Stranger to Strangeness

I do not put much stock in autobiography as a mechanism for establishing interpretive credentials, though I recognize that that ploy has become common among people my age on the internet. But in this case, it may help to partially explain some things about why I think as I think, and why I do as I do, and why I despise what I despise.

It is a Hollywood cliché to trace all peculiarities of a person to some incident of their childhood. But the reason the principle of foreignization in translation is suspect to me has — I think — to do with the way in which I grew up, and with the reasons why I began translating poetry in the first place.

I grew up a "biracial" child, with a black father and a Russian-American mother. Unlike David Duke or Gayatri Spivak, the prospect of unregulated, successful mutual accommodation between people of extremely different backgrounds, different base premises, different religious beliefs, different skin-colors and different ethnic identities, was not something I had trouble imagining as a child. Nor is it something I have trouble imagining as an adult — however much I find myself told, in essence, that I ought not to be able to imagine it so easily (though I admit I did agonize for a while over the question "what am I?" till I realized the question itself was absurd.) Unlike personal boundaries, the boundaries of cultural integrity were, for my twelve-year-old self, mostly to be ignored. Or played with. Or deliberately destroyed. But for the breaking of such boundaries I would not have been born.

Though for as long as I can remember I have known English better than Russian, there were some things I did in Russian before I did them in English. Talking was one of them. My first words, I am told, were the Russian words for "bird" and "light." Another thing I did in Russian first was appreciate poetry, first in memorizing as a very small child, and then again beginning around the age of I believe 11, when I finally decided Russian was important to me. I thus grew up with Russian poetry, particularly that of the 19th century, the much-gilded and ostensibly Golden Age of Russian literature, and started paying attention to it at precisely the age when my literate consciousness was developing. It was as much a part of me as anything by the time I was 14 or so. There was however a gap between the language I used for most purposes and the language in which I most enjoyed poetry. Yet that gap did not alienate me — despite how strange it may seem that I learned to think poetically via a language other than the one I knew and know best. It is a gap which — though limited by the horizons of an early teenage boy — would be relatable to Early Persian poets weaned on Arabic, the attitude of early Latin poets toward the Greek literacy they were steeped in, and to 19th century Russian aristocrats who sometimes acquired literacy in French before Russian and often drew on French for their models and creative stimulus. It was, I think, that gap which spurred me to translation. I was aware that, otherwise, those who couldn't understand Russian couldn't enjoy what I was enjoying. I wanted the poetry I was reading and memorizing to exist in English as well, so that people like my father might be able to read it. And I had — as I continue to have — every confidence that it could.

The Russian texts were not foreign to me. Quite the opposite — nothing could have been more familiar. Familiar, that is, in every sense of the word — their language was one of two languages of home, of one of two halves of a single family. Nor, at that age, was I given to have any sense of English and Russian poetries, or literatures, as being somehow incommensurable. Their separateness was an incidental one to me. They were divided, to my mind, by nothing more than the fact that not everybody read both languages. The gap was not something I felt unbridgeable. That isn't to say that I wasn't aware that some words in English, or in Russian, didn't have exact equivalents in the other language. I was aware — enviously so — that the two had different rhythms, and that it was trivially easy to rhyme in Russian but much less so in English.

I did not have a sense that Russian and English were in conflict at the site of translation, let alone that there was some sort of conflict in my poetic sensibilities being formed in a language other than my primary language. (Note that I didn't end that last sentence with "native language." The idea of one particular language as "mother tongue" — with the premise that you have one "true" native language to which the others are in some way adventitious — is itself a refracted holdover from nationalist lunacies of the nineteenth century, and Herderian Romanticism's delusional equation of language with soul. Ask Nabokov, or Giovanni Pontano, or William Auld, or Fuzûlî.)

