc wolde i do for the thegn for this was how things was but no man was ofer me no man will be ofer me

But then he loses his land.  All Englishmen lost their land, because after the invasion it was all claimed by their new king.  Kingsnorth points out that a legacy of that violence is still with us today, because a huge percentage of land in England is owned by just one percent of the population.  Although that concentration of wealth almost certainly would have occurred eventually, Normans or no.  There was nothing particularly special about the culture of that particular set of murderers and thieves that led to the current distribution of English wealth.

Wouldn’t have needed violence, even… although if you’re plotting a massive land grab, history has shown us that violence clearly helps.  But, inequality has been with us forever.  From the beginning of time, not all territory was equally productive.  Some spots were better for fishing or hunting than others, and there’s no reason to suspect that these were equitably shared.  With more advanced technology, the severity of inequality that can be maintained increases.  It’s easier to tax and horde grain than felled elk.  And easier still to horde gold.  Grain rots.  Gold does not.

Plus, as technology advances, the productivity of a worker’s efforts diminish in comparison to the productivity of owned wealth itself.  This is easiest to see if we consider advances in something like shoemaking.  At one point in time, a worker would make an entire shoe.  That worker’s skill and training determined how good the shoe would be, so the worker was highly compensated.  Later, a worker would stitch just one single component in a factory.  The identity of the worker did not matter much; how hard would it be to train someone new to make that stitch?  So compensation decreased.  Later still, the shoe will be made entirely by a machine.  Our worker will do no work, and won’t be compensated at all.  Only the owner of the machine makes money.

It’s pretty clear that the concentration of wealth Kingsnorth writes about would have happened eventually.  But in this world, in England, it happened then.

CaptureI do wish, though, that Kingsnorth had written his book in English.  As you probably noticed from the excerpts I quoted above, it isn’t.  The language he invented is related to modern English, but I found it difficult to read.  Multiple sentence fragments are often conjoined without clarifying punctuation, many words are spelled eccentrically, and archaic words are used in place of their contemporary equivalents.  Kingsnorth explains this choice as a way to emphasize the temporal setting of his work.

The early English created the nation we now live in.  They are, in a very real sense, the ancestors of all of us living in England today, wherever our actual ancestors come from.  Despite this link, though, their world was distant from ours; not only in time but in values, understanding, mythopoesis.  Language seemed the best way to convey this.

Personally I disagree with this reasoning, but I have to admit that my disagreement stems from my own failings.  I speak only English and read many books in translation.  I’d like to think that I can understand Proust even though he saw the world as a French speaker and I’ve read only English translations of his work.  I’d like to think that I can understand the Ramayana even though I can’t read the original Sanskrit.  I’d like to think that I can understand Beowulf, which is set amongst people with beliefs very similar to those that might’ve been held by Kingsnorth’s characters, even though I read Seamus Heaney’s translation into contemporary English.

(Heaney did permit himself a few archaic terms.  I love his explanation for one of these: “Putting a bawn [Irish word for fortification] into Beowulf seems one way for an Irish poet to come to terms with that complex history of conquest and colony, absorption and resistance, integrity and antagonism, a history which has to be clearly acknowledged by all in order to render it ever more ‘willable forward / Again and again and again.’ ”  And it made me smile that the word Kingsnorth used for “foreigner” was translated by Heaney as “stalker.”)

Even though I would’ve rather read Kingsnorth’s book in contemporary English, I should point out an unexpected (for me) virtue of his choice.  The book’s language compels a reader to slow down.  Many passages are difficult to understand without sounding out words.  Parsing sentences without much clarifying punctuation requires careful attention.  And good literature rewards attentive reading.  In our era of glitzy headlines and scrollable text, there’s some merit in forcing people to read assiduously.

All told, I appreciated the chance to read Kingsnorth’s take on the end of a world.  It gave me a lot to think about.  And makes me want to read more about the last Neanderthals.  It’s just brutal, trying to empathize with the magnitude of their loss.  Sure, I know that species go extinct all the time (another species vanishes forever every ten minutes… not that this isn’t tragic), but it hits so much harder knowing they were humans.  People with their own cultures, languages, dreams.

And now?

Gone.

On Eka Kurniawan’s ‘Beauty Is a Wound,’ mythology, and misogyny.

On Eka Kurniawan’s ‘Beauty Is a Wound,’ mythology, and misogyny.

9781925240238I assumed I was the ideal audience for Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty Is a Wound.  It’s an epic work of magic realism, and there are bountiful parallels to Gabriel Garcia Marquez — just like everybody else, I love Garcia Marquez (some friends once used iron-on lettering to make me a shirt reading, “Almonds: The Official Scent of Unrequited Love”).  Kurniawan alludes frequently to The Mahabharata, which is like the bigger, badder, beastlier younger sibling of The Ramayana.  And a major theme of Beauty Is a Wound is the tragedy of pervasive violence against women.

Kurniawan’s interests mirror my own — why wouldn’t I love his book?  Why wouldn’t I tell you, dear reader, that you should read it too?

