Saturday, January 26, 2008

On translation, part 1 of 2

To make up for the lack of updates I thought I’d share some more about translation and how it relates to painting. What follows may make a poor analogy but you may find it an interesting read. (Thanks to some basic OCR software I avoided having to type out most of the quoted parts below. I hope that my inclusion of them here falls within the bounds of fair use.)

The other times I touched on this subject, I had in the back of my mind the preface to a book I bought several years ago - a translation, published in 1998 by Schocken Books, of Franz Kafka’s The Castle (Das Schloß). I confess this is one of those books I got stuck in the middle of, though not through any fault of the book’s.

In his preface the translator Mark Harman begins by saying: “W.H. Auden once said that anybody who presents a new translation of a literary classic ought to justify the endeavor – a task, he adds, ‘which can only be congenial to the malicious.’ I have no desire to malign the translations of the Muirs[.]” Edwin and Willa Muir were a Scottish couple who, Harman says, “were in Prague learning Czech while Kafka was in Silesia writing Das Schloß” and whose “elegant translations, beginning with The Castle (1930), quickly established Kafka’s reputation in the English-speaking world.”

Harman’s justification for his endeavor was that, after more than a hundred years since Kafka’s birth, it had become obvious how dated the “classic” translation was. The Muirs had a 19th-century literary sensibilty and many scholars since have complained that they generally toned down the modernness of (and maybe even misunderstood) Kafka’s original text. Plus, Harman writes, “the Muirs’ translation furthers the rather simplistic theological interpretation proposed by [Kafka’s friend and publisher Max] Brod.” From then on Harman discusses his task as a translator, giving examples of the choices he made in his attempt at “mimick[ing] the original.”

Translator’s notes fascinate me. Their process at times seems a lot like choosing the proper colors, to make this a simplistic comparison. As a painter I sometimes feel that I am doing little more than reinterpreting something that has been tackled countless times already. Change the words in Harman’s above quote about W.H. Auden from “translation of a literary classic” to “fruit still life” (or “nude” or “seascape”) and it becomes something painters might relate to - though minus the “malicious” part, as there’s no maliciousness in art. Is there? (There's triteness, but, well, that would be a whole other discussion).

The big disparity here, of course, is that “classics” don’t exist in visual art. Painters paint within genres, but generally aren’t working from the same subject the way two translators interpret the same source material, except possibly 0.01% of the time. Often we do variations of others’ work. Even so, each of us can regard certain paintings as the epitomes of their genres, and may have such an ideal in mind each time we paint a common subject – be it a Caravaggio still life, a Bouguereau, or perhaps a Turner.

Surely, to make a painting is not always to make a statement against previous painters’ treatments of a subject. It may be a simple exercise in translation. Initially I tried too hard when faced with the bright yellow-green of a tennis ball to find that same unnatural glow in paint, and I forgot that I had to use the limits of my particular “language” – paint as opposed to photographic reproduction, say, and beyond that, the limits of my usual color palette. At times we might as well be be wrestling with passages in Kafka, sharing with a translator such as Mark Harman that task of "mimicking." But how best to mimic? That is, how to be faithful without reaching the level of reportage, and how to be artful without too much artifice - how to convey what is true about the subject the way a conscientious translator would capture the truth and beauty of his source material?

Regarding choice-making, the most important examples given by Mark Harman in his preface to The Castle is the paragraph below – first is the Muirs’ classic translation, followed by Harman’s, and lastly Kafka’s original (for the benefit of anyone reading who knows German). Here the main character K. compares the tower of the Castle with that of the church in his hometown:

And in his mind he compared the church tower at home with the tower above him. The church tower, firm in line, soaring unfalteringly to its tapering point, topped with red tiles and broad in the roof, an earthly building - what else can men build? - but with a loftier goal than the humble dwelling-houses, and a clearer meaning than the muddle of everyday life. The tower above him here - the only one visible - the tower of a house, as was now evident, perhaps of the main building, was uniformly round, part of it graciously mantled with ivy, pierced by small windows that glittered in the sun - with a somewhat maniacal glitter - and topped by what looked like an attic, with battlements that were irregular, broken, fumbling, as if designed by the trembling or careless hand of a child, clearly outlined against the blue. It was as if a melancholy-mad tenant who ought to have been kept locked in the topmost chamber of his house had burst through the roof and lifted himself up to the gaze of the world.  [Muirs]

