Posts Tagged ‘translation’

“Exile is when you live in one land and dream in another”

Saturday, April 17th, 2010
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Abbas Milani (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“Philosophers have said writing is a pharmakon, a cure and a curse, a poison and an antidote,” writes Abbas Milani in Tale of Two Cities: A Persian Memoir.  The book, first published by Mage in 1996, when he was a professor in “the hospitable atmosphere of a small liberal arts college run by the Sisters of Notre Dame,” has been reissued in paperback.

Milani’s book is peppered with references to the way language, thought, and politics mix:

“Language is the source of problems for all revolutions. The structure of language, its ability to conjure memories of the past, interfere with the leveling goal of revolution.  Revolutions invariably strive to erase memory.  Memory, after all, defies the fiction of a totally new beginning. And so the Islamic Republic encouraged a new Arabicized lexicon. Everyday speech became a political act.  …

Revolutions are also about silence. Through a coercive reign of terror, the Islamic Republic milanicoverhad, unwittingly, enriched our language of silence and our society’s lexicon of gestures.  Literary language became more metaphoric and the language of gestures became textured with new layers.  Glances, brow movements, intonations, body language became pregnant with new precise meanings and possibilities. The faces, the crowd, the gestures of Khomeini’s frenzied burial can, I think, only be understood in light of this new vocabulary.”

Iran, after all, is the original home of ketman, which Czesław Miłosz limned in Captive Mind.  It’s not surprising that Shahryar Mandanipour discussed the same topics during a recent visit, with his friend Milani in the front row.  Milani’s remarks also bring to mind another writer’s immortal words on politics and language.

Milani’s remarkable rise to international prominence was described in a 2005 San Francisco Chronicle profile here.  It is hard to exaggerate the importance of Milani in mobilizing the Bay Area Iranian diaspora. I interviewed him last week, but not all questions made it into the final cut. Here’s one, in which Milani modestly neglects to mention his own role in unifying the Iranian diaspora he praises:


How is this Iranian diaspora in the U.S. supporting the movement for democracy in Iran?

The events since last June’s contested presidential election and the participation of millions in disciplined, peaceful, and profoundly uplifting protests have invigorated, and in some ways unified the hitherto divided, often dormant Iranian diaspora.

The first quarter century of Iranian-Americans lives in America was primarily dedicated to establishing for themselves and their families new lives and developing new roots. Just as the community was beginning to look into becoming more politically and socially active, the emergence of the singularly impressive and inspiring democratic movement in Iran acted as a catalyst for this politicizing process. The Moghadam Family’s endowment of our Iranian Studies Program at Stanford, Bita Daryabari’s generous endowment that allows us to vastly expand our ability to teach Persian literature and culture here were clear indications of the community ‘s success and new sense of social responsibility.

Much more can and needs to be done by this diaspora to help with the inevitable transition to democracy in Iran—from helping enrich the debate about Iran here in America to sending a strong message of support to those fighting for democracy inside the country. Many community leaders are working hard to map out a strategy for this auspicious beginning.

Here’s another exchange that didn’t make the final cut:

Some fear that any reaction from us at all to support Iran’s democracy movement will backfire on the dissidents – that they be seen as foreign stooges, and the U.S government further demonized as the great Satan.

The Iranian regime is bent on accusing the West of interfering in Iran’s domestic affairs, and on dismissing dissent as nothing but a concoction of the West, or America. Before them, the Shah too accused his critics and opponents of being “agents” of foreign powers. Ironically, when leaders of this regime were part of the opposition to the Shah—1963-1979—they consistently demanded that the West, and America in particular, cease their support for the Shah and offer political and moral support to the opposition. Now when the Iranian opposition asks the world for the same kind of moral support, the regime accuses them of “serving imperialism.” It also accuses the Obama administration of “interfering” in Iran’s domestic affairs when it offers any support for Iran’s suppressed democrats.

A melancholy sweetness hangs over many of his memories of Iran, inviting inevitable comparisons from his second city on the West Coast:  “Here, lovers are lonely monads, guarding turfs, who quickly ‘get on with a new life’ when the old love proves impractical.  In English, we ‘fall’ in love, whereas in Persian we ‘become’ in love.”  (Translator Dick Davis echoes many of the same sentiments — I’ve written about him here.)

“Exile is when you live in one land and dream in another,” writes Milani. “I am now a permanent exile.  I write in both English and Persian.  Persian connects me to my past, English is the language of my future.”