What I did have was a sense of adaptation, a mutual and mutually beneficial one at that. My father and mother adapted to one another out of love, and in defiance of those who liked worlds to remain separate but equal. I hadn't any reason to believe gaps, cultural or linguistic, were in principle unbridgeable. Only that there were people — many people — who didn't like such bridges existing. The Russian Orthodox church I attended as a child had two services, one in English and one in Church Slavonic, and at the latter when the sermon was given in Russian, interpretation was made available for those who didn't know the language (not infrequently with my mother doing the interpreting.) Russian itself was a language translated into, and not simply out of. Lermontov's Gornyie Veršynyi (Mountain Summits) and Na Severe Dikom Stoit Odinoko ("There stands in the wild north...") are among the most widely-quoted poems in Russian, and they are often memorized young children. And I knew that these were translations of German poems — they were labeled as such in the books where I found them. I knew — as my grandmother informed me — that the lyrics of the song Večerni Zvon (sung and appreciated even by old men hostile to American culture) were a translation of "Evening Bells", an English poem by Thomas Moore. I eventually learned, thanks I believe to a footnote by Gleb Struve somewhere, that Bože Tsarya Khrani (God Preserve the Tsar) the national anthem of pre-revolutionary Russia, was in fact Zhukovski's free adaptation of the English "God Save The King." If national anthems could be translated, and in translation be shared, by Empires...then what on this green earth couldn't be? If English — as I perceived it back then — was not quite so translationally permeated, this was something to be worked through, in much the same way, and the same spirit, as one might go seeking more information in order to better understand a person that seemed incomprehensible.

The first book of literary translations I ever happened upon was Pushkin Threefold by Walter Arndt, which — for all its shortcomings that I later realized — almost immediately helped me settle once and forever that literal and literary translation were not the same thing. And could never be. I understood that verse-translation was quite possible, and developed a sense that literal translation of a poem, "faithful" in its way to the original, was an act of disrespect — a refusal to treat a poem as everything it truly was.  All my translation has involved renegotiation in terms of what the target language can and cannot be made to do. Because much of the poetry to which I was exposed in English in those days was different in character from anything I assimilated in Russian, because modern English poetry in the early 2000s did not as a rule employ rhyme and had an aesthetic that was as different from Pushkin's or Lermontov's as anything imaginable to me then, because I had seen that such poetry could nonetheless exist in English and that earlier English poetry was quite different as well, I was aware at some level (though I wouldn't have thus articulated it) that what a language can be made to do is not the same thing as what people are in the habit of doing with it at the moment, that language is capable of more than its users may imagine, or want to imagine. But I certainly recognized that there are things there would be no point in trying to do. As Robert Hall put it, not even Dante could have made Italian into a tone language. Nor could I or anyone else have transformed English into a language with six noun-cases, where word-order could be manipulated with latinate, or slavicate, plasticity.

The idea of translation as a point of confrontation with the foreign would have sounded even more bizarre to me then than it does today. Why would I have treated Pushkin as foreign? He wasn't foreign — not to me. What "essential otherness of the text" would I have even conceived of if such a notion were explained to me? That Pushkin may have been foreign to the aesthetics of modern English was not cause for much self-examination (let alone self-recrimination) on my part. After all my own aesthetics of language, and of language's joy, — shaped to a considerable degree by 19th century Russian poetry —were not those of modern English as I knew it either. Multilingual existence, unregulated cross-linguistic and cross-cultural accommodation and negotiation, had been my life, and thankfully would always be. It was not limited to Russian and English. It embraced Spanish (which to one degree or another I had had a passive understanding of since kindergarten), French (also the language of part of my family), and eventually Latin, Welsh and other languages as well. None of them felt, and no language has ever felt, like a "foreign" language exactly. To me, there is nothing foreign about a language simply because I happen not to know it, or not to know it yet. The extremely ethnically mixed highschool I went to ensured that I could find peers to talk to in almost any language, and I always approached it with the sense that multilingualism was a normal thing.

I did, as I grew up, grow alienated from Russianness — whatever that even is. But not from Russian literature. Today I never feel like more of a stranger than when in Russian company. It is only people who knew me before I was 18 that still call me "Sasha." There is little about me left by which to call me Russian. What does remain is Russian literature, and Russian poetry, and the ways of thinking which they instilled in me. And a world full of lunatic creationist priests, fascist Putin-heads, Slavophile racists, fulminating antisemites, Moscow police harassments and Moscow public bathrooms can never take that away from me.

