Friday, April 17, 2015

An-Original Translation

Imagine being a historian of nineteenth-century Paris and your academic publisher demanding to see the original city before accepting your manuscript. What kind of original would you provide? A map before Haussmannization? A keychain fob with a miniature Eiffel Tower? A first edition of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal? Or imagine being Charles Baudelaire’s publisher in 1868 and demanding to see the originals before publishing the definitive posthumous edition of Les Fleurs du mal. Which originals would you accept? The pages handwritten by Baudelaire himself? The edition of the volume published in 1857? The 1861 version? Or the censored “scraps” published in 1866? Or maybe you meant something altogether different: perhaps you need the actual swan that inspired the poem by that name; perhaps some definitive proof that “Le vieux Paris n’est plus.

This thought experiment exposes a small fraction of the foolishness regarding originality and the work those of us in the humanities and arts undertake. We simply do not ask from historians, poets, artists, composers, photographers, directors, or novelists for the original. (Nor do we even ask it from economists, journalists, or scientists. Imagine needing to provide a black hole–or even conclusive proof that such a thing exists–before having one’s manuscript accepted for publication!) I have yet, however, to see a call for translations that does not require a copy of the original. What is the purpose of this kind of demand placed upon translators? Are we not to be trusted with the proper care for a text? With our own ability to translate? The real question here: why in translation is there still such virulent fetishization of something that never existed?

In high school I once wrote a book report over a book that did not exist. I simply made it all up. There never was an original. Or perhaps: my “derivative” summary and analysis was the original. In graduate school, I argued with a professor about historical analysis. (Yes, it was in my Nineteenth-Century History of Paris course.) He kept rejecting the abstract for my term paper because the project relied too heavily on “textual analysis” and not enough on “historical analysis.” My argument: history is a text. The name says it all! Texts about texts all the way down. Anyone who writes about history or literature must eventually come to terms with palimpsestic meta- and inter-textuality. (You see, I earned A’s in both classes.)

Over the past few months, there have been multiple articles in various newspapers and journals regarding the latest translations of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Already I can hear the tongues flapping! The patronymic is just too foreign, or I misspelled Tolstoy’s first name even though I merely transliterated from the Cyrillic alphabet both the name of the author and of the novel. If, on the other hand, I were to translate the novel’s title, it would have to be, as Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov would have it, Mrs. Anna Karenin, in the same way that Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky’s novel would have to be The Karamazov Brothers, or, more colloquially, Those Karamazov Boys. In other words, fidelity in translation has always been arbitrary. We inherit certain cultural preferences and practices that make it almost impossible to accept Tolstoy’s first name as Lev, to leave off the feminine ending from Karenina, or to not flinch when we read the somewhat syntactically foreign-sounding The Brothers Karamazov. Oh, brother!

The reason I am calling attention to these superficial—and alleged—mistranslations is to call into question the underlying assumptions that undergird the very notion of mistranslation in the first place. Perhaps it is a byproduct of always being required to provide the original that translators have become guilty of a more insidious problem: believing that such an original exists. Essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Financial Times, and The Wall Street Journal, among others, in which the “best” recent translation of Anna Karenina has been argued and debated. Unsurprisingly, Tolstoy’s version, among those who read Russian, stands outs as the literary exemplar. Critics even argue that the nuances of Tolstoy’s version necessitate multiple translations; a single translation, they claim, is incapable of capturing everything in the original. Nowhere, however, have I read anyone question the basic belief that Tolstoy’s version is original. No, I do not have newly-discovered proof that Tolstoy was a plagiarist. What I am getting at, though, is that originality is, at best, overrated and, at worst, detrimental to the creative act of translation.

The assumption that originality (and consequently, fidelity) exists needlessly orients the translative act toward a metaphysical pipedream long abandoned by philosophers and literary theorists: Plato’s eidos. According to Plato’s texts, the eidos, or Form, is the only true and universal reality. Everything in the physical world—that which changes—is denigrated as mere shadow or flawed reflection of the Real. In this metaphysical system, translations decay and lose whatever value they may have had at one time as translators endlessly strive toward achieving the ultimate, yet necessarily unattainable, Original.

Plato’s philosophy is not only a problem for translators. What if after realizing that he could not faithfully reproduce the Anna Karenina he held in his mind, Tolstoy simply abandoned his project? Or if he found out that even his notion of Anna Karenina is but a paltry outline of some ideal person named Anna? All of the essays and reviews I have read about the recent translations of Tolstoy’s book have propagated this Platonism, asserting that the translations, already devalued and ever aging, can never achieve the perceived purity or greatness of The Original. Some authors have gone so far as to cite from the Russian text! The fact that this text was written in Russian, however, evidences its non-ideal essence. Russian, like all human languages, is very much a system of arbitrary signs ensconced within a historical world embedded in time, informed by culture and a particular grammar, and enframed by a specific society and geography. There is no Anna, no original Anna Karenina. What we have are resonances across time and space of Annas, of Anna Kareninas. The text is already plural, multiple, legion, and dispersed.

