Unknowing Translation

Unknowing Translation

by Alexander Dickow

As I recently worked on a translation of Max Jacob’s The Central Laboratory, forthcoming from Wakefield Press, I couldn’t help but notice once again the unusual disconnect between translation in theory and in practice.

Jacob is not my subject here, but translating his poetry, especially since I decided to respect, as much as I could manage, meter and rhyme, confirmed once again these few theoretical intuitions, and it may be helpful to understand something of the origin of my examples.

Jacob was a French avant-garde figure of the early twentieth century, a contemporary of major figures such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, André Salmon, or Blaise Cendrars, several of whom were close friends of his. He also circulated among the painters and artists of the teens and twenties, especially Picasso. Jacob was an eccentric dandy, an astrologer, a devout Catholic, a homosexual, and first and foremost a poet and painter – a colorful figure by all accounts. Rosanna Warren has published an acclaimed biography of Jacob this past year with W. W. Norton. Béatrice Mousli’s quality biography in French, dating from 2005, is also worth mentioning; as a scholar of Jacob’s work, I find these two biographies complement each other very well.

Jacob is most well-known in the United States for his Dice Cup, a collection of oddball prose poems translated by the likes of John Ashbery and Elizabeth Bishop, but he was probably most well-recognized in his own time for the verse of collections like The Central Laboratory. Although the collection is highly innovative for all kinds of reasons (I make a stab at describing these reasons in a critical introduction to the collection), he uses rhyme and meter abundantly and to great effect, hence my decision to attempt a rhyming translation, which I felt was the only way to render some sense of Jacob’s art into English. In the process of that translation project, I encountered these lines:

Campagne, ô ma verte promise.
Bois de Boulogne, nouvelle église,
Qui de mes vers sera l’éternelle fiancée (“Renaissance de l’esprit religieux”)

After an unusually peaceful wrestle with these lines, I discovered that “countryside” yielded an easy rhyme with “bride”, allowing me to find the following compromise (I did have to invert terms a bit to fit the rhymes in the right place):

Bois de Boulogne, my green bride,
And the new church of countryside,
To whom my verse shall be eternally engaged

I’m struck by this random encounter of the bride/countryside rhyme, simply stumbled upon in the process of translating these lines. Guillaume Métayer refers to these happy accidents as “secret harmonies between languages”: “I’ve always thought that there is a god of translation. As hard as he is, he sometimes sows easy fruit between the two shores, as if to encourage us,” he writes (A comme Babel, La Rumeur Libre Editions, 2020, p. 33, my translation). Such was the gift of this bride/countryside rhyme. Reading the poem initially, no characteristic of these lines would have led me to believe I might discover such a convenient rhyme in translation; “bride” and “countryside” do not share etymological roots, are not cognates of the French rhymes, and indeed don’t quite correspond to Jacob’s rhyming words. This rhyme was unforeseeable, and its ease extremely rare for rhyming translation.

Most of the time, finding acceptable compromises (to say nothing of optimal equivalence) requires considerable trial and error – as do many, if not most, challenges in translation. Translation brings two enormous, intricate maps into proximity, but no explorer could ever determine or predict where the coastlines or cities or forests of those maps might match. Comparative stylistics of the kind developed by Jean Darbelnet and Jean-Paul Vinay for French and English, for example, sets out to describe the respective geographies of the two linguistic “maps.” But such descriptions deal in fairly weak generalities subject to all kinds of exceptions (the most irksome of these, to my mind, is the relative “abstraction” of French compared to English, which is true in so limited a way that it is of no practical use to the translator). Such generalities only occasionally remedy problems; for the most part, they only help maintain translational consistency, so that certain structures are always translated in the same way, barring other contextual factors that might cause one to choose alternate translations for those structures. For example, it may be preferable to translate “peu à peu” as “bit by bit” or as “gradually” depending on context, but where contextual considerations do not influence the choice one way or the other, it is generally preferable to translate the expression the same way in every instance.

