Thursday, March 27, 2008

Thinking About: Translation

I'm still working on that post entitled "Growing Pains" -- all about the last two months of my academic life, and the weird transition into dissertating that has been by turns difficult and exhilarating, but mostly just plain scary. I'm hoping that eventually I'll have a bit more mental space to sort out all of the fragmented "notes" that are populating the "Blogging" section of my Spring 2008 OneNote Notebook (yes, I have sold my soul to Bill Gates -- but OneNote is really fantastic) -- more specifically, I'm hoping that after this weekend, I'll have a little more mental space to think through all of that.

However, part of my brain power has been caught up in a conference I've been helping to organize, and so I'm excited to mention that, this weekend, there's a New York Happening you won't want to miss: Columbia's Center for Literary Translation is putting on the third biannual National Graduate Student Translation Conference! The Keynote is a discussion, featuring our own Michael Scammell with Poet Laureate Charles Simic! Among the many roundtables during the two days, frequent commenter and fellow Anglo-Saxonist LJS will be moderating a roundtable discussion on Multilingualism and Translation, and I will be moderating a session on Translation and the Academy. The other -- and equally important and fun -- part of the conference is a series of workshops: graduate students from around the country are participating in workshops on translations from various languages (everything from Persian to French to Greek to Korean), and I'm going to be workshopping my translations of the Old English Advent Lyrics, and the Old English Wanderer, in one of them! It's a bit overwhelming: it's the first time I've let my translations be viewed by peers who weren't in a translation workshop with me at Columbia, but I'm also very excited to be taking part.

Anyone who has been at an event where the future of Old English studies has come up and I have been in the room will know that one of my major questions about the future of the field is what role new translations and editions will have to play in it. Of course, all you really have to do is read a bit of what I've written on ITM and OENY to notice that. One of the major ambivalences I've had about Old English and translation is the disservice it seems to do to the language, or more aptly, the disservice I do to the language when I try to translate it. And yet translations -- myriad translations -- are necessary in literature. And in life.

However, what is difficult to realize until you set yourself down to do it is that translation is a creative endeavor. As I've been writing about the Old English Orosius this week, I've realized how apparent the lack of concern for translation as creation in and of itself can be. For much of the history of scholarship on the Orosius, the concern has been for the "original" parts, the parts that weren't found in the Latin Historiarum Adversum Paganos: the voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan, which interrupt the geographical preface and bring the work of historical inquiry to the court of Alfred the Great, have been subject to intense scrutiny. When the Old English translator embellishes on the story of Babylon, composing an impromptu poem not unlike the Ruin, critics rush to praise the innovation of the translator.

I think that this betrays a fundamental misconception about translation, one that can be phrased two ways. First, it assumes that the real difficulty is innovation: if you can translate from Latin into Old English, what is interesting is composition that is only present in the vernacular. These moments in the text can be BOTH creative AND intellectually apt -- after all, modification to the original must still fit in with the text as a whole. This conception of translation marks it as inherently derivative, and privileges the original text's superior position not in terms of authority, but in terms of originality.

What this conception of translation misses is the difficulty of true translation: the difficulty in being able to pose someone else's words in words that are not their own, but somehow mean in the same way. The difficulty of inhabiting another person's point of view, of sharing a part of their understanding of the world -- and of doing so imperfectly, but respectfully.

Disjointed musings that all go to say firstly that my silence in the blogosphere is reaching an end point (I sincerely hope), and that I will undoubtedly have more to say about translation after my panel on translation in the academy. You may expect a full report. In the mean time, I leave you with an excerpt from the translation of the Wanderer I've submitted for workshop this weekend. It's the part where the voyager falls asleep, and imagines that the birds are his old friends -- only to wake up alone:

He who knows exile will lack lordly learning
and the wisdom of warriors. His sleep will be wretched,
shackeled by dreams. He imagines his lord
embracing him—and lays hands and head
in the lap of his king, as once long ago
he took comfort from joy in the mead-hall.

He awakens alone. Sea-birds bathe, and ruffle their feathers,
skim light over the dark waves in snow and sleet.
Seeing shapes and shades of friends of old,
comrades of the past—he greets them with joy,
hails them aloud, fleeting spirits!
They swim away. Sorrow returns.
Old words are useless to him, who
must send his tired mind far over the waters.

I do not know why my mind is not saddened,
when deep in earth’s darkness, I ponder how brief
are the lives of men, how quickly they leave
the mead hall, so bold and so young.

Happy weekend to all, especially to JJC and family, whom I will see in NYC soon!

cross posted to ITM.