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Perils of Translation

A bilingual student of mine recently made the following observation. During a period of study in England, she had become an admirer of Milan Kundera, reading his work in English. Later, back in Italy, she had picked up an early novel of his, in Italian. She remarked: “It was only when I was three quarters of the way through that I realized it was the same novel I had read first of all in England. I knew the plot was the same of course, but the book was so completely, so utterly different I was convinced it couldn’t be the one I had already read.”

Checking recently through the Italian translation of an early novel of my own, a noir I suppose you would call it, scribbled in my second year in Italy, I was disturbed to find the following remark. The hero, a young Englishman in Italy who is about to turn to a life of crime, recognizes that this has something to do with the change of language. He says:

The only thing he had truly gained these last two years was the ability to speak a foreign language near perfectly and the curious freedom that ability now appeared to give him in the way he thought. As if he had shifted off rails. His mind seemed to roam free over any and every possibility. He must make a big effort always to think in Italian as well as to speak it (certainly he had been thinking in Italian when he stole the document case). It could be a way out of himself, he thought, and out of the trap they had all and always wanted him to fall into.

I wrote this, and promptly forgot it, in my late twenties, some years before I started translating anything with literary pretensions and many years before I began to read more seriously about language and linguistics. In the meantime, however, I have discovered the Italian proverb “Inglese italianizzato, inglese indiavolato,” which would have been such an appropriate quotation to have placed on the title page. Just as that proverb translates poorly into English, so my comment on the hero’s sense of moral liberty in a foreign language, which seemed convincing enough in the original English, appears much less so in the Italian translation, where the reader is doubtless all too aware that his language is drenched in Catholic morality. The liberty Italian gave my hero had to do with its novelty, his unawareness of its implications, his being uninitiated in the culture it supports.

What I want to do here is to ask if there is any useful connection to be made between my bilingual student’s surprise on reading Kundera in a different language and my hero’s perception that his appropriation of the Italian language would open the way to his appropriation of other people’s property. And again whether there is a connection between these two events—one real, one fictional—and my own growing conviction that a very great deal of literature, poetry, and prose can only be truly exciting and efficacious in its original language, a conviction that goes hand in hand with my decision not to write any more in Italian, never to translate into Italian, and never to translate except for the purposes of elucidation. This is a personal decision, I should stress, not a prescription.

It is amusing, of course, that my student should have discovered the shock of the difference between the same text in different languages with, of all people, Milan Kundera. For perhaps no other contemporary writer has been so ferociously attentive to the translations of his own work, nor dedicated himself to such scathing polemics at the expense of lazy and “unfaithful” translation, polemics underwritten, it sometimes seems, by a belief in the possibility of a near identity between original and translation. Kundera speaks of having left a publisher because he changed semicolons into full stops. He speaks of a natural tendency of translators to reject repetition, to use richer and more literary vocabulary where the original text was lean and simple, and above all to return “stylistic transgression” to convention.

Kundera is not alone, of course, in finding such shortcomings—I think most of those who have looked closely at a number of literary translations will have made the same observations—or in identifying an author’s stylistic transgression with his originality and indeed the raison d’être of his work. Explaining his own habitual use of repetition, D.H. Lawrence remarked: “The only answer is that it is natural to the author.” Less defensively, Proust spoke of style as “the transformation that the author’s thought imposes on reality,” suggesting an essential equivalence of style and vision.

In this regard, I suspect we would all agree that the mark of a “poetic prose” is its consistent and internally coherent distance both from what is recognizably conventional and from the creative styles of other authors. It has its meaning, that is, within a matrix of texts from each of which it establishes its distance. We would thus tend to accept Kundera’s claim that “for a translator, the supreme authority should be the author’s personal style.” And presumably then his complaint: “But most translators obey another authority, that of the conventional version of ‘good French”’ (French being the specific case he is referring to). We might then go on to suspect, as Kundera clearly does, that if we find a work so radically different in different languages, it is because the translator has let us down.