“A lesson in how couples should get along”

Friday, March 26th, 2010
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Joseph and Marguerite Straus Frank (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

One of the more memorable images from the recent Pevear and Volokhonsky talk earlier this month:  Joseph Frank, perhaps the world’s leading expert on Fyodor Dostoevsky, listening attentively in the front row, leaning forward, chuckling, hugging his cane, with his wife, Marguerite Straus Frank, at his side.

I caught Joe before his last class with a small group of a  half-dozen or so students, and asked him what he thought of the translation duo’s gig.  “I knew them twenty years ago in Paris.  He was a translator from the French – of Bonnefoy,”  he recalled.  “I saw him on and off during the Paris years.  Suddenly, he showed up as a translator of Russian with a wife.”

The class asked him about his own latest, a condensation of the thousand-page Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time — Mary Petrusewicz was recruited to condense the book, he said, since “I couldn’t bear the idea of cutting it myself.” He recalled it was “the heaviest book at the book celebration.”

What do you think of Steven Cassedy’s Dostoevsky’s Religion? Do you know him?” another student asked.

“Yes, Stephen Cassedy was once my T.A.,” he said, and gave a characteristic cackle.

He remembered the young Irish-American teaching assistant — also the author of To the Other Side: The Russian Jewish Intellectuals Who Came to America and Building the Future, Jewish Immigrant Intellectuals and the Making of Tsukunft — taking the trouble to learn Yiddish.

“I was impressed by that fact, since his name is ‘Cassedy’” — commented the Jewish nonagenarian from New York City.

And Joe disagrees with me, regarding my earlier remarks about the effectiveness of translating in rhyme and meter.  “Rhymes highjack the poetry,” he said.  (Not so:  Think Richard Wilbur.  Think Anthony Hecht.  Think Sir Charles Johnston, who inspired Vikram Seth‘s masterful novel-in-Pushkinian verse, The Golden Gate.)

Joe noted the upcoming Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (can we wait?)  And perhaps Nicolai Leskov is in their future, as they mentioned in a 2007 Barnes & Noble interview:

Barnes & Noble:  Is there any writer in that period in Russia who readers of English don’t know about at all?

Volokhonsky: Well, it’s not that you don’t know him at all. He is known but only a little in the West, and partly owing to the fact that he is very difficult to translate. His prose is so rooted, so bound with the element of Russian language that it really is hard to convey its qualities in English.

Pevear: Do you have a name?

Volokhonsky: Yes, the name! [LAUGHS] Nikolai Leskov. He has been translated. He has been translated, inevitably, very poorly, and his translations go out of print, then someone revives them, and the cycle repeats itself.

Pevear: It’s the same book that keeps moving from publisher to publisher. If he’s known, it’s for the story that is the basis of the Shostakovich opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. It’s a great story.

Barnes & Noble: Are you going to rectify Leskov’s neglect in the West?

Pevear: We are going to try.

Barnes & Noble: Is there one book in particular that represents his best work?

Pevear: No. He wrote short stories. Well, he wrote longish short stories. And one big chronicle called Cathedral Folk. Slavist teachers are always in agony, because there’s no Leskov for them to use with their students. For Russians, he’s almost equal to Tolstoy. He’s very high. Some people like him even more.

Volokhonsky: But I think it’s exaggeration.

Pevear: He’s the least Western. He’s the least open to Western influences. He’s very Russian. But he’s an extraordinary writer. We’re going to try.

Back to Joe, recalling the visit of the husband-and-wife translating team:  “I was very impressed with their act,” he said.  “A lesson on how couples should get along.” One might say the same of the Franks, pictured here.

“Deliver us from laziness, discouragement, mistranslation…”

Thursday, March 11th, 2010
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Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear

The husband-and-wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky take their roles as translators with the high seriousness of a calling.  No surprise.

They have made acclaimed translations of Gogol, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. David Remnick  featured them in a New Yorker article here.  The translating team’s Anna Karenina was reviewed in the same magazine here; James Wood discussed the Pevear and Volokhonsky War and Peace here.

They also have perfected their road act — as they demonstrated last night in Stanford’s History Corner.  He, the bearded, bear-like master of the double-take; she, the chic and understated matron. They promised us an unbuttoned conversation.  “We’ll yell,” said Pevear.  They didn’t.  In fact, their shtick was well-honed and sophisticated.

And a little bit unbuttoned.  They discussed their problems with publishers’ editors.  “They told us our Tolstoy should be reader-friendly,” she said.

“They feed a text into a machine for ‘readability.’  They said it had too many long sentences,” he said.

“That’s right,” Volokhonsky countered.  “Tolstoy has too many long sentences.”  Volokhonsky recalled an eminent editor who “made us miserable for a very long time.  A year.”

“We crushed her,” said Peavear.

“But it took a year,” she qualified. “We mostly have very good editors.  They keep quiet.”

