Language: Latin

Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

If it’s true that every translation must inevitably fail, this passage would be Exhibit A.

In this final installment of Vincent Kling’s translation column, En Route, Up Close, Kling discusses the difficulties of translating complicated works and considers whether one should remain loyal to meter at the expense of feel and fluidity. Kling explores translation in all its layered complexity, demonstrating with characteristic erudition and generosity the reasons why literary translation as a form resists the confines of any universally accepted code.

Two Hurdles for Translators

1. The Relatively Easy One. Two newly acclaimed releases, Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey and David Ferry’s of the Aeneid, have prompted some discussion about what elements can and should be reproduced as closely as possible and what should—or indeed must—be altered. Reviewers are mainly concentrating on meter, because it is usually agreed that Homer’s and Virgil’s dactylic hexameters come across awkwardly in English; even a technical virtuoso like Longfellow couldn’t always make six-beat dactylic lines work in Evangeline. Both Wilson and Ferry have opted for blank verse (beautifully rendered in both cases), and even strict Augustans like Dryden and Pope knew better than to espouse a line that’s too long for flexibility in English. It was Dryden, after all, who adopted the idea of “imitation,” of the need to respect the nature of the target language. Later, Richard Wilbur shrewdly recast Molière’s alexandrines into pentameter, a decision that finally made the French dramatist’s work performable, even palatable, in a meter that best follows the contours of English accentuation. Anthony Hecht similarly forged vigorous, muscular heroic couplets out of Voltaire’s six-stress lines in his “Poem upon the Lisbon Disaster,” an idiomatic, fast-moving translation that is at its most ‘faithful’ in changing six beats to five.

Perhaps my thesis is distorting my judgment here, but those “faithful” German homages to the Greek and Latin dactylic hexameter sound forced, belabored, artificial in all the wrong ways; Klopstock’s Messias and Goethe’s Römische Elegien have their passionate admirers, but I feel obligated to be honest about what I’m hearing. The hexameter couplets called Xenien that Goethe and Schiller composed together are memorable for the masterfully governed fury of their polemic—worthy of Mac Flecknoe or the Epistle to Doctor Arbuthnot—but their power seems diminished by what I can only hear as labored meters.

Fairly general agreement about hexameter to pentameter may be the closest our ornery tribe of literary translators is likely to get to embracing a rule or even a best practice. David Bellos points out in Is That a Fish in Your Ear that the craft cannot be understood by trying to develop universal principles or procedures of translation; it’s not that rules were made to be broken, but that literary translation calls for too many pragmatic, ad hoc solutions to accommodate rules at all. In fact, I’d bet someone right now is—just for spite, as it were—at work on an English Klopstock that keeps the meter of the German, or writing a sequel to Evangeline in dactylic hexameters as a tribute to Longfellow.

2. The Invariably Tough One: Though awed by what our predecessors have accomplished, we can still envy them something like a standard approach metrically, in contrast to a problem I find no way around and always confront in (warranted) fear and trembling and a (realistic) sense of defeat. The whole point of an idiom is that it eludes literal translation and must be significantly recast. But what happens when an author playfully extends the literal meaning? A decent translator can work around “a horse of a different color” (just watched The Wizard of Oz again), but what if the author erects a whole set of observations around horses and colors? What if we’re asked to hold our horses before we start horsing around in the horse latitudes so as to avoid being given the horse laugh? These playful variations can’t transpose, but they have to. Then add another layer; the narrator is so exuberant in his high-flying, convoluted, Baroque application of the literal that he makes the passage even more ornate with a madcap interweaving of far-fetched comparisons.

The German idiom “Das kommt mir spanisch vor” (“It seems Spanish to me”) implies that some behavior or topic is peculiar or hard to understand, with a hint that something isn’t adding up or is off kilter. The idiom has its origin in the minutiae and extreme elaboration of Spanish court ceremonial in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, highly baffling to the uninitiated. Most German reference works caution that the English “It’s Greek to me” isn’t quite a fair equivalent, since the latter connotes that there is no understanding whatever, whereas the German means more that what is being observed is strange or odd but not beyond all comprehension.