But why are these translators so perversely obtuse? Is their conventionalizing tic, as Kundera would have it, an occupational hazard, like the gravedigger’s insensitivity, the politician’s ambiguity? Or could it be that the recognition and reproduction of transgression is not, as it turns out, such a simple thing at all, not merely a question of accepting some unusual punctuation and repeating a word where the author does? Kundera does not discuss the fact that since the conventions, social, moral, and linguistic, of any two cultures and languages may be, and usually are, profoundly different, any transgression of them is not absolute in nature, but has meaning only in relation to the particular expectations it disappoints. It needs the context of the conventions it subverts.

Notoriously, it is in those places where poetic prose deviates from standard usage, establishing a personal style and creating meaning through its distance from something else, that translation becomes tormented if not impossible. For the “something else” in French is not the same as the “something else” in Czech. Thus when Kundera writes, “Partisans of flowing translation often object to my translators: ‘That’s not the way to say it in German (in English, in Spanish, etc.)!’ I reply: ‘It’s not the way to say it in Czech either!”’ he is being ingenuous.

Translating poetic prose, and even more so poetry, means creating the miracle of the “same difference” from different and sometimes potentially antithetical conventions: as if the transgression of a sixteenth-century Hindu widow in attempting to escape suttee could be made equivalent to that of a twentieth-century Scottish Muslim refusing to obey her husband’s order not to go out to work. The rare bilingual person, the person most thoroughly grounded in two distinct conventions, is the person most likely to be struck by the utter difference of the same text in his two languages, because more keenly aware of the distinct value structures implied by the languages and the subversive force of whatever differences from convention are there established. Those who have merely learned another language, however well, are not so easily disorientated. They are more like my cheerfully criminal protagonist who shakes off the conventions and taboos implicit in his native tongue the better to enjoy the freedom of what is experienced, at least at first, as not much more than a delightful code, a mental playground. The only thing that can be subverted for this person is the morality he was brought up with and the language that is its vehicle.

Lawrence’s novel Women in Love is an account of the felt necessity to escape a series of conventions which have outlived their usefulness. The pressures of convention are dramatized in relationships, but Lawrence immediately recognizes language as the cement of convention. “It depends what you mean,” remarks Ursula, on the first page, making a semantic problem of her sister’s seemingly innocent question “Don’t you really want to get married?” I have long taught this book to Italian students by inviting them to compare passages of the original with the Italian translation, identifying the places where the two texts part company, and then trying to establish links between those departures. Since the translator is more than competent, these inevitably occur where the original prose is particularly creative or poetic: “Birkin shut himself together,” Lawrence remarks. “Gudrun shrank cruelly from this amorphous ugliness.” Or again: “She was destroyed into perfect consciousness.” Or of Ursula: “She was free, in complete ease.” “They could forget perfectly.”

In each case, Lawrence distorts normal usages to suggest a complex psychology, and often to gesture to an underlying pattern of thought that is peculiarly his own. The Italian translation shrinks from the oxymoron of “shrank” suggesting fear and withdrawal, followed by “cruelly” suggesting aggression; it has no answer to Lawrence’s subversion of “pulled himself together” into “shut himself together”; it does not know what to do with the aberrant “into” after the verb “destroy”; nor does it catch the oddness of “in ease” instead of “at ease,” or the peculiarity of “forgetting”—but what?—“perfectly.” (The translations, in entirely standard Italian, are: “Birkin si chiuse in se stesso“; “Gudrun rabbrividi ferita dalla bruttezza informe“; “dilaniata, in uno stato di lucidità perfetta“; “libera e totalmente a suo agio“; “Erano immersi in un perfetto obblio.“)

