Why I am Not a Translator--Take 2

by Norma Cole

I was going to talk about why I am not a translator but I’m not. I do translations, I’ve done many, mostly from French to English, but I still don’t think of myself as a translator.

I had given a talk on translation at Suzanne Stein’s sublet in San Francisco a year and a half ago, to friends that had gathered around her dining table, a talk titled “Why I Am Not A Translator” that began with a list of subordinate clauses I handed out, starting with “what,” as in “What Rosmarie Waldrop has to do with it,” “What Claude Royet-Journoud has to do with it,” “What Stacy Doris has to do with it,” “What Etel Adnan & Simone Fattal have to do with it,” etc. Every one of them had gotten me to translate any number of books, but it was always so much more than what one thinks of as translating. Sure, it was pretty much straight-ahead translation—if you can say “straight-ahead” for the kind of experimental poetry I work on, but it was more exciting, more irritating, more crooked. More about editing than you’d think. But mostly I thought—and think—about it in terms of poetics.

At the same time as I was thinking about translation, about AWP, and about this 10-minute talk I am actually starting to give right now, I was reading René Daumal’s Rasa or Knowledge of the Self, particularly an essay called “To Approach the Hindu Poetic Art.” As some of you know, René Daumal was a French writer born in 1908 in Charleville, the same town where Arthur Rimbaud had been born in 1854. Daumal, a writer of the avant-garde, who penned, among his many essays, poems and novels, the acclaimed unfinished novel Mount Analogue, at sixteen taught himself Sanskrit, wrote a Sanskrit grammar and translated some very important texts including the Chandyoga Upanishad and the Bhagavad Gita. With failing health, hiding out in Paris during the Occupation with his wife, who was part Jewish, he died of tuberculosis in May 1944, just two weeks before the Allies landed in France.

I was reading Daumal’s essay and thinking about my class at the University of San Francisco, and about the course in “Visionary Poetics” I’m teaching, and about the things I wanted to make sure to discuss with my students, and I ran across these sentences:

“ The existence of thought without words but not without forms is nevertheless necessary, for example, to all translation work. Every good translator does his utmost, without actually realizing it, to translate his text first into sphota, in order to translate into the second language; but he would be an even better translator if he were consciously aware of this process.”

I’d obviously run across these sentences many a time before, but suddenly I started to think about them in a more concentrated way.

First, the word sphota, what does it mean? We have to go back a paragraph: “ Is there, between words and things, a rapport of simple convention or an eternal appropriateness?” In other words, the rapport of simple convention means the normal words syntax depends upon, like prepositions, or “sonorous words” (dhvani), the onomatopoeic and alliterative, as in

Hark! Hark!
The dogs do bark!
whereas the eternal appropriateness means ideas that preexist words and objects. Word-seeds. Sphota.

Ideas that preexist words and objects. A test case in neurobiology: when I had my stroke 4 years ago, two areas of language were affected. One was a motor problem. Speech production was knocked out in the brain. Therefore I couldn’t talk at all. And I’ve had to refigure, little by little, how to make speech occur with mouth, teeth, tongue. Think of Christopher Reeves in the swimming pool, trying to make his legs function. And then, for many people who’ve had strokes, the brain swells, doesn’t settle for a while (perhaps 2 or 3 months) so we have aphasia and can’t think of words: the words for up or down, the simply conventional words; and the words that stand for ideas. I am here to tell you that one has ideas even before one has the words to say them. Ideas, or images. No tabula rasa.

So, that being the case, “every good translator does his utmost, without actually realizing it, to translate his text first into sphota, in order to retranslate it into the second language….”

I am not altogether happy with this. I mean, why shouldn’t one pass from the word in the first language straight to the word in the second language, without even thinking about ideas?

“I’ll reveal for you, in words as simple as mooing,” says Mayakovsky.

“I would like
to live
and die in Paris”
he wrote, translated by Stephen Rudy.

“I would like
to live
and die in Paris
if there weren’t
such a land
as Moscow”

and you can’t change that line, Mayakovsky said. It would not be the same if you were to write “Berlin” and “Warsaw,” for instance.

Or Dixie. To live and die in Dixie.

Roman Jakobson, the genius of structural linguistics, among whose great works are Verbal Art, Verbal Sign, Verbal Time, has written, “…the speaker selects words and combines them into sentences according to the syntactic system of the language he is using; sentences in their turn are combined into utterances. But the speaker is by no means a completely free agent in his choice of words: his selection (except for the rare case of actual neology) must be made from the lexical storehouse which he and his addressee possess in common.” This is from his essay, “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances,” Language in Literature, p.97.

Paris and Moscow, Berlin and Warsaw, both dyads would be available from the lexical storehouse, but, as we know, one expresses Mayakovsky’s idea, the other does not. “The ‘body’ of the poem is created from ‘sounds and meanings’,” (Jakobson) whether it is a translation or not. But it’s all translation anyhow. Crooked translation.


sfauthor said...

Nice posting. Do you know about this edition of the Gita?


Ed Baker said...

good attitude!

I "feel" it
far beyond the words
the meanings (?)

seems to me
translating from another lang
is easier
writing in (one's)
own language

so many languages especially those that are only spoken
are daily disappearing

let's "go back" to cave-wall pics and
begin again


voice is first instrument of an invented writing

merely "our" way to communicate
perfect intentions

am an huge phan of the Waldrops

especially the Jabes "stuff" the Albiach "stuff"