The problem arises when the narrator of Strudlhofstiege is talking about that dedicated retired public servant Senior Councilor Julius Zihal, whose entire existence was defined by and devoted to an ideal vision of the Austrian civil service, following whose rules—directly descended from Spanish court ceremonial!—grounds the mystical meaning of his life. In that context, the narrator has a field day describing Zihal’s elaborate language and ultra-punctilious behavior as strikingly peculiar, and he is able to sum it up by apostrophizing Zihal as being very Spanish—not only in the idiomatic but also in the literal meaning. The idiom therefore can’t be changed, because the narrator uses it as the basis of a whole character study involving “Higher Zihalism” of the “austriaco-hispanic” variety, a way of describing Zihal’s very being, inner and outer. The occasion prompts the narrator to develop one of the wildest Baroque riffs in all of literature, using antiquated terms, throwing in one allusion after another to high culture in recognition of the “Higher Zihalism,” the only force capable of holding at bay the upstarts, vulgarians, troglodytes.

I quote the paragraph in German and then in my translation—such as it is. If it’s true that every translation must inevitably fail, this passage would be Exhibit A. I herewith say goodbye to my Asymptote readers by repeating an action I’m very familiar with: throwing in the towel. Thanks for following me over these past months!

Und nur der höhere Zihalismus kann ihnen entgehen, durch Restringierung des Unfugs bis auf ein äußerstes Minimum, diesfalls, hieramts, und überhaupt. Dieser höhere Zihalismus wird dort, wo sich auch bei genauester Perlustrierung keine Möglichkeit zeigt, den Atomkern einer Haupt- und Staatsaktion, mindestens aber einer diesfalligen Amtshandlung, zu implizieren, und also zu Dekor, zu Form zu gelangen, auf den Rest stolz verzichten und ihn durch geeignete Maßnahmen allenfalls inhibieren. Es ist genau das, was den Menschen heute fehlt: Würde. Der höhere Zihalismus austriaco-hispanicus ist die äußerste Fronde gegen die sogenannte Jetzt-Zeit und gehört in’s Museum der Gegenbeispiele zu Herrn Kriegar-Ohs (dem v. Korff bei Christian Morgenstern für diese Anstalt ein Partitur-Examplar von “Figaros Hochzeit” überreicht). Herr Amtsrat! Ihr kommt mir spanisch für. Habet acht, daß man Euch nicht nur Lerchenfelderisch mehr komme am Ende. Es wäre wirklich das Ende.

And only the Higher Zihalism can deflect them, parrying through adroit counterthrusts that turn back the tomfoolery and reduce it to an absolute minimum—in every given instance, by virtue of its charge, and as a matter of principle, to go fully bureaucratic here. This Higher Zihalism—even where scrutiny of the most punctilious would appear to present no possibility of containing, even by implication, the atomic nucleus of a formal, stately Baroque political drama (whereby it could attain to outward coherence of design, to form, that is)— will proudly forego everything else and systematically interdict the tomfoolery through resort to appropriate measures. That, after all, is exactly what people are lacking today: dignity. The austriaco-hispanicus variety of the Higher Zihalism is the ultimate force of opposition able to counter what is known as “the present day”; hence it belongs in the Museum of Counterexamples, curated by Herr Kriegar-Ohs (the character in Christian Morgenstern’s Gallows Songs to whom von Korff presents that august institution with a copy of the score of The Marriage of Figaro). Dear Senior Councilor, you strange bird! If an ancient and honorable air of lofty Spanish ceremonial is not what animates you, then your ways are just Greek to me. Please remain on your guard so you don’t end up allowing them to come at you jabbering their uncouth demotic tongue. That would be the end for certain.


Read more from Vincent Kling:

Translator Profile: Jennifer Scappettone

The notion of a unitary, homogenous, and monolingual “America” is as much an alternative fact as Spicer’s attendance numbers at the inauguration.

Former Asymptote blog editor Allegra Rosenbaum interviews translator and scholar Jennifer Scappettone, whose profile appeared in our Winter 2016 issue. Her translation of Italian poet Milli Graffi was featured on the Asymptote blog last week and her translation of F. T. Marinetti’s futurist poetry appeared in our Spring 2016 issue. 

Who are you? What do you translate? (This is just a preliminary question! To be taken with an existential grain of salt.)

I am a poet and scholar of American and Italian nationalities who grew up in New York, across the street from a highly toxic landfill redolent of the family’s ancestral zone outside of Naples (laced with illegal poisonous dumps). I translate Fascists and anti-Fascists; Italian feminists and a single notorious misogynist; inheritors of Futurism and the historical avant-garde; and contemporary poets who are attempting to grapple with the millennial burden of the “Italian” language by channeling or annulling voices from Saint Francis through autonomia.