But those who know Italian, and many who do not, will appreciate how difficult it is to re-create such a style which gains its meanings from idioms and usages only hinted at in the original and unavailable in the target language. What’s more, however unusual Lawrence’s English, it should be noted that, in these examples at least, it flows wonderfully. It deviates from standard English, but is always attentive to the rhythms of English prosody. The unusual locution “destroyed into perfect consciousness,” for example, draws on the syntactical pattern of “turned into,” “changed into,” “transformed into,” introducing a semantic shock with the word “destroyed” but keeping the same structure. Likewise, the preposition “in” is separated from “ease” by “complete” to avoid the jarring of “in ease” as opposed to “at ease,” thus creating the expectation of entirely standard usages such as “in complete liberty,” “in complete harmony,” only to surprise us with “ease.” Hence Kundera’s suggestion that it is the “partisans of flowing translation” who are hostile to creative and original writing is again ingenuous.

Lawrence’s prose flows well enough and presumably one would wish to be faithful to that fluency. It is part of his style. It is natural to the author. The problem is that the author is deviating from English in a manner, he has seen, that English allows, perhaps even suggests. In the same way, his characters find unconventional solutions which society, though not sanctioning, may well have hinted at. They are the solutions of people escaping from these particular conventions, not some notional idea of convention in general. Indeed, by living on its margins, Lawrence’s characters define the society they wish to escape, as his own work defines the conventional novel he no longer wishes to write.

To put it another way, when writing in English, there is no way of being entirely outside Englishness. At the end of Women in Love, when one of the protagonists chooses the most drastic form of escape by walking out into the Alpine snows to die, Lawrence remarks on how close he was to a path that led over the Alps into Italy. “Would that have been a way out?” he asks. “No, it would only have been a way in again.”

My contention is that translation itself is always “a way in again”: anything we write in a translation will always be understood in terms of the world, the conventions, the general literary context of our target language, usually our native tongue. To imagine one can transport transgressions or deviations from other conventions and reproduce them in the same way and in the same place in the translation, thus generating the same meaning, is to be dangerously naive. So it happens that, rather than embarking on a transgression that in their own language would come across as no more than an oddity, many translators feel obliged to revert to the conventional. This hardly seems perverse. It does, however, have serious repercussions for our understanding of the status of a translated text.

I came to Italy at twenty-five, translated commercial and technical material for many years, then moved on to translating novels, and I suppose we could say poetic prose, in my early thirties. In those days, when choosing whether to accept a translation or not, I went very much on the question of what I call voice. If I felt I could mimic the voice of this prose in English, I would accept the book. If not, not. Since money was an important factor at that time, I should stress that these decisions did not always coincide with taste. I sometimes felt that, alas, I could not mimic a book I liked and would have to turn it down, or that I could manage a book I didn’t like and, to make ends meet, would do well to translate it.

Only years later did I come across the expression “elective affinity.” One can have an affinity with something one doesn’t like, just as one can find areas of one’s own personality less than desirable. At that time, when it came to faithfulness, it seemed enough to me to shadow in English, so far as I could understand it, the text’s relationship with its own language. Later, however, as my knowledge of Italian, and above all Italian literature, broadened and deepened, I became aware that my understanding of texts I had translated in the past was being altered by my growing appreciation of the context in which they had been written. My translation, while attractive, could not, within an English context, transmit many of the books’ gestures. On the contrary, the books would be understood in relation to an English literary matrix, perhaps suggesting meanings not apparent or even remotely intended in the original. This does not mean I would now translate these books very differently, only that I would be more aware of the various areas of loss.

On the one hand, then, long immersion in another culture brings empowerment—we understand things better—while on the other it becomes a handicap—we begin to doubt whether some texts are translatable at all. Perhaps I am approaching my bilingual student’s perception of absolute difference.

While I was doing my first literary translations and immediately before my first novel in English was accepted for publication, I wrote a novel in Italian with the odd title I nani di domani, which, literally translated, means “Tomorrow’s Dwarves.” Unlike any of my other novels, this was a straightforwardly rumbustious comedy—an innocuous version of the evasion that characterizes the English teacher turned criminal I mentioned earlier on. For both of us, the escape from English was an escape from moral seriousness.

