08 March, 2007

Foos won't moos

In his 1943 book Intertraffic, E. S. Bates argues that translation 'is still in its infancy. Most of it is subject to taste and temperament rather than to knowledge. Nobody is entitled to be authoritative or final about it.' What he wanted, like his friend and reviewer, the classicist C. M. Bowra, was a science of translation, one that took into account all the relevant difficulties and grappled with them in a systematic manner, one with an intuitive grasp of the music of words in both languages. Not that he thought the practice technical:
In practice, typographers' and haberdashers' definitions of verse-forms, and a public which lingers alongside them, handicap the translator. The technically-minded man is evil in all his ways. Unemployment amongst grammarians needs to be raised to 101 per cent: what they prescribe matters no more to the translator than the anatomy of a dog to a dog-lover. Grammarians and Academics, in fact, know no more about language than economists about economics. All three get busy in vacuums; and the truth-proof lining of each vacuum is its vocabulary.
This condemnation of the technical and the pedantic has very strong roots—it is an expression of an aristocratic humanism centuries old, almost utterly lost in the English departments of today. In many respects, the 1940s marked the height of this attitude among British intellectuals—in the coming decades, literature and language would be under increasing siege from the sciences. But of course, humanism did not vanish, and the field of translation remained an old fortress for decades; only in the 1980s did it come under serious attack from the avant-garde. In June 1957, the prelate and critic Ronald Knox gave a public address on 'The Demands of a Good Translation'. This was two months before his death, and so he 'was obliged for reasons of health to deliver his lecture sitting down'. As the Times reported:
The ideal approach, he considered, was to represent the original in a graceful, genuine, solid form; the rendering, like the original, needed to be a literary production. . . The translator must in fact get inside somebody else's skin before he undertook the rendering of a single sentence.
'Graceful, genuine, solid form'—this is the voice of tradition speaking. As Frederick Rener observes, the classical criteria for good language-use, cited by translators of all ages, are proprietas (aptness) and puritas (elegance). As for 'get inside somebody else's skin', this is nothing but the standard Romantic line since Schleiermacher, who wrote that 'in interpretation it is essential that one be able to step out of one's own frame of mind into that of the author'. Knox wished for a 'timeless English', fearing that his choice of words would become dated—'no one could possibly tell what [English] would be like in the year 2007'.

This Times article, and Bowra's review of Intertraffic, were two of several cuttings (all on translation) generously inserted into my copy of Bates' book, which I acquired in a small bookshop off Edgware Road for a mere 3 quid. On the inside rear-flap of this wartime volume I find propaganda for British radio: 'FROM LONDON COMES THE VOICE OF BRITAIN. . . THE VOICE OF FREEDOM'. On the back of another cutting, 'MR. ATKINS said that if the overcrowding on parts of the southern section of the Northern Line underground had been imposed on British prisoners of war they would have aroused howls of protest.' Plus ça change, eh?


The most curious of all the cuttings, however, was this, again from the Times, over a decade later, 28 December, 1957:
from our Paris correspondent

This month's issue of the Nouvelle Revue Française contains an attempt at a translation into French of some passages from Finnegans Wake by M. André du Bouchet, together with an essay on Joyce's language by M. Butor. . .
The article goes on to quote a few bits of the translation; I find it difficult to imagine today's broadsheets being so bold. It so happens that I own a lovely 1962 copy of Bouchet's translation, bound with fragments of Anna Livia Plurabelle translated by 'Samuel Beckett, Alfred Perron, Ivan Goll, Eugène Jolas, Paul-L. Léon, Adrienne Monnier, Philippe Soupault, with the author'. It's a rare volume now, and I snapped it up at a PBFA fair a few years ago, an early jewel in my collection. If the Wake is a limiting case of literature, then it must also be a limiting case of difficulties in translation. Can the translator get inside Joyce's skin? Can he fall back on aptness and elegance, on graceful, genuine and solid form, or is something else required?