Well, some stylistic parallels to ancient mythology affect how enthusiastically I’d be able to recommend his book.  From The Iliad to The Bible to The Mahabharata, one common characteristic of epic mythology is repetition.  Stories are told over and over again by and to different characters, the same turns of phrases recur throughout.  This is reasonable for a work composed orally, but can seem excessive to contemporary readers: consider this passage from Mark Leyner’s egregiously-titled sendup of epic mythology:

T.S.F.N. : If we were to ask you to pick the one thing you liked most about the performance of The Sugar Frosted Nutsack you just listened to, what would it be?

REAL HUSBAND: The sheer mind-numbing repetitiveness of it.  And the almost unendurable length.

Repetition makes the parallel between Beauty Is a Wound and The Mahabharata more explicit, and even though that choice improves the work from the perspective of someone who understands why he’s doing it, I fear it might also make the book seem less accessible to the average reader.

CaptureIt reminds me of stylistic choices made for David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (although this is dicier to write about, because Wallace did not have the chance to compile a final version).  In The Pale King, Wallace approached boredom with the same multifaceted concern he’d devoted to desire in Infinite Jest ... so it’s natural that some passages in The Pale King needed to be boring.  I understand why he did it.  At the same time, I worry that the choice may have turned away some readers, and that’s a shame because there are some beautiful ideas in the book (here’s an essay about my favorite passage).

A reader unfamiliar with the incessant repetitiveness of traditional mythology might be puzzled why so many phrases in Beauty Is a Wound recur.  This is especially noticeable with the more striking imagery in the book, like,

bananaThe other [murdered communists] had been left to rot on the side of the road, until those who couldn’t stand them anymore finally buried them, but even then it was more like burying some shit after defecating in the banana orchard.

followed, less than a hundred pages later, by,

But it wasn’t like burying a corpse — it was more like burying a turd after taking a shit in the banana orchard.

That’s a choice I wouldn’t make, but that’s fine — fans of traditional mythology are accustomed to, in Leyner’s words, “mind-numbing repetitiveness.”  So, yes, characters’ histories are recounted anew several chapters in a row, imagery recurs, linguistic tics crop up again and again.

(I’m culpable of this last one too, it seems.  I never grew accustomed to Kurniawan’s / translator Annie Tucker’s use of way where I’d say much, like “way better,” “way more modest,” “way more frightening,” but during a Skype chat about my novel with an overseas draft reader he expressed befuddlement why I’d written couple instead of few so many times, “a couple batteries,” “couple beers,” “couple hours,” etc.  All I could say was, “Whoops.”  I guess we speak worse English here in Indiana than they do in Tehran.)

The thing I found most off-putting in Beauty Is a Wound, that makes me hesitant to recommend it, is that, despite Kurniawan clearly caring deeply about the plight of women, the book still felt vaguely misogynistic.

This probably is not Kurniawan’s fault, entirely.  He seems like he might well be a feminist, protesting the callous mistreatment of women in traditional mythology — in The Mahabharata, for instance, the heroes gamble away their wife, who is then forcibly stripped in the middle of an assembly hall. That the vast majority of female characters in Beauty Is a Wound are raped, with their violations described so cavalierly, seems like a valid commentary to make.  Even that victims are then portrayed as falling in love with their rapists seems valid — in the United States, victims of sexual assault often have subsequent consensual relations with their attackers, and the Bible instructs for victims to be married to their assailants.

At the same time, it made me sad that the women in Beauty Is a Wound are so uniformly depicted as irrational and cruel.  I was reminded again and again of Scott Aaronson’s blog comment describing the way that geek culture often fears and reviles women for being sufficiently beautiful to invoke desire:

scott6-smHere’s the thing: I spent my formative years — basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s — feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified.  I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison.

Aaronson’s case might be extreme because he began college so young, but I think the general psychological progression is pretty common amongst geeky, nervous males: desire women, fear women, dislike women.  The misogyny of geek culture seems to be rooted in the expectation that women will be cruel.

Kurniawan depicts that same feared cruelty.  This wouldn’t have seemed so odd had it come from a single character — some people are cruelbut almost every female character seems beset by similar motivations.  It’s stated most explicitly when Almanda is crushing geek dreams:

kapowEach would grow more confident, feeling like the handsomest guy on earth, like the kindest man in the universe with the best hair on the planet, and convinced by all of this at the first opportunity that arose they would speak up or send a letter spewing their prehistoric pent-up desires: Alamanda, I love you.  That was the best time to destroy a man, to shake him up, to tear his heart to pieces, the best opportunity to show a woman’s superiority, so Alamanda would say, I do not love you.

“I like men,” Alamanda said once, “but I like to see them cry from heartbreak even more.”

(It’s also unsettling that she is later “tamed” by methods prescribed by jerktastic pick-up guides like Neil Strauss’s The Game.  Alamanda rejects everyone until a character “negs” her, then she finds him irresistible.)