Such disseminated multiplicity should not be cause for alarm, even for those unnervingly obsessed with intellectual property, authorial intention, or exclusive publication rights. They will still manage to get their beaks wet. I am not arguing that texts do not have any meaning or that they, because of the endless deferral of meaning across an endless chain of signs indicating other signs, cannot mean at all. No one has every argued for such a hermeneutic free-for-all. Instead, I am asking that a translation be allowed to stand on its own and not always and only in relation to a fictional, originary ideal that never existed. The situation (of language, of history, of culture) in which we find ourselves necessitates the endless translation of texts. Texts about texts all the way down. So while I agree that Tolstoy’s book demands multiple translations, that is not to say that Tolstoy’s book is any less a function of that same impetus. Tolstoy translated his Anna, his Anna Karenina, without being required to supply the original. I think it is time translators are allowed the same creativity, innovation, and, dare I say, originality.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Queer World (In Three Quotes)

“IN the Morocco of the 1980s, where homosexuality did not, of course, exist, I was an effeminate little boy, a boy to be sacrificed, a humiliated body who bore upon himself every hypocrisy, everything left unsaid.”
A Boy to Be Sacrificed -

“Regardless of the cultural system, social pressure to appear straight seems to be fairly intense cross-culturally. Indeed, one is inclined to wonder, if being straight is just natural, why does it require quite so much policing?”
The Atlantic

“Being a gay goth kid in Texas could make you an outcast…”
Growing Up Gay, Goth and Generous -

All three of these quotes speak to me and to at least some of my experience growing up queer in rural Texas. I wanted to share them with you, lovely reader.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Dead Babies

At the edge of my undergraduate alma mater lies a cemetery for those who died in a nearby, long-since-vanished house for unwed mothers. I wonder who these poor mothers were. I wonder about these poor, unnamed babies tucked away underground minutes after being born into a very cruel world. Unacknowledged but, no doubt, no less remembered. Denied but no less mourned.

As a student I would walk by this graveyard almost daily. It was not too far off the beaten path between classes and my first apartment on my own. These children kept me company as I thought about their all-too-brief lives and dreamed about one day writing their story. These dead babies haunted my dreams as I identified with them, lost and almost as forgotten then in the late 1980s as they were almost a century before. Lost and almost as forgotten as I myself felt on my commute by foot more than two decades ago.

When I moved, I stopped visiting them. Eventually I stopped thinking about them. Recently, while conducting genealogical research on my family, my great-great grandparents in the Texas of the mid-eighteenth century, I began to think, to dream, about dead babies again. This time, the babies were a part of me, dead-ends of my genealogical lines. Dead branches of the family tree. Or perhaps some dark secret one of my great grandmothers or aunts went to the grave with. The shame of an unwed pregnancy and the all-too-certain punishment from an angry god.

Last week when I trekked through the woods at dusk to find them once again after so long, I worried about stumbling upon a snake in the overgrown grass. At first I didn't notice all the graves. I thought their numbers had been mis-multiplied in my memory of this small fenced-in plot. But after scanning more carefully, the graves reappeared. The ones I counted now seemed much more than what I even remembered. Most do not have names. Most were simply numbered on the day of their birth/death. Evens and odds. Twins. And lovely names from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Most likely named for a lover, a parent, a relative or neighbor perhaps who had shown the poor girl some care. Only one Frank. Well, one underground and one above. Each tiny headstone encircled with a halo of clover, grass, and dead leaves. Mossy concrete and a tiny plaque of marble.

Rest in peace, little babies. Weep no more.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Exorbitant Stupidity

If you follow this line long enough, you get to deconstruction where a theorist would be looking for internal contractions or paradoxes that would essentially render the text meaningless. At the end of this line, you’re saying writing can’t mean anything because it’s internally inconsistent. So if you’re a writer going to college and learning these things, it puts a shiver of fear in you because it’s saying your attempt is due to fail.
–Jeffrey Eugenides, A ‘Marriage Plot’ Full Of Intellectual Angst : NPR

When I first heard this uninformed denigration of deconstruction and of Derrida, I didn’t know who Jeffrey Eugenides was. I did know, though, that he knew nothing about deconstruction or about Derrida. These words were barely uttered before I turned the radio dial. What a shame that NPR would broadcast and perpetuate such misinformed and essentially ignorant statements. These are factual errors, defamation.