Let's have a look at what is perhaps the most famous passage of the book—with the exception of its Ovidian opening—namely, the conclusion of ALP, in which two washerwomen airing dirty laundry at the Liffey slowly metamorphosise into a tree and a rock in the gathering dusk.
Can't hear with the waters of. The chittering waters of. Flittering bats, field-mice bawk talk. Ho! Are you not gone ahome? What Thom Malone? Can't hear with bawk of bats, all thim liffeying waters of. Ho, talk save us! My foos won't moos. I feel as old as yonder elm. A tale told of Shaun or Shem? All Livia's daughter-sons. Dark hawks hear us. Night! Night! My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Tell me of John or Shaun? Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Telmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!
This is language aspiring to the condition of music—Joyce has played the words as a fugue of themes, as he did in the 'Sirens' chapter of Ulysses, only now with a much greater assurance. Shem and Shaun, the two boys of the book, are melded in the rush of the waters with the stem (elm) and the stone—and this pair stands for a whole series of dichotomies: time / space, music / painting, good / bad, and so on. Here's how Joyce and his friends render it:
N'entends pas cause les ondes de. Le bébé babil des ondes de. Souris chauve, trottinette cause pause. Hein! Tu n'es pas rentré? Quel père André? N'entends pas cause les fuisouris, les liffeyantes ondes de. Eh! Bruit nous aide! Mon pied à pied se lie lierré. Je me sens vieille comme mon orme même. Un conte conté de Shaun ou Shem? De Livie tous les fillefils. Sombres faucons écoutent l'ombre. Nuit. Nuit. Ma taute tête tombe. Je me sens lourde comme ma pierrestone. Conte moi de John ou Shaun. Qui furent Shem et Shaun en vie les fils ou filles de. Là-dessus nuit. Dis-mor, dis-mor, dis-mor, orme. Nuit, nuit! Contemoiconte soit tronc ou pierre. Tant rivièrantes ondes de, couretcourantes ondes de. Nuit.
In a concerted effort to retain the musical impetus, the collaborators have managed to avoid too many changes to the semantics, but there are a few; 'yonder elm' and 'yonder stone' become 'my elm' ('mon orme') and 'my stone' ('ma pierrestone'). On the other hand, 'dark hawks hear us' becomes 'dark hawks hear the shade' ('écoutent l'ombre'). Thus in the French the narrators have become recentred; but there is a remarkable fidelity to the rhythm. Marked for ictus:

Besíde the rívering wáters of / hítherandthíthering wáters of.
Tánt rivierántes óndes de / courétcourántes óndes de.

The leading syllable in the English is a short i, in the French, a nasal a [ã]—the latter sound better suited, I think, to the elegiac pace at which Joyce read the passage in English aloud.

As if to prove his polyglot genius, in 1938, with the help of Nino Frank, Joyce translated ALP into Italian; the text is online here.
Non odo più per le acqui di. Le chiacchiericcianti acque di. Nottole qua, topi là fan pian. Oh! Non sei andata a casa? Che Renata la Masa? Non odo più il nottolio, le liffeyanti acque di. Rio ci scampi! Al mio piè ledra v'è. Mi sento vecchia come l'elmo tasso. Fiaba detta di Gionni e Giace? D'Anna Livia i figlifiglie. Corvo scuro ode. Notte! Notte! Il mio cupo capo cade. Mi sento pesa come quel sasso. Dimmi di Giaco e Giaso! Chi fur Giac e Gion i vivi figli e figlie di? Notte addenso! Dimmi, dimmi, dimmi, olm! Nottenot! Dimmifiaba d'alberoccia. Presso le frusciacque di, le quinciequindi acque di. Not!
We can contrast this to another Italian translation published recently by Luigi Schenoni, a copy of which I bought in Siena three years ago:
Non riesco a sentire con l'acque bisbiglie di. Le mormoricchianti acque di. Pipistrelli volicchianti, il parlottare dei topi campagnoli. Ho! Non sei tonnat'a pedone? Chi è Thom Malone? Non riesco a sentire con il parlottare dei pipistrelli, con tutte le liffeggianti acque di. Ho, parla salvaci! I miei oossuti piedi non si mooseòvono. Mi sento vecchia come quel'elmlontano olmo. Una storia spifferata di Shaun o di Shem? Tutt'i figliefigli di Livia. Scuri sparvieri ci sentono. Notte! Notte! La mia tozza testa tentenna. Mi sento greve come quel sasso laggiù. Mi dici di John o di Shaun? Chi erano Shem e Shaun i vivi figli o figlie di? Notte nera! Dimmel, dimmel, dimmel olmo! Notte notte! Dimmi il ditto stelo e sasso. Accanto alle fiumeggianti acque di, alle quaelavaganti acque di. Notte!
The difference is worth noting. Joyce has allowed himself a greater creativity, not as afraid of his original as Schenoni is. Hence, Joyce alters the name 'Thom Malone' so as better to fit the previous sentence, whereas Schenoni alters the sense of going home to fit the English name. Schenoni, in other words, treats the name as a sort of token of the original, something that must be preserved in the transition to show the true nature of the text. The same goes for the names Shem and Shaun, which Schenoni, unlike Joyce, keeps English.

