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All translations are evil I: addendum

A native German speaker read my previous post on translating a short story from Kafka and offered a few very interesting critiques, illustrating the flaws of what I offered at the end of the last post, and proving better than I did the issues that plague translation. Here are a few of his critiques:

  1. By adding a semicolon in the mouse’s long sentence, I slow down its harried, claustrophobic quality. I also do this by choosing ‘rapidly’ instead of ‘quickly’ for ‘schnell’, adding two syllables onto the German one, and creating a word that serves as a stumbling block for the mouse, who we should imagine is speaking fairly quickly. Likewise, while ‘into which I am running’ preserves the tense of the German, it is clumsy for the same reason ‘rapidly’ is. ‘Am running’ again is three syllables where the German (‘laufe’) is only one.
  2. While my critique of the Muirs’ translation of ‘eilen aufeinander zu’ is correct, mine is subject to the opposite problem. Where they suggest movement that has stopped, mine suggests actual physical movement pretty definitely, whereas the German is somewhat ambiguous here and may only mean the way the walls would converge in the distance (a fact of perspective). I am not sure how to preserve that sense in English, and the best I may be able to say about what I have is that it is a better travesty than the Muirs’. (It also suffers from the same clunkiness problem.)
  3. The ending in Kafka is very abrupt. By translating ‘Laufrichtung’ as ‘direction you run’, I slow things down and place undue emphasis on the ‘Lauf’ (‘you run’). Similarly, my word order of ‘you have only to’ is complex where the cat’s ‘du mußt nur’ is very direct.

On the basis of these critiques, a revision of my translation:

“Oh,” said the mouse, “the world is becoming narrower with every day. At first it was so broad that I was afraid, I ran along and was happy that I finally saw walls to the right and left in the distance, but these long walls hasten together so quickly that I am already in the last chamber, and there in the corner stands the trap, into which I run.” — “You must only change direction,” said the cat, and ate it.

But this, too, I am sure, is still evil, if less so.

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All Translations are Evil I: Kafka

2013/07/28 13 comments

A friend of mine once explained to me the two unbreakable rules of reading translated works (particularly literary works). They are: (1) Do not ever, under any circumstances, read translations. (2) Since you will not follow the first rule, make sure you get the best translation available. This summer, I’ve been learning to read German, and the experience has made me realize the full force of the first rule. I want to give an example that I’ve encountered; a case where a translation has wreaked havoc on the original text. The moral—don’t read translations—is old hat. But I hope the route taken to get there may be of some interest.

Franz Kafka wrote a number of very short stories, many only a single paragraph. One of these is called “Kleine Fabel” (Little Fable). The translation I know is by Willa and Edwin Muir, and that’s what I want to look at here.

First, the German text (Kafka, Sämtliche Erzählungen, Anaconda Verlag, p. 502):

“Ach”, sagte die Maus, “die Welt wird enger mit jedem Tag. Zuerst war sie so breit, daß ich Angst hatte, ich life weiter und war glücklich, daß ich endlich rechts und links in der Ferne Mauern sah, aber diese langen Mauern eilen so schnell aufeinander zu, daß ich schon im letzten Zimmer bin, und dort im Winkel steht die Falle, in die ich laufe.” – “Du mußt nur die Laufrichtung ändern”, sagte die Katze und fraß sie.

The Muir translation reads as follows (Kafka, Complete Stories, Schocken Books):

“Alas,” said the mouse, “the world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when at last I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.” “You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it up.

When I first read the story, in this translation, I could not make much sense of the cat’s advice. The image of the world getting smaller and smaller, forcing the mouse into the trap, I understood. But how could the mouse change direction? If the world is getting smaller—the sense here is that it is closing in on the mouse on all sides—what direction could it run? How could it change direction? As we shall see, not only is the sense of the cat’s question obscured, so is the full impact of the cat eating the mouse also obscured.

