Traitorous Translation

I would like to start this essay with the oldest trick in the book. I would like to start it by referring to the ideas some prominent academic figure – in this case George Steiner.

(Nabokov’s) translations, re-translations, pastiches, cross-linguistic imitations, etc., form a dizzying cat’s-cradle. No bibliographer has, until now, fully unravelled it. Nabokov has translated poems of Ronsard, Verlaine, Supervielle, Baudelaire, Musset, Rimbaud from French into Russian. Nabokov has translated the following English and Irish poets into Russian: Rupert Brooke, Seumas O’Sullivan, Tennyson, Yeats, Byron, Keats, and Shakespeare. His Russian version of Alice in Wonderland (Berlin, 1923) has long been recognized as one of the keys to the whole Nabokovian oeuvre. Among Russian writers whom Nabokov has translated into French and English are Lermontov, Tiutchev, Afanasi Fet, and the Anonymous of The Song of Igor’s Campaign. His Eugene Onegin, in four volumes with mammoth textual apparatus and commentary, may prove to be his (perverse) magnum opus. Nabokov has published a Russian text of the Prologue to Goethe’s Faust. One of his most bizarre feats is a re-translation back into English of Konstantin Bal’mont’s “wretched but famous” version of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Bells. Shades of Borges’ Pierre Menard!

I have no hesitation in arguing that this polylinguistic matrix is the determining fact of Nabokov’s life and art, or, as Field more aptly phrases it, “life in art.” Nabokov’s passions for entomology (a branch of the theory of classification) and chess-particularly chess problems-are “meta-linguistic” parallels to his principal obsession. This obsession is, of course, not wholly of Nabokov’s choosing. As he points out with tireless, aggrieved insistence, the political barbarism of the century made him an exile, a wanderer, a Hotelmensch, not only from his Russian homeland but from the matchless Russian tongue in which his genius would have found its unforced idiom. This is obviously the case. But, whereas so many other language exiles clung desperately to the artifice of their native tongue or fell silent, Nabokov moved into successive languages like a traveling potentate. Banished from Fialta, he has built for himself a house of words. To be specific: the multilingual, cross-linguistic situation is both the matter and form of Nabokov’s work (the two are, no doubt, inseparable and Pale Fire is the parable of their fusion).

This appears at the start of Steiner’s interesting books of essays called Extraterritorial. It is mainly about how writers who are ‘outside a language’ can treat it from a creative observational point of view and engineer it to fit their own personality. Life in Art. Translation as Life. Beyond Nabokov, he also touches upon others such as Borges and Beckett.

Let me attack this from another angle.

This is a haiku by Basho:


It appeared in the Routledge Course on Japanese Translation book. The translation in the book is given as:

Whenever I speak out
My lips are chilled –
Autumnal wind.

My own personal translation would be:

The stories I have told
Are cold. My lips
In the autumn wind.

While I understand that 物言えば may not necessarily be related to stories in general – somehow being too attracted to Nisio Isin must have made me remember that word Monogatari. Somehow, this idea of a story being ‘cold’ attracts me in some way that I cannot fathom.

I also understand that the first line is a provisional and not speaking in the past tense. But, my mind – which frequently likes to spin out rhymes – sometimes completely unintentionally – must have configured my translation to incline towards that path.

I think – this war between two translations speaks of something interesting. Something about language. In the first translation, it feels more melancholic and bitter. ‘Chilled’ pertains more to the bite because of how sharp it is. ‘Speak out’ is open in sound & meaning – but it is blocked off by the chill in the next line. Then it all collapses into nature. This feels more about a speaker who is beset with a mood that makes his words like sharp arrows in his throat.

On the other hand, in my translation, I used ‘stories’, ‘told’ and ‘cold’ to dull that bite and round it off. The past tense also sends it into the realm of a distant nostalgic standpoint. Since I separated it into two sentences, they do not necessarily combine into one bitter statement. ‘Lips’ and ‘wind’ causes the sense to dissipate at the end.

In other words, the first translation feels as though it was talking about a speaker who is caught with icicles in his throat, not knowing what to say. The second feels as though it was about a speaker who was calmly distancing himself from his old words – weighing them in his mind – and speaking like the wind.

This nuance – I believe – is the difference between a person who makes Translation into Life & a person who makes Translation into Devotion. The former sees the words as cold, and speaks with the wind. The latter sees the words as chill, and speaks in the wind.

I am not making any judgment about the two parties. Sometimes, it is a great achievement to have weathered through a blizzard – in this case, the context & sense of the original text & the intentions of the author (either real or ‘ideal author’). But, sometimes, a writer prefers to have the text as a palette that he can play with.