But Schenoni is insensitive to Joyce's music, and is unwilling to compress the syntax for sonic effects. Notice, for instance, how the rhyming spondee 'bawk talk' has been preserved in 'cause pause' and 'fan pian', whereas Schenoni offers the grossly flaccid 'il parlottare dei topi campagnoli'. Similarly, his rendition of the penultimate line has no feeling for the rhythm, the syllables tripping over each other in their haste:

Joyce: Présso le frusciácque di / le quínciequínde ácque di.
Schenoni: Accánto alle fiumeggiánti ácque di / alle quaelavagánti ácque di.

If Joyce could bend the shape of his English for musical and other effects, it seems churlish to refuse the same to a target language; 'olm' for elm is therefore better than 'olmo', as it contains more.


But the oddest translation of all is not into French or Italian—nor into German, or Japanese or Russian, or Swahili, or Tagalog or Etruscan. It is into English, or rather, I should say, Basic English. This was the simplified grammar and vocabulary devised by C. K. Ogden around 1930, allegedly learnable in 7 weeks, to be used in international communications. It was savaged by B. L. Whorf as misguided, and would later be the satirical target of Orwell's Newspeak.

Now, you might wonder why on earth anyone would want to translate Finnegans Wake—the most complicated book in the language—into Basic English, with its 850-word lexicon. Well, you and me, buddy, as M would say. When I mentioned it to Steve Languagehat he admitted that his 'mind is now officially blown'. Still, it was published with Joyce's blessing in the March 1932 issue of transition, the very magazine that serialised the early Wake. The piece can now be found in Noel Riley Fitch, ed. In Transition: A Paris Anthology:
No sound but the waters of. The dancing waters of. Winged things in flight, field-rats louder than talk. Ho! Are you not gone, ho! What Tom Malone? No sound but the noise of these things, the Liffey and all its waters of. Ho, talk safe keep us! There's no moving this my foot. I seem as old as that tree over there. A story of Shaun or Shem but where? All Livia's daughters and sons. Dark birds and hearing. Night! Night! My old head's bent. My weight is like that stone you see. What may the John Shaun story be? Or who were Shem and Shaun the living sons and daughters of? Night now! Say it, say it, tree! Night night! The story say of stem or stone. By the side of the river waters of, this way and that way waters of. Night!
Winged things in flight? The noise of these things? Dark birds and hearing? This is a piece that passeth all understanding! Of course the music is shot, but you could hardly expect different. When the original gets more twisted, Ogden's rendering is even more helpless:
Joyce: And sure he was the quare old buntz too, Dear Dirty Dumpling, foostherfather of fingalls and dotthergills. Gammer and gaffer we're all their gangsters.

Ogden: And Dear Dirty Dublin, he, on my word, was a strange fat old father to his Danes light and dark, the female and male. Old girl and old boy, their servants are we.

Joyce: He married his markets, cheap by foul, I know, like any Etrurian Catholic Heathen, in their pinky limony creamy birnies and their turkiss indienne mauves.

Ogden: His markets were married, the cheap with the bad, like Etrurian Catholics of hated religion in their light reds, light oranges, light yellows, light greens, and the rest of the seven the rain gives.

Joyce: He had buckgoat paps on him, soft ones for orphans. Ho, Lord!

Ogden: He was kind as a she-goat, to young without mothers. O, Laws!
And so on. It's a good folly-project; rather reminiscent of Mary Godolphin's 1867 Robinson Crusoe in Words of One Syllable:
But I had worse luck this time than the last, for when we were far out at sea, some Turks in a small ship came on our track in full chase. We set as much sail as our yards would bear, so as to get clear from them. But in spite of this, we saw our foes gain on us, and we felt sure that they would come up with our ship in a few hours' time.
(The full text is available on Gutenberg if you're interested.) These works remain a monument to their authors' literary ingenuity, some more fun than others. Thus, the prehistory of the OuLiPo. Ogden seemed pretty happy with his results, even though they read more like a curiosity than as a serious product of translating expertise. Others had related ideas with the Wake—abridgments (Anthony Burgess, A Shorter FW), epic poems (Norman O. Brown, Closing Time), and dramas (er, some bird whose name I forget Mary Manning, Passages from FW: a Free Adaptation for the Theater—this, and several other adaptations, I owe to the comments of that inimitable internet savant, MMcM).


What are we to learn from this—is the only person capable of getting under Joyce's skin Joyce himself? The translators never seemed to have a chance with this one, and the further away we get from 1939, the less modernism we have in our hearts and pens. Hence, Schenoni has nothing on Joyce's own efforts. Perhaps for translators other than Joyce, the technical and pedantic might have some merit. Aptness and elegance, in this instance, do not seem so far apart as goals. But then, nobody is entitled to be authoritative or final about it.