Fuck stupid people. And yes, I mean stupid. Eugenides went to college, he claims, and yet he spouts such nonsense. Here he is at it again:
When I arrived at Brown, French theory was just washing up on American shores. Many of my English professors were distrustful of it. Another cohort in the English department was so smitten with Derrida and company that they finally decamped and created the Program in Semiotic Studies. To be an English major at the time was like being the child of divorcing parents. You loved both. I was attracted to the rigor of semiotic literary theory, especially in comparison with some of the vague pedagogy that constituted the by-then old New Criticism. I was persuaded that it was possible to examine the underlying structures of literature and, in a sense, anatomize the body of literature. At the same time, I wanted to be a writer. I resisted the idea that the author was dead. And I still believed, as I believe today, that it’s possible for a novel to transmit meaning, something that was being called into question by deconstruction.
–Jeffrey Eugenides, The Art of Fiction No. 215, The Paris Review

Eugenides isn't the only one, though. By far. To people who haven't read or understood Derrida, Derrida serves as the perfect straw man to their flawed comprehension of advanced phenomenological philosophy.

Here are a couple more stellar "insights" from people who claim to be scholars.
Caws may be to some extent informed by Jacques Derrida's deconstructionist notion of the unavoidable and fatal slippage that occurs between the signified and the signifier, resulting in multiple interpretations and the negation of all meaning, as well as the conceptions of Antonin Artaud, a French avant-garde poet, dramatist, essayist, and artist (also one of Derrida's influences) who was preoccupied with the limitations and inadequacy of language and rejected mimesis in theatrical work. Caws' conception and usage of slippage, however, celebrates the phenomenon and rather than conceiving of slippage as a negative event that pronounces the futility and impossibility of translation [Derrida], she embraces the slippage that occurs between the signifier and the signified and between one language and another.
–Shelby Vincent, Book Review of Surprised in Translation by Mary Ann Caws, Style, Vol. 41, No. 4, Winter 2007

Again: factual errors, defamation. And more recently,
Post-structuralism is a system of literary and social analysis that flared up and vanished in France in the 1960s but that became anachronistically entrenched in British and American academe from the 1970s on. Based on the outmoded linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and promoted by the idolized Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault, it absurdly asserts that we experience or process reality only through language and that, because language is inherently unstable, nothing can be known. By undermining meaning, history and personal will, post-structuralism has done incalculable damage to education and contemporary thought. It is a laborious, circuitously self-referential gimmick that always ends up with the same monotonous result. I spent six months writing a long attack on academic post-structuralism for the classics journal Arion in 1991, "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf" (reprinted in my first essay collection, Sex, Art, and American Culture). Post-structuralism has destroyed two generations of graduate students, who were forced to mouth its ugly jargon and empty platitudes for their foolish faculty elders. And the end result is that humanities departments everywhere, having abandoned their proper mission of defending and celebrating art, have become humiliatingly marginalized in both reputation and impact.
"The Catholic Pagan: 10 Questions for Camille Paglia"

The fact that she classifies poststructuralism (which is often just a seriously flawed nickname for phenomenology and deconstruction) as a system of literary and social analysis demonstrates her ignorance of what it actually was/is: a methodology in philosophy that was heavily borrowed from by literary and sociological scholars. And seriously, stop with this bullshit: "it absurdly asserts that we experience or process reality only through language and that, because language is inherently unstable, nothing can be known." Give me one citation. Just one. One. 1. Seriously: I am only asking for one citation in Derrida where he makes such a claim. I guess it also doesn't matter to Paglia that Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault all offer critiques of Saussure, who is considered a structuralist linguist. So much for even understanding the "post" part!

This entry would be far too long if I were to even just list the egregious errors in fact and logic, so I will leave with this offering: please, Jeffrey, Shelby, Camille, and their ilk, at the very least, read the following book. Of course, you may need to read 100 other books before you properly understand this one, but it'll be worth it. Don't give up!

The only other option would be to shut the fuck up. (Said with love.) ((Not really. Because seriously: you're embarrassing yourself.))

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Circumscription of Triangles & Squares

Spirit/soul/life, pneuma/pysché/zoè or bios, spiritus/anima/vita, Geist/Seele/Leben­­­—these are the triangles and squares in which we imprudently pretend to recognize stable semantic determinations, and then to circumscribe or skirt round the abysses of what we ingenuously call translation.
–Jacques Derrida, Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question, trans. G. Bennington and R. Bowlby

I've been working on translating Derrida's insights on translation into a language that someone who hasn't studied the history of philosophy might could understand. I think I still have a ways to go, although I am proud of the 1200-word essay I wrote Sunday on the myth of originality in translation.

In my dissertation, I translated from German, French, Latin, Greek, Polish, and Russian. And I might be forgetting one or two more. You see, I've been thinking a lot about translation for a while now, about all the registers of translation we seem to forget are at issue (across time, space, consciousness, cultural awareness/literacy, etc. as well as across language).

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm much more interested in the philosophical problem of translation than I am of actually translating. But I know enough to know that translation occurs most acutely while in the act of translating.