Posts filed under 'ambiguity'

Classic Texts in Translation: David Buchta on the Bhagavad Gītā

It’s the fact that it’s been this vibrant text for millennia that makes it such an important text for us to read today.

Today’s post is the first installment in our new blog series, “Classic Texts in Translation,” in which we speak with scholars and experts about the challenges of translating canonical texts from around the world. In today’s interview, Assistant Blog Editor Nina Perrotta talks with Professor David Buchta of Brown University about the Bhagavad Gītā, an ancient Sanskrit text that forms part of the larger epic poem known as the Mahābhārata. Their conversation touches on the specific difficulties of translating complex philosophical and theological terms from Sanskrit into English, the questions around authorship that make interpreting classical Sanskrit texts particularly challenging, and the reasons that the Bhagavad Gītā has been such an influential text, both within India and around the world, for millennia.

Nina Perrotta (NP): I want to start off by asking you, in a general way, about some of the biggest challenges of translating Sanskrit into English.

David Buchta (DB): Sure. In some ways, it’s a hard question to answer in a general way, just because you’re talking about this language that has such an enormously long history, such a huge library of literature, and such a wide range. This would be the same for Latin or Greek—the kinds of challenges you face in one genre versus another are going to be radically different.

On the one hand, you’ve got these poems that have two meanings simultaneously, and that obviously is going to introduce one whole set of translation challenges. I often say this about Sanskrit: it’s such a highly cultivated language. In other words, the people who used the language cared about it, thought about it, put their time and energy into developing its toolbox. As a result, if you’re a skilled writer, you can, if you want to, be extremely precise and unambiguous, or you can be extremely ambiguous. There are these poems where you can tell seven stories all at once. It just depends on how the words are interpreted, whether the same sequence of syllables is broken into two words or three words, for example. You have these different ways that you can go if you’re skilled enough at using the language.

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Ambiguity and Bilingual Art: Pavel Arseniev’s Reported Speech in Review

Through art like Arseniev’s poetry, we gain a toehold, however momentary, from which we are better able to grasp the present and prepare a future.

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Reported Speech by Pavel Arseniev, Cicada Press, 2018

Reviewed by Paul Worley, Editor-at-Large

I tell my students that literature does things, but I prefer to do so in even less polished terms. From a more abstract perspective, I see current attacks on the humanities (especially literature) in the United States and elsewhere as being so vicious precisely because of the fact that literature does do things. It changes how we, as humans, relate to and understand others, as well as ourselves.

That said, there are moments when I profoundly doubt this. For example, I was recently discussing the fabricated crisis at the US-Mexico border and Trump’s wall with someone I had just met. During our discussion, this person informed me that Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s nonfiction All the Agents and Saints: Dispatches from the US Borderlands, a work that gives a nuanced, highly sensitive portrait of the US-Mexico border, actually serves to justify that border’s further militarization. It was like being told by someone with a very serious face that Shelley’s “Ozymandius” is a laudatory poem on the subject of indelible human achievement or that Swift’s A Modest Proposal provided a brilliant roadmap for the betterment of the Irish economy. And yet, even when my doubts about literature and its power dominate my thoughts, events like the murder of Iraqi novelist Alaa Mashzoub snap me back to reality. Literature matters, so much so that in other parts of the world literature can get you killed, even as I safely type this up in my home in the United States. Perhaps this will soon be the case here, too.

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Fall 2016: A Fresh Opportunity to Talk

Asymptote’s power lies in its willingness to account for the inexpressible and use it as ground-zero for its vision.

