“Translation”: Method, Madness, Magic


Bottom, thou are translated!
W. Shakespeare

1. Backdrop

I have been asked to respond to a set of direct questions that I construed as a request for an invitation to a translator’s and a translators’ teacher’s studio. The precise wording of the initial questions will be inferred quite easily from the thrusts as well as the flashbacks of the response below.

At some point I thought I might help giving my students, friends and collaborators an overview of my own formation and more particularly of the relationship between my professing the teaching of literature and my engaging literature on the dialectical field involving two or more languages. Although in my critiques of texts or mentoring of students I may have never used the exact terms of the “non-discursive” elements of the literary artifacts that I evoke in almost all of my published studies I believe that these happen to be the most germane to my interest in translation.

In what follows I will be presenting samples of my views of literature in general and therefore of their translation also. For simplicity’s sake I shall begin with the occurrence of self-reflectiveness in numerous poems, novels and plays I like. In an article on Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules, a 700 line poem written in rhyme royal, I singled out the one stanza that, in its seven-line construction, which itemized the seven larger narrative movements of the entire Parlement. Ian Watt’s earlier analysis of Henry James’s opening paragraph of The Ambassadors as an anticipation of the rest of the novel made me feel that I was not alone in looking at literature as anything greater than the stacks of predictable esthetic moments aiming mostly at individual or collective gratification. Singling out the esthetic event that doubles over itself, that ponders and replicates itself was a way, of going beyond the expected teleologies of a work’s intended or unintended psycho-sociological status that has been so much in vogue since the nineteen thirties and to this day.

In scrutinizing the vowel distribution, and their potential effectiveness, in the opening paragraph of Apollodorus’s Library, I instinctually, probed another facet of literary non-discursiveness. Kenneth Burke’s earlier observations of persistent chiastic structures in Coleridge and Roman Jakobson’s spotting of E. A. Poe’s “signature” clustering of a few favorite consonants throughout his works were proleptic, if not prophetic of my reading of the Library. I hasten to admit Saussure’s influence of his ninety-odd notebooks on me, of the “the words beneath the words” as Adrian Rogoz, Jean Starobinski and Peter Wunderli have called his searching out the polyglot interplay in the first fifty lines of Lucretius’s De rerum natura and of the rest of his studies of the anagram. My interest in instances of invariability and subsequent re-doubling of signification I have repeatedly attributed to my non-conscious mental processing of the accumulation of long past reading experiences. Saussure himself insisted, at the outset of his study of the anagram, on the need of a provisional mannequin. In spite of the history of scholarly speculation concerning anagrammatic, paragrammatic and hypogrammatic phenomena I made up my mind they all amounted to doing one of these things: restate, in nuce, a text’s ostensible subject matter; conceal invective; or pun on the writer’s identity.

And speaking of past readings I ought to give credit to the kind of literature that has indelibly affected me over the years, beginning with my translating Austin Warren and René Wellek’s seminal Theory of Literature into Modern Greek—in my 23rd year of age—and continuing with my immersing myself in such titles as Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, John Skelton’s Speak Parrott, Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno, James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Oswald von Wolkenstein’s ”Es fügt sich,” the entire century of German translation from Hölderlin to Diels and Kranz’s Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, Aelius Aristides’s dream book, the Alexandrian technopaignia, Charles Cros’s Le hareng saur, Christian Morgenstern’s Fisches Nachtgesang, Samuel Foote’s The Great Panjandrum, Michalis Mitsakis’s poems in French, Les franc poèmes signed under the name Mlan Gmar,Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, Dumitru Dumitrescu-Buzău’s URMUZ, Schwitter’s Ursonate, Napoleon Lapathiotis’s Bao, Gao, Dao, Clément Marot’s rondeau En sousryant, Valéry Larbaud’s La neige: Une réduction au français, Cerveri’s Taflamart, Nikos Karouzos’s Genikó poíima athanasías [General Poem of Immortality], Samuel Beckett’s translations of his own poetry and prose, C. S. Peirce’s distraught, longhand reading of Poe’s Raven, Lope de Vega’s cento sonnet Le donne, i cavalier, l’arme, gli amori, Nina Cassian’s Poeme în limba spargă [Poems in a Made-up Language], Christopher Logue’s Greekless Homer and Louis Zukofsky’s Latinless Catullus, in addition to as many books of emblems I have been able to lay my hands on.