The above is a retrospective on the thoughts of a teenage kid. But it goes a way toward explaining why I am basically hostile to the separatism which now passes for radicalism in a number of western societies, to the nationalism that dare not speak its name but passes for multiculturalism, and to much of post-modern translation theory, with its cultural pessimism, estrangement and profound mistrust of language, of the human ability to communicate anything at all. It goes hand in hand with the revulsion and incredulity which many feel about a language like Esperanto which aspires to its own Babel, as well as the mistrust of bilingualism if it does not involve a sense of the foreign. Robert Sieburth, who himself grew up bilingual, has convinced himself that “bilinguals are often the worst translators. You need that solid anchoring in one language, precisely because you need to respond to the foreignness; with bilinguals that tension gets lost. That tension needs to be maintained.” Robert Penn Warren observed that “those outside of the language....could appreciate its musicality more than a native speaker— precisely because the outside reader would tend to focus more on exotic sound than sense.”

When translators themselves start praising the opacity of language which (they believe) can only come with adult acquired bilingualism, or insinuating that part of the problem might be — in essence — being too familiar with a different language, not being "anchored" in a single one, something strange has happened.

Derrida's treatment of Babel as standing for l'inadéquation d'une langue à l'autre, d'un lieu de l'encyclopédie à l'autre, du langage à lui-même et au sens  "the inadequation of one language for another, of one place in the encyclopedia for another, of linguistic usage for its own self and for meaning" would evoke little more than pity from me if fewer people took it seriously. Much the same goes for Barthes' terror of language itself, the tendency to emphasize translation as a destructive act, metaphors that treat translation as violating a text's integrity, theories declaring that "the violence of translation resides in its very purpose and activity", the concern — much beloved both among reactionary conservatives of all shades, and among white people who hallucinate a radical face into the mirror — that  "making another culture comprehensible" is itself an act of trespassing, the doctrine of "radical inaccessibility", the value often placed on "conveying the foreignness" of a text...these to me are more than distasteful. Nineteenth-century notions about the purity of race and nation endure, in partially inverted form, just beneath the surface, alongside a profound anxiety of pollution, much like the fears about miscegenation which British colonial elites in Africa had, when they tried to peddle cultural identity to their subjects as a substitute for freedom.

This kind of translation theory insults not merely my intelligence, but our shared humanity. It would have us all remain small.

Some things don't translate exactly of course. The internet is full of people who like to collect and recycle such storied untranslatables as Russian toská, or Portuguese saudade. But there are much more mundane ways in which exact one to one equivalence will fall short.

Ask yourself, if a secret is a fact or object that is hidden from general knowledge or kept unknown to some party, then what word would you use to describe the opposite of that word? A secret is a concealed fact or object, then a fact or object that is known generally is a....what?
If you're a Russian speaker, ask yourself what three different Russian words can adequately render the different nuances of English disappointment, disenchantment, disillusionment, or how you could translate the Russian word полагать in all its polysemy
If you're an Arabic speaker, try translating the word عَصَبي into English, or try finding an exact Arabic translation of the English words fun and already.

But of course English speakers know what the opposite of a "secret" is, even if they don't have a word for it as Classical Arabic does. Russian speakers are perfectly capable of understanding the concept of privacy. And, yes, Arabic speakers do understand what it is to have fun.

Moreover, your language is always expanding, and adapting to new sense-strategies, such as the hyphenated term that came before that comma just now. You can even learn new languages. Every time you use a word you are subtly altering the way in which you relate to it. Some Arabic-speaking readers probably remembered above that the word "already" does in have an equivalent in many spoken Arabic dialects. And that word is ōlrēdī. Languages borrow from each other. They interact with each other. They influence each other. That is how they survive.

If there is one way in which a strong version of Whorfianism is at all worth entertaining, it is as it relates to poetry. If Pushkin were a native English speaker, he would not merely have written his poems in English. He would not have written the same poems in English that he did in Russian. The way the incidental features of language become employed in non-incidental ways in poetry means, effectively, that creative thinking of a linguistic kind may manifest itself in extremely different ways depending on the specifics of the language itself. I do believe that is the case.

Yet that, too, is not the end of the story. Different languages can push one another to do what they otherwise wouldn't. The Latinate syntax of the Spanish Golden Age  is often dismissed, like the scrambled latinate syntax of Milton, as being "artificial" (is anything involving creation not in some way artificial?) Yet it allowed poets to do things they might otherwise have been unable to do. The translator from Arabic who finds themself motivated to bring to light aesthetic properties of a text, may not be able to produce long stretches of monorhyme, but they may be in an especially good position to see the potential involved in assonance. When faced with a line involving morphological wordplay, such Al-Mutanabbī's line taqtulunā l-manūnu bilā qitāli, in finding the lexeme-echoed rendering of "death slaughters us with no onslaught" the translator can bring to light possibilities of language that tend to be more marginal in English poetry than in Arabic (perhaps in part because of how easy it is to engage in root-play in Arabic due to the morphology of the language, but also because English-speakers tend to limit punning and such to comical or "light" genres.) And linguistic distance may bring one closer to the author in some ways, in that it licenses translation. This is the reason modern Russian audiences are better equipped to appreciate Shakespeare than modern English-speaking audiences are.

