Tuesday, March 24, 2009

found in translation?

OK, I don't get it.

Every once in a while I check out Wyatt Mason's blog, Sentences, over at Harpers. Mason is consistently happy to talk about books in translation when he is unable to read the original text (anything in German, Yiddish, Greek, Danish, to take a few examples). This is a point of view that I don't really get - if a book in translation strikes me as brilliant, my next step is to try to read at least something of the book in the original language. The first Russian text that I tackled was the beginning of Anna Karenina (I had to see the words of Tolstoy); the first Japanese text was a passage on the name of a cat in Haruki Murakami's A Wild Sheep Chase; the first Polish text was a story by Stanislaw Lem. I don't know that these were the best books in the language to start with, but these were what I had come across in translation, and I had to see what the writer had written. At the same time, though, I'm always conscious of the precipitous learning curve - the shocking amount of time it takes to read even a couple of paragraphs in the original language of a book one has read in translation, if one dives right in at the deep end. I feel that I have to do it, yes, but I'm not convinced that it's rational.

But. Um. ¿K?

If a book is in a language I know well, it would strike me as completely mad to read it in translation. I can't imagine reading a translation of a French author in English - what conceivable reason could I have for doing so? Mason has translated Rimbaud and Montaigne into English; I assume he is competent in French; what conceivable reason could he have for reading French writers in English translation? He now says of Grégoire Bouillier's L'invité mystère: I had no idea who Michel Leiris was in 2004 when I read the book for the first time. I had occasion to reread the Bouillier the other day and liked it even more than I had back then. I’ve never bothered to grab the French version, trusting fully Stein’s English.

A few months ago Horace Engdahl, secretary of the Nobel commitee, complained of the provincialism of American writers; he complained that American writers were cut off because too little was translated into English. This was really rather odd, because all American high school students are required to study a foreign language to graduate; in theory, at least, anyone with a high school diploma should be able to read books in a language other than English. Anyone who goes to Paris will be struck by the wealth of writers from the Arab world who have been translated into French; a visitor to Berlin will be struck by the Eastern European writers who have been translated into German. Anyone who has studied French or German at school need not wait for an American publisher to do the decent thing and commission a translation; three years of high school language study should enable the traveller to pick up all kinds of books.

I can't say that this scenario strikes me as especially realistic. No. But. Um. When an acclaimed American translator of Rimbaud and Montaigne is content to read an English translation of a French writer, I'm um, um, um. Words fail me.


Ian Brown said...

As a product of 4 years of Spanish classes in an Amerian public school I must say that sadly the bare minimum was required to pass those courses. I couldn't conjugate a Spanish verb properly to save my life at gunpoint. You think too highly of us Ms. DeWitt. :(

JS Bangs said...

What Ian said. First, unless something has changed in the last few years, not all high schools in America require three years of foreign language education. My high school only required one. Furthermore, even the students who did complete three years would have been hard-pressed to read a street-sign, much less a novel

Helen DeWitt said...

But in that case we should change this. It's silly. As soon as a student starts Spanish he or she should be given a copy of Borges' Ficciones in Spanish, with an English translation, and encouraged to tackle a story. A paragraph. A sentence.

Students shouldn't have to wait until their linguistic competence is up to speed; they should be given something from the start to show why the language is worth learning in the first place.

Ian Brown said...

I totally agree. Nothing like that was ever done. The idea of pointing towards a goal, a literary treasure for example, which could only be reached with genuine commitment never arose as a serious project in my high school days.

Mary D said...

That's how I learned (Helen's method) ancient Greek. I had one semester of grammar before our class was starting in on translating the Meno. After a year I was translating the Oedipus Cycle. After that it was expected that for long readings in Aristotle or the New Testament you at least have the Greek *next* to you while reading a translation.

Same with French, except I was translating La Rochefoucauld, Moliere, Racine and other easy ones while still learning grammar and as a means of acquiring syntax and vocabulary. After a year we were on to the Decadents and I wrote my thesis on the nature of translating Baudelaire. I had had 2 years of French in my whole life at that point. Now, I never learned to speak French, but several years later, I can read Cioran's Cahiers, which look as though they'll never be translated into English. I would have certainly forgotten Greek and French if I'd just been expected to "learn the language" instead of read and translate it. That's why conversational classes in American high schools are bullshit.