I was pleased with what I’d done, proud of having managed to write in Italian, albeit with a great deal of help from my wife, and began to send the typescript around, but although an agent took the book on, it wasn’t published. I hazarded a translation into English, but with every sentence the book shed its charm. Indeed, it seemed infinitely more difficult to translate than the work of other writers. The reason, perhaps, was that the driving energy of the book was the evasion of writing in Italian. I could not be interested in this material in English.

Fifteen years on, a reputable house offered to publish the novel. They declared it charming, even hilarious. I went back and read it. What charm it had lay entirely in its naiveté. Its frequent deviations from standard Italian were as innocuous and random as its satire of provincial life was superficial and caricatured. I felt it would be best not to publish it since it represented neither what I feel now nor even what I truly felt then. Its real meaning was its escape from something else, something the Italian reader wouldn’t be able to understand because it wasn’t available in the text: Englishness.

Ironically, at about the same time, the early noir describing a character’s move into crime sparked off by his transplantation into another culture was also accepted. This book, I am more or less happy with. It presents that evasion of a new language within the moral framework of the old.

I mention this episode because it offers the opportunity to make two reflections: first that, aside from economic reasons, a writer chooses to change language successfully when the particular aesthetic he has drives him to it. Not otherwise. One can see how, obsessed as he was by the compulsive nature of language, our lack of individual control over it, and its distance from our experience of reality, a writer like Beckett would choose to work in a second language where any alienation he might feel, or lack of expertise he might fear, would play to his poetic. Joyce, on the contrary, whose project was exactly the opposite of Beckett’s, an attempt to use all the resources of language to recover our experience of place and of time, to make the text, as Beckett described it, “not about something, but that something itself,” remained anchored, despite all his experiments and all his years abroad, to Dublin and to English.

The second reflection that arises out of the otherwise trivial episode of my Italian novel is that the very notion of stylistic transgression may have a very different value in different cultures. My Italian novel was accepted because, even when intended and aimed at some particular target, its transgressions could nevertheless be seen as the amusing shortcomings of the learner, of one seeking to become an initiate on the same level as the reader. In this sense, far from being subversive, it was reinforcing convention. And Italian is a language where there has been very little seriously transgressive prose of the Lawrence or Beckett variety, and much extremely attractive writing within generally accepted and in the end by no means despicable conventions. This, after all, is a country where one of the leading satirical magazines will still reject an article because it too aggressively attacks Catholic sensibilities, a country where a famous writer/ translator like Elio Vittorini could openly defend the radical cuts and changes he made to Lawrence’s work on the grounds that not to make them would damage the beauty of the prose.

Certainly, for example, there is nothing transgressive that I can see in the Italian translations of Kundera’s work. Italy is thus a country whose sensibilities are very different from England’s, where these days a novel with even the mildest of pretensions is obliged to be openly transgressive at the linguistic level, something that has led to the tedious multiplication of demotic voices and the wholehearted, often uncomprehending acceptance of different forms of English from all over the world. The quirky is at a premium. Thus, in a sense, to write in a rigidly “conventional” prose becomes itself a form of transgression.

Shortly after winning the Booker Prize, Kazuo Ishiguro, the Anglo-Japanese writer, gave an interview to Time magazine in which he criticized his British contemporaries for writing in ways that made translation difficult. His rigidly austere prose, which so effectively expresses the emotional limitations of his protagonist in The Remains of the Day, was, he claimed, partly the result of his attentiveness to eventual translations. He pared his English down to what a translator in any language could easily handle. What Ishiguro could not have appreciated is that the underlying menace of that precise conventional voice disappears entirely in Italian where such a controlled form of expression is common in prose fiction. The distance Ishiguro establishes from other writers in English thus fails to come across. What is disturbing, if one wishes to be disturbed by such things, is with what appetite the public laps up translated literary works whose essential cohesion has all too often, though by no means always, been lost in translation. Might it be, I sometimes fear, precisely that loss of depth that makes translations attractive?

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