Friday, July 6, 2012

Translation Diary, Entry #7a

The capital-H History problem has reasserted itself.

La teología, dice Borges, es una rama de la literatura fantastica. ¿No es la Historia una rama de la novela, una ficción de sombras nacida del las ruinas de los libros...?

Theology, says Borges, is a branch of fantastical literature. So isn't History just a branch of novelistic writing, a fiction of shadows born out of the ruins of books...?

And this time I'm really unsure of how to handle it. In the last instance, I was able to treat History like a volume of a book that contains within it a sort of précis of capital-H History. But here, no, this is very clearly a reference to The Whole of History in its Fullness. A book solution would be tidy — aren't history books a subcategory of novels? — but I think it would miss some of the nuance that's there in the Spanish capital H.

I really don't know what I'm going to do about this one right now.

In another instance I can, once again, narrowly sidestep the issue, but only because we use definite articles differently in English than in Spanish; and that feels just a little bit like cheating:

La Histora es eso, una ficción nacida del gusto de saber lo que no puede recordarse...

History is just that, a fiction born from the desire to know what can't be remembered...


There's something else going on in this sentence: fiction (ficción) is juxtaposed against shadow (sombra), a fairly clear allusion to one of the most famous Spanish dramas of the so-called Golden Age, La vida es sueño (Life is a Dream) by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. The line in the play reads: "¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí. ¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión. Una sombra, una ficción." (What is life? A frenzy. What is life? An illusion. A shadow, a fiction.) Perhaps the comparable pair in English would be shadow and theme, or vision and theme, drawing upon an English play dealing with the same themes and written about thirty years earlier, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream:

...a fictional theme built of shadows born amongst the ruins of books...?

(...the book-ruins? Separate issue, of course.)

In Calderón's play the prince Segismundo spends most of his life in a prison, and then, when he is exposed to the outside world only to be returned to his cell, speculates about the nature of the world and dreams and of what is real or not; Shakespeare portrays lovers and amateur actors whose fates and senses of reality are controlled by some fairies. The English words I am thinking about pulling in come from Puck's final speech in which he draws the audience into the play's unstable reality: "If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended: That you have but slumbered here while these visions did appear, and this weak and idle theme no more yielding than a dream."

This is a text with many literary allusions; it'll be a real victory if I can translate them not absolutely ad litteram but more holistically — a kind of cultural translation —so that they evoke comparable English texts in the minds of English readers.


Just as a postscript, I saw Life is a Dream performed in Hebrew at the Khan Theater in Jerusalem in 2005; it was actually funnier in places in the Hebrew translation than it is in the original early modern Spanish. Secretly I'm always a little pleased when that happens, when the translation is funnier or cleverer or in some way more masterful with the target language than the original was with the source, when, to borrow a turn of phrase from a medieval polemic, the original is unfaithful to the translation.

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