A Lexicon Like No Other

“The crushing of the Prague Spring was followed by another communist party crackdown. Dozens of translations...were banned."

Oľga Kovačičová, PhD is a Slovak literature scholar and specialist in old Russian literature and translation studies. She works at the Institute for Literary Studies at the Slovak Academy of Sciences where for the past few years she has been the driving force behind a unique project, “The Lexicon of 20th century Slovak translators,“ which she co-edited and contributed some 80 of the total 400 entries. She has agreed to share some reflections on the special role literary translation played in shaping Slovak language and culture with Asymptote’s Editor-at-large Julia Sherwood, who then translated her insights into English.

Translated literature necessarily plays a more important role in smaller countries compared with bigger nations where much of the reading public’s literary and general cultural needs are met by local literary output. When it comes to a really small country like Slovakia, even without citing statistical data it is obvious that the ratio of translated to domestic literary production is roughly the converse of that in Western Europe, where translations represent 12% (Germany) or 20% (Italy) of book publishing overall, let alone English speaking countries with the notorious 3-4% of translated books.

Lexicon cover

Another big difference is that while the major European cultures have had access to the great works of world literature in their own language for many centuries, in Slovakia the process of reception was basically condensed into the 20th century, since Slovak as a literary language was only constituted in the second half of the 1840s.  Volume I of the Lexicon of Slovak 20th century Literary Translators (Slovník slovenských prekladateľov umeleckej literatúry 20. storočia), published in 2015 by the Slovak Academy of Sciences (volume II is almost complete), provides a fascinating glimpse of this frantic catching up process.

There are lexicons and then there are lexicons. Unlike pragmatic manuals of the “Who’s Who” type, the profiles of some 400 translators featured in The Lexicon aim to chart the trajectory of literary translation in the 20th century and through this, the history of reception of world literature in Slovakia. Individual entries are between three and five pages long, and apart from basic biographical details and each translator’s bibliography, they look at the works each of them translated and how he/she translated them.  The fruit of the painstaking labour of over 30 linguists and translation studies scholars, the book includes Katarína Bednárová’s comprehensive introductory essay on the history of literary translation in Slovakia and its international context, a bibliography of secondary sources, and an index. Volume II will feature an illustrated supplement, showcasing a selection of around 200 book covers, which doubles as a comprehensive survey of the evolution of Slovak book design, as well as lists of translators by source country.


Resurrection Song: William Tyndale

Fifth in Josh Billings's "Lives of the Translators" series—on God, death, and translation.

One morning in October 1536, in the Flemish town of Vilvorde, William Tyndale was led by his guards from his cell to a cross in the public square, to which he was tied at the ankles and waist with chains, and at the neck with a loose hemp cord.

Contrary to popular legend, he was not burned alive. Thieves and beggars were burned alive, women were burned alive, but Tyndale was a scholar and degraded priest: he was afforded the courtesy of being strangled first. When the procurer-general gave the signal, an executioner standing behind the cross pulled the hemp cord tight around Tyndale’s neck until he was dead. Then he lit the pile of brush and gunpowder that had been built up around the cross, and stood back.

Translation has always had its fair share of occupational hazards, but the execution of William Tyndale is one of rare examples in literary history of a translator killed for his work. It happened in an era when translation was taken extremely seriously, not just because it allowed ordinary people to read the Bible in their own languages, but because it implied those languages were as capable of containing God’s Word as Latin, Greek or Hebrew. Tyndale’s New Testament didn’t just imply this: it proved it, giving readers a Gospel that was both noble and familiar—a book of shepherds, the kitchen, the market, sons. READ MORE…

The Book of Sand: St. Jerome

Second in a series highlighting the lives of famous translators

When we dream about him, we dream about lions. But when Jerome dreamed, he dreamed of the desert, and of a judge who told him to destroy his books.

He had wanted to do this for a long time. Not because he hated his books, but because he loved them so much. He had labored over them, copying line after line of Plautus and Virgil into the codices that were now his curse, since no matter how much he fasted, wept, or threw himself in the dust, they were there to do what great literature always did—that is, to pick him back up and console him for his human lot. READ MORE…