Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 9 June 2013

You say tomato, I say tomahto. You say stranger, I say outsider.

The Outsider

Beyond a certain point one cannot reconcile the demands of translation and of poetry, and one must opt for one or the other – A.C. Graham, introduction to Poems of the Late T’ang

A while ago I reviewed The Jaguar’s Dream which is a collection of, to put it simply, translations into English of poems from a variety of eras and languages. The poems were translated by the Australian poet John Kinsella who is not a professional translator but tackled the job purely for the pleasure of doing so. In several of his poems I found things I would have done differently. A simple example is his decision in his version of Supervielle’s ‘La Mer Secrète’ to translate ‘Elle est ce que nous sommes’ as ‘It is what we become’. It is not wrong since French has no neuter; something which has always bothered me. Who decided that the sea was female? I wrote about it five years ago in my post French computer sex and have yet to find an answer to the question. Of course in prose I would have been perfectly fine with Kinsella translating elle as ‘it’ but poetry is another ballgame completely. My take on the poem is that Supervielle is using personification here and treating the sea as if she were a woman, which is perfectly feasible, but how would we ever know?

I only studied French for two years at school (and Latin for one). I would have quite liked to have continued my studies but I wanted an O-Level in Music far more. Besides all that was forty years ago. So I am a long way away from what little I did learn but some of it stuck enough to know when the subtitles are wrong on TV. On the whole though I’ve never given the subject of translation much thought over the years. I’ve read books in translation and assumed that as the men and women who were getting paid to do the job they knew what they were doing. Always been a bit naïve me. Since I’ve started doing book reviews though and noticing how some translations get praised over others it has made me curious.

The title of this post refers to the song by George and Ira Gershwin and the novel by Albert Camus. When I read The Outsider in my late teens I assumed that that was the book’s title and it came as a great surprise to me to learn that my American cousins call the selfsame book, The Stranger. The title in French is, of course, L’Étranger which, admittedly, looks like ‘stranger’ but I’m told that there isn’t a equivalent expression in English and that étranger means something between ‘stranger’ and ‘outsider’ whatever that may be. Why, I wonder, did English not simply absorb the word as it has done with so many foreign expressions like vis-à-vis, tête-à-tête and mano-a-mano?

I enjoyed doing research to support my review of The Jaguar’s Dream and thought it might not be such a bad idea to have a crack at translating myself so I typed ‘poésie française moderne’ into Google and picked the first poem that wasn’t too long. It turned out to be an extract from ‘Art poétique’ by Eugène Guillevic of whom I knew nothing. I cut and pasted the poem into a Word document and began. Here is the original and what Google Translate made of it:

Art poétique (extract)

Si je fais couler du sable
De ma main gauche à ma paume droite,

C'est bien sûr pour le plaisir
De toucher la pierre devenue poudre,

Mais c'est aussi et davantage
Pour donner du corps au temps,

Pour ainsi sentir le temps
Couler, s'écouler

Et aussi le faire
Revenir en arrière, se renier.

En faisant glisser du sable,
J'écris un poème contre le temps.

Poetic Art

If I pour sand
Of my left hand to my right palm,

This course is for fun
Touching the stone became dust,

But that is also and more
To give the body time,

So feel time
Flow, flow

And also do
Go back, denying oneself.

By dragging the sand,
I write a poem against time .

Okay we all know that Google Translate is going to mangle the text but for the purpose of a cursory read it does okay; you get the gist. We had a guy pouring sand from one hand into the palm of his other hand. It’s a pleasurable experience and a metaphorical one from all accounts but even just having a quick glance it’s obvious that there is a lot missing here.

The title was the easy bit. Ars Poetica is a Latin term meaning “The Art of Poetry” or “On the Nature of Poetry”.

The first problem I had was determining what the sentences were. On the surface it looks like the first five stanzas make up one long sentence leaving only a short sentence in the final stanza. I suspected that whoever had transcribed the poem had made mistakes. They hadn’t. This is how that opening sentence is translated by Google once all the line breaks are removed:

If I pour sand in my left hand to my right palm, it is of course for the pleasure of touching the stone became dust, but also and more to give body to the time, so feel time flowing , drain and also do go back, denying oneself.

sands-of-timeWhat’s obvious here is that Google Translate treats every line as a sentence and that affects the translation more than one might expect. We see this in line four where the line is translated ‘the course’ whereas the sentence opts for the idiom ‘of course’ which makes all the difference. The same goes for line eight where Couler, s'écouler is translated as ‘Flow, flow’ rather than ‘flowing, drain’. Couler means ‘flow’ or ‘run’ or ‘cast’ or ‘roll’, even ‘smear’. Écouler means ‘sell’ or ‘dispose of’ so ‘drain’ wouldn’t be such a bad translation.