Halldór Laxness, Stefan Zweig, László Krasznahorkai—just when you think you are announcing just these three international literary superstars in the Fall 2016 lineup, it turns out you have four. On October 3, Italian journalist Claudio Gatti controversially unmasks Elena Ferrante as Anita Raja. But, even before Gatti’s unwelcome revelation, I had already picked out Anita Raja’s contribution as a highlight and intended to include her name in all our issue-related promotional materials. Fearing that we would be accused of riding the controversy, I drop a note to Criticism Editor Ellen Jones: “What do you make of all this Anita Raja = Elena Ferrante business? Is it opportunistic of us to feature her name in our publicity materials (which we already sent for printing) and on the cover (which can still be changed)?” The issue’s been on her mind as well. “We want to avoid the same kinds of accusations NYRB are getting in this morning’s papers,” Ellen says, “but I don’t think it would do too much harm to have her as one among many names in our promotion materials… I don’t think we need to bury a good essay on purpose, in short.” But what about in the promotional materials themselves? How much do we say about Anita Raja? Communications Manager Matthew Phipps decides in the end to take a risk and state matter-of-factly that Elena Ferrante has been unmasked as Anita Raja (which anyone who has been following literary news already knows). Too frazzled to make a call on the copy after staying up for 36 hours to put together the video trailer (it’s been a while since I made these for Asymptote, and I am rusty), I sign off on the newsletter. That’s how, in spite of a massive publicity blitz that involved printing and distributing 4,000 postcards; print and digital ads in the Times Literary Supplement that set us back by 900 GBP; 97 personalized emails to media outlets, 90 tweets, 20 Facebook posts, and seven blog posts about the Fall 2016 issue (all documented in then Marketing Manager Ryan Celley’s publicity report here), dear reader, we still came to be booed. Here to introduce our Fall 2016 issue is Assistant Editor Garrett Phelps. 

What a work of literature ‘means’ is always tough to get a feel for, let alone talk about. Of course a famous theorist or two have claimed this is an insurmountable difficulty. Maybe that’s true, I don’t know. Not being too slick with the theoretical stuff, I’ll just say that literature is meaningful to the extent it’s ambiguous and open-ended. And if any idea unifies Asymptote’s Fall 2016 issue, it’s the way interpretive problems result from this state-of-affairs.

For Anita Raja, ignorance is the reader’s point of departure and return. In “Translation as a Practice of Acceptance” she argues that “the translator must be above all a good reader, capable of diving into the intricacies of the text, taking it apart, discerning all its nuance. The translator is, in short, a reader required to puzzle over the complexity of the original text, line after line, and to piece it together in the new language—a fundamentally impossible task.” Good translators are, essentially, readers par excellence. Anyone who’s dabbled in the field probably won’t find this idea controversial. Sooner or later, though, even a top-notch translator hits the same wall as the average reader, who’s more okay letting intricacies, nuances and puzzle-pieces remain gut-feelings. Demanding much more is futile even if doing so is worthwhile. This is especially true of translation, where success is often the sum of accumulated failures. READ MORE…

Winter 2018: In Conversation with Translator Paula Gordon

What I love about translating the languages of this region is the richness of expression and playful use of language by native speakers.

Paula Gordon is a freelance editor and translator of Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, and Montenegrin based in Delaware. She has lived in Bosnia and Herzegovina, working in the nonprofit sector as a translator, and on the staff of the Sarajevo Film Festival. Her translation of Ilija Đurović’s “Pod čistom podu” (“Across the Clean Floor”), in our Winter 2018 issue, is the very first translation from the Montenegrin to appear in Asymptote. 

In her translator’s introduction, Gordon writes: “Many stories [by Đurović], but particularly this one, stand out for what remains unsaid as much as for what is spoken or described. “Across the Clean Floor” is told in the first person, but the narrator speaks tersely and dispassionately, leaving it to readers (should we be so inclined) to provide the backstory. It is as if we are observing a night in the life of this couple through a telephoto lens, or perhaps through a keyhole.”

Our interviews editor, Claire Jacobson, conducted this interview with Gordon.

Claire Jacobson (CJ): In your translator’s note, you talk about realizing that you were “filling in the gaps” in the narrative in English, and making changes (such as the tense) to your draft as a result. Where did you find yourself over-interpreting by translating, and how did you bring the piece back to its natural ambiguity?

Paula Gordon (PG): Interestingly, when I look back over my various drafts, I don’t find much proof in the text of what I said in my translator’s note. The biggest revision was in changing past tense to present fairly early on (and I tracked those changes, so I guess I wasn’t certain whether that would work or not).

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