Reviewing a Book about Translation for a Romanian Journal

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If I were to choose the one sentence from this book that would prompt me to buy it and read it, pencil in hand, it would be “Shakespeare is always Shakespeare but Lear performed by an intelligent actor is simply better Shakespeare than when performed by a dud” [p.16; M. P.’s emphasis]. Polizzotti’s sentence cuts across so much hermeneutical and linguistic verbiage of the last fifty years, it is miraculously, even emblematically applicable to the critical and theoretical convulsions the translation section of the Writers Union of Romania is going through these days and which are set to culminate in an International Conference on Re-translation planned for November 4-5 of this year in Bucharest.

Stavros Deligiorgis © foto Peter Sragher
Stavros Deligiorgis © foto Peter Sragher

Mark Polizzotti’s book has nine sections with titles like “Ground Rules,” “Is Translation Possible (and What is it Anyway?),”  “Beautifully Unfaithful,” and “Adam’s Apricot, or Does Translation Matter.” Not another translator with ideas, Polizzotti is an urbane writer who truly enjoys the reflective tones of the essay that neither overgeneralizes nor sets out to plow through the depleted philologies of fidelity and its opposites. The practice and pronouncements of important translators—The Septuagint Seventy, St. Jerome, Tyndale, Bruni, Luther, The King James’ Bishops Bench, Dolet, Mme D’Acier, Tytler, Cowley, Dryden, Pope, Goethe, FitzGerald, Artaud, Beckett, Pound, Scott Moncrieff, Nabokov, Lowell, Borges, Fitts, Pound, Rexroth, Blackburn, Arrowsmith, Howard, Weaver, Zukofsky, Weinberger, Keeley—come with their shadow counterparts in theory like Cicero, St. Augustine, Schleiermacher, Benjamin, Wilson, Steiner, Nida, Basnet, Robinson, and Venuti. The densest interleaving and cross-referencing of the creative with the critical vocations in Polizzotti may sound familiar from George Steiner’s After Babel (1975) but with a difference. For the longest stretches of his book, Steiner commandeers every tome and every scrap of scholarly speculation to illuminate the rare but real exemplars that achieved the transcendence of the language, the word and the letter of their originals. He adduces Hölderlin’s German via Classical Greek, Borges’ Spanish via the Cabbala, and Broch’s Death of Virgil via the symbiotic collaboration between author and poet-translator Jean Starr Untermeyer. In light of Steiner’s early essentialist stance that languages can be violated and corrupted as German was under the Nazis, literary translation in After Babel, at long last, holds up the possibility of redemption. It takes the form of a mystical fusion between the source and the target languages under the sun of inspired literalism.

It seems, however, that there is very little room for inspired literalism in the ongoing and very lucrative mistranslation of movie titles and advertising slogans at several removes from the starting concepts and across millions of miles around the globe. This case makes for some of the best pages in Sympathy for the Traitor. For one it is obvious that the disparities between originals and their aliases demonstrate active cross-talk and profound cultural linkages. On the other hand, if Woody Allen’s Annie Hall is transduced into Der Stadtneurotiker (Urban Neurotic) are we to assume that all traitors are henceforth forgiven? Translators of literature, both Steiner and Polizzotti agree, are positive contributors to a grievously conflicted planet. There are definite tangents to the discussion of translation that resists the on-going trend towards universal homogenization. But translation has been the super-unifying agent for at least two millennia. Suffice to mention the spread of Buddhism from an originally Indo-European linguistic domain to that of China at a time, roughly, when the near-Eastern Semitic scriptures were gradually adopted if not entirely absorbed by the emerging Greco-Roman linguistic domain. (Nietzsche must have been among the first to pick up distinct Buddhist elements in Christianity that indicated not merely local “paradigm changes” but wide-spread transnational convergences).

