Translation: Quirks and Perks

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Quote: 

All novels are translations, even in their original languages.

— Michael Cunningham, Introduction to Michael Henry Heim’s translation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice

Therefore, if you write, you translate. How’s that for being fluent in a foreign language without ever opening a dictionary?

What Cunningham means is that most of the problems that translators face were faced by the authors themselves.

Every writer of course works differently, but I suspect that most novels begin in their writers’ minds as confusions of images, impulses, scattered meanings, devotions, grudges, fixations, and some vague sort of plot, to name just a few.

This week was marked by two posts on synonymia, Synonyms to Spare and One Word is Not Enough, so it’s unsurprising that I’m primed to consider lists and how conceptually distinct their content really is. What did you think of: confusions of images, impulses, scattered meanings, devotions, grudges, fixations, and some vague sort of plot? Are devotions the same as fixations in this context? Is a confusion of images the same as some vague sort of plot?

For me the answer is yes in both cases: devotions are fixations in writing because I don’t do things by halves; and I draw a vague sort of plot from a confusion of images and a vague sort of plot is what I’d call a confusion of images.

You probably disagree, and that’s alright.

Equivalence of meaning sits at the heart of synonymia: no two different word fragments are interpreted identically across all writers and readers, across all time. People may be more flexible or more pedantic, but what will be called a creative, meaningful variation in one instance, is likely to be considered redundant repetition in another.

Equivalence of meaning also sits at the heart of translation. The novels in writers’ minds may or may not be synonymous with the novels on the shelves; two official translations of a novel into another language may or may not be synonymous with the original novel, or with each other, depending on who’s reading and to what end. But the mere existence of novels (as translations from thought-speak to human-speak) and of their translations in the standard sense (from one human-speak to another) proves that we believe equivalence of meaning is worth seeking out. Even if what we find is only a good approximation.

Approximations are all we have time for in this life.

One Word Is Not Enough

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Where the Gods live

Latibule, Pierian spring, ideate, kalon, afflatus.

Let me try to explain what these words have in common.

So far on this blog I’ve discussed quotes from two books about fictional murderers awaiting justice, Albert Camus’s Meursault in The Stranger (1942) and John Banville’s Montgomery in The Book of Evidence (1989). Today’s Quote is from a third: Ernesto Sábato’s The Tunnel (1948, translation from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden). His protagonist is Juan Pablo Castel, a successful painter. A woman visits Castel’s exhibition and is drawn to one of his paintings; he, in turn, becomes obsessed with her. Disaster ensues.

Quote: I returned home with a feeling of absolute loneliness.
Usually that feeling of being alone in the world is accompanied by a condescending sense of superiority. I scorn all humankind; people around me seem vile, sordid, stupid, greedy, gross, niggardly. I do not fear solitude; it is almost Olympian.

What makes the Quote quiver?

A single word, backed by a list of synonyms.

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Synonyms to Spare

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When you’re feeling ill, are you indisposed or infirm? What about lousy, queasy, or woozy? Or are you just a hypochondriac who prefers the word valetudinarian (because it sounds a lot like valedictorian and valerian)?

It matters.

A thesaurus may serve up a whole heap of “synonyms”, words that may be interchangeable in some contexts, but even in off-the-cuff speech you can rarely apply one at random—and if you do, you’re risking rosy cheeks, unintended humour, and hasty corrections.

Luckily, our minds do not work with machine-like precision: only a few more-or-less apt words will present themselves in any given situation. To recall the rest, we have to make a conscious effort, as the writers amongst us do.

But there’s more to synonyms than word-for-word considerations; what about phrase-for-phrase, description-for-description?

The Sun is the golden disk in the sky, the centre of a heliocentric worldview, the star closest to Earth, the giver of light and life, it is the Greek Helios, the Egyptian Ra, it is Romeo’s Juliet,  …  A fun exercise, you might say, but in the end you always need to chose le mot juste.1

Actually, no. Sometimes you can just pile on the synonyms. Here’s Thomas Mann writing about his protagonist Aschenbach in Death in Venice (translation by Michael Henry Heim). How many synonymous descriptions can you count?

Quote:  There he sat, the master, the eminently dignified artist, the author of “A Wretched Figure,” who had rejected bohemian excess and the murky depths in a form of exemplary purity, who had renounced all sympathy for the abyss and reprehended the reprehensible, climbed the heights, and, having transcended his erudition and outgrown all irony, accepted the obligations that come with mass approbation, a man whose fame was official, whose name had been made noble, and whose style schoolboys were exhorted to emulate—there he sat, his eyes closed, with only an occasional, rapidly disappearing sidelong glance, scornful and sheepish, slipping out from under them and a few isolated words issuing from his slack, cosmetically embellished lips, the result of the curious dream logic of his half-slumbering brain.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Gravity of description.

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