“To sum it up, our loyalty is with the author, not reader,” said Volokhonsky.

On one point I respectfully disagree with Pevear, who defended their choice for free-verse translations of Pasternak’s poems in the forthcoming (October) Doctor Zhivago.  Disagreeing with Alexander Etkind‘s and Joseph Brodsky‘s insistence on repeating rhyme patterns and metrical schemes, Pevear said that he had opted for “song – something that lives poetically.”

“The search for rhyme distorts all the rest,” he said, making too many translations sound like  “third-rate Tennyson.”  To which I can only argue with two words:  Richard Wilbur.  Well, four words:  Anthony Hecht.  Brodsky’s Nativity Poems has a number of gorgeous translations — from Glyn Maxwell, among others.

Any surprises?  I had not expected the silver hair.  I had seen her as a young Russian beauty, him as the glamorous poet-cum-translator.  This is proof, of course, that I cannot add.  Their Brothers Karamazov was published nearly twenty years ago — that alone would prohibit extreme youth.  (Moreover, the New Yorker article had warned me that they were a mature couple in their sixties.)

Here’s another surprise:  I didn’t know, until the Russian team told me, that St. Jerome, who translated the Hebrew into the  Vulgate Bible, is the patron saint of translators. Valery Larbaud (1881-1957) even wrote an invocation to Jerome, begging that the Croatian saint “deliver us from laziness, discouragement, mistranslation, and the pernicious suggestions of bilingual dictionaries.”

“Kotodama”

Friday, February 19th, 2010
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manyolusterKotodama: The spirit of language, the magical power that adheres to language.

In a nation where so few learn second languages, some may consider Ian Hideo Levy’s experience a  warning:  the Berkeley-born author picked up a passion for Japanese language and literature.  Then “a kind of crazy schizophrenic drive probably brought me to the point of writing Japanese.”

Now he holds the distinction of being the only gaijin to write award-winning books in Japanese.

“I haven’t spoken publicly in English for 20 years,” he told a largely Asian audience last week at the Humanities Center (20 years would put it back to the time he left a tenured position as a Stanford prof to move to Tokyo).  The audience laughed.  “This sounds like a very understanding audience, so I think this will go well.”

“I’ve said in lectures in Japan, when I was in my twenties if there if were a pill I could take to become a Japanese writer, I would have taken it.” Instead, he said, “it was a process that went on for twenty years.”

It seems “kind of silly and stupid” to him now.  Recalling his youthful illusions, he said, “I probably had a very arrogant feeling that I could become what people around me described as ‘Japanese.’  My sincerity, my youth, allowed me to believe this would happen,” he said.

“It was probably a very impure desire, from point of view of language.  I’ve gone beyond that.”

He settled for translation at first:  He began work on Man’yōshū (万葉集 “The 10,000  Leaves”), with its waka, an ancient form of poetry in a 7-5-7-5 syllabic 51qEDT6fXhL._AA240_pattern.  “Part of me was in the 7th and 8th century, the other part of me was in late 20th century Tokyo,”  he recalled.

But one voice stood out at about the point when he began to run out of “stock deification words” for describing the court rituals with the emperor-god.  “Once you go to heaven you may do as you please, but on earth, you do as the emperor wishes” almost jumped from the page. The words belonged not to the ritual Japanese praise, but to Asian continental thought — and to the 8th century poet who wrote them.

Kotodama had led him through time to a kindred spirit: the early poet Yamanoue no Okura (660–733 A.D.).  Recent research has revealed that the famous Japanese composer of court waka was, in fact, Korean – so Levy isn’t the first acclaimed gaijin writer.

His translation of the Japan’s masterpiece  anthology earned him a National Book Award in 1982.
It also led to an unanticipated consequence:  the author Kenji Nakagami wrote that Levy’s writing was good, but that he should write in Japanese next.

So he did. His debut novel in Japanese, Seijoki no kikoenai heya (A Room Where the Star-Spangled Banner Cannot be Heard) received the Noma Prize for New Writers in 1992.  Other awards followed:  the Osaragi Jiro Prize for Chiji ni kudakete in 2005; the Japan Foundation Special Prize for Japanese Language in 2007, and the Ito Sei Prize for Literature for Kari no mizu last year.

“One begins writing because one reads something, and one wants to try oneself and see if one can write,” he said, in his slightly formal diction that is no longer quite at ease before English-speakers.

Now he’s reached a new turning point: “One who was a translator has become translated.” He just signed a contract for the first Chinese translation of his work.

And a forthcoming English translation of Levy’s debut novel, translated as Ando’s Room and Other Stories, by Christopher Scott, is forthcoming.

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