Polizzotti’s thrust is that the re-presentation of texts to audiences very dissimilar to those preceding theirs, one cannot be too careful with the verbal building blocks of one’s civilization, be they Homer’s, Dante’s, Proust’s or Kafka’s. Just as in After Babel, in Polizzotti too, there are contrastive renderings of particular classics, examples of “phonic” translation à la van Rooten and Zukofsky (but no Logue in Polizzotti), beyond the generous theorizing about language and languages holy, cannibalistic and emetic (no Roussel or Louis Wolfson in Steiner) all shibboleths among translatologists and their classes by now.

How does a translator bridge the cultural gaps that precede and underlie every established notion regarding the act of translating itself? Ezra Pound’s contemplated the retranslation of all classics in fifty-year cycles—to Richard Howard’s twenty-five—and pre-supposed that the undertaking would bridge gaps of every shade and type which, in Spenglerian terms, would be bound to exist no matter what. What could easily pass as Polizzotti’s advice to any translator facing the unavoidable discontinuities within any half-century in any civilization—”style and voice, transformation and adaptation . . . reading and interpretation” (p. 81)—he justifies as part and parcel of the aesthetic package that a translator labors to create, for any author’s style and for its reception among the target audience. The aesthetic package being “as culturally determined as [. . .] the translator’s interpretation of it.”

At this point, it might prove helpful to cite Richard Howard’s historical and linguistic contexts for the aging or the dating of literary translations which may have been the first justification in the minds of the organizers of the Re-Translation conference. Richard Howard was simply asked if there was such a thing as a “Definitive Translation.” (N.B. Romanian intellectuals who were starved for any news of the état présent des études in any field outside their borders during the 1946-1989 era, adore even the sound of Definitive Editions of anybody anything on their bookshelves. The responses below were recorded by Paul Mann, An Interview with Richard Howard, Translation Review, Vol. 9, 1982, and site The Translator’s Voice: Center for Translation Studies, Univ. of Texas at Dallas).

Sympathy for the Traitor by Mark Polizzotti, MIT Press 2018
Mark Polizzotti, Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto, The MIT Press, 2018, 182 p.

“No. Translations always date and [sic; as?] great works never do. Most works should be translated again every twenty-five years. The advantages of period style, which translations sometimes have, as in the case of the first translation of Proust, are usually outweighed by the increasing gap that exists between the translator’s venture and the writer’s, which are really two different things. Most successive translations of a work attempt to move closer and closer to the original. They can never do so; there’s an asymptotic relationship between the translation and the original; the translation is doomed to be forever tangent. But most later translations are improvements. The translations we’re reading of Tolstoy and Turgenev now are much better than the old translations . . . The new translations of those writers are much more sensitive to the writer’s individuality–an individuality we didn’t used to think Russian literature possessed. It was just “the Russians” in 1900, and now as we approach 2000 I think we have learned to feel that there’s as much distinction between Turgenev and Dostoevsky as there is between Voltaire and Rousseau.”

To the question whether he would accept exceptions to the non-definitiveness of any translation, e.g., the King James Bible, he answered

It’s a good example and I’d like to enlarge on it a little bit. The King James Bible was produced at what Patrick Cruttwell calls “the Shakespearean moment,” the period that lasts two men’s lifetimes: from Marlowe to Marvell. It’s not very long, but it is the moment when the language seems to have been able to accommodate both its most intimate and its most heroic stretch. The King James Bible is, of course, within that moment. It is on one hand the great example of translation by committee, and on the other of translation at a moment when the language itself seemed to be in a position to accommodate more possibilities than at any other time. Subsequent translations of the Bible are more accurate and give us much more information about what the Bible is saying, but they are not satisfactory as linguistic accomplishments compared to the King James. That is because of the historical moment at which the work was translated, when the state of the language affords us a certain intrinsic satisfaction. 

Could we for a moment wonder if it is this general lack of “intrinsic satisfaction” in Howard’s wording regarding both pre- and post-1989 Shakespeare translations in Romanian that has been driving the discussion for re-translating the bard? Mădălina Nicolaescu had already sketched out the question in her “Translations of Shakespeare in Romania: Going from Local to Global?” (in Perspectives: Studies in Translation Theory and Practice, vol. 20, 2012, Issue 3: Translational Encounters in a Globalized World, pp. 285-296). The study certainly addresses the difference that the times made in the case of outstanding translators like Ioana Ieronim, Leon Leviţchi and Ion Vinea by highlighting their attempts at matching English idiomatic expressions with their Romanian equivalents.