Update: the auxiliary section of RobotWisdom, which is among other things the great Joyce website and run by the man who coined the term 'weblog', kindly links. An honour!


Anonymous said...

More fun to write than to read, one suspects

When you read something, do you not compare what you are reading to what you suspect you would have written, had you been writing it?

Reading -- especially reading this kind of oulipian writing -- has once source of pleasure there, in deciding whether you could have come up with something cleverer than the author.

Thus, the prehistory of the OuLiPo.

I'm sure you know the phrase "anticipatory plagiarism"...

Andrew W. said...

Conrad, that was a delight!

Did Ogden translate the entire Wake?

In a university library here in Toronto, there is a 1st edition copy of his translation of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, and it's in circulation! I took it out once just to have it on my desk for a few weeks.

It seems here also that you point towards a surer division between the science and the art of translation.

Languagehat said...

Fascinating stuff, and my mind is still blown.

Do you happen to know anything about Bates? I've been exercising my best Google skills to no avail. Surely he had an actual given name.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Steve: Ernest Stuart Bates, 1876-1944. He also wrote Touring in 1600; a study in the development of travel as a means of education, and Inside out, an introduction to autobiography. Intertraffic, meanwhile, also discusses translations from Chinese, from Homer, from the Bible, various dramas, etc etc. It is very much of the old school.

Otto: no, just the last 3/4 pages of ALP, and three fragments from the rest (Tales Told Of Shem And Shaun : Three Fragments From Work In Progress, Paris: Black Sun, 1929). Ogden was responsible for a lot of translations, as well as writing the seminal The Meaning of Meaning with I. A. Richards (the godfather of New Criticism, and Empson's teacher).

Chris: sometimes I do make mental comparisons, yes, especially with translations. I generally find myself unsatisfied with the latter.

Aaron Haspel said...

Isn't the limiting case of translation not Finnegan's Wake but poetry?

There are fine poems that are "translations" (Pound's Seafarer and some of his Cathay poems), and there are accurate translations that are not very good poems (Arthur Waley's Japanese, or so I'm told), but never both, in my experience.

Anonymous said...

the legendary arno schmidt also attempted a "lesabrmachung".
online, you can read and listen to an extract.

and what to say of dieter stündel's "Finnegans Wehg. Kainnäh ÜbelSätzZung des Wehrkeß fun Schämes Scheuß"....

Anonymous said...

erm: "lesbarmachung", that is.

Anonymous said...

Isn't the limiting case of translation not Finnegan's Wake but poetry?

I have trouble reading the Wake as anything other than a poem. (Possibly I have trouble reading most non-non-fiction as anything other than a poem, which might explain why I'm so dissatisfied with most of it.)

There is some notorious example that I'd have to track down of a poem that consists entirely of punctuation that was translated from [French] into [English] -- might have been in Emmett Williams' anthology of concrete poetry?

Conrad H. Roth said...

Aaron--a rare sighting from you!--I'm not sure what my response is. Yes, perhaps the Wake is a sort of poem, or perhaps it is as hard, or harder, than poetry to translate.

Progosk: I can't say my German is good enough to assess such a matter. Speaking of which, however, I can answer Chris's question--you are referring, I believe, to Christian Morgenstern's Fisches Nachtgesang.

MMcM said...

Were you thinking of Jean Erdman's The Coach with the Six Insides? It's a musical. As well as a famous dancer, she is Joseph Campbell's widow.

Though they probably don't compete with Basic English, also making up the list would be:

An eight-hour silent movie by a couple of Danish guys.

John Cage's performance of all the noises.

The comic book version.

Conrad H. Roth said...

MMcM: No, I don't think it's Erdman. I think her name was Mary or Margaret something. I saw the book once in the Columbia Bookstore, NYC. And I forgot about the Roaratorio.

"The comic book version."

Now, when you mentioned this of course I had to drop my work and run upstairs to the library stacks. I had not heard of it. It's crude, but undeniably charming; I'll have to add it to my small but growing collection of 'literature in comic strip form', along with Martin Rowson's brilliant Waste Land and Tristram Shandy, and J. T. Waldman's splendid Megillat Esther.

There used to be a funny animation on the internet representing Naoki's Japanese translation of FW's introduction, but I can't find it now.

MMcM said...

Passages from Finnegans wake by James Joyce : a free adaptation for the theater by Mary Manning?

Oh, and then there's Susan Weil who had an exhibit of FW inspired works at Sundaram Tagore last year. Her father read it to her when she was a child.

