vendredi 26 octobre 2012

Translation Thoughts

The first time I became aware of the difficulty and importance of translation (the art of, the nature of) was in 1985, when viewing the French film Péril en la Demeure (starring a very young Nicole Garcia and an even-younger Christophe Malavoy).  There's a bedroom scene, of course, (it's a French film) and the Garcia character questions the Malavoy character about his peculiar pillowcases which feature a graphic of the letter O with a line across it.  Something like this:
 C'est un "o" rayé, he tells her.  This gets a laugh; O rayé means O with a diagonal line strike, this in turn plays on the homophone oreiller, which means pillow.
I missed the rest of the film, too distracted by the idea of how one would move that wonderfully rich language-based joke into English should the film ever be exported to an anglophone market.  I actually thought about this for quite some time, years possibly, and concluded that there was no true equivalent.  Indeed, when the film eventually was subtitled in English, the subtitler deleted the moment completely.
The task of the translator (or subtitler) is immense.  He or she is not only shifting words from one language to another, but (and this is more important), a huge basketful of message which rely on those words is being carried over from the source culture to the target culture .  In that basket the translator needs to place intent, emotion, rhythm, rhymes (if he or she is good enough), connotations, jokes, puns (these are really challenging) as well as being mindful of a billion little details such as temporal context (I shudder at the thought of translating Shakespeare, for example, or L'il Wayne, to cite an extreme).
There came a time where I thought literary translations should be outlawed.  I saw it as an impossible and futile endeavor.  The Italians had a word for translators: traduttore traditore, or traitors, and I shared this sentiment as I couldn't see a way to be faithful and respectful to an original, to do the poem, the story, the instruction manual or the newspaper article justice.  It was better just to have original texts and let the onus be on the reader to learn the language if he wanted to access it.  (I'm a demanding person, I know.)  I agreed with Borges when he said a good poem is always untranslatable.
I thought about this recently when I went to see the movie Moneyball in Paris, and watched much of the audience (French) look bewildered as the story unfolded.  How can you deeply enjoy a film about baseball when you have no cultural reference?  How would you understand the notion of homeplate, designated hitter, farm teams and free agents?   There is no equivalent sport in French so the language and visual references do not exist.  No wonder the audience seemed perplexed.  It would be like me watching a movie about cricket in Xhosa.
Lydia Davis, a translator I'm ashamed to say I've never heard of, has come out with a new translation of Madame Bovary.  I'm anxious to see what she's done with Flaubert's novel, as I've read some good translations and some mediocre translations of it.  I remember one Really Outstandingly Bad translation, in which the translator (I forget who it was now) takes the famous green silk cigar case which becomes a metaphor for all the romance and luxury that Emma Bovary has been deprived of in her life, (or so she perceives) and makes it a green silk coinpurse.  A green silk coinpurse!  It cannot possibly be a coinpurse for the metaphor to work!  It needs to be a cigar case, because Emma returns time and time again to  smell the scent of its lining- a blend of tobacco and verbena.  (The translation is mine.) Talk about traduttore traditore!

Thanks, Mary Cassatt and Kurt Giambastiani

While I no longer think translations should be illegal (I'd miss being able to criticize the bad ones), I do think translations should be invisible.  In other words, we should read a translated work as we read in our mother tongue; receiving in our mind the message hidden behind (or outside of) the words.  (The hors-texte if we want to be all Derridian about this.)  This is the real obstacle when setting down to move languages from one to another.  It's a labor of love, certainly, with a massive dose of patience and a good dictionary or two.

dimanche 14 octobre 2012


The last two books I've read were memoirs written by women: Title Deeds, by Liza Campbell and Trail of Crumbs, by Kim Sunee.  I picked up the latter as I'm always game for stories written by American expats; the former to remind me that I am not alone in having grown up in a slightly psychotic household.

Both works are categorized as memoirs, but Title Deeds could be shelved under "European History" while Trial of Crumbs should be placed in the "Self-Centered Literature by Spoiled Clueless Women" section of your library. Title Deeds tells the story of Campbell's family growing up in Macbeth's castle in Scotland. Her dad is crazy; there's violence, incest and other horrible and mean acts which show up in these pages, but the story doesn't center around his wacko nature exclusively. You actually don't get to the "hook"--the fact he disinherited all his kids and left his huge estate to their evil stepmother--until the very end of the book. In other words, Title Deeds is not an instrument of vengence. Campbell writes to sort out and make sense of her mentally ill father, and in the telling she provides the reader with a thorough history lesson. It's clear that her prose was not being used to skewer her dead father or sully his name.

On the other hand, Kim Sunee's memoir is 370 pages devoted to denigrating the French (an easy target) while at the same time living in the upper echelon of their society.  She never lets you forget that she is young (23 or so when the story begins) and far more nubile than the French women around her. There is not one description of any French woman she meets which does not include "bitter," "face etched by anger," "dangling heavy breasts" (at a nude camping site), or "old, wrinkled, veiny hands." Sunee's currency is her youth and exotic beauty (she's a Korean-American) and she sleeps her way across her ten years as an expatriate, the majority of those years spent as Olivier Baussan's--the founder of that lovely soap store L'Occitane, as well as the olive oil company Olivier & Co--much-younger mistress.

This is the tricky part about writing a memoir. You can't write about your life without writing about others' lives. In Campbell's case, the other was dead, so he couldn't have his say had she written anything extemely defamatory (which she doesn't, plus her "other" was insane so he gets a pass on his behavior). Sunee's tale treats the living and the sane, however, and she does not seem to be mindful of the "others". Adding to the complexity is the issue of being a famous figure's lover and the damage she could do to him and his company's image in this quite public forum. (Indeed, I now hesitate to purchase anything at L'Occitane after learning about Baussan's private life and lovemaking techniques.) And this is where Trail of Crumbs comes off more as an act of spite rather than a search for self. It is clear that the writer hated the French and in particular French men, all of whom are described as scheming philanderers (yet she never said no to the apartments or bookstore Baussan bought for her, or the high-end vacations and the designer clothing). It's a shame that the book turned out to be a platform for her to tell the world what she thought of Baussan, because she really could have done something terrific with her source material...something Peter Mayle-esque, for example. There are some false starts, where she begins to describe the beauty of their domaine in the Luberon, but it quickly reverts to her sitting by the pool in her Missoni bathing suit and feeling lonely despite the charmed life she's earned by virtue of her good looks and bedroom skills.

All memoirs are going to implicate others--you can neither live nor write in a vacuum. If I were to write a memoir (which I wouldn't, unless you count my blog), I'd hope to leave something as tasteful as possible. Campbell does this very well and the reader closes the book with respect and admiration for her circumstances. Sunee, though, comes off as a petulant child, forever sending back the dessert she is served, hoping for a better piece of the pie.