Unreal Nature

June 22, 2018

These Necessary Words in This Necessary Order

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:38 am

… This is a translation! / Is it?

Continuing through This Little Art by Kate Briggs (2017):

… I’m also very inclined to agree that there’s great value in reading in the original. Perhaps something like the value we recognize and invest in literature. The right words in the right order, as Virginia Woolf puts it so simply in her talk on craftsmanship, delivered over the radio in 1937. These necessary words, in this necessary order.

[line break added] There is literature, arguably, or what we call the literary, when this matters: when we feel like something would be wrong should ever these words or their ordering be changed (if Clarissa Dalloway were to buy gloves and not the flowers herself, for example, as she does in an early draft of the novel). In this sense, literary translation, as a labor of changing words, and changing the orders of words, is always and from the outset wrong: its wrongness is a way of indirectly stressing and restressing the rightness of the original words in their right and original order.

… A translation becomes a translation only when someone (the translator, the publisher, the reader, an institution) declares it to be one; up until that point, writes [Theo] Hermans, the status of her writing is ‘merely another text.’

… [Declaring something to be a translation changes so many things] as in a brilliantly simple and provocative exercise I once observed a student set our translation class. She gave the group an original piece of writing and its translation, but had privately made them swap places. So what we read was an excerpt from a novel originally published in English but presented to us as if it were a translation from the French. Everyone was predictably critical of the English (in other words the original), finding it to be in different ways poorly written, misjudged, mistaken with regards to the rightness of the French (which was actually the translation).

[line break added] Everyone was a bit flushed and affronted, quickly backtracking when the trick of the exercise was revealed. Which suggests that rather than testifying to any identifiable quality of the prose itself, the categories of ‘original’ and ‘translation’ act more like placeholders: ‘original’ and ‘translation’ are the names for the positions we put writing in, and for the histories of writing labor we then assign to them (first-time writing, second-time writing). Positions which can then orientate and determine, in quite striking ways, the way the writing gets read.

[line break added] As in the sequence which closes Anne Carson’s Nay Rather, an essay on translation, where the familiar stops and signs from the London Underground, collected and sequenced, are thereby pronounced a translation of the Greek poet Ibykos’s fragment 286; and, on the facing page, the lines taken and set out from pages 136-7 of Conversations with Kafka by Gustav Janouch are likewise thereby pronounced a translation of that same fragment; and, turning the page again, so too are the words lifted from pages 17-18 of The Owner’s Manual of her new Emerson 1000w microwave oven.

[line break added] Carson calls this — the project of ‘translating a small fragment of ancient Greek lyric poetry over and over again using wrong words’ — not exactly an exercise in translating, nor even an exercise in untranslating, but more like a ‘catastrophizing of translation.’ She also calls it ‘a sort of stammering.’

[ … ]

… This is a translation!

Is it? I feel sure that something would happen — some adjustment to your reading manner would be very likely to occur — if you were to hear me all of a sudden insisting that it is.

My most recent previous post from Briggs’s book is here.




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