The original Basho poem seems to weigh more towards the meaning of the other translation – the bitter melancholy – but it’s sense is less sharp since it is elegant Japanese verse. So, in that way it may lean more to mine. I am not a scholar of Japanese Literature, so I do not know anything about the literary contextual aspects that he might be talking about. Perhaps 唇寒し has a special connotation that he’s making reference to. Maybe it appeared in some other poem or book. I do not know. But I am merely talking about what I feel the sense to be.

What does it mean to translate? What does it mean to desecrate?

There’s that Italian pun that you keep seeing in articles about translation – where the translator is compared to a traitor. Certainly, throughout history we have had many such translators. Borges’ essay on the translators of the Arabian Nights goes into some of them. He talks about how these translators cut out sexually explicit references due to a Victorian sense of Morality. But he also talks about how some translators purposely embellished the text of the Arabian Nights to have a more Orientalist and Exotic aesthetic. And it was because of the translator’s embellishment that the poetic imagination of the time was infused with a new vision of imaginary exotic vistas. Poets wrote about Arabian treasures and Eastern delights that may have been absent in the original text.

Other poetic traitors include Ezra Pound. He didn’t even care about learning the original language, but hijacked some Orientalist’s notes and came up with his own spin on it. He came up with this idea that Chinese language was more ‘imagistic’ because the radicals corresponded to images. Of course – this is completely untrue. The radicals may have been rooted in pictograms, but in the end they developed their own semantic meaning – and no Chinese will be able to tell you what the words were originally pictures of. Eventually, the choice of many radicals turned out to be arbitrary. Nevertheless – Pound was a poet of the highest calibre, and he made his falsehoods into beautiful realities.

But – those people who are quick to draw offense at the myth have forgotten that myths, too, have their purposes. We must think about Heisig’s famous mnemonic method in Remembering the Kanji. He uses the idea of imagery as a stepping stone to help Japanese learners learn and remember the variety of symbols. I don’t use Heisig – but I’ve used mnemonics plenty of times by making up my own. Here is one of them:

In this mnemonic – I chose to utilize the Chinese word for Tiger:

The former Kanji has connotations to Tyranny and Violence. I was reminded of the fact that Chinese hold Tigers in such high regard because the stripes on their head supposedly looks like the symbol for King (王). I imagined that the bottom part of the symbol was a fork – and I imagined a picture of a tiger holding a fork. A fierce tiger, with a ‘king’ on the forehead, holding a fork to oppress people = Tyrant.

So, even though the idea that Chinese read ‘pictorially’ is false – the language itself allows for that. The myth can be made true. But, you can probably also read English pictorially if you create the correct mnemonics for it. These boundaries are always shifting.

We live in an age with unprecedented media access and communication channels. One of the unforeseen circumstances for this is the exacerbation of fan communities and virtual tribes. With these fan communities – you also have explosions and explosions of derivative works. You have fan fiction, doujinshi, fansubs, fan translation, parodies, abridged series, lets plays, reaction videos etc…

Derivation is one of the strongest channels to sate the creative impetus. Thanks to the scholarship, we know that many of Shakespeare’s plays were born from derivation of other works. Some people have the misconception that because the original Romeo and Juliet was a morality play – that immediately means that Shakespeare’s version was criticizing young and passionate romance. They forget that this is a derivation, and the love poetry depicted within the work goes beyond mere moralizing. Romeo & Juliet are stupid, but they are also exemplars of love.

The quote from Steiner – regarding Nabokov – shows us how a person can live within that state. Dancing upon the constantly shifting plains of words, ideas, characters, works, and tropes. I do not think that Nabokov is a person who writes traitorous translations though – as seen from the example of his annotated Pushkin (this article, in fact, writes about how he was intensely faithful to a T – although, if he really was playing an elaborate satire on academic translation, it would be brilliant as hell) – but his sense of play is channeled into his actual works. Steiner speaks about how Nabokov’s strange and dandy-ish style is derived from his Russian background.

Everyone speaks of how bad the fan communities are. They are the workers of Devotion. They try to speak in the author’s tongue, and their words are like chill winds. These icicles are stuck in their throat. Most fan-fiction still falls within the creator’s terms. They cannot make that leap to twist the knife into the original – like Shakespeare did with Romeo & Juliet. Even if they write it into a dark fic or a speculative ship – they are still thrall to the conceptions of the creator. They are thinking in terms of what the creator would have done if he/she had written it like this – or of fantasies separate from the creator’s endings, but still stuck within the premises – but not thinking of it in terms of elucidating their own selves.

Translations are generally such and such too. Most likely, to have a translation of a huge literary work published – you must be some kind of scholar or something. The upcoming Zettels Traum is viewed as the German Finnegans Wake, and it is being translated by a scholar of German Literature. I am not against such translations. I believe that Schmidt sounds the type of person who should be translated by a scholar, since he seems to be the type of writer who is also academically inclined. But, it seems as though the weird traitorous translations of Pound will no longer fly.

