Wednesday, March 17, 2010

translation: trading polymorphia for neither myopia nor hyperopia

I almost started this post with 3 long epigraphs.  But then, you see, the title is already strange enough.  So let me explain first, then give you 3 long quotations, and finally share some good translation examples.  

First, the explanation:

I want to go back to Joel Hoffman's warning:  "Translators who focus myopically on the words risk missing the forest and seeing only trees."  And then I want to move forward with this encouragement:  "Translators can both enjoy the forest and also share its trees of polymorphic leaves and colors, textures and shapes, rustles and smells." 

So now the 3 long quotations followed by good translation examples:

Every translator knows the point where one language cannot be translated into another.... This kind of linguistic decision is simply a measure of foreignness, an acknowledgment of the fact that languages are not sciences of one another, you cannot match them item for item. But now what if, within this silence, you discover a deeper one.... "The brutality of fact" is [painter Francis] Bacon's own phrase for what he is after in a painting. He is a representational painter. His subjects are people, birds, dogs, grass, sand, water, himself and what he wants to capture of these subjects is (he says) their "reality" or (once he used the term) "essence" or (often) "the facts." By "facts" he doesn't mean to make a copy of the subject as a photograph would, but rather to create a sensible form that will translate directly to your nervous system the same sensation as the subject. He wants to paint the sensation of a jet of water, that very jar on the nerves. 
--Anne Carson, "The Question of Translation"
If we were to deny a possible choice of focus change from static, to dynamic, to relational views (particle, wave, field) we could never change our attention from doing something to being something.... Relevance in human language requires simultaneous—or oscillating—attention to both physical form and mental meaning.... In a phrase such as goals are important to a good government, the physical form includes the sounds and the clausal structure, but the referential meaning refers to the structure of government itself, with its values and purposes. Similarly, the noun goals, in spite of its abstract referential meaning and implied specific detailed purposes, also has the physical component (its form) of the sounds when it is said aloud, or else—if it is at the moment only a thought in somebody's mind—its formal molecular or neurological structure buried someplace, somehow, in the brain.
--Kenneth Pike, Talk, Thought, and Thing
The fundamental structure of patriarchy is thus binary: me/not me, active/passive, culture/nature, normal/deviant, good/bad, masculine/feminine, public/private, political/personal, form/content, subjective/objective, friend/enemy, true/false.... It is a structure, both spatial and temporal, predicated upon separation, not relation.... Which is not women’s language, since women, for a variety of reasons, live in a polymorphic rather than a dimorphic world, a world in which the differentiation of self from other may never completely take place, in which multiple selves may engage multiply with the multiple desires of the creatures in it.... The difference that emerges here is not the polarity intrinsic in the dominant discourse, which reduces “woman to man’s opposite, his other, the negative of the positive.” No, this is an absolute and radical alterity that enfolds the other, as in pregnancy a woman’s immune system shuts down in such a way that she shelters and nourishes, rather than rejects and expels, the foreign body within her: “Cells fuse, split, and proliferate; volumes grow, tissues stretch, and body fluids change rhythm, speeding up or slowing down. Within the body, growing as a graft, indomitable, there is an other. And no one is present, within that simultaneously dual and alien space, to signify what is going on.” Feminine discourse is not the language of opposites but a babel of eroticism, attachment, and empathy.
--Nancy Mairs, Voice Lessons
If you skimmed over the above 3 long quotations, that's okay.  You probably noticed in some of the detail on your fly-by reading that all three writers chose particular details and certain words to say something similar.  Of course, I'm the one calling them similar.  Their trees are my forest, our forest together.  And I almost entitled my forest of a post something rather polymorphic like:  "translation: trading language about women and wombs for the language of women and of wombs."  But then we'd all have to pay too much attention to the tiny prepositions, right?  And you are getting where we're going now, aren't you?  It's not just a particular language, such as our contemporary English or their dead Greek, that has its users struggling over whether there's the risk of mere myopia or of mixing trees in the forest.  But it's also the very act of translation itself that is a struggle.

I'm granting Joel Hoffman the fact that "most translations" of "the Greek phrase en gastri" result from their translator "realizing that even though the Greek words for 'in' and 'womb' appear in the original, the English words 'in' and 'womb' have no place in the translation."  But "realizing" for me has a different meaning than it does for Hoffman.  The realizing is the making of a reality in which wordplay has no place in translation.  And by wordplay I mean not only playfulness of the words and performance by the writer and translator with the words but also hermeneutic "play" or interpretive wiggle room.   I do agree with Hoffman that most translators, even the incredible Richmond Lattimore (who's translation I give as the updated end of this earlier post), "realize" that "To try to form a sentence [in English] with 'in' and 'womb' would be overly myopic, focusing too closely on the [original Greek] words and not on how they work together."

The last post, therefore, was to try to begin to show that there's something in Aristotle's word view (a dimorphic, binary logic) that has changed the way Greek readers and English translators after him approach language.  And this approach is very different from the way Nancy Mairs says women approach language and the way Kenneth Pike says linguists would do well to approach language and the way Anne Carson says translators might render language.

Aristotle's separational approach to language -- especially when focused on bodies sexed female -- is highly suspect.  His mental meaning in language (i.e., his referential meaning) divides women from men, as Carson explains.  Furthermore, his physical form for that language (i.e., even the sounds) subdivides from normal men all mutations called females and, what he calls, kinaidoi (or "catamites") -- as Carson also explains.

