Exactly What Matters? Some Ruminations On Translation Style

1.

Just the other day, this article came to my attention (thanks to Kastel on twitter).

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/06/23/socks-translating-anna-karenina/

And it’s a defense of well-known Russian translator Constance Garnett versus other later translators who claimed to get the ‘crux’ of the Russian. The basic gist is that Garnett got it right – with her style and readability – while the later revisers took things too far and had no ear for things.

Now, I’ve read most of my Russian novels in P&V and I only read a single Garnett translation (White Nights). But I was thinking that I’ve never ever found any problems at all with the translations I’ve been reading – they still convey the structure and gist of it quite well. Especially strange is this critique in the essay.

Another argument for putting Tolstoy into awkward contemporary-sounding English has been advanced by Pevear and Volokhonsky, and, more recently, by Marian Schwartz,4 namely that Tolstoy himself wrote in awkward Russian and that when we read Garnett or Maude we are not reading the true Tolstoy. Arguably, Schwartz’s attempt to “re-create Tolstoy’s style in English” surpasses P&V’s in ungainliness. Schwartz actually ruins one of the most moving scenes in the novel—when Kitty, fending off her sister’s attempt to comfort her for Vronsky’s rejection, lashes out and reminds her of her degraded position vis-à-vis the womanizing Stiva. After the outburst the sisters sit in silence. In Garnett’s version:

The silence lasted for a minute or two. Dolly was thinking of herself. That humiliation of which she was always conscious came back to her with a peculiar bitterness when her sister reminded her of it. She had not expected such cruelty from her sister, and she was angry with her. But suddenly she heard the rustle of a skirt, and with it the sound of heart-rending, smothered sobbing, and felt arms about her neck.

Schwartz writes:

The silence lasted for a couple of minutes. Dolly was thinking about herself. Her humiliation, which was always with her, told especially painfully in her when her sister mentioned it. She had not anticipated such cruelty from her sister, and she was angry with her. Suddenly, however, she heard a dress and instead of the sound of sobs that had been held back too long, someone’s hands embracing her around the neck from below.

My mind just didn’t process this critique at all. In fact I think that Schwartz is better, although not in the ‘normal English’ sense. The last sentence was so strange that it caught me a lot more than the Garnett version.

Suddenly, however, she heard a dress and instead of the sound of sobs that had been held back too long, someone’s hands embracing her around the neck from below.

The first thing that my mind immediately leapt to was Egon Schiele. This “embracing her around the neck from below” has some sort of twisted body feeling that somehow adds to the whole emotions of the matter – since it combines the view of prostration with a forward-thrust of the embrace. Garnett, on the other hand, has “But suddenly she heard the rustle of a skirt, and with it the sound of heart-rending, smothered sobbing, and felt arms about her neck” which seems very pitter-patter and sentimental. It’s how you’d think anyone else would write the scene.

Schwartz also has this strange languid flow, from ‘dress’ to ‘sound of sobs’ to ‘held back’ which contrasts against ‘rustle of a skirt’ and ‘heart-rending, smothered sobbing’. Seeing both sentences being brought to light blew me away – and made me think about some things.

Do I just have an uncommon sense of English? I feel absolutely none of that irkness that Janet Malcolm feels when she reads the supposedly ‘awkward’ writings of P&V. I wonder if it’s a background thing. I come from Singapore after all, where you view English strained through a ton of different cultures. I’ve heard a critique that Singaporean English is too fast compared to other countries. So maybe my reading is a bit more ‘impressionistic’ in that I take the pieces as a whole and reform them together, rather than view them as straightforward units building up towards a pinnacle of meaning. In dictionary terms (and thanks David Foster Wallace for this, even though I’ve weaned myself off your writing) I’m more ‘descriptivist’ than ‘prescriptivist’.

A few comments by Alex Sheremet also got me thinking. He believes that although translation is important, if the innate structure of the work is flawed, it doesn’t really matter anyway. That brought me back to my experience of going through the scenes of Cross Channel – mainly the part where Taichi saves Misato from the falling tools in the first part.

I read that section in Japanese, and then in English. In Japanese it made me feel so emotionally overwhelmed that tears came to my eyes. In English, I didn’t reach that level, but there was a slight tug at my heart. I was wondering that maybe it was that the effect wore off after first reading. Then, I read it in Japanese again, and I felt the same overwhelming emotion take me.