It turns out that the German text says not, “the world is growing smaller every day,” but rather, “the world [die Welt] is becoming [wird] narrower [enger] with every day [mit jedem Tag].” Note also that the Muir’s changed the verb from ‘becoming’ to ‘growing’.) The world “becoming narrower” and the world “growing smaller” are two quite distinct things. To grow smaller suggests, as I indicated above, to be decreasing in all dimensions. To become narrower, by contrast, suggests only that the sides are pressing together, and not that every dimension is contracting. With this change, my puzzle is resolved. When the walls narrow, it creates a path (the space between the walls) that is in effect one-dimensional: the mouse has no space to do anything except run in one or the other direction. The mouse, running in one direction, feels it must run into the trap. The cat’s advice, now perfectly sensible, is simply to run in the other direction. And Kafka’s joke is, of course, that in the other direction lies the cat: cat or trap, those are the only options.

Why should the Muirs have chosen to translate that sentence in that fashion? I confess to being somewhat at a loss, since my proposed emendation is about as close to strictly literal as a translation can be. Why introduce interpretation that makes the story less comprehensible, given that interpretative changes like that are usually justified on the grounds that they better capture the author’s “sense”? (Here I am sympathetic to Nabokov’s scathing comments on translators who prefer preserving sense to preserving literality.) The best reason I’ve come up with (other than the Hail Mary guess: the Muirs were working with a deficient German text) is that they had already used the word ‘narrow’ later in the translation, and didn’t want to use it here, since Kafka doesn’t use the same word in those two places.

For the German phrase, “aber diese langen Mauern eilen so schnell aufeinander zu,” the Muirs have, “but these long walls have narrowed so quickly.” But this only raises the question: why would the Muirs translate this sentence in this fashion? Here’s what I would propose: “but these long walls hasten toward one another so rapidly.” The German verb ‘zueilen’ (which takes an indirect object with the preposition ‘auf’) means ‘to hasten to’. ‘Aufeinander’ contains the requisite preposition, plus ‘einander’, which means ‘one another’ or ‘each other.’ Nothing that translates as “to narrow” appears. The Muirs have replaced the very evocative sense of the walls hastening toward one another with the more mundane sense of the walls narrowing. Even worse, they have changed the tense: the German is in the present tense, but the translation is in the present perfect. This suggests that the action (the walls hastening together) is already completed, when in fact it is ongoing. The mouse does not live in a narrowed world, but a narrowing world—and the difference is not at all trivial.

If the world has completed its narrowing, then the mouse’s sense of having to run into the trap is difficult to understand. If the walls are not hastening together, why the rush? Why must the mouse run and run? If the world is stable, that seems unnecessary. We understand the mouse’s sense of compulsion if we understand that the walls are still narrowing: now we see that the mouse is running from them, trying to escape that narrowing, and feels he is being forced into the corner. That is why the cat’s advice is both pertinent and, given the cat’s subsequent action, amusing. By changing the tense, the sense of Kafka’s piece is again obscured.

The Muirs do compensate for this, when they translate, “die Falle, in die ich laufe,” as “the trap that I must run into.” In the German, there is no “must”: it simply says, “the trap, into which [in die] I [ich] am running [laufe].” In Kafka’s German, the sense of compulsion is not in the mouse’s consciousness (where the Muirs put it), but in the scenario itself. By mistranslating the scenario in a way that this sense is entirely lost, the Muirs must then replace it in the mouse’s consciousness. But that is not Kafka’s story.

Here, then, is how I’d translate the entire story:

“Oh,” said the mouse, “the world is becoming narrower with every day. At first, it was so broad that I was afraid; I ran along and was happy that I finally saw walls to the right and left in the distance, but these long walls hasten toward one another so rapidly that I am already in the final chamber, and there in the corner stands the trap, into which I am running.” – “You have only to change the direction you run,” said the cat, and ate it.

Most of the other differences from the Muirs’ translation are fairly minor (though not necessarily trivial), and in most cases I think I am simply being more literal.

This is maybe not the best case to illustrate the general problems of translation, since I think in this case the Muirs lost Kafka’s meaning by translating non-literally where they had no need of doing so. Thus it less illustrates the principled failures of translation and more suggests that this is simply a bad translation. Nevertheless, this case (and the other Kafka stories I’ve looked at) has served to make me much more skeptical of translations than I ever was before. I paid lip service to the horrifying nature of translation, but, now that I’ve seen firsthand how it can and does go wrong, I think I shall be keeping much more strictly to my friend’s first rule and shall let the second rule rot in storage.