Of the three translators this study is based on Ioana Ieronim is a deeply informed and engaged intellectual aware of the compounded ironies in all the larger international issues at plague, as Joyce would say, in the geopolitics of our contemporary world; Ion Vinea delighted theater-goers for generations with his immensely sensitive poetic translations in vibrant Romanian. Leon Leviţchi, on the other hand, in his five-volume version of Shakespeare’s complete works, wrote the undying cultural irritant. He succeeded to produce the enviable integrala—another word Romanians are enamored of—and that in a specific non-neologizing, ur-Romanian voice to boot.

He was not by any means the first to Romanize the tone of his protean original. Murnu and Galaction already “pastorized” their translations of Homer and of the Bible respectively before WWII. The verb to “Romanize” was chosen, rather deliberately, in the place of the expected “to domesticate.” It seems that regardless of the degree of perceived domestication of a foreign work entering the Romanian canon the prevalent substrate of the literature, since Budai-Deleanu’s exhortations in the early 1800s, has been so pervasively and ineradicably rhetoricized that no manner of domesticating vocabularies and idioms will ever change it. The common denominator underlying the familiarizing acrobatics of Galaction, Murnu and Leviţchi’s Romanian lurks the précieux syntax of the Parnassians. Polizzotti’s move beyond the surface binary of foreignizing and its opposite is evinced in his citing Borges’ encouragement to his translators to replace his Spanish polysyllables with “good, sharp Anglo-Saxon monosyllables  . . . ‘Simplify me, make me stark. My language often embarrasses me. It’s too youthful, too Latinate . . . Make me macho and gaucho and skinny’,” (in Edith Grossman, Why Translation Matters, 2010). Who amongst us still cares that Borges was an experienced hand at translating both Old English and Old Norse oral-formulaic poetry in addition to Kafka from the German?

It is conceivable that Leviţchi’s tour de force was not simply an academic scholar’s stab at foregrounding the viability of a Renaissance body of texts in Romanian but also, by employing the vast linguistic resources of Romanian from G. Dem. Teodorescu’s 1885 monumental collection of folk poetry, but out to prove that Shakespeare’s apparently all-encompassing worldview had a rich counterpart in the culture of native, pre-fashionably Francophone Romania! The specific linguistic register Leviţchi chose for his opus has been persistently demonized as a mindless obeyssance to a Comintern directive that he choose the “pure” (neaoş, Romanian for authentic and untainted) folk parlance in order to make Shakespeare intelligible to the proletariat. Is it possible that the opposite is true and that Leviţchi’s Shakespeare was the cleverest means of bamboozling the party censors who wanted everything in short declarative sentences? As an English professor Leviţchi would have been familiar with the tradition of “plain speech” that started with the Puritans for whom ornate, Latinate diction was “deceitful” and which culminated, for the high modernists at least, in the eighteenth through the twentieth century teutonizing poets Gerard Manley Hopkins and David Jones in England and Stefan George in Germany.

Of course, the problem of what passes for an “original” in the context of a Shakespeare translation cannot be bypassed. Few non-Brits are ever trained to notice the hype in a publication subtitled “the definitive” version of anything, let alone hyperbole of the kind “. . . the Arden Shakespeare [has] set the gold standard for editing,” etc., etc. A translator who does not know that the battle of the Folios and the Quartos is still raging will never understand why a “bee” in one “definitive” edition is a “boy” in another equally “definitive” one. Debates of this order are terribly disconcerting to ambitious individuals who aspire to a definitive niche in their country’s pantheon and whose authority is to remain unassailable world without end.

Polizzotti is right. The rub that will determine who will get to join the immortals is going to be the kind of work that a translation will have the ability to do say, in being listened to—as Frank Kermode put it regarding Shakespeare’s language—being interpreted in all the senses of the word or, even, in being imitated with any degree of conviction.

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