So I can say that the translation of the style definitely plays a part in conveying the work. But exactly how much? And is grammar important? Can I write impressionistically without any heed for grammar? Which is more sacrosanct – grammatical flow or strange but powerful phrasings that may have awkwardness to a more ‘prescriptivist’ mindset?

2.

All these are very hard questions, and it brings me to the main crux of this, which is a critique of Kinoko Nasu’s Kara no Kyoukai by a Japanese critic.

You can read the full review here: http://tsukikan.com/misc/a-review-of-kara-no-kyoukai.html

Intrigued by the beatdown that KnK was getting, I decided to go and look at it in Japanese. My levels of understanding Japanese are still amateurish, so I wanted to see how an ‘official’ Japanese critic would view language.

When I read the critique though, that led me to even more thoughts. Since I’m parsing it word by word, and I’m not familiar enough for it to be naturalistic – so I can’t sense any awkwardness – but it got me thinking about the above critiques of awkwardness, since both are sort of the same thing.

その一連の映像は、古びた頁に挟まれ、
書に取り込まれて平面になった押し花を幻想させた。

(More Direct: That stream of images, inserted between old pages, upon a face of a folio/document the illusion of a pressed flower

Translation Given: That series of images gave me the illusion of a flower pressed in a folio, flattened between old pages)

This is the sentence that is being critiqued by the Japanese critic. He (I’ll assume male for the sake of convenience) makes the statement that it basically sums up to 「古い本の頁に挟まれた、押し花のように見えた」and that Nasu is amateurish because he uses 古びたin a strange place, uses 書 which brings to mind “antiques, curios, and folios” rather than actual books, and that he uses 幻想 when he just means ‘seems like’ – which is a complete exaggeration.

I can definitely see how, but my amateur reading skills finds no problem with the sentence.

Is grammar just a lack of innocence that we gain when the innocence of language falls away?!

That above sentence in itself is quite awkward. I could have written it as “Is grammar just the cynicism we get when language loses its innocence?” – yet I also realize that by writing it this way it creates an interesting awkwardness of a mirror structure that reads like a couplet. Surely if a critic of high English capabilities were to come over to this blog and read that sentence, he would utterly decimate me with a critique of my writing abilities.

My impressionistic amateur reading of Nasu’s writing finds no fault in the structure. The “stream of images” and “illusion”, after all, seems to tie in with his main thematic concerns of stuff like paradoxes, nothingness, and illusory realities. To me it feels like an aesthetic touch. I wonder whether that would change if I gained the sensibilities of a native speaker.

3.

So what matters? Does grammar matter? Does flow matter? Does flow matter at the cost of grammar? Does hitching up strange images in the middle of a sentence matter? Does consistency matter?

My view is this – it comes in Plateaus. There’s a plateau for translation or style that, once you hop over, nets increasingly diminishing returns. If you translate like the first Cross Channel translation then you’ll screw over the text – but if you jump to maybe a 70% or 80%, then a discerning enough reader should still be able to pick up the cues to make up for the remaining 20%. Even with the first C+C translation, I was still able to make up the cues for that scene to feel at least some emotion, though only a mere shadow of the overwhelming emotion I got from the original. As long as you get everything right, and just right-sounding enough, and consistent – then it should be okay. The rest is all the fault of your own individual quirks.

Though, my standards for 70% or 80% is quite high. Maybe Constance Garnett level at least.

4.

This last part is dedicated to an experiment on style.

This is a scene from a story I was writing once (but, like many of my stories, fell away incomplete):

“Tamarin was small, but she hopped up on his shoulder with ease. When her hand clutched the bark, a kind of quickness took over, and she surged from branch to branch.

He looked up. She had disappeared into the dark leaves. He squatted down with his back against the bark.

He waited fifteen to thirty minutes. He didn’t know the time. He traced the time through the gradual shifting in, and out, of the scenery before him. It was an important moment, yet, in moments such as these, the boredom excruciated the agony of the exercise. Furthermore, it was something that he was, at this moment, not a part of.

He heard rustling from above. Lilly was coming down. Her face was ruddy. Tamarin was following behind. Both of them had settled something.”

The gist is that I wanted to set up a ‘childhood friends’ kind of scenario, but I wanted to break all the genre conventions. So this whole part is about some argument or thing going on with the two other friends, but the main character is kept out of the loop – which is the complete opposite of those stories where you expect everyone to deal with everything together – hugs and kisses and confessions and all that. Trying to pull off a cold observational Kubrick approach, basically.

