Wednesday, October 17, 2007

On Difficulty

The title of this blog post could have been:

Γοργίου Ἑλένης Ἐγκώμιον
(Gorgias’s “Praise of Helen”)


Πῶς Πάσας Τὰς Παραβολὰς Γνώσεσθε
(“'How Are You Going to Understand
Each and Every One of the Stories I Throw Beside You?':
Jesus’s Question Back to His Questioners,
as Translated into Greek by Peter
or Mark, Chapter 4, Verse 13")


Change the World:
How Ordinary Individuals Can Achieve Extraordinary Results
by Robert E. Quinn

These could have been the titles, for Gorgias and Jesus and Quinn all work through the same four “difficulties” if from different perspectives.

But, since John F. Hobbins kindly added my blog to his blog’s roll while warning readers that mine is “Learned (and difficult) comment,” I thought I’d name this post in honor of Hobbins and his parenthetical phrase: “and difficult.” And, besides, George Steiner (in his essay “On Difficulty” in his book On Difficulty) does what Gorgias and Jesus and Quinn do with the same four difficulties. In addition, Steiner and Hobbins are both interested in poetry.

Let me try to make this a little less difficult.

Steiner puts the four kinds of difficulties this way (and I translate from academicianese to blogerese):

In poetry reading (which I myself hope here to apply to language translating) there are these four possible difficulties:

1. epiphenomenal (or contingency)
2. tactical (or strategic)
3. modal (which Steiner attributes to the great C. S. Lewis, and I just had to throw that in)
4. ontological

Let's call these:
1. an information gap difficulty
2. a following-the-poet's-moves difficulty (i.e., the poet's "speed bumps for the reader," for example)
3. a difficulty of expecting one form but getting another
4. the difficulty of having one's very being challenged by the poem. (i.e., If I were to believe that . . . )

The reader has to overcome these difficulties respectively:

1. by looking up the difficult word or phrase or allusion in the dictionary or encyclopedia to overcome the contigent information gap.

2. by slowing down and figuring out what the writer might be trying to get the reader to do (and the poet might well be just employing writer tactics to get the reader to slow down) to oblige the strategic style choices of the writer.

3. by considering that the poet may be using lyric, or something more visually akin to painting, or something more like music – some mode that the reader may or may not be all that familiar with to work in the form choices of the writer.

4. by being transformed in the reading to suspend disbelief and become different.

So my first analogy is this:

A translator is like a reader of a poem who must acknowledge the four sorts of difficulties of the writer using the language to be translated.

But a translator is also like the poet, who in writing creates these same difficulties for the subsequent readers in the new language.

My other analogies (with Gorgias and Jesus and Quinn) appear in a difficult little essay I wrote some while ago.


Phil Sumpter said...

That was helpful, thanks! It's nice having solutions to difficulties clearly laid out before you.

J. K. Gayle said...

Glad that makes it easier. Nothing like difficulties being difficult. (Just read what you'd posted on Derrida. Steiner helps Derrida help me--difficult no less.)

J. K. Gayle said...

modal (which Steiner attributes to the great C. S. Lewis, and I just had to throw that in)

I just reread this note I made so long ago, and I want to expand on it.

Steiner says that Lewis has or works through modal difficulties. What Steiner doesn't get to is Lewis's great little essay, "Transposition." There Lewis is giving away his understanding of "translation" as "transposing." Something always gets lost in the process. It's like reducing the Beatle's song Hey Jude to musak played in the elevator (or, for you Brits, in the lift). I, not Lewis, makes the transposition example with the Beatles. The point is their is the trade of the higher form for the lower form, a more robust mode for a reduced mode, a band singing lyrics with harmony for just a melodized mode.

That's not all translation must be, but it seems to be how Lewis thought of it. I think translation that changes the "being" of the original author, the readers and the audiences, and even the translator is ontological translating. The most difficult but the most rewarding!