Translation, season of giving (getting) and gifts for translators

This seasons gifts for translators.

illud tempus
Ho Ho Ho and all that. Here in the Northern hemisphere, the days grow short and the nights grow long. In a few weeks we’ll have the darkest day of the year the Winter Solstice – and then this cycle of sacred time, this time outside of time, will reverse.

Like the other major transitions, in the Sun’s apparent journey through our sky – solstices, equinox, and points midway – the onset of winter is marked with various religious and social celebrations: in this part of the world Christmas, and Chanukah of course, but also many others from Kwanza to Yalda , Karuchun, to Festivus, and beyond.

Gift giving is part and parcel (that’s a semi-intentional pun) of many of these festivities – at times it seems to the complete lack of any other content or meaning. Be that as it may, I am offering up this blog entry not as criticism of, but rather participation in, any and all these celebrations – unlike Groucho, I’m happy to be a member of any club that will have me. Well almost any. OK, many. Some?

Here are some belated seasonal gift suggestions for my translator friends. But first allow me to present my credentials.

I suppose that I can, despite my obvious linguistic limitations, call myself a translator. I’ve overseen, coordinated and participated in the translation from Spanish to English of many bits of text, chats, lectures, and books. When Silo made me responsible for the translation of his work into English. I objected that, besides feeling inadequate to stand in judgment about nuances of meaning, my Spanish was (and is), as he knew very well, not very good at all. I can understand quite a bit of spoken Spanish, if my ear is attuned to the accent. I can also speak fluently about a wide range of topics, but sadly I’m usually in the wrong tense, gender, case and often number. His response was that I should trust my judgment, that I understood his writings and could make sure things read as if they were written in English.

He then reiterated what would be our central guidelines for the translation of his works: first that our translations contain no serious conceptual errors, and second that they read as if they were written in English (or of course in whatever the target language).

Those were/are our priorities but I speak to you of priorities not as something attainable but of things to be approached, as one who approaches his city is liberated from the road already travelled.

These 2 imperatives might seem obvious and straightforward, but they represent a particular position very different from that of those who maintain that fidelity in translation is best served by “literal” translations. This latter position numbers Vladimir Nabokov among its champions. In the opposite corner we could place no less a contender than Jorge Luis Borges.

So, if for no other reasons we should put both those authors on our list of potential gifts for translators. Say Pale Fire for Nabokov (Roberto V turned me on to that one) and for Borges … well any collection of his work will probably includes stories that touch on this subject directly or indirectly; even on translations from author to author rather than language to language. Consider for example his Pierre Menard, and his essay on Fitzgerald the translator of Omar Khayyahm

Also take a look at this essay by Alberto Manguel on translating Borges.

Speaking of translating poets and the difficulties there of (especially when it comes to poetry and alien spaces) you might enjoy this little essay by Dick Davis on not translating the poet Hafez.

Enough of that background stuff let’s turn to the essential buying and selling — speaking of translation it’s humbling to think that the earliest written records we know of are not fragments of philosophy or literature, not even expressions of some king’s megalomania but more important stuff — mostly about grain (or beer). Whose barley (and or barley) this is, who owes barley (or beer) to whom, etc. We’ve got agccounting, tax records meant to track who owes what to the government. And also grain related one of the earliest pictographs seems be a locust removing charm.

I said, enough! Let’s get to the stuff!
Here’s my list for translators (who have been naughty or nice):

On a budget? In a war against consumerism? Hell, just give them this link.

Than there’s a sort of overview of the academic approach in the Translation Studies Reader. Here’s a summary — perhaps in an unexpected, if not strange, format but a summary.

Got to love that voice!

Of course there is always something by Borges, I’m not a fan of Hurley’s translations for a number of reasons I might discuss at another time, but there is the Collected Fictions. If you’re a Spanish reader you have a choice of editions, or all (or some) of his Obras Completas (you can even find a complete pdf of the more than 1,100 pages online)

At the top of any list of literary philosophical types who wrote on translation there’s the modern founder of the subject the extraordinary polyglot George Steiner. What translator wouldn’t enjoy a copy of his masterful book After Babel. You can pick up a used copy of the paperback for a few bucks or a hardcover for couple of hundred — or find a download on your friendly neighbourhood torrent (or borrow one at a brick and mortar library if such things still exist).

But my pick of the year in books for translators is in fact two books both on the question of “untranslatable terms”. Of course these terms aren’t untranslatable in a strict sense but generally words or phrases for which there is not a single word or phrase in the “target” language. That is these “untranslatables” sit in a lacuna or lexical gap.

You can find quite a bit about untranslatables with a quick computer search. Some of the things you’ll discover (like this page) are quite amusing or at least charming.

Since you can’t readily give these pages out as presents (and that’s our theme today) no matter how delightful they might be you can instead take a look at tLost in Translation: An Illustrated Catalog of Beautiful Untranslatable Words from Around the World
by Maria Popova. You can find a review here.

A larger look at the idea of untranslatables that is a bit more substantial consider a Dictionary of Untranslatables: a philosophical lexicon, edited by Barbara Cassin. It is itself translated (along with all the untranslatable words) from French and published by Princeton. At over 1,000 pages it’s a weighty tome in many ways.

“This is an encyclopedic dictionary of close to 400 important philosophical, literary, and political terms and concepts that defy easy–or any–translation from one language and culture to another. Drawn from more than a dozen languages, terms such as Dasein (German), pravda (Russian), saudade (Portuguese), and stato (Italian) are thoroughly examined in all their cross-linguistic and cross-cultural complexities. Spanning the classical, medieval, early modern, modern, and contemporary periods, these are terms that influence thinking across the humanities. The entries, written by more than 150 distinguished scholars, describe the origins and meanings of each term, the history and context of its usage, its translations into other languages, and its use in notable texts. The dictionary also includes essays on the special characteristics of particular languages–English, French, German, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.”

Here’s a sample entry for the German word: Begriff