While I appreciate that Kurniawan is so passionate about the dire straights of women, it’s a shame that misogyny is so pervasive that it inflects even books written in defense of women.  I just began reading Franzen’s Purity, for instance, and it already bothers me how frequently Pip, a twenty-something year old woman, is referred to as “girl.”  Again, this isn’t necessarily Franzen’s fault, it’s pervasive — consider Flo, the Progressive Insurance “girl.”

Calling an adult male “boy” is noticed to be demeaning by most people, but “girl” is (still!) used so routinely that it can slip by unnoticed.  Even though it shouldn’t.  That sort of language helps perpetuate our misogynistic culture.

I don’t know much about how woman are treated in Indonesia, but judging from Kurniawan’s book the situation seems to be just as bad as here, or worse.  Which obviously saddens me from the perspective of someone who cares about social justice.  But it affects me as a reader, too.  If Kurniawan had been immersed in a culture that talked about & treated women respectfully, I bet he’d have written something I’d really enjoy.

On translation.

Thank you, Mr. Reeder.
Thank you, Mr. Reeder.

My turn in our local library’s queue to read Peter Buwalda’s “Bonita Avenue” has just arrived, which means that now feels like as good a time as any to jot down a couple thoughts on translation.  After all, I wouldn’t get to read this novel if not for the hard work that Jonathan Reeder did for me and all other English-speaking, non-Dutch-speaking readers.

Obviously, I’m not an expert — I can only read in English, and there are only a handful of works, like the Bible, the Ramayana, the Iliad, The Stranger, and In Search of Lost Time, that I’ve read in multiple translations — and like most other non-translators, I probably underestimate how hard that work is.  Not that I think it’s easy, but translating a novel seems like one of those things that everyone knows would be difficult, but turns out to be even more difficult to actually do.  And I wish translators got more appreciation, like their names printed on book covers.  So much of what I read, and what I’ve loved, I could never have experienced without the effort of translators, so it’s painful to see their work go uncredited.

That said, here are my two thoughts about translation for today:

Picture 6Dance Dance Dance is my favorite novel by Haruki Murakami.  And I was talking to the friend who’d gotten me started reading his work, explaining why I liked it, and one of the things I said was that I appreciated how dark and scary the book was (I can’t quote the conversation exactly because it transpired about twelve years ago).  She was surprised; she hadn’t thought the tone of the book was like that at all.  But then it turned out that she’d read that novel in the original Japanese; later she read Alfred Birnbaum‘s English translation and agreed, that version is terrifying.  In part, that conversation made me wonder whether it’s the work of specific translators who’ve influenced which Murakami books I enjoy most — I know that several translators have worked on Murakami’s novels, and how much of my love of Dance Dance Dance is due to Birnbaum’s masterful rendition of the work?

Second thought: it must be very difficult to do fescennine slang in another language.  To me, the English renderings of Marcel and Albertine’s last big fight sound quite strange; she accuses Marcel of being too tentative, too dainty, and too restrictive of her freedoms.  Rather than throw parties and spend his money, she’d rather go out and have sex (which, right, Albertine, despite being female, uses a slang term for receiving anal sex in this passage, after which Proust provides some rationalization, speculating that perhaps lesbians would use that term to refer to any sexual encounter with a man — this is probably the only passage in the work where I feel like Albertine’s gender transposition has a serious deleterious effect on the novel as art, because it makes the dialogue and the subsequent passages ring false), which she could do for free.

Marcel_Proust_et_Lucien_DaudetBut it’s the belatedly-swallowed revelation from Albertine that seems like it must’ve been incredibly nettlesome to translate.  In both the Moncrieff / Kilmartin / Enright translation, which reads:

“Thank you for nothing!  Spend money on them!  I’d a great deal rather you left me free for once in a way to go and get myself b . . . (me faire casser) . . .”

…and the Carol Clark translation (which I read less often, but through no fault of hers.  My copy is a British printing, apparently there was some issue with copyrights or some such thing and the U.S. versions of the final volumes won’t be released until 2018.  But this means that the book is formatted in an unfamiliar style for me), which I think presents the dialogue more smoothly in English but makes the idea of guessing the final words less plausible:

“Thanks a lot!  Spend money on those old gargoyles, I’d much rather you left me alone for once, let me go out and get . . .”

…a reader could easily feel befuddled as to how Marcel managed to guess what Albertine was about to say.  Which does matter; it changes how suspicious Marcel is acting if her statement is relatively devoid of sexualized clues, and it changes how the reader views Albertine depending on how crude her usage is perceived to be.  I don’t know French, but given my impression of what Proust is trying to do with this scene (I should mention, by the way, that both translations provide helpful endnotes to explain this passage), I’d almost like to see Albertine use a curtailed prepositional phrase like “up the…” to end her statement.  It seems clear that a structure like that would not match Proust’s language, but might mirror his intent.  Or is it wrong to want new translations of older works to use contemporary language?