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.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

Wondering about Wonders: CELCE's "Crossing Borders"

If writing -- and, shall I add, blog writing -- is a practice, I've clearly fallen down on the job lately. I like to think of it as "dissertation block." It's like writer's block, only it happens more slowly: first, you start noticing that every time you sit down to write those 20 pages of dissertation material for your adviser, your chest gets tight and you feel the compulsive need to do yoga until you have to go to an appointment (which conveniently eliminates the chest tightness as the dissertation time you'd planned). Eventually, you find it extending to every time you sit down at a computer -- whether it's to write an email, comment on a student draft, or even write a blog post. I'm actually in a the midst of a short post on this very topic -- titled, in honor of this new stage of my grad school career, "Growing Pains." However, for today, I thought I'd post about another New York City Medieval Happening (and if you missed a very fruitful Happening LAST Friday -- read Eileen's latest below!)

Tomorrow, I will take part in the the CELCE conference at NYU: "Crossing Borders". In fact, in mere minutes, I will be traveling south on the 1 train to Christopher Street, and trekking over to the conference location in order to hear Carolyn Dinshaw's keynote address.

Tomorrow, however, I will be debuting a version of a paper I wrote two years ago (and will repeat in altered format at Kalamazoo). It's called "The Space Between: Mapping Monsters in the Old English Wonders of the East." In it, I will argue that the location of the Mambres and Jamnes section of the Wonders, in the largely "scientific" focus of the MS Cotton Tiberius, actually makes an argument for how monsters ought to be encountered (textually or otherwise): as a strict warning that some knowledge isn't meant to be known. Mambres and Jamnes are, of course, the magicians who go up against Moses and Aaron, and the text of the Mambres section of the Tiberius tells of how the damned soul of Jamnes warns his brother that by learning "the deep secrets of his idolatry" (literally, the word is deoflegildes -- devil-wages!) he too shall be banished to a hell-pit, which is 2 x 4 cubits (ah, the level of detail!).

This paper has plagued me for a long time. Originally, and ultimately (if I ever revise it into an article), I was making a much larger argument about contingency, monstrous bodies, and dangerous knowing. It used a lot of Agamben, and so engaged my major difficulty with theoretical texts: I am utterly incapable of writing about them. I think that that indeterminate status of a contingency is still present in the part of the paper I will post here: however, I should note that you're not missing anything about Agamben, as I have completely cut him from the argument for lack of space and eloquence. Here follows (in beautiful, Word 2007 formatting!) a portion of my conclusion. I've been told it's too poetic, and hence too unclear. I'll probably clean it up a bit come time for the conference tomorrow. But for now -- poetics and all -- I offer the conclusion to my go on the monsters.

Of course what I really want to know: Anybody catch the Dave Matthew's Band reference in the title?

The message implied by the Mambres section is that the creatures of the Wonders are so guarded [by dangers, threats and distance] because they are not meant to be known. The text is not attempting to illuminate their existence so much as their meaning. Like the trees of the Letter of Alexander, the knowledge apportioned to each man is limited: Ac ne frign ðu unc nohtes ma ne axa, for þon wit habbað oferheloðred þæt gemære uncres leohtes (But ask no more of the two of us, for we have spoken beyond the limits of our light).[1] Just such a limit may also be intimated by the Wonders, by the descriptions that approach but never fully see the far off creatures the text treats. Creatures that do not fit into regulatory categories may be monsters, and it seems better to take from them the lesson they may teach than to know what they are in themselves. Their message is acceptance, a lack of querying, and the injunction of the trees: ne frign. These creatures are different, and some are dangerous, and traveling to find them is itself marked by obstacles that may be set in place for a reason. If one does ask – if one opens the books, and learns by this opening the secrets of the deep mysteries, the risk is of one’s own dissolution. The marvel takes the unwary explorer in – into a hell-pit of 2 by 4 cubits, or more chillingly, inside itself via ingestion.[2] The specifics of their existence are not the point: rather, their warning against inquiry and the dangers of knowing monsters allows the reader to escape entrapment by his own arcane knowledge.

Monsters and marvels are dangerous because they defy categorization, they hybridize, and they hijack human language to use for their own monstrous purpose. The unsettling suggestion of Wonders is that these creatures might not be simply “bodies” that signify only God’s power over the physical, his ability to raise the physical, human body from the dead written in His creation of bodies fantastic.[3] Rather, more than just the inhabitants of Ciconia may be “thought to be men” – a potential best left unexplored, and its consequences left unsuffered. Thus the final injunction of the Mambres and Jamnes segment of the text leaves us where the text began -- in the midst of an unresolved possibility of beings, fragmented beyond perfect comprehension of a reason, with only the stern warning that it isn’t ours to know, or even to ask about. We end with two magicians, deep secrets of idolatry, knowledge written in books, and the warning that some things are not supposed to be known.

[1] Orchard, Pride and Prodigies, 253.

[2] Jeffrey Cohen’s visualization of the Donestre (as literally incorporating was key in connecting these concepts. Cf. Of Giants p. 3-5, most specifically: "in the last scene of the narrative, the traveler has been completely transformed. The severed head is an empty point of fascination that directs the viewer’s gaze back to the alienating form in which the traveler is now contained, at the monster he has now become."

[3] Cf. Austin for a cogent description of Augustine’s theory. Austin, Greta. “Marvelous Peoples or Marvelous Races ? Race and the Anglo-Saxon
Wonders of the East
” in Marvels, Monsters and Miracle: Studies in the Medieval and Early Modern Imaginations. Ed. Timothy S. Jones and David A Sprunger. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2002.

cross posted at ITM.