Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Translating the Pen, Penning Translations

“Bob Cargill has penned. . . .” In that broader context, is “pen” a crucial element of the phrase that needs to be translated?

The above question is Joel Hoffman's, as he's "Thinking About Translation In Just One Language." Hoffman is asking, "[S]hould the translation be the equivalent of 'wrote with a pen' or just 'wrote'?"

The answer is that "pen" must be translated if it's important in English. And the word pen is important in English if it is important to these people:

the writer or speaker or the reader or listener in English,
or the translator or the reader or the listener in the language of translation.

That's a lot of people. But that is the answer. To make the answer dependent on some inherent nature of Language or of translation is to discount the people who use language. In this post, we'll review four language games that people play -- and we'll look at how we people play with "penned."


The fact is that the person who Hoffman quotes above is a person, namely Dr. Jim West, who uses "penned" plenty. In Hoffman's example, West is stopping to reflect on somebody else's language, namely Bob Cargill's language, about which West claims "I know, it’s an anachronism since he typed and didn’t pen at all." But, in fact, West usually never pauses to reflect on his own language. For instance, without knowing it was an anachronism, West typed this sentence: "I’ve penned a little response here." And in numerous other posts, West has used the verb penned to pen various clauses, such as "Others are a bit unhappy about it as well, and have penned"; and "a recent essay he’s penned"; and "books he penned"; and "he penned a letter"; and "Bishop Wrong has penned"; and Fouler blasphemy and vile nonsense has never been penned"; and "Jonathan Cook has penned"; and "he happily penned"; and "whether or not the same chap as penned Revelation"; and "I think it the finest, most precise definition of what it means to be a Christian ever penned." The game that West is playing, especially when he focuses on someone else's "anachronistic" use of "penned" is the game of "Get it right." This is the game of language as "proposition." Literary critic George Steiner would call it the "epiphenomenal" or "contingency" game. To get "penned" right, West will point out that the word is "old" or "anachronistic" just the way the dictionary entry might point that out. To get it right is contingent on what the dictionary says it means. And to get it right is to see that "penned" is an epiphenomena, or an old accident of language (i.e., in which a "pen" just happened, once upon a time, to be what people would use to write or to pen language).


So we move on to a second game played with the word penned. It's the game of "get it to work." This is the game I call "imposition" and that Steiner calls the "tactical" game. The NIV Bible translation team, for example, plays this game when they come to Matthew's Greek word κεραία /keraia/ or something like a "horn" or a "hook" mark in writing. Matthew, of course, is using the Greek word to translate what Jesus has said in Hebrew Aramaic, probably his spoken reference to an anachronistic, written Hebrew letter. Who knows what Jesus said, but Matthew forces it to look visually like a hook when Greek readers say his translation aloud, and the NIV Bible team force their English to go like this: "the least stroke of a pen." Hoffman himself quotes the English word pen in this context when posting about the Bible verse in the NIV--the verse is Matthew 5:18. Hoffman is answering the question of one of his readers about another Greek word in the verse. Thus, the NIV team and Matthew himself both "get it to work." Matthew gets κεραία to work, and the NIV team forces "the least stroke of a pen" to work. And neither Hoffman nor any of the rest of us notice right away.


But there's a third game, and this is the one that Hoffman plays. It's the "get to the essence" game. I've called this the "transposition" game, and Steiner uses the phrase "modal" for how this game is played. The word penned is strangely a verb in the English language, and Hoffman notes that some languages "can’t make nouns into verbs the way English does." The noun form "pen" is the default part of speech, or to use Chomskyan language, it's the deep structure or the abstract form that gets generated or transformed -- through performance from competence. What if the "target" language for translation does not have this essence, is the essence of what Hoffman's asking. Then should a translator insist on "pen" as part of the resulting translation? Hoffman asks these sorts of questions lots, because he can see differences in languages deeply. For instance, at his other blog (the one with his name on it), he mentions the proverb “The pen is mightier than the sword,” as close to some things in "Jewish thought" and in "Torah readings on Yom Kippur," essentially, deeply on the "power of words" in various modes. Hoffman might be very interested in this Japanese representation (by brush stroke) of a "pen" as being more powerful than a sword.  It's a visual rhetoric or a visual modality for words.  But pen equals brush.


The last game is the one that Louisa May Alcott plays. If you know her works, then you probably know Little Women. Alcott plays with language. She writes pseudonymously (by a "pen" name), and she writes using her own name. Maybe that will get us more interested in her and her word play. In one work, Hospital Sketches, she plays with words.  As the protagonist, she "sat listening to the busy scratch of his pen." As a nurse, as the protagonist, she watches men "Suffer agonies till a compassionate neighbour pokes them out of a crack with his pen-knife." In the very next sentence, she talks of how she "Put them in the inmost corner of my purse, that in the deepest recesses of my pocket, pile a collection of miscellaneous articles atop, and pin up the whole." She notes how "Every man's legs sprawl drowsily, every woman's head (but mine,) nods, till it finally settles on somebody's shoulder, a new proof of the truth of the everlasting oak and vine simile; children fret; lovers whisper; old folks snore, and somebody privately imbibes brandy, when the lamps go out. The penetrating perfume rouses the multitude, causing some to start up, like war horses at the smell of powder." She explains that "Once he asked me to write a letter, and as I settled pen and paper, I said, with an irrepressible glimmer of feminine curiosity, 'Shall it be addressed to wife, or mother, John?'" She talks of women (not men) "all affected much looseness of costume, dishevelment of hair, swords, arrows, lances, scales, and other ornaments quite passé with damsels of our day, whose effigies should go down to posterity armed with fans, crochet needles, riding whips, and parasols, with here and there one holding pen or pencil, rolling-pin or broom. The statue of Liberty I recognized at once." She goes on with such. And then in reflection, finally, on what she's written, she says:

"Since the appearance of these hasty Sketches, I have heard from several of my comrades at the Hospital; and their approval assures me that I have not let sympathy and fancy run away with me, as that lively team is apt to do when harnessed to a pen. As no two persons see the same thing with the same eyes, my view of hospital life must be taken through my glass, and held for what it is worth."

Now our eye and ear note what's going on. This is the "self-transformation," the positionless / side-by-side, a(p)position game. It's what Steiner calls "ontological." It's about the very being of a person using language. Alcott has what traditionally belongs in the world of men, the pen, the phallic pen, now a part of the world of women, when men are wounded now and women are there beside them, penning and punning. These things are not so obvious. And yet they really are penned. Subtly mightier than the rigid sword. How would one translate all the language play, the be-ing play, the feminism of Alcott?


Jim said...

you assume wrongly if you assume i dont understand the use of 'penned' for a blog posting or online article is anachronistic.

J. K. Gayle said...

Jim, Haven't I assumed rightly you're interested in getting it right?