Conrad H. Roth said...


Anonymous said...

'. . . the most complicated book in the language . . .'

Saying that the Wake is "in English" may be stretching the label to its limit. I'd say that any translation of it would more or less amount to folly . . . but for that matter, the original work bears many hallmarks of the same.

Speaking of OuLiPo, my first encounter with their output was a translation: Adair's rendition of Perec's La Disparation. As with Wake, the constraints imposed by the source text (lipogrammatical circumlocations versus polysemous neologorrhea) render any translation more a new composition.

It's hardly surprising that only Joyce has been willing to deliberately savage the original (Ogden was clearly well-meaning despite his Bowdlerized brain; his violence was surgery performed by a blind man) sufficiently to produce a translation with any linguistic vigor.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"Adair's rendition of Perec's La Disparation."

A masterpiece.

"the constraints imposed by the source text render any translation more a new composition."

Yes, but this is only a matter of degree: every good translation is a new composition.

"It's hardly surprising"

No, it is not surprising, but it was not a foregone conclusion either.

Anonymous said...

"Yes, but this is only a matter of degree: every good translation is a new composition."

And every bad one!

I certainly don't disagree. Let me try to develop the thought a little more:

Any translation needs to honor, to a greater rather than a lesser level, the source text. Perhaps this can be interpreted as seeking either the intention of the text or the intention of the author. There's something additional made clear by FW and Oulippian works: a level of explicit game-playing that breaks the traditional translation model.

How's this?: A good translator needs to play the same games as the author.

A faithful, textual translation of La Disparation into English would be, in some important sense, meaningless if it included the letter 'e'. The text is an invitation to play along.

The Wake is a much harder case, as the only person who could know all the polyglot and referential layers would be Joyce himself. And so, the ideal translator would need to have the sangfroid to spurn the text where necessary and play new games of the same kind; and also to bear the inevitable opprobrium flung by the purists for every loss of a favored connotation.

". . . not a forgone conclusion."

Perhaps not, but I think near as.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"Perhaps this can be interpreted as seeking either the intention of the text or the intention of the author."

Personally, I take a Wimsatt/Beardsley attitude towards authorial intention, so I would not want to make this interpretation. I think one can get by on formal externals.

That said, I certainly find the notion of game-playing a useful one. Firstly because (I digress here) it is inherently an appealing diversion from the gruesome self-seriousness of most literary thought (especially that of writers themselves); secondly because it grows naturally out of the literary tradition I myself enjoy the most--Lucian, Rabelais, Joyce, you fill in the blanks--and thirdly because it is an excellent way--as it was in Wittgenstein's hands--of addressing the problem of private vs. public language.

By the last I mean that 'playing the same games' is a definite improvement on 'getting into Joyce's skin'; it is a more reasonable model. I don't think that playing the same games as Joyce is necessarily impossible--from what I've heard the Japanese translation does this admirably, but without Japanese I can't verify that claim.

MMcM said...

Here is an article in English comparing the two Japanese FW translations, which take rather different positions on this fundamental question.

Anonymous said...

mmcm: Bloody awesome!

(from the paper): ". . . which parts to select to translate for her 628-page-long translation (same as the original text length)"

Miyata's definitely playing games.

Erik said...

Translations are always a problem. For muslims, the Koran is only the Koran in its language of time and place when and where it has been written. Every translation is not the Koran, but "an explanation" of it. I think these muslims are right, because the Bible's translations have caused many misunderstandings. Take e.g. the word "word". Many people believe that the Bible's words are "the Word", and that "The Word" is presented in words, thus upgrading words as vehicles of reality and truth. In any language, masterpieces of poetic art can be produced (Goethe called theatre plays, novels, and poems all "poetry"("Dichtung"), but all these masterpieces often can onlybe translated with a loss of poetic effect or value. Imitating a poetic effect results too often in puttering, or pulling meanings out of their contexts. Literal translations are killing for poems. Translation is an art, except in translation machines such as Bablefish, refining these machines is a science.

chris miller said...

A very important topic for me -- since almost everything I read is in translation..

Mostly -- I want to follow a voice that feels appropriate for the story -- so, for example, if a narrative turns dramatic, I want the voice to race along as if aware of my excitement.

But I also want a translation that has been recommended by those who best know the original language as well as English.

So, for example, I recently spent a wonderful three months reading Waley's translation of "Tale of Genji" --- but I also read
here about those who prefer Waley's
Japanese to English version to the various Japanese to Japanese versions that are now available.

But if they had recommended a different English version -- I would have had a strong incentive to begin reading that one as well.