It is literature of a marked ostinato—Murray Krieger calls it The Still movement of Poetry (1967). Archibald MacLeish’s 1926 Ars Poetica posits a poem that is palpable and mute . . . silent . . . wordless . . . motionless in time—often bothacoustic and visual visual. Stasis, ecphrasis, lists, I tend to sum up under the convenient archetype of the “Catalogue of Ships” in Homer’s Iliad, my all-time favorite. With more than a dozen Iliads compressed in it, I fantasized that it would be a pity to translate it. It was late in the nineteen sixties that I noticed Nikos Kazantzakis and Ioannis Kakridís, the two redoutable hellenists, had omitted, in their 1955 translation of Homer, the whole section of the Iliad, 2.493-875 as “of no interest to a modern reader.” How ironic that, unbeknownst to them, they were doing the “modern reader” a favor by not translating the catalogue.

The paradox of un-translating can be overheard in several of T. S. Eliot’s poems. Under an entirely different set of circumstances, he put it, ambiguously, as “Caught in the form of limitation, Between un-being and being . . . At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point . . . Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards . . . where there is only the dance.” Powerful evocations all of Nasos Vagenas’s reading of George Seferis’s poetry in light of Yeats’ metaphor of the dancer and the dance. A perspective that, conceivably, might also apply to Ion Barbu’s Joc secund too.

Swirling around the unmoving cores in texts’ centers I would like to cite two titles of my own. Cavafy’s Ta’en (Pontic Greek Parthen) in Middle Scots, is one of them (1985), the other is Osmosis that I volunteered for a two-day conference on the senses and the emotions, held at the French Insitute of Athens (1999). Osmosis consisted of pre-set passages from twelve dialogues of Plato in Greek printed en face with their English translations on the same page. I had picked, at random, words or combinations of words from both languages and inserted them in the space between the Greek and the English columns. A skinny bilingual poem suddenly emerged in that space. It radiated its own micro climate and intertextual field of gravity, away and apart from the two monolithic columns it had been knocked off from. The trio on the page raised questions. Was it a family picture of the newly born in the company of its begetters, or was it a reversal of the child–parent relationship, the offspring claiming the two discrete systems it came from as entities of its making? Beyond the platitude of poetry procreating poetry it seemed that the byproduct of translation, by its mere existence, sparked the impetus for revising all previous terms and labels. The new artifact first put Plato through the grinder: Why aren’t you as crisp and edgy as the detritus of your fragments? and, next, why didn’t Plato’s latent suggestiveness, as Benjamin would have asked, come across in the English translation as it did in the fragments’?

Before my eyes, T. S. Eliot’s theorem of the function of the platinum catalyst in the creative and critical process had been proven true. All it took was a translation for the dumb infant, conceived by the contributions of an unbending authority that had attracted a pliant, ever-apologizing, never-adequate-enough respondent-actor to make the two cling indissolubly more tightly together instead of letting them disperse and drif apart. I could see how it was that, from Schubert on, wonderful songs have had the silliest lyrics, or why Borges believed Fitzgerald to be superior to Omar Khayyam.

Stéphane Mallarmé’s dark child in his Don du poème adumbrated not the bloody birthing of a poem but that of the spectral—or manniquin, once more—birthing of “translation,” the unwelcome, problematic and unwanted meddler in ethnocentric canons. With the exception of Livius Andronicus’s Latin Homer and the Buddhist sutras rendered into Chinese and eventually into Japanese, the “gift” of translation has had a long and sad history in the West. Three days of darkness upon the earth are said to have reigned according to the Megillat Taanit and the Sepher Torah commentaries when the Hebrew Bible was translated by the Seventy under the Ptolemies. Murderous rioting took place in Athens in 1901 and 1903 over the translations of Aeschylus and the New Testament into Modern Greek. William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible was repaid with his burning at the stake. Luther turned out his magnum opus out of the Greek, Hebrew and 14 different dialects of German in agonizing soul- and brain-searching decisions over every word of his ve as version, the King James version’s committee cannibalizing all previous English translations into the coherent and enduring whole that inspired Milton, Purcell, Haendel, Donne, Herbert, Smart, Bradstreet, Whitman and Dickinson.