Of course, I'm not saying Hoffman is advocating Aristotle's blatant sexism.  But I am wanting us to look carefully, polymorphically, at what Aristotle's done with respect to a gender-bifurcated phrase such as ἐν γαστρὶ ἔχουσα.

I'm suggesting that we might have more care with dividing translation into  

either the merely myopic (which Hoffman calls a "translation trap" with it's near-sighted focus on form)

or what might be it's binary opposite (which Hoffman says is the way the translator must "get this right" by "focusing" in a hyperopic, big-picture relevance-theory way, on the central message to be communicated, on the sole and main meaning of the combined words, "on how they work together").

I'm calling for a translation with wordplay.  And it's a translation that allows words to play structurally and referentially in the guest language and also in the host language.

(Wouldn't it be nice, for example, to have an English translation of the Greek Odyssey in which we, the readers in translation, are not stuck with the monocular Cyclops, who -- in Homer's language -- cannot get the double-meaning pun when the hero tells his name?  The sounds "Ὀ - δυσσεύς" work together to refer to the character, Ulysses or Odysseus. But what if our translation also considered the soundS, as the individual treeS of the one referential forest; and what if those English sounds also meant οὔ τις, "no one"?  Wouldn't the one-eyed monster -- or Πολύ-Φημος, Poly-PHemus -- be shown for what he is, so Plenty-Famous?  So... wouldn't it be nice if a translator could get out of the either / or binary of the myopic translation trap vs. the hyperopic intended relevance?  How about some binoculars?  How about suspecting that looking at the forest but not the trees might lessen the forest in some way?)

Here then are good translation examples:

The first set below is by Willis Barnstone.  The second set I'll introduce in a moment.  Barnstone's translations here are from his Greek Lyric Poetry and his Restored New Testament (coincidentally his very first and his very most recently-published works).  What I'd like you to notice is how the Greek has wordplay and how Barnstone's translation has it.  I've provided the line breaks to foreground the intertextual, interlational wordplay as much as possible.  Do notice that the translation does not seek to match every form for every form.  Nor does the translation try to recreate in English simply the referential meaning (as a hyperopic matching) without so much regard to form.  Rather, Barnstone is attempting to "Let [the Greek author] say everything he wanted to say" in Barnstone's English (form, function, fullness, and fun).   It appears that the Greek writers wanted γαστρὶ to be a physical location of a body; and it appears that the locations and directions specified by some of their other embodied forms do matter.  Likewise, Barnstone's English not only allows both writers playfulness but also grants us their readers hermenuetic wiggle room.  You don't even have to "know" Greek fully to see some of it.  And neither the Greek nor the English is exactly "anything goes" that so many fear.  Instead it's what Pike (quoting Nelson Goodman) calls "radical relativism under rigorous restraints. Here goes:

καὶ πεσεῖν δρήστην ἐπ᾽ ἀσκὸν κἀπὶ γαστρὶ
γαστέρα προσβαλεῖν
μηροὺς τε μηροῖσ᾽ . . .

And to fall upon your heaving belly,
and thrust your groin into her groin,
your thighs between her thighs.

--Archilochus 72 D. 119 W.

Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ χριστοῦ ἡ γέννησις οὕτως ἦν.
Μνηστευθείσης τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ Μαρίας τῷ Ἰωσήφ,
πρὶν ἢ συνελθεῖν αὐτούς,
εὑρέθη ἐν γαστρὶ ἔχουσα
ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου.

The birth of Yeshua the Mashiah happened this way.
Miryam his mother was engaged to Yosef,
yet before they came together
she discovered a child in her womb,
placed there by the holy spirit.

--Matthew 1:18

The second set of translations is by various English translators of the same text.  The text is called the The Popol Vuh and is in Quiché language of Guatemala.  The reason I've chosen this text is that it is infamously sexist but it's original language uses a very generic (i.e., not male or female or neuter gendered) locative word for what we might refer to as "conception" or "womb."  This same word, in the text, is used for God and for nature, for men and for women.  And the reason I've chosen this set of translations is because they each use English in various ways to render the Quiché.

The context of the phrase in focus is this:  There's a maiden who, by the spit of a man, becomes pregnant.  Her father calls her out before the male Lords, the elders of the village, who must decide whether to kill her for her fornication.  The Quiché phrase that we might transliterate "ral chupan" is one that means (quite literaly) "child inside."  You'll see the English versions with more context.

So here goes:

   ral chupan 

Thus her return again maiden
To her home.
Many instructions
Were said to her.
Straightaway therefore were created
  Her children in her womb
  By the mere saliva.
This therefore their creation
(a "literal" translation and transliteration by Allen J. Christenson)

After all of the above talking, the maiden returned directly to her home, having immediately
conceived the sons in her belly by virtue of the spittle only. And thus Hunahpú and Xbalanqué
were begotten.
(a recreated, mediated translation "into English by Delia Goetz and Sylvanus Griswold Morley from Adrián Recino's translation from Quiché into Spanish)

In the same way, by the time the maiden returned to her home, she had been given many instructions.  Right away, something was generated in her belly, from the saliva alone, and this was the generation of Hunahpu and Xbalanque.
(a "definitive" translation by Dennis Tedlock)

Now, I'm out of time.  But if you are still here and have a few moments, what do you see and hear?  How much wordplay is in the Quiché and how, likewise, open (or not) are the different translations of this phrase in this "'Book of the Community,' 'Book of Counsel,' or more literally ...  'Book of the Mat'"?  What difference do these translations make?

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