Saturday, February 11, 2012

Total Identification With the Academic Subject, Part II: Literal Translation Versus Literary Translation

A large portion of my academic work concerns two of the most important Hebrew translators of Moses Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed, one, Samuel ibn Tibbon, who translated from Arabic into Hebrew in a very literal way, and the other, Judah al-Harizi, who translated from Arabic into Hebrew in a more holistic way, thereby producing a text that is much more readable as a work of standalone Hebrew prose. In that our academic work always tells us something about ourselves as much as it tells us something about our subjects, thinking about beginning my literary translation project has given me some insight into  my academic interest in these two translators and the ways in which it has stemmed very naturally from my own intellectual formation.

I had the great good fortune to begin my study of Arabic in the grand philological tradition of classical Oriental studies. In Arabic classes, the goal was always to show that you understood the function of single word on the page — every single letter, in fact. If you had to make a choice between rendering something in idiomatic English and rendering it in a way that didn't obscure any function of any part of the Arabic, you erred on the side of the latter, the literal translation. If a single letter made your verb causative, you'd better have translated the verb into English sounding very causative, even if that might have made the phrase unidiomatic-sounding. If you really wanted, after you'd translated your sentence, you could offer an interpretation into English that sounded like English. So for example, if you came across something that is known as a mā-min (literally, what-of) construction in a phrase like 'atanī yūsufu 'aindahu min al-kutub, you might start out by saying: "Yusuf gave me what he had of books," or if you were feeling really poetic, "Yusuf gave me what he had in the way of books," and only after that adding, "in other words, Yusuf gave me the books that he had." You would never simply go to the idiomatic English because then it wouldn't be clear that you really understood that this was this particular kind of grammatical usage rather than a straight-up relative clause.

I have found that this style of translation and that particular motivation behind it (rather that, say, Samuel ibn Tibbon's reasons for translating literally, which had to do with a need to preserve the peculiarities of Arabic syntax in Hebrew) have stuck with me when I am doing academic translation. It's as if there's a little translation demon sitting on my shoulder telling me that if I don't prove that I understand how every piece of the original is functioning automatically, then whoever is sitting in the "professor" role — editors, for the most part — might think I don't really know the original language very well. I recently translated two articles from Spanish into English for a volume on architectural history, and the editor wrote back to me to comment that they still sounded a little like Spanish; and she was right. In a sense, I learned Arabic by fear. I learned to translate by fear. There's something to be said for that pedagogical method and its effectiveness. I learned the rules of Arabic grammar well. But the terror remains and pervades.

Literary translation frees me from that fear, though, and from the constraints that it imposes. Translating a work of literature opens up the sense of play that one finds in Judah al-Harizi's translations, and the sense of pure enjoyment of the languages and of the challenge.

A short essay written in memoir mode by the Yiddish author Yossl Birstein describes an incident in which the young Yossl wrote a story containing the sentence, "The man died and was buried in the ground." Young Yossl proudly read the story to his mother, who asked, upon conclusion of the reading: "If he was buried, doesn't it go without saying that it was in the ground? Why do you need to say 'in the ground'?" Young Yossl answered that he liked the way it sounded, to which his mother replied, "Are you writing stories for the sake of the sounds, or sounds for the sake of the story?"

That little anecdote has stuck with me for a long time, and it captures what I love best about literary translation: It's like writing, but all for the sake of the sound.


I suspect I could elaborate upon what I've written here. I suspect I might very well do that at some point in the future. But, once again, I'll leave this as it is, as a bloggy first draft of ideas that are still forming themselves.

No comments:

Post a Comment