Language is already always a betrayal, a translation of the object it intends, pretends to re-create. Mythology claims that Satan fell from grace because of his games with God’s sacred words, as Borges claims in his venomous article, “The Art of Verbal Abuse” (which I translated for Borges: A Reader, an anthology with a pun in its title):
The particle ël was trimmed off the angel Satenaël, God’s rebellious first-born. . . . Without it, he lost his crown, splendor, and prophetic powers. . . . Inversely, the Cabalists tell that the seed of the remote Abraham was sterile until they interpolated in his name the letter he, which made him capable of begetting. (48)
The all-powerful word has a life of its own, beyond good and evil, according to Nietzsche, another punster. “In the beginning was the pun,” quipped Beckett in Murphy. St. Augustine was perhaps the first to recognize the wordsmith in God, who incarnated the Word in the speech-less (infans) infant Jesus.
One of the first puns Freud ponders . . . is the well-worn traduttore, traditore, meaning “translator, traitor,” the most oft-used cliché in translation debates, betrayed of course in translation. The pun is the meeting point not only of two meanings but of two intimately related linguistic processes, wordplaying and translating.
The wordplay, an identity in sound, a similarity in difference, forces the translator to transloot, to be a traitor. Translating forces the writer / translator to displace an original meaning, or effect, onto words other than the original term: Supplementary meanings are brought in, the focus of the original statement somehow diverted. Traditore pushes toward traduttore in sound but pulls in the opposite direction in meaning. Translation intends fidelity but perpetrates infidelity. And yet, as with puns, where the accent falls on a rediscovered familiarity between two distant terms, so does good translation seek out, stress the common but hidden bonds that may exist between two languages, two cultures, two poems, two puns. Through its synonymous movements, translation too lays bare a potential of the original text in another language.
The translator of puns, a tinkerer with a musical ear, makes use of her language and its possible associations with the language of the source pun and, as Pound advised, selects the living part.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Translooting the Bible (Puns)
A couple of Bible bloggers are musing about translation of puns: ElShaddai Edwards and Mike Sangrey. Later this week, I'll post something on the sexist, masculinist methods that constrain pun translation in the Bible. Today, here's a bit of a primer on the translation of puns from Suzanne Jill Levine, and her book, The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction (pages 14-15):