And in thought he compared the church tower in his homeland with the tower up there. The church tower, tapering decisively, without hesitation, straightaway toward the top, capped by a wide roof with red tiles, was an earthly building - what else can we build? - but with a higher goal than the low jumble of houses and with a clearer expression than that of the dull workday. The tower up here - it was the only one in sight - the tower of a residence, as now became evident, possibly of the main Castle, was a monotonous round building, in part mercifully hidden by ivy, with little windows that glinted in the sun - there was something crazy about this - and ending in a kind of terrace, whose battlements, uncertain, irregular, brittle, as if drawn by the anxious or careless hand of a child, zigzagged into the blue sky. It was as if some melancholy resident, who by rights ought to have kept himself locked up in the most out-of-the-way room in the house, had broken through the roof and stood up in order to show himself to the world.  [Harman]

Und er verglich in Gedanken den Kirchturm der Heimat mit dem Turm dort oben. Jener Turm, bestimmt, ohne Zögern, geradenwegs nach oben sich verjüngend, breitdachig abschließend mit roten Ziegeln, ein irdisches Gebäude – was können wir anderes bauen? – aber mit höherem Ziel als das niedrige Häusergemenge und mit klarerem Ausdruck als ihn der trübe Werktag hat. Der Turm hier oben – es war der einzige sichtbare –, der Turm eines Wohnhauses, wie sich jetzt zeigte, vielleicht des Hauptschlosses, war ein einförmiger Rundbau, zum Teil gnädig von Epheu verdeckt, mit kleinen Fenstern, die jetzt in der Sonne aufstrahlten – etwas Irrsinniges hatte das – und einem söllerartigen Abschluß, dessen Mauerzinnen unsicher, unregelmäßig, brüchig wie von ängstlicher oder nachlässiger Kinderhand gezeichnet sich in den blauen Himmel zackten. Es war wie wenn irgendein trübseliger Hausbewohner, der gerechter Weise im entlegensten Zimmer des Hauses sich hätte eingesperrt halten sollen, das Dach durchbrochen und sich erhoben hätte, um sich der Welt zu zeigen.  [Kafka]

Harman talks about the importance of getting the tone right. However, he concedes that the classic translation still reads well and that people may prefer it over his more modern one; the Muirs’ English gives the passage a “smooth readability,” he says. His version is admittedly “stranger and denser” but, he adds “so, too, is Kafka’s German.” Kafka tends to be a little cryptic, leaving much up to the reader, and the Muirs fill in for what they feel is missing by injecting a spiritual undertone.

I switch here to another translation for a bit, of Camus’ The Stranger, published in 1988 by Vintage International. In the translator’s note Matthew Ward points out that one might typically find the opening word in English to be “Mother,” but, supported by Camus’ own notes and Sartre’s thoughts on the book, he retains the main character’s use of “the child’s word ‘Maman’” and translates the opening sentence: “Maman died today.” This seemingly small difference when repeated throughout a book becomes huge.


peg said...

Interesting post. I like Auden but I don't like his stance on translating as shared here, via Harman's words. Harman's translation is necessary, and good. As Harman notes, "the Muirs fill in for what they feel is missing by injecting a spiritual undertone." Unnecessary, and not good. On another note, I relate completely to this: "As a painter I sometimes feel that I am doing little more than reinterpreting something that has been tackled countless times already." As a writer, I often find myself feeling the same way, thinking that this has all been said before.

Dan P. Carr said...

Thanks for commenting, Peg - your blog is giving me more interesting stuff to read!

I've never been familiar with Auden. I looked him up and found this very interesting article - - about his questionable translation of Dag Hammarskjold ("I don't think one can expect poets to make their translations as neutral as diplomats make their translations of official documents"). Well, they wanted a big name translator and that was what they got.

There need to be more translators like Harman. I have a book of Kafka's short pieces which are the Muirs' translations or were done in a similar tone, and sadly none if it "feels" true. I could have added before that reading Harman's Kafka was like hearing for the first time Vivaldi's Four Seasons played on actual 18th-century instruments - you hear tones that aren't softened or rounded over.