Line six was the first one I struggled with:







For / to


of / the


at the / to the


Du is a contraction of the words “of” and “the”. Au is a contraction of the words “at” or “to” and “the”. So is it ‘to give the body time’ or ‘to give [the] body to the time’. That annoying little preposition makes all the difference. In the first instance we’re simple allowing the body time to experience the flow of the sand but in the other suggests a dedication of the body especially since donner can mean ‘donate’. People given themselves to God or they give of themselves to others. It’s the difference between listening to music and giving oneself to the music. Or do we have a situation here like we have with L’Étranger? is Guillevic covering all his bases here, the physical and the, for want of a better word, the spiritual?

I found the fifth stanza particularly troublesome:













do / be


in / to


to himself


I decided to have a look at some other translations:

nous avons souvent souhaité faire revenir le temps en arrière
we often want to return time back

revenir en arrière pour faire les choses différemment
go back and do things differently

The notion of turning back time is a common one whether we’re talking literally as in The Time Machine or metaphorically. Renier is a verb that means to deny, renounce, disown, repudiate or, more specifically if preceded by se, deny oneself. What is the narrator saying here? If we turn back time then we are denying ourselves what? We have time in the form of grains of sand trapped in our hand. We can metaphorically halt the flow of time whenever we want to.

The last line is easy. It’s practically a transliteration: J'écris un poème contre le temps – I write a poem against time. But the penultimate line made me hesitate again.











Faisant is the present participle of faire. Glisser—think glissando—means to slip, slide or even skid. Context dictates it won’t be ‘skid’ but I was curious why Google Translate threw up ‘dragging’ and I wondered whether or not the poet was suggesting we tighten our fist so that time drags, another common English idiom. In a computer manual they have the expression “Soit en faisant glisser l'appareil sur ce dernier”. Is 'faisant glisser' equivalent to the frictional-forceconcept of 'dragging' an item with the mouse? Probably. But do we really drag an icon? I’m thinking back to my Applied Mechanics days and the good old coefficient of friction. We slide things about the screen; we don’t drag them. Sand, however, would provide resistance. Sand has a friction coefficient of 0.60. Or am I getting carried away here? Perhaps.

This is what I settled on:

The Art of Poetry

If I pour sand from my left hand
into the palm of my right hand

the sensation is most pleasant.
Time has turned these stones into dust.

But there’s something else, something more,
which affords me the option to

experience time flow and run
out. Stop. Go back. Deny yourself.

Letting sand slip through my fingers
I write a poem against time.

I decided not to go for a literal translation for the most part but to get under the skin of the poem. At the same time I didn’t want to impose my own (possibly) narrow interpretation:

Every language, Guillevic tells us, is foreign. “Foreign, yes, because words are not made for the use they have in a poem. It’s the work of the poet … to make them say something different from what they would commonly say, by themselves.” – Carnac and Living in Poetry’, James Sallis, Boston Review, October / November 2000

The question begs to be asked: Is it possible to do justice to any author unless you are familiar with more than just the poem you have in front of you? On the Bloodaxe site it says this about Guillevic:

For Guillevic, the purpose of poetry is to arouse the sense of Being. In this poetry of description—where entire landscapes are built up from short, intense texts—language is reduced to its essentials, as words are placed on the page ‘like a dam against time’. When reading these poems, it is as if time is being stopped for man to find himself again.

That, for me, is a significant comment especially when examining a poem about the nature or art of poetry. Since I couldn’t find an English translation of the poem online (although I did run across a Russian one of all things) I decided to order a copy of Ars Poetica and while I was waiting on it arriving in the post did some research to see what I could find out about Guillevic.

Eugène Guillevic (Carnac, Morbihan, France, August 5, 1907, Carnac – March 19, 1997, Paris) was one of the better known French poets of the second half of the 20th century. Professionally, he went under just the single name "Guillevic". – Wikipedia

guillevicWikipedia lists 38 books. Predictably very little has ever been translated into English. I found four: Carnac (1961), Geometries (1967), The Sea & Other Poems (a compilation to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth), Selected Poems of Guillevic and, fortunately for me, Art Poétique (1985-86). Auster’s The Random House Book of Twentieth-Century Poetry does, however, include nine poems translated by Savory, John Montague, and Levertov. James Sallis, writing in The Boston Review, doesn’t find this deficiency surprising:

What is at the very heart of his work’s excellence—the simplicity of its diction, the unadorned language, its very modesty—renders it all but untranslatable. Even in French, Guillevic can be an elusive read. Slight, elliptical, gnomic, the poems vanish when looked at straight on. "Les mots / C’est pour savoir," he says. Words are for knowing. And by les mots he means, resolutely, French words. Because their mystery, their magic, is in the language itself, these poems do not easily give up their secrets, or travel well. They are their secrets. They crack open the dull rock of French and find crystal within. In English, all too often, only the dullness, the flatness, remains.

Wikipedia’s brief entry has only this to say about his actual writing:

His poetry is concise, straightforward as rock, rough and generous, but still suggestive. His poetry is also characterized by its rejection of metaphors, in that he prefers comparisons which he considered less misleading.

A poet who eschews metaphors. Interesting. His first book was Requiem which was published rather late, in 1938, by Tschann. He worked in the Ministry of Finance (rising to Inspecteur d'Economie Nationale). His obituary in The Independent says:

This career, with all its legal and administrative rigour, had a decisive effect upon his poetry, enabling him to discard all "poeticality" and "rigmarole rhyming". He became a firm disciple of the Object, and disdained the Surrealists' new-fangled obsession with the Image.

And Sallis again:

Alterity may be Guillevic’s obsessive theme. He is, of course, among the most outward-directed and least subjective of poets, so it’s only inevitable that soon he’d fetch up against the world’s blank face and lack of affect. However stubbornly we confront or make demands upon them, the world and its things remain unknowable. In a poem from his second collection, Exécutoire, he writes: "To see inside walls / Is not given us. / Break them as we will / Still they remain surface." Like the sea.

I said that Guillevic is a French poet and that is true but French was not his first language. In her introduction to Selected Poems of Guillevic the American poet Denise Levertov notes:

LeveretovIt is curious to note that, outside school, Guillevic did not hear French spoken around him, but, in early childhood, Breton, and in adolescence, Alsatian, until he was nearly twenty. Jean Tortel … speculates on the possible influence on his work of this early detachment from the language from which he writes; perhaps, he suggests, it helped to form “the consideration from which he approaches words, the space he leaves between them and himself. For him each vocable (plate, chair, nightingale) is not something to be taken for granted, something everyday.” One might say, indeed, that his relation to words is truly phenomenological…

Levertov is very honest as regards her own efforts:

I am not fully satisfied, by any means, with most of my versions of Guillevic; but A.C. Graham’s definition of the translator’s choices [quoted, in part, at the top of this article] does describe my intention, which has been to render these poems in such a way that they would seem, in English, to be written in the language of poetry and not Translationese.

and even in a tiny poem like this she need to qualify one of her choices:

The little trout
slim1 as a penknife

can’t find its rock
in the great brook.

     1 Literally, “the size of.” (D.L.)

The book arrived quicker than I expected so I’m going to leave this here. I think I may well do a full article on Guillevic at a later date. I was keen, nonetheless, to see what Maureen Smith had made of this extract. Smith lives in France where she was a professor of English and American Literature until she retired in 2002. She is trilingual and her specialism is contemporary poetry. She has written articles in English, French and Spanish on contemporary writers and painters.

Here is her translation of this excerpt:

If I pour some sand
From my left hand to my right palm,

It’s of course for the pleasure
Of touching powdered stone,

But it’s also and more so
To give a body to time,

So as to feel time
Trickling, passing by

And also to make it
Turn back, retract.

By making some sand slip by,
I’m writing a poem against time.

Is her translation right? I never thought of using ‘retract’ nor did I see that he was talking about making time turn back (although I did wonder about it above) but it’s quite obvious here. I’m not sure about her use of ‘some’ in the penultimate line but I see that she’s gone with giving ‘a body to time’ which I wasn’t sure about.

All in all I’m not displeased with my effort. I think I’ve done a little more than translate. I’ve also partly interpreted (i.e. imposed my interpretation) and that could be viewed as a weakness; I know I said above that I tried not to but I don’t think I tried hard enough. I do think Smith’s missed something by simply talking about sand as ‘powdered stone’ though. What is it has turned the stone into powder? Okay, it’s the sea, but it’s the sea over time. After having a think about it I decided to change one line and add in a couple of tweaks. Here is my final (for the moment) version:

If I pour sand from my left hand
into the palm of my right hand

the sensation is most pleasant.
Time has turned these stones into dust

but there’s something else, something more,
which affords me the option to

experience time flow and run
out or stop and turn back the clock.

Letting sand slip through my fingers
I write a poem against time.

KinsellaI’ve removed the title because now I have the book I can see that the whole book is really one long poem made up of tiny fragments like this.

This has been an enjoyable exercise and I may do it again. I’m certainly glad I discovered this poem and have John Kinsella to thank for that. So I’ll let him have the final say. Here is a link to his poem ‘I read Guillevic's Carnac’.


Joseph Hutchison said...

Just a note on gendered words. I ran across a blog for linguists in which one wrote, in reply to a reader's question: "Indo-European is the best documented language familiy in the world, but the gender goes all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, which is entirely undocumented." If he's correct, then we just don't know why words in our particular family of languages have (or had—it disappeared from English as it transitioned from Old English to modern English) and we probably never will.

Some poets have played with this productively, though. Rafael Alberti has a poem that begins:

El mar. La mar.
El mar. Sola la mar.

Faced with this formulation, most translators would abandon the poem as impervious to a good English version. But Mark Strand, in a collection of Alberti translations called The Owl's Insomnia, gave it the old college try:

The sea. The sea.
The sea. Only the sea.

Now, I read somewhere that Alberti was mining the difference between "the male sea" (the form approved by the Spanish Royal Academy in its dictionary of 1726-1739, which was created to protect the "purity" of the language as used by the upper crust) and "the female sea," which was the "impure" form used by the hoi polloi. The real meaning of the lines, then, is that Alberti is siding with the common people against the upper class. Since he was a Marxist, this makes sense.

Anyway, there is no way to capture all this in our non-gendered modern English. You need to either avoid translating the poem or do so with a hefty footnote explaining the lines.

I should add that the linguist I mentioned up front also says that gender distinctions are going away in a lot of languages. Isn't it pretty to think so?

Jim Murdoch said...

That was all very interesting, Joseph. It still doesn’t answer how a nation decides what sex a new inanimate object ought to be. When calculators became commonplace who decided they should be female? And why is the World Wide Web male? And why do Germans refer to home as the fatherland when Russians refer to home as the Mother Russia? Language is perverse.

Gwil W said...

Hello Jim,

Der Paradeiser is m. and Die Tomate is f.

It's the same language (Ger.) and it's the same thing - a tomato.

Depending which word you choose to use decides the gender of the fruit.

Die Kartoffel is f. and Der Erdapfel is m. Yet again it's the same language (Ger.) and the same word - potato.

As you rightly say, language is perverse!

Jim Murdoch said...

I finally looked this up, Gwilliam, and found a nice discussion thread here but this was the comment that jumped out at me concerning French and I’ll assume German has similar guidelines:

1. The "Faith, Hope and Charity" Rule: Words describing a particular ideal tend to be feminine, especially if they end in "é". Examples: "La Foi, l'Espérance, la Charité." (But, the synonym "espoir" is masculine; see rule 2.)

2. The Rule of Specific Examples: The word for a general thing is often feminine, but a word naming a specific example of the general is usually masculine. Examples: "La terre" (the earth) becomes "le terrain" (a specific lot or plot of earth). "La règle" ("the rule") becomes "le règlement" (a bylaw or regulate/on).

3. The Feminine Latinate Rule: All words ending in "-tion" without exception are feminine. These words were borrowed during the Renaissance directly from Latin. Since they are always feminine in Latin, they retained that gender in French. (Bonus! The English humanists often borrowed the same words without anglicizing them, so the same word usually, but not always, has the same meaning in English and French. If you can't translate an English word, think of the Latinate version and use it with a French accent.)

4. The Masculine Bureau Rule: Almost every word ending in "-eau" is masculine. Examples: le bureau, le manteau. Exceptions: there are at least two exceptions to this rule: la peau (skin) and, perversely enough, l'eau itself (water; feminine).

5. The Masculine Foreigner Rule: Words borrowed from another language, especially English, tend to be masculine in French. (Subject to exceptions when the lending language uses similar gender rules as French: see rule 3). Examples: le pull-over; le week-end.

6. The Feminine Countries Rule: Names of countries ending in "e" are always feminine, with one exception. Examples: La France, la belle Angleterre, la belle Allemagne. The Exception: Le Mexique.

7. The "When in Doubt" Rule: The majority (55%) of French words are masculine. When in doubt, play the odds and assume the word's masculine. (It makes verb conjugations and adjective accords easier, anyway.)

Gwil W said...

In German, at least here in Austria, the general rule seems to be: When in doubt leave it out.

Interestingly the most articulate German speakers (for a Brit such as myself to understand) are the foreigners who live here, Yugoslavians and Turks in the main, whose first language is a language other than German. On the whole it's fair to say that these speakers whose second language is German tend to articulate their German words more clearly than native German speakers. And also to speak without idioms. Thus they are making conversation, from my point of view, a pleasure rather than a stress.

Another point that comes to my mind is that I find that books which have translated from English into German are easier for me to read in German than books written in German by native German writers.

German and French have different rules. In German der Mond is f. and die Sonne is m. for example. But if you hook on the word finsternis then both become f.

It is common in German for a noun to comprise 2,3 or even 4 words. Mondfinsternis for example means lunar eclipse. The rule here is that the gender is decided by the last noun in the sequence. So the masculine moon becomes a feminine moon during an eclipse.

Language is bollocks!!!

Jim Murdoch said...

I can understand that, Gwilliam. I suppose all those who speak German as a second language use a simplified form of the language, one that lacks a little colour. I pity anyone trying to learn British English. I recall this American coming over to Scotland and while we were all rolling over the floor laughing he spent the entire night going, “Excuse me? Excuse me?” And he was supposed to be an English speaker! I think we forget just how idiomatic our tongue is peppered with local euphemisms and slang expressions. I’ve a book of short stories just out—the first print run arrived yesterday in fact—and a number of the stories are in dialect—two in Glaswegian, one in Cockney and one in New Yorkese—and so much work went into these. Even the Glaswegian because although I’ve lived here all my life I’ve never picked up the accent; most people assumed I was a Yorkshireman growing up believe it or not. There really is no such a thing as ‘English’ any more. Received Pronunciation feels as artificial as Lallans does here in Scotland.

Dave King said...

Fascinating post, Jim. Your French obviously a bit above mine. I did "did it" for three years: the second year, the third and the fourth year. I never really caught up from having missed the first, during most of which I was in hospital. (Those ole boys had a bit to learn about backward kids!) Still, I have enough (just) to have enjoyed your post. Thanks for it.

Jim Murdoch said...

Don’t kid yourself, Dave, my French is not up to much. I can spot the odd awkward translation when reading Spiral’s subtitles but that’s about me. The thing this impressed upon me is just how hard translation really is. One of the first works in translation I ever read was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and I never gave it a second thought at the time. As far as I was concerned I was reading Solzhenitsyn and not some bloke’s idea of what Solzhenitsyn was writing about. When I’ve been reviewing books in translation I always try and see if I can find an alternate translation and the few times I have I really have been struck by the difference. I noticed it first in Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot which Beckett translated himself. In the English version Lucky calls out “the skull the skull the skull in Connemara” but in the original he refers to “la tête en Normandie”—the head in Normandy. Beckett, when translating his own works, often rewrote them rather than simply translating them because so much would have been lost in a straight transliteration.

Gwil W said...

JBut wait Jim, it gets even better. Here for your amusement are German instructions found in a newspaper on how to complete the daily 'Sudoku' puzzle:

Füllen Sie das Diagramm so aus, dass in jeder Zelle jeder Spalte und in jedem der 3x3 Quadrate jede Ziffer von 1 bis 9 genau ein Mal vorkommt.

Notice here that the word 'jeder' (which here means 'every' has 3 different spellings in this one short sentence!

Vorsrpungdurchtechnik I don't think!

Marion McCready said...

It's a good exercise to do. I've only attempted translation once, a few years ago for a masterclass at StAnza people were invited to submit a translation of a German poem, can't remember the name of poet. So there were five or so of us chosen to read out our translations of the same poem, it was fascinating to see the different way we translated this very short German poem. I really enjoyed it though remember it being pretty time consuming, only ever did one year of German at school but somehow it sticks far more than the many years I did of French. It's something I'd like to do more of, considering learning Gaelic at some point. Being fluent in two plus languages must be so beneficial in writing poetry.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to say I enjoyed this immensely, Marion, in fact I’ve another blog coming up where I attempt a tiny, tiny poem by Beckett and make a complete mess of it. I never took German—nothing about the language appealed besides the German master was a scary dude—but I did two of French and one of Latin both of which enhanced my appreciation of English. Actually Carrie made a good save when she was editing my short stories. I’d used the term ‘Pig Latin’ when it should’ve been ‘Dog Latin’—never heard of that before. You learn something new every day.

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