To use another metaphor, theorizing translatability is doomed to resemble a theory of the rodeo. One may be able to describe the various behaviors of the steer or bronco, and even develop generally valid techniques for subduing the animals, but no theory can predict, when it really counts, what the steer or bronco will do next. Translation is fundamentally unruly, in the etymological sense of this term; not amenable to rules, order, or discipline. And this makes its relationship to theory somewhat peculiar – theory lies at something of a greater distance from its object, orients its practice less firmly.

I speak more from the position of a practitioner and pedagogue than as a theorist: I recall having many times assigned such-and-such a text for translation, only to discover that it was much more difficult, or much less difficult, than I had intended. As it turns out, Ghérasim Luca’s paronomastic stuttering is quite easy to render in English, while Pierre Reverdy’s comparatively minimal style sometimes comes across as flat and lifeless in translation. At a more granular level, when I begin sawing my way through a sentence, I can hardly predict when I will strike a knot. Some might claim that literary theory in general, at least as much as translation theory, bears a problematic relationship to literary creation(s) – that literary theory may well be just as unable to master its subject as translation theory is. But there is a kind of grammar to narrative (narratology), to verse forms (prosody), to stylistics that allows one to orient oneself somewhat consistently, whereas the translatability of a text remains out of reach short of translating the thing. 

Here, I’m specifically talking about translatability, not about translation theory as a whole. For me, this is a very specific kind of (negative) translation theory, a kind of translational epistemology according to which a text is known only by translating it and never by merely reading it (though translation be no doubt a form of reading, not all reading is translation). The translator is, in a sense, ignorant of the object until she translates it. The translator is blind until the object has been touched, felt, caressed in its every fold and crease, rather than merely seen (this epistemology is evidently also an erotics (and a fortiori an aesthetics); the translated text is, through translation, known).

All of this remains relative, of course. Some difficulties are visible at first read, and can be anticipated. One may adopt decision-making strategies that cover a small set of well-established and already catalogued problems, such as how to translate French substantivized adjectives into English; one may identify glossaries of nautical or falconry terms identified in a given passage. But no number of initial readings can exhaustively anticipate the problems ahead. There is an element of irreducible contingency, of surprise, to translation, no matter how much translation theory one brings to bear on one’s activity. Surprise is, of course, an aesthetic category, as per Baudelaire’s or Apollinaire’s evocations of the concept, and translation, among other things, a form of aesthetic experience, as I suggested a moment ago. But the surprises of translation do not necessarily correspond to the text’s declared objectives, nor to the author’s premeditated effects; instead, they result from the respective linguistic geographies in play. Schleiermacher’s On the Different Methods of Translating (1813) is usually quoted or referenced for its defense of a foreignizing translation strategy. But Schleiermacher has a great deal to say about the translator’s knowledge of the history of the languages translated (from or into). No form of reading or interpretation provides a better sense of the historical and linguistic location of a text, because translating a text requires so much more than the words of the source text. The value of each term is measured and evaluated as different options are weighed; as a result, the entire continent of the language is potentially implicated, not merely the province or village occupied by the source text. And the more intimately one knows the history of the source language, the more one can make informed translational decisions. But no knowledge is enough. The text, and the activity of translation, will still have surprises in store.

Erotics, aesthetics, epistemology. My small celebration of the translator’s ignorance may also have a mystical component, where the unknowability of language stands in for the unknowability of God. So be it. Max Jacob might approve, who says of religion:

Ça repose sur des choses roses
Qui n’ont l’air de rien,
Et tu ne peux, même si tu l’oses,
Y mettre la main.

It rests on many a pink thingy
With an insubstantial air,
And you can’t, not even if you dare,
Upon them lay a pinky.

These ineffable and intangible “things” of religion do have something strangely prurient about them, don’t they? Little did I know before I started that this lighthearted stanza would cause me a good bit of trouble.

Thankfully, air rhymes with dare.

Alexander Dickow is a poet, novelist, and scholar in French and English. He grew up in Moscow, Idaho. His forthcoming translations include Sylvie Kandé’s Neverending Quest for the Other Shore (Wesleyan UP), Henri Droguet’s Showers and Bright Spells (Spuyten Duyvil), and Max Jacob’s Central Laboratory (Wakefield Press). Recent creative works include Déblais (Louise Bottu, 2021) and Le Premier Souper (La Volte, 2021).

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, March 16, 2021

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