Monday, May 4, 2009

IN WALKS THE TRANSLATOR

Allow me to open with a simple statement of fact.
We do not know what planet writers come from, but we do know the precise place of origin of their translators: They all, without exception, hail from the planet Tralfamadore.

Allow me to elaborate.

But before I do that, I’d like to take you on a trip to Upstate New York first.
There’s a Zen Buddhist Center there that I once visited with a friend who was so much into that kind of thing he had his head shaved and took vows, or whatever they call it. The head monk of the Center was a nice Jewish lady with a decidedly military haircut; she went by a Japanese name. If you wanted to speak to her, you needed to prostrate before her, thrice. You didn’t call it a talk either, you called it doing dokusan. In the meditation hall, we bowed before a small imported statue of the Buddha, my friend and his companions slipped into black robes -- the nice Jewish lady’s was a gold-embroidered monstrosity that was all sleeves and pleats -- we all bowed some more, sat down cross-legged on Japanese cushions, and then we chanted – in no language known to man.
“What on earth was that?” I inquired about the chanting.
Turns out the chant was an ancient pronouncement of the Buddha’s, originally delivered in the Pali language, but written down in Sanskrit, then translated and transliterated into Chinese, picked up about 1,200 years ago by some Japanese monks who brought it to their island, where it is chanted using the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters. It is this American approximation of the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese version that is chanted in Zen groups across the continent.
Everything, my patient friend explained – the robes, the funny names, the bows, the lotus position, the chanting – was to make sure that no essential part of the teachings got lost in translation. We do not know, after all, what can be safely changed, and what needs to stay exactly so.
Still intrigued by the sound of twenty or so earnest Americans chanting Japanese mispronunciations of Chinese phonetic attempts at Sanskrit that should have been Pali, I asked: “And what is that that you chant?”
“It’s the Heart Sutra”, he replied. “You know, the one that states that Emptiness is Form, and Form is Emptiness?”
When I remarked that this was a rather elaborate but quite splendid way to get this simple point across, his smile suddenly seemed somewhat strained.

There is the opposite side of the argument too, of course – the argument that all writing is in essence translation. A writer has a vision, so the argument goes, and that vision is put into words, which invariably soils it somewhat. Groovy little gyrations you’ve got going on there, son, but, woah, wait a minute: They’re totally incidental and totally irreproducible. Case in point: If we had actually read your work and therefore locked you up in a cell for subordinate activities, and you would try to recreate your masterpiece on squares of toilet paper with charcoal obtained from burning matches, the words would come out quite differently now, wouldn’t they? (And please leave the latrine as tidy as you found it.)
The answer here, I think, is that writers and translators have different loyalties. Translation is, after all, a business of rigid motion, with an allegiance to accuracy; writers are wedded to – and I apologize to use this word in polite company – the truth. Now, the truth is not some funnelform procession of ideas, neatly marching down the mind’s broad boulevards to come to some inevitable conclusion – no, the truth is a momentary thing, crawling and hiding inside the cool fissures of what is otherwise a sizzling brain, making the cortex tremble oh so slightly with meager resonances that are simply too hard to pick up on any given rainy day. To know the truth, you have to get up early, forego your shower, don a bathrobe or (better still) stay in your boxers, and bang away at the keyboard until your fingers are numb – twelve hours of work done in a single instant, with a single sentence to show for it. Where was I? I thought I was quietly watching a rerun of the Simpsons in my head and now I am staring at the ceiling of an ambulance? Where is this taking me? Do I even want to know?
-- When you write, in other words, the world shifts and moves. You are, emphatically, certainly, positively driven, but you are not the driver. If it works, at the end of the day you may sink into your warm puddle of words, the song that cannot be unsung, blisters of joy on your lips; otherwise you’ll find yourself at midnight weeping into the open fridge, your tears freezing in their ducts. Yes, writers, like all lovers thrown into a fling, are tempted by the illusion of destiny, reaching for a heaven that exists only in their carefully rearranged memories, all the while trying to figure out if reality is more a wilderness of mirrors or a pillar of smoke. If you know where you are going, if the vision is clear, if you know the exact note that will come out when you open your mouth to sing, you are not a writer. Give up on the idea that writers are gods. They have no overview, the mere thought of their omnipotence is laughable, they are most ungracious, and certainly not in the possession of any mercy whatsoever. (Watch them kill their characters!)
In walks the translator. Doesn’t he look a bit like a plumber’s friend, with his suction cup neatly planted on the ground, so eager to teach the writing Earthling many wonderful things about time? Linear or non-linear, it doesn’t matter, because the text is there and the translator ploughs through it at will, and from every angle. The translator is an honest-to-god liar, pretending to believe in a truth that is entirely somebody else’s – yours -- cross-wiring his dreams with the wind that whipped some other fellah’s plains -- yours. The irksome paradox is that in his command of the fourth dimension, the translator becomes shallower, not deeper. He sobs over the death of every character, but not inconsolably so – it’s only a book, and the character lives on, forever on the page. True, the translator is powerless to prevent your mistakes, but he is gracious and merciful towards them. So it goes, he says, and he either shrugs his shoulders or tries to smooth it out. Did you notice that he is stylishly two weeks overdue for a haircut, while your hair gets brutally trimmed every six months by your lover, in your sleep, with very blunt scissors? Did you notice he’s wearing a full set of clothes while he translates, and never skips a meal? He is extraordinarily precise, your translator, he wants to render each and every one of your puns, he wants to bring each of your clever nuances to light – the best of translators are so good, you can’t believe it’s not writing.
This, obviously, is why the Italians call the translator a traitor: He is completely unlike you; he is a smooth-talking interplanetary god. Your translator is unforgiveable: Your wonderful Pali translated in Sanskrit, rewritten in Chinese, butchered into Japanese with an Upstate accent -- and it’s still all there: Emptiness is Form, and Form is Emptiness.

6 comments:

Sergio C. Gutiérrez-Negrón said...

great piece.
i wonder what kind of hellplanet or vortex gives birth to the writer-translator, the one who translates his own work--as you did in OM and is done repeatedly, here in the caribbean.

Claro (FFC) said...

I couldn't agree more.

Yoana Cristina Pinzón said...

I like the idea of being a tralfamadorian! Nice text!

Anonymous said...

Hey! I read OM in German - I hope the translator did a good job...but I think so ;). Hm. Would you prefer then - never to hear about important things, because you - unfortunately - speak the wrong language? Or would you prefer to hear about important things with some misspellings?
Great book, that OM. You have chosen even the characters' names with some symbolic meaning, haven't you? (or - is this my German misinterpretation ;) )
best wishes

Patrick said...

Feel so free when writing your writer's fancies ; feel so free when rewriting some other language into your own ; and not free at all when being cornered to sustain the already too long fancies ; and not free at all when cornered to be a traitor either to Form or Emptiness...

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