Posts featuring David Bellos

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:

Asymptote Spring 2014 Issue – Out Now!

…and it's packed with the most exciting new literary translations, critical pieces, and more from around the world.

What are you waiting for? Highlights from Asymptote’s Spring 2014 issue include new work by Nobel laureate Herta MüllerDavid Bellos (author of “Is that a Fish in Your Ear?”), and Prix Goncourt-winner Jonathan Littell. Plus, our annual English-language fiction feature spotlights Diasporic literature from Bosnia, China, India, Japan, and Singapore.