Stylistically I chose to write in a terse and factual style with a bit of psychological examination. Let’s see what happens when I remove the psychological aspect

“Tamarin was small, but she hopped up on his shoulder with ease. When her hand clutched the bark, a kind of quickness took over, and she surged from branch to branch.

He looked up. She had disappeared into the dark leaves. He squatted down with his back against the bark.

He waited fifteen to thirty minutes. He didn’t know the time. He traced the time through the gradual shifting in, and out, of the scenery before him.

He heard rustling from above. Lilly was coming down. Her face was ruddy. Tamarin was following behind.”

If I cut out the “both of them had settled something”, then you’d have no indication of anything other than the description. It would seem like this was just a scene of a girl climbing a tree, then bringing another girl down. The only indication is her face was “ruddy” – which could be from crying, embarrassment, and a whole lot of other things. Of course, if I was a writer of that vein, I would insert more ‘show’ cues and less ‘tell’ cues. In fact, one of my later stories practices that style – trying to derive emotion from a pure detached observational kind of writing.

The first part has a lot of strong actiony words like ‘surged’ and ‘quickness’ and ‘hopped’, which, of course, is stylistic but also delineates the character. Let me think of a few variants of that sentence that destroys that feeling.

“Tamarin climbed up his shoulder, and quickly went up the branches.”

“Tamarin climbed up the tree, branch to branch, from jumping up his shoulder.”

“Tamarin was small, and so she climbed on his shoulder to reach the branch. She pulled herself up branch by branch quickly once she reached it.”

“Tamarin climbed up his shoulder and grabbed at the rough bark, feeling her way up to the branches in the dark. She pulled herself branch by branch once she found it.”

“He lifted Tamarin’s weight up upon his shoulder, and she stretched towards the branch. Once she grabbed on to it, she began ascending. Soon she disappeared into the darkness, pawing her way up.”

This is a spectrum of sentences that convey lightness of action to heaviness of action. Let’s imagine that my writing is being translated by a person with a not too adequate command of English and tonal sense, into his own language. He has a chance of hitting any single one on the above spectrum by translating the core contents with less skill on conveying the style.

What are the chances, then, that my original intention of conveying ‘lightness’ onto Tamarin reaches the reader?

If you think I’m going to say “very low”, then you’re wrong. Actually I’m arguing the opposite.

If I had completed my novel, I would probably combine a good number of sentences that conveys the character through content as well as, like above, style. I would surely have had a few more proper examples of Tamarin’s ‘light’ nature embedded into the whole. The probability of the reader getting at that aspect, thus, is quite high.

The problem is that he’ll only get that intellectually, and not emotionally. The result is, with the Cross Channel translation, I could feel what was being gotten at – but not the core meat of what was there. It’s a probability game. With bad translation, the probability of hitting mark becomes all the lesser.

Yet, for a writer who writes with a tight ‘content structure’ rather than style structure, like, let’s say, maybe Theodore Dreiser – then it’ll probably be okay as long as the most basic plateau has been conquered.

I would envision the flow like this

Plot – Content/Narrative (how it occurs) – Style – Reader’s Biased Quirks – Intellectual Processing of Reader

(Take note that I believe in Death of the Author but not Death of the Object. I believe that end result (Intellectual Processing of Reader) is a meta-cognitive device that can weigh out all the probabilities regardless of the reader’s aesthetic quirks – and a book that is good will sync with those internal processing to mnemonically seep into every aspect of the reader’s life – providing a gestaltic quality that invokes deep intellectuo-emotiono-bliss and direction and meaning about the deep truths of humanity (although he won’t be able to grasp this wholly, but will have to return again and again to the work like a pilgrim) – unless he’s unreceptive to it of course. Whether the author is essential in creating that object depends on how much he can read into the intellectual processing and tailor the work to fit that, but, even if he doesn’t know how to do that consciously, he can probably do it unconsciously – thus non-conscious authors will have hits and misses. But all that’s going too far ahead, and will need a whole long article to properly propound upon.)

So what matters? Well, I’m very style receptive – but in the end structure still matters the most. How you structure your narrative etc… You lose that and you lose everything. The work becomes wholly unsalvageable. And that was what should have been criticized by the Japanese critic attacking Nasu, not something like the style alone. There are probably some writers out there who are consciously writing like a bag of bricks simply because they don’t want you to be misled by the style – but are so powerful and true in what they say that it doesn’t really matter.

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