My approach to what mathematicians would define as the matrices, or patterns of recurrence within random series—on “the matrix/radix” compound in Celan, e.g., consult Martine Broda, Traduit du silence: Les langues de Paul Celan—both in the literary works or their translations I have been involved with so far, has been to delineate domains of untranslatability emphatically different from those typically intriguing Pragmatics linguists. Beyond Matthew Arnold’s theory of the touchtone, and beyond Nabokov’s claim of the importance of the middle verse in Pushkin’s Onegin, whole books, not just single poems, can be governed by matrices as I have found myself (a Greek with an Austro–Hungarian paternal grandmother by the name of Wilhelmina Domborosz) inside a macro-structural mallarméan plis of Charles Olson’s 1989 Black Sparrow’s Press edition of A Nation of Nothing but Poetry. The 1945 poem Name-Day Night (dedicated to three Greeks named James Stathes, George Pistolas, and Stephanos Radis) and the 1950 poem The Advantage (citing the Magyar “like violets, said Farkas Bolyai”), the two poems flanking the 1949 Who It Is Who sits on JC as “the howling Babe” coming straight out of Southwell!

2. Beyond Pedagogy

Translation at the University of Iowa was an enviable destination point long before my arrival there in 1965. The orientalist Zen specialist Lucien Stryk had taught there and so did the writer and translator Edmund (Mike) Keeley. The latter had already set the Princeton University Press’s series of translations of Greek poets in motion as he also helped to re-orient Princeton’s writers’ workshop when he re-joined it. Teachers in the Translation Workshop were traditionally English Department and Writers Workshop faculty. Anselm Hollo’s important contribution and guidance preceded Daniel Weissbort’s and my involvement as faculty assigned by the International Writing Program and the Program of English and Comparative Literature. Iowa at that stage became an advanced degree awarding institution in Translation with U. of Iowa professor Anna Barker as one of its earliest and most distinguished recipients of the doctorate.

Quite apart from my official role at Iowa as a medievalist, and around 1969, I was ofen called upon by the International Writing Program (created and directed by the poet Paul Engle) to be of assistance with visiting writers from Romania who had almost no English. Adrian Păunescu, Constanța Buzea, the Baltags—husband and wife—the Sorescus—husband and wife—the Bănulescus—husband and wife were among the first arrivals from Eastern Europe. Theirs were also the first poems, stories and plays I translated into English mostly so they could, by means of my translations, communicate with the other forty visiting writers from around the world. Greek contigent of writers, incidentally, was much better, overall, with regard to the language of their American host.

During a summer trip to Greece in the mid-Nineteen Nineties the Greek novelist Thanassis Valtinos, whom I had met when he was on the International Writing Program fellowship in 1976, introduced me to my future American collaborator Jane Assimakopoulos who had already been translating him into English. To our infinite pleasure The Iowa Review under the editorship of professor David Hamilton accepted six Valtinos stories we had Englished. It was the momentum we needed to submit a more substantial package of Valtinos fiction to the Northwestern University Press for consideration. It too accepted and that was the beginning of very a long and productive collaboration both with the Northwestern U. Press (it soon accepted another title) and, eventually, with the Yale University Press for Valtinos’s Ortokostá and, lately, with the Laertes Press of North Carolina for a total of four books to date.

The choice I made to move to Athens permanently after my retirement in 1996 led to a few miraculous encounters first by being asked to teach at the National University graduate courses in the History and Theory of Translation and second by engaging with members of the Greek speaking Romanian community in Athens, their first project being the translating and publishing six Caragiale stories into Greek. From this point on I started assuming the role of their friendly editor and mentor. It was a move that also coincided with my being asked by the Petros Haris Foundation of the Athens Academy to superwise the translation of contemporary Greek writers into English. Two of the English speaking students I worked with, would have a title each published by the Yale University Press within two years after finishing their training at the Foundation. The two hours weekly workshop with my grantees—Jacob Moe, fiction and non-fiction; Joshua Barley, fiction, non-fiction and poetry—I should mention seldom referred to their eventual publications! Our routine was to discuss translations they had done during the previous week of passages selected from a wide sampler of modern writers and centering on issues of diction, tone, ideological innuendo, pace etc., in the originals and their interpretations in English.

Of the Greek-speaking translators Evangelía Polymou I had originally mentored as well as supervised on her University of Athens M. A. thesis about the Italian poet Vittorio Sereni. Our working pattern with Ms. Polymou consists of going over and vetting her translations of modern and contemporary Italian writers. A first 380 p. long anthology of seventeen contemporary Italian poets has just appeared, and so have two bibliophile editions of three D’Annunzio and two Pirandello stories in Greek. To these books I am given the credit for introducing them at some length.

