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.

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