There are also the dark portents of Google Translate and Machine Translation screwing everything up. People predict that shrewd businessmen will use the accuracy rate as an excuse to get crappy MT editors into churning out Literature – to cut costs. There are many translation groups that use MT too, and the results are, of course, horrible. Those worries are valid. But, I don’t particularly care. I learnt that Google Translation could be a vessel for creativity when I used it to come up with my own ‘adaptations’ of Gautier over here. I looked at the words that came out, and I looked at the cadence of the original words, and I tried to blend these two together to see what kind of weird poem I could create. I listened to the OST of SubaHibi while translating Gautier, so that I could match the rhythm to the smooth sounding Naze Hi wa Katamuku no ka.

My country is a country that is not happy with its own language. The government encourages refined English and proper Mandarin – but everyone speaks Singlish. Those who speak English try too hard – and in the end they come out sounding like ‘cheemanology’. Nobody gives a damn over here. They rape the language all they want – carrying over subject-dropping from Chinese and other strange colloquialisms until the word become like very the waddeshit liddat. Some people have noted that Singapore English is extremely fast – a machine gun style – matching the intense rhythm of the society itself (incidentally, this was how translator Andrew Cunningham characterized the Kansai-ben dialect – as opposed to just being ‘Southern’). Singapore is a strange country where some of the best prose tinkerers may be the politicians rather than the writers. Our Big Daddy-O Lee Kuan Yew once beautifully characterized the process of PR in a democracy as such:

You can do a PR job, as has been written in American books after the making of presidents, where you have a vast electorate of 200 million people with over 120 million potential voters with the help of radio and TV, and you suddenly find – with a whole host of ghost writers and advisers – that the man becomes scholarly, learned, and solicitous in his speech. Catch him at a press conference and a question and answer session, where the ghosts cannot whisper to him, and the man is betrayed.

And the man himself was a man of peculiar speech. He spoke with English turns at times, then segued into Chinese, then Hokkien, then he changed his accent back to Singlish. But the message always slammed into your brain.

Thus – I find this strange idea of Extraterritorial rather captivating. The world of language is full of ghosts. The ghosts of authors and culture are all around you. They are whispering to you everywhere. They betray you at every turn. But there are those knights who bear shields against the language. They make their own tongue as sword.

What is the idea of translation? What is the idea of desecration? What is the idea of derivation?

This is an essay about the possibility of translation as a dagger. In this strange ‘illegal public domain’ that has erupted due to extreme developments in communication technology and the apathy of the lawyers to fight against the law of big numbers – the fan communities and their derivations – those who venture forth and dip their hands into the obscure and the interesting will find much to work with. An interesting writer who will never be translated by the mainstream into our language because of his obscurity – but hasn’t relinquished his copyright to license a translated work – is ripe for the picking. Steal him as your own. Stake out your claim onto that field. Of course – if the writer so ardently requests then you should probably remove your derivation… but there has never been a more fertile ground for the fun of traitorous translations to spread far and wide.

Thus, this essay will end with a certain recapitulation:

The stories I have told
Are cold. My lips
In the autumn wind.

And this essay will close off with a certain theft as well. See if you can guess the source:

This story does not belong to me.

In this actor-infused loft known as ‘The World’, everyone out there fancies themselves in the leading roles, and would charge all their cunnings into the fray. This is merely a record of a high spirited tromp through the alcohol-drenched night. Friends and dearest readers, may you enjoy with a great and careful relish – an exquisition of life flavored like the sweetness of almond jelly – and savor it to your heart’s content.





There is a very interesting case in Nabokov as a translator. He propounded the most rigid tenets of literal translation – going as far to end a friendship with critic Edmund Wilson over his massive scholarly translation of Alexander Pushkin. Yet, he also seemed to be the king of inventiveness and free translation in other things – like his translation of Alice in Wonderland. This was a man who destroyed a friendship over footnotes & came up with ‘triple puns’ to match Carroll’s ‘double puns’.

Of course, his own Literature is known for the heights of its allusive wordplay and refined (even perhaps artificial) cadence. He hated writers who wrote like dumb bricks – such as Dostoevsky.

To use the paragon of literal translation in an essay about free backstabbing translation seems strange – but I am using the idea of him conveyed by Steiner reading into his prose, rather than speaking about what the man actually stood for. Nabokov was, after all, pretty damn arrogant about his tastes and his hate-list extends to a whole load of authors loved by everyone. Most of his hates seem to be based upon that refined aesthetic sense that I mentioned above – rather than anything like human themes or whatnot.