Ms. Angela Bratsou and I have co-signed more than a dozen books of translation. Of these five are fiction by Thanassis Valtinos and one book of poetry each by Haris Vlavianos, Kostas Koutsourelis, and Liana Sakelliou all into Romanian. Translations from Romanian into Greek include an anthology of 10 Younger Romanian poets, a travelogue by Panait Istrati, one book of poetry by Peter Sragher, one book of fiction by Ioana Pârvulescu, one Fragmentarium by Valeriu Butulescu, in addition to jointly editing the six Caragiale stories mentioned above.

With Ms. Luminița Kotsopoulou I co-translated an award winning book of poetry by Spyros Kokkinakis, from the Greek into Romanian.

The purpose of my introducing the cast of translators above is to make a few generalizations that might be of interest to students of translation. First off, there is no glamor in the business. None of the above labored under the illusion of making a profit from translating or, even of the illusion of making their authors better known in countries other than their own.

From a practical point of view, in my dealings with the friends and collaborators listed above I have endeavored to warn them of the encroachments of both praise and reproof, especially coming from other men and women of letters on the social media that could so easily distract them from the unflagging critical alertness they ought to maintain regarding our common goal of turning out a decent work of literary art. At my end, however, I have labored under a peculiar assumption that I never shared with any of my fellow workers. Being persuaded that in a translator’s sense of professionalism translators may counted to be doing probably as good a job of carefully reading of their source materials as a classical repertory theater actor, if not better, I have concluded that, at the end of the day, we all render a more important service to the culture we translate from than to the one we translate for. On a superficial level, it would appear that the Romanian collective translation of Caragiale was a contribution towards a culturally richer Greece for having the Caragiale sketches in bookstore windows and, who knows, on some Greek theater stage. The net gain, to my mind, however, regardless whether there is an audience for Caragiale in Greece or not, and the long term benefit of our translation into Greek actually is to be sought in the next publication of a new literary history of Romania in which Caragiale will be far more carefully scrutinized by critics who, through their knowledge of Greek—and they are quite numerous these days—will check how a certain word or expression was dealt with by an attentive Romanian translator who knew Greek. In our translation, say, of Koutsourelis into Romanian, Ms. Bratsou and I will provide a future Romanian speaking Greek literary historian to a much subtler and more objective perception of Koutsourelis’s Greek afforded by our translation. I am comforted by the thought that my friends and informal colleagues produced not merely the equivalents of some foreign literary texts into languages they knew, they were providing, literally, new readings of their source texts for the benefit of the national historians of their originals! Since my immediate circle of students and friends never disputed the truth of the Benjaminian mantra that a text that was not translated was never read, I will accept the verdict that thanks to our translating all the national source texts my friends and I have been working with all these years can now be declared finally “read.”

Indirectly I have been undermining the propagandistic agendas of so many dreamers who love to talk of exporting or promoting their country’s cultural values. To the technocrats’ banalities of “building bridges for international understanding” or calling translators “good-will ambassadors” etc., me replay some of my day–to–day banalities, for amusement’s sake.

Do not fraternize with your author. Do not let the living, breathing individual loom larger than the work you are translating.

The author is not your mentor. Do not call or consult the author over difficult portions in the original.

The author will, strangely, volunteer to be of assistance to you and this is certainly flattering but serves, sadly, to remind you “who is the boss.” The offering of help will worsen your dithering not your effectiveness because you will steadily want to factor the expressed interest into your process of the ongoing day-to-day judgment and decision making.

If pressed, do not show work-in-progress sections or, even, the finished work itself to the author or anyone else in any form, be it electronic, or paper. A close friend may keep a back-up copy, just in case. If anything happens to you, the author will not hesitate to pass your work on to your successor in order to remain visible at all times.

No preview postings of any kind. In other words, no boasting. Fans will praise you to high heaven, smart-asses will play theoretical mind-games with you. Strangers will show no compunction in outright stealing from you or on basing their translations on yours.

In correspondence, show no enthusiasm or frustration over what you are translating. Starting with your author, of course. Do not single out what you are doing as the best or worst of what you have ever done. Do not demystify your translator’s persona.

Chant the mantra. A work not translated is a work that has not been read. Give priority to your maternal language classics. By translating them you make future, more refined evaluations of their status possible as nothing else ever can or ever will.

3. Selfie

Finally, to thank everyone reading this, I am submitting an emblem. Like Bottom, the rude mechanic in Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night’s Dream who had acquired, for a season, a set of Apuleian ass’s ears by botched magic, I too feel translated into Andrea Alciati’s Vulpes in pergolam (tiring room of ancient theaters was, often, nothing more than the bushes backstage) Aesop’s fox, facing a good selection of personae, is trying on different masks for the play ahead.

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