Of course one cannot translate perfectly. But that doesn't mean the translation cannot be as good as the original. It may in fact be better.

Moreover, complete translatability of language in every single aspect at every level is impossible not because language fails to capture thought, or because language limits thought, or because extra-linguistic meaning doesn't exist, but because human thought itself, like human sociality, is not a "well-formed system." Language develops in ways that are only apparently systematic. It is rather messy once you look at it in high enough resolution. So too are our thoughts messy. They work in unsystematic ways. Different brains may also work in somewhat different ways. That doesn't mean they can't organize themselves or give us the ability to understand each other, and the universe in which we exist. Language exists, and has thrived in our species, to get around communicative barriers. Not to create them.

Language itself doesn't have "rules" so much as a set of stochastic processes that look like rules until you examine them up close, and then you begin to talk not about a system with rules, but (to take one way of thinking about it) a set of constraints in tension with one another. Even those who believe in universal grammar in one form or another will often accept that it is tendencies, rather than exceptionless absolutes, which are the universal. Railing about the tyrannical rule-bound nature of language in the manner of many a post-modernist is evidence above all else of an antiquated and superseded understanding of how language works. To the degree that language has its limits, this is because language is the product of human cultures and of human interactions. Language cannot serve the purposes of a kind of direct telepathy. Why would you expect otherwise, given that the species using it has had to make its way in the universe without telepathy? It presupposes both ineradicable barriers, and the possibility of overcoming them. For sociocultural, sociolinguistic and even morphological reasons, Pushkin probably would not have written The Prophet if he were not a speaker of 19th century Russian. But that the poem can work in other languages as something more than an off-brand knockoff, is no less unimaginable than the fact that 21st century Russian speakers find their own ways of relating to what that poem does. Great things can go beyond themselves. And that too, is part of the human condition.

Linguists can't even come up with a perfect definition of the word "word." No, really, they can't. But to retreat into a pessimistic non-speech act of "resistance" through silence or obfuscation, to prize opacity in translation as if it somehow were a virtue, to treat lucid translation as an act of aggression or violence forcing a text to become something "other", to treat language as a prison rather than one of the most precious vehicles available to our species, simply because it isn't a well-ordered enough system on the surface, is to opt against humanity. To sacrifice intelligibility merely for the sake of a text's cultural identity is to presume that without its cultural identity, it wouldn't be worth reading. It is reminiscent of that insufferable habit of Middle Class White America: respecting other cultures so much that they fail to respect other people. The belief that the way to ethically reveal is by concealing, that the best access is a display of inaccessibility, is the belief less of the translator, than of the religious dogmatist uncomfortable with scripture being made too intelligible; of charlatans and con-artists who wouldn't be able to sleep at night if they themselves had not long ago been taken in by their own sleight of hand.
Emphasis on the difficulty of conveying meaning out of context across cultures underestimates novel expression in everyday life, and how novel expressions are conveyed linguistically. Just as the individual can absorb new words and ideas, so too can individual languages. The universal human capacity for imagination and metaphor, translating ideas from one context to another, underpins the possibility of translation from one language to another. Human understanding has developed precisely from human capacity to convey meaning out of context. Abstract concepts have developed from metaphors, borrowed from ordinary activities. The vitality of a language, and a culture, has, accordingly, been linked to its receptivity to metaphor. Moreover, translation between different languages liberates concepts from specific words, increasing the flexibility of our thinking and expanding our minds and cultural ideas. 
— Vanessa Pupavac "Language Rights: From Free Speech to Linguistic Governance"

1 comment:

  1. By the way, a poet friend who writes in - as he calls our dialect - his original language undertitled his collection of old poems: Non authorized Autobiography. Meaning as it is in fact if Je est un autre, and we continually change, that the he who operated the choice isn't for sure the one he wrote them, and so it must be! Fiorenzo Toso is the guy.