Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Yoko Tawada/Chantal Wright: Portrait of a Tongue

I want translations with copious footnotes, footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers to the top of this or that page so as to leave only the gleam of one textual line between commentary and eternity.
This is the Nabokov quote (from "Problems of Translation: Onegin in English") with which Chantal Wright prefaces her introductory chapter on translating Yoko Tawada's Portrait of a Tongue. Her book is billed as an "experimental translation" and yes, that's what it is. She has divided the pages into two and given us both a translation in the left-hand column and a wealth of annotations on the right, a "translation-with-commentary". There are different types of comments: firstly, what Wright calls "linguistic facilitating" – i.e. explaining what words and issues that crop up might mean in an objective way – then giving citations from other texts (or films, or cultural artefacts) referenced or perhaps referenced or not at all directly referenced in the translation, and thirdly, personal anecdotes. Wright tells us:
Despite the inclusion of this personal response, the translation was never intended to be an exercise in narcissm. Rather, it aims to be a protocol of how a translator encounters a text.
The story itself is a complicated musing on language and culture and customs, narrated by a rather opaque character who is neither German nor American but speaks German and is visiting America. There she meets P, or invents P, a German woman living in America. And she tells us all sorts of things about P – how she behaves in the shower at the swimming pool, the way she phrases certain things, words she teaches the narrator (sometimes forgotten in the meantime, sometimes only alluded to), stories she tells. There's a great deal of comparison of the two languages, something German readers can deal with because they tend to read English well, whereas English readers need more help. As such, it's the ideal text for Wright's exciting project. It's the kind of writing people think of when they use the word "untranslatable", I suspect. And Wright goes right ahead and totally owns it.

Because of course it's an exercise in visible translation. As we read the text on the left, the layout guides us smoothly on to the translator's thoughts on the right, after every few sentences. There is plenty of space on the pages, with paragraph breaks marked separately. It really does feel like you're inside the translator's head as she explains her reading of Yoko Tawada.

Here's one example I find particularly pertinent. I will attempt to explain it afterwards, from my point of view, because I'd like to play Wright's game here just for the fun of it:
P showed me the famous Widener Library. 
We met a friend of P’s there, an American.           
[einen Bekannten There is a clear difference between Bekannte(r) [acquaintance] and Freund(in) [friend] in German that is difficult to uphold in English. The English word “acquaintance” is rarely used these days, whereas Bekannte(r) is used a great deal in German. The English word “friend" can express a variety of degrees of acquaintance, perhaps therefore doing away with the need for other terms. K, a German acquaintance of mine, once introduced his mistress at a party as “meine Bekannte". All parties at the party were party to the deceit.
(I'm afraid I can't reproduce the layout here.)
The reason this is pertinent is that Chantal Wright is a friend of mine. In blogging language we call what I am doing here a full disclosure. I have saved it up for this point for various reasons, including to encourage readers to take this review more seriously than they might have done, had they known about our connection from the beginning.

I met Chantal when she was living in Berlin and I can't remember how, but I think it was about ten years ago. We have been in sporadic contact since then. If I had to describe our relationship in German, I'm not sure which word I would choose. She feels more than a Bekannte and not quite a Freundin. Perhaps I would call her a befreundete Kollegin - a colleague I am friends with. Because of interference from English, I am quicker than many Germans to call people Freunde. Sometimes this makes me expect more of people than they are willing to give.

Later in Tawada's text, the author herself comes back to the subject of words for friends in English and German. She writes:
But in German there is no neue Freundin – at least not for adults – unless it involves a relationship that is both sexual and serious. So if a friend is new, you can't yet know if she really is a friend. That's why there are only old friends in Germany.
Do you see how it all interweaves and reflects back and each side adds something to the other? You may be aware of another, more famous annotated translation making waves at the moment. I've read Jonathan Franzen's The Kraus Project and reviewed it for another publication, which isn't out yet. And although he never mentions Nabokov, Franzen seems to have taken his remark about towering footnotes to heart. The problem is, though, that Franzen's footnotes distract from the translated text. Partly due to the conservative format, the multiple-page anecdotes and explanations accompanying Kraus's essays interrupt the flow to such an extent that they sometimes make them harder to understand rather than elucidating, as I think Nabokov intended. Yes, they call attention to Franzen as the translator – but that high-viz jacket is not terribly advantageous to the reading of Karl Kraus (although the reading experience as a whole is still interesting). To labour that metaphor a little more, Franzen becomes a railway worker standing by the tracks, his bright yellow outfit distracting the train driver from the signals coming up. Does that make sense? I hope so.

Chantal, in contrast, helps the driver (that makes the reader the train driver and the story the train itself, right?) by climbing into the cab and pointing out sights along the way, other trains up ahead, level crossings to slow down for, and so on. Portrait of a Tongue is a rare thing, a genuinely readable exercise in putting translation theory into practice. If you are interested in translation or languages, I urge you to read it.  

2 comments:

EP said...

This doesn't really have to do with translation, but your comment about "footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers" reminded me of David Foster Wallace. If you like skyscraper footnotes, check some of his stuff out.

EP said...

This doesn't really have to do with translation, but your comment about "footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers" reminded me of David Foster Wallace. If you like skyscraper footnotes, check some of his stuff out.