Monday, December 28, 2009

The Year in Review, pt. 3: Translation

Translation demands the utmost dedication to craft. Charon must place the oars with intimate care as he ferries his cargo across the river. Anansi must weave precisely so the web spans the gulf and withstands the winds that riffle across it.

Fantastical art is inherently liminal, ambiguous, defying by design easy understanding. The Friar’s Lantern leads us a merry dance over the bog.

Locus (November) reported on science fiction in Brazil. The New York Review of Science Fiction examined French, German and Danish contributions. Dedalus Press – which claims to have “invented its own distinctive genre, which we term distorted reality”—does a great job bringing smaller languages to the fore, e.g., Estonian, Finnish, Flemish. Levine/Scholastic brought out Karlijn Stoffels’ fantasy Koningsdochter, zeemanslief in English (translated by Laura Watkinson) as Heartsinger. Check out The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, edited by Rakesh Khanna & Pritham Chakravarthy.

Several small presses (those indies again!) specialize in translations into English, and include many works that will appeal to lovers of the fantasy. Examples: Host Publications (try Maria Rosa Lojo’s Awaiting the Green Morning, translated by Bret Alan Saunders) and Archipelago Books (try Eric Chevillard’s Palafox, translated by Wyatt Mason).

More important than individual translations is the analysis and interpretation of underlying categories, the attempt to translate entire genre-constructs, even to translate the concept of translation itself. Two good places to start: Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark; Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), and Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “Thick Translation” (Callaloo 16:4, 1993). Nnedi Okorafors’ “Is Africa Ready for Science Fiction?” (posted to The Nebula Awards blog, August 2009) is likewise required reading. Also valuable is Bliss Cua Lim’s Translating Time: Cinema, the Fantastic and Temporal Critique (out this year from Duke University Press).

(We need to explore these themes more fully. See below at the asterisk for additional citations.)

One example of how crucial and how fragile translational operations are: this year Fordham University Press published the first critical edition (by Saussy, Stalling & Klein) of The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, the late-19th-century notes by Ernest Fenellosa that Ezra Pound edited and published in 1920. Jess Row, reviewing the critical edition in the current issue of The Threepenny Review, notes: “Pound’s invocation of the ideogram as an exact analogy to Imagist poetics essentially created an agenda, if not the agenda, for American poetry after the 1920s. The translation of Chinese poetry evolved largely, if not exclusively, in step with that agenda.”

The problem with Pound’s authority was that he was wrong. Jess Row again: “The Chinese Written at best an incomplete and skewed ‘picture’ of how classical Chinese actually works as a language...,” its analysis “largely, but not entirely, a figment of the Western imagination; we might say it’s a tool Westerners have used to conceive of the concepts of Tao, or emptiness, or self-sufficient existence, which English words can’t fully explain.”

The Tower of Babel falls from its brittle plinth, mortar slaked and casements spalted.

Museums are also becoming more self-aware of their translational responsibilities, including how they order their categories of knowledge (an entire cohort of curators presumably having grown up on Foucault). Some exhibitions this year that caught my attention along these lines—I regret not being to view these in person: ReVisions, Indian Artists Engaging Traditions at the Peabody Essex Museum (Salem, Massachusetts), and Global:Lab—Art as Message; Asia and Europe, 1500-1700 at the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna.

* Some additional resources: Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms (East African Educational Publishers, 1993); Binyavanga Wainaina, “How To Write About Africa,” Granta 92 (Winter, 2005); Ruth Franklin, "After Empire; Chinua Achebe and the Great African Novel," The New Yorker (May 26, 2008); Steven Mailloux, “Interpretation and Rhetorical Hermeneutics,” in Machor & Goldstein, Reception Study: From Literary Theory to Cultural Studies (Routledge, 2001); Gregory Rabassa, “No Two Snowflakes Are Alike: Translation as Metaphor,” in Biguenet & Schulte, The Craft of Translation (University of Chicago Press, 1989); “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent: Anne Carson Contemplates Translation,” Public Space # 7 (February, 2009); Gillian Lathey, editor, The Translation of Children’s Literature: A Reader (Multilingual Ltd., 2006); Ming Dong Gu, “Theory and Fiction: A Non-Western Narrative Tradition,” Narrative 14:3 (October, 2006); The Global Art and the Museum project begun in 2006 at ZKM/Center for Art & Media, Karlsruhe. More generally, listen to the words of Laila Lalami, Zhang Longxi, Sangeeta Ray, Anthony Yu, Edith Grossman, and Suzanne Jill Levine.

No comments: