Once more, with feeling: The practice of literary translation

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This is an edited version of a guest-of-honour speech delivered at the South African Translators’ Institute awards event, University of Johannesburg, October 2009.

As a prelude to writing this essay I translated the last poem in a cycle of lyrical verse which I adapted into English for the Pretoria poet Cas Vos. The poem cycle is based on the Abelard and Heloise saga, a story of doomed but undimmed love, love in an eternal present tense, love always hauntingly alive in the memory of its loss. Vos’s short poem, called “Verlore tyd”, and my translation/adaptation, read as follows: 

Verlore tyd

Skoelappervlerke vou oop
en toe as die wind sug,
die sterre bly gloeiend
tydloos en onverskillig.

Oor die aarde se rimpelvel
sprei ’n engel sy vlerk,
klop aan die koue uur
om die stilwees te merk.

In ’n nes van spikkel sterre
waak kraaie oor afwesigheid.
Wie praat nog oor verborge
verlange na die verlore tyd?

My rendering goes like this:

Lost time

Whirling butterflies through air,
the wind utters a groan
as morning stars glimmer,
imperious and unknown.

An angel spreads his wings
over earth’s rimpled hide,
heralding the arctic hour
the quiet by which we abide.

Crows keep watch over absence
from a nest of speckled light.
Who still dares to bemoan
lost time, longing’s last rite?

Whether or not this is an adequate adaptation/translation, I as the translator-rewriter must leave to others to decide. Critical reckoning – should there even be any, given the thin yield of invested literary reading in South Africa today – is out of my hands. However, what does remain in my power as a translator, a renderer of felt meaning in words, is a certain command over process. And, speaking from practice about process, the process of literary translation, which is pre-eminently a process of writing first and foremost, I would say, over and over again, “once more, with feeling”.

There are many ways of talking about literary translation, but I would emphasise above all that it is done for love, for the love of writing – writing as both a noun and a verb. I would, in addition, say that it is done to stem the tide of loss. The kind of love I mean is fairly elementary: a love of the supplementation of being that only the literary can deliver; a love of the way the literary stalls the vanishing trace of being, captures it in flight, in a sensuous, sinewy form, giving us provisional respite from the onrush of impermanence. In the provisionality of this respite – the paradox of arresting time in order to chart the shape of its vanishing – lies the literary’s curious, shimmering promise of permanence, of deep value beyond the banal and the trite and the passing spectacle.

There is more than enough of that – passing spectacle on flat screens – in our environment, but not much is gained from being modern-day Luddites and bewailing the drift from depth reading to shallow visual spectacle. It is also true that people across the world are reading in greater numbers than ever before. South African literary publishing is relatively healthy, despite the recession. New literary works across different South African languages, and new translated literary works, are appearing in good numbers, as the longlist for the SA Translators’ Institute prize for literary translation will attest. (So too will the increasingly long entry lists for the M-Net, the UJ, and the Sunday Times literary prizes.) It is rather the case, perhaps, that cultural forms in general, including the literary, have become more segmented and diverse, no longer splitting simply into highbrow and popular, serious South African writing as against “less literary” writing, but seeping across borders and categories of all kinds. Just as the content category “South African literature” has become problematic – including now diverse forms such as novels set elsewhere in the world, detective fiction, diaspora writing, crime stories, chick-lit, science fiction, flash fiction, creative non-fiction, among others – so the manner of rendering literary material has multiplied, and the styles diversified, to the extent that we may now be forgiven for feeling just a little lost in the land of the literary, let alone the world of visual and aural culture.

In the midst of such diversity of style and prolificness of content I find it useful to take a writerly approach, and that is to concentrate on the writing task at hand, and forget about all else. Once more, with feeling. Keep working on that one line until it feels right. Do not stop until you have created what writer Kevin Bloom calls the “indestructible sentence”, the sentence that no other can replace. Precisely because there is so much out there, in so many different manners of expression, and in so many forms and sub-categories, it feels all the more critical to work the ground of the literary with loving, dedicated, practised labour, with style and aplomb, digging deep and hard. If literary academics, among whom I count myself, tend increasingly to disavow the literary in favour of the discursive and the paradigmatic, writers know what it is they do simply because they continue to do it, regardless. They do it compulsively and illogically, against all economic sense, but they do it all the same. And it is here that the literary translator occupies a critical intersectional space. The literary translator is both reader and writer, critic and creator. In the act of rendering literary art from one language into another, the literary translator engages in the highest possible form of reading. If, as a teacher of literature, you want to bring back the virtues of close reading – and I do not use the term virtues here with any sarcasm whatsoever – then you can hardly do better than to make your students translate what they are reading. To bring a sentence into being again, in a different language, you are compelled to read it for style, for weight, balance, texture, meaning, connotation, and overall finish, among other factors. Writing, in the form of translating – which I often prefer to think of as rewriting – forces one to the knife-edge of the literary.

The knife-edge of the literary, the place where what is important is not Foucault or Agamben, the paradigmatic or counter-paradigmatic, but the way in which language is made to work, is crafted and shaped for an effect that one may wish to call beauty, and an affect that one may wish to call imaginative or emotional transformation. In order to make such an event of effect-affect, one must, one cannot but, go deep into the engine room of writing; one is compelled to learn how the machinery of writing really works, in the busy, hot confines of writing’s secret engines of manufacture.

So, were I to talk about the need for literary translation, I would frame it in terms of the need to maintain the ground of the literary – among the plethora of other cultural grounds that are also legitimate – to maintain the very substrate of the literary as a place where both intensive, appreciative reading and committed writing are engaged in as a practice. My sense is that this is where we face the greatest threat – not from outside the literary, but from within, especially within the literary academy itself, where I believe we might have allowed the broad sweep of cultural studies and theoretical supremacy to dilute the primary bedrock of the literary, indeed the literary-imaginative itself as a place of great importance. The literary translator must, in terms of sheer operational pragmatics, repeatedly enter into this precise zone, must go in there and work, work and refine, write and rewrite, read and weigh up, and make calls about what to say, and how to say it, and in what style, what form, what manner of voice and address. Where else do we still teach such recondite categories as voice and mode of address, register, style and point of view, irony and bathos, manner and tone? Not much, anymore, in literature classes, I fear, where we tend to bestride the world of cultural politics – not without good reason – but where we have all but forgotten what Wayne C Booth once called the “rhetoric of fiction” and I would be tempted to call the salt of stylistics. I would add, too, the perlocutions of poetry, the drumbeat of dialogue, Thanatos and Eros as the stuff of the lyrical voice. The stuff of literature, and the means of writing.

There are other ways of framing the need for literary translation, such as the fact that it is arguably only through such acts of often relatively selfless rendition that different South African literatures can speak to and through one another. The call of Albert Gerard several decades ago for a great teamwork effort to write up all of Southern Africa’s literatures in an inter-referential manner has never been accomplished, and looks increasingly unlikely. This is because the daunting size of such a project, which has defeated most intentions in this regard, is becoming more daunting and Quixotic by the day, almost. But it can be done in microcosm, or in smaller acts of co-ordinated cross-engagement, precisely in projects of literary translation. This would serve to create cross-reading and cross-writing: English into Afrikaans, isiZulu into Afrikaans, English into isiZulu, English into Sotho, and so on, avoiding the uniformity of everything being translated only into English, with little two-way traffic. I would, in addition, argue that translation is perhaps one of the most neglected modes in the teaching of creative writing: it gives students a vehicle through which they can both write and observe the writing process as reflective readers, or students of the writing process. And this without the intrusive, often blinding ego of the precious I-as-writer persona.

Nonetheless, behind even such important objectives of literary translation – making the country’s literatures speak to one another; bridging the space between the teaching of writing and the teaching of reading – behind even these lies my refrain, “once more, with feeling”, because why do any of this if not for the love of it, if not for a passionate loyalty to literature, a belief that acts of literature matter in the world, that they are repositories of glowing value, treasure chests containing jewels that cannot be found elsewhere?

Naturally, the challenge is big. You don’t get to share in the secrets of the writing process, you don’t get entry into the engine room of literary writing, without paying at the door. But what is the price? you might ask. For me, it is a combination of selflessness and attentiveness, in addition to literary skill and aptitude. By selflessness I mean a readiness to put one’s own writing ego aside and work in the interests of a project of writing that exists publicly in another person’s name. Nowadays, this can take some doing.

But there is a different level of challenge, and that is application to the task. Dedicated and relentless labour, and a willingness to engage in multiple acts of rewriting. The emphasis should be on process. I remember how, in reworking Triomf into a demotic South African English, I reached the end of the translation manuscript repeatedly, and carried straight on back to the beginning, over and over again. It felt as if the end slung me back to the beginning in a kind of whiplash action over which I had little control. That was because the process of refining and reworking, relentlessly seeking a smoother flow, a better tenor of narrative voice, a sleeker illusion of total fictive envelopment, felt as if it were endless. Each new improvement on one page called for similar improvements on the next, and refinements at the end of the work called for similar ones in the beginning, and the middle, and so it went on. Once more, with feeling. Always, once more. And then some. In a long work of complex narrative translation, especially, there is literally no end to the process of improving and refining, smoothing and roughing up the surface of narrative, making it better and better and better. Always better. Always, once more, until at some point the publisher’s demands compel you to abandon the text. It is truly a kind of obsession, a grand obsession with acts of writing, flirting with the possibility of a claim to something big in the world. If nothing else, in these days of debunking the author in favour of the postmodern, self-enamoured critical persona, we need to teach literature students just this: an old-fashioned reverence for literature. For the possibility of something big in the world. Translation remains a challenge to us, and an opportunity to return to some of the deep values of literature, of writing, as repositories of felt human value. Just that. It is more than enough.

Few things make me happier than to be lost within myself, at a keyboard, engrossed in the business of writing. Taken away. It is the only time that one is oblivious to the passing of time, and spared the constant awareness of one’s own skin, the skin of a particular consciousness and no other. That, for me, is the real reward: literary translation makes you a writer, not in the grandiose sense, but in the quiet, discrete, selfless and operational sense, which for me is the real meaning of writing.

If one values literary writing as a deep human process, then one needs and wants to become part of it. However, not everyone’s talents lie in the odd and peculiar area of imaginative writing, or novelistic writing, nor does everyone necessarily want that kind of exposure, or, more likely, neglect. Literary translation is an alternative way into writing, and a relatively safe way, at that. You won’t be taking quite the same risk of professional spite and jealousy, public ridicule, empty flattery or, even worse, being completely ignored, which are just some of the risks that South African writers take all the time. Writing is mostly a thankless, lonely and money-bereft occupation which also tends to make intimate relationships problematic. Be a writer at your peril! But translation, in a sense, is a more measured way into the writing process. The rewards are similar: you will learn what it means to test the weight of a verb at different points in a sentence, a sentence whose primary purpose is to make an impact, to create a sense of beauty or realistic capture or magical effect.

You will learn this because you will be compelled to write that sentence all over again, in a language other than that in which it was first written, and it will lie in your power as a writer to do this job poorly, indifferently, or brilliantly. Your choice, your power. You will learn what rhythm and flow feel like in your hands, in the percussion of your fingertips and the modulations of your breath. You will learn the discipline of reading your own sentences out aloud, repeatedly, in order to test their weight and balance, texture and variation, on the tongue and in the ear. Once more, with feeling. You will learn the creative rewards of rewriting, the surprising lesson that writing is actually about rewriting, no matter how reluctant you might feel to go back and start again, and again, and again. This is the closest you will ever become to being a jazz musician, a person whose entire life revolves around playing, playing today and playing tomorrow, and again the next day, the next week, the next month and the next year. Playing knows no end, and eventually, after a great amount of practice, there are moments in it of such pure joy that you might become completely hooked. This is the kind of writing process I try to model in my own teaching, whether it revolves around translation or creative writing, because both are instances of improvisational rewriting in which the participants want to play, and the rewards of the game are the ultimate joy of playing. Once more, with feeling.

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