Treefingers: Aleksandr Sokurov

I have just posted an essay on Sokurov’s Mother and Son (a magnificent film) on ProjectTreefingers. I discuss the way the film blurs boundaries and edges to create a sense of intimacy and in-betweenness.

Treefingers: Béla Tarr

I have a new essay on Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse and Werckmeister Harmonies over at projecttreefingers.

Realism and idealism as medicine

2013/07/17 6 comments

Some of my current scholarly work (which generally does not make it on here) is focused on debates over scientific realism and anti-realism. I am interested not just in the arguments for and against scientific realism, but also in the role that realist and anti-realist attitudes play in various practices (of scientists, of governments, of funding committees, of the general public, etc.). This latter portion of my interest intensifies the more I study the arguments themselves, since I have yet to find any major argument that’s truly compelling. Hence my interest in the uses of realism and anti-realism, whether rhetorical, methodological, political, or otherwise.

Scientific realism is of course not the same as metaphysical realism (nor are their antitheses comparable). Nonetheless I suspect that the same questions might be fruitfully applied in the latter domain as I discussed for the former. Here I want to look at a way that Emerson uses metaphysical idealism and metaphysical realism as antidotes to certain illnesses: respectively, crass materialism and idle pedantry. I will focus on the essays “Nature” and “Literary Ethics”, relying on the Library of America volume of his Essays and Lectures. All page references are to that volume.

Perhaps Emerson’s most notorious quote comes from “Self-Reliance”: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” (265) Much of this notoriety derives from irresponsible quoters who neglect the essential “foolish”, though even the more conscientious magpies still usually neglect to provide the equally crucial definition of ‘consistency’ given two paragraphs above: “a reverence for our past act or word.” I bring up this quote because, in “Literary Ethics”, Emerson praises realism, precisely that metaphysical view that he rejects in “Nature”, in which he defends idealism at length. I hope to show why the apparent inconsistency is in fact a mere rejection of a foolish consistency for the sake of a higher consistency. I want to emphasize the medicinal properties Emerson attributes to realism and to idealism.

In chapter VI of “Nature”, Emerson embarks on a defense of idealism, running through the ways in which “motion, poetry, physical and intellectual science, and religion, all tend to affect our convictions of the reality of the external world.” (38) But, having reached this conclusion, that all of culture points us to idealism, Emerson takes a step back. “I have no hostility to nature, but a child’s love to it.” The purpose of culture, in bringing us to idealism, is to make the mind “call that apparent, which it uses to call real, and that real, which it uses to call visionary.” Emerson raises this point as a prelude to his next thought, which concerns the value of idealism: “The advantage of the ideal theory over the popular faith, is this, that it presents the world in precisely that view which is most desirable to the mind. […] For, seen in the light of thought, the world always is phenomenal; and virtue subordinates it to the mind.” (39) The value of idealism is thus that it lets us see the world as malleable, lets us see ourselves as possessing the freedom to conform the world to virtue, which freedom lies at the basis of our dignity. It is on the basis of idealism that “the soul holds itself off from a too trivial and microscopic study of the universal tablet.”

We see idealism standing opposed to certain linked behavioral tendencies. Emerson has called idealism true, to be sure, but if the way he ends the chapter is any indication, he places more worth on the link between idealism and this behavior than on idealism as a well-wrought metaphysics. Idealism is an antidote to certain dangers: to the danger of immersing oneself in the means of the world and missing its ends, of building up a stockpile of knowledge and neglecting to develop the self-reliance to use it in dignified ways, and the danger of being trapped by the world, of seeing it not as malleable but as constraining. (I discussed this malleability somewhat in my post on the transparent eye-ball.)

In “Literary Ethics”, by contrast, we find Emerson promoting realism. The main body of the essay consists of three parts: (i) a discussion of the resources available to the scholar, (ii) a discussion of the subject of scholarship, and (iii) a discussion of the (ascetic) discipline of the scholar. Before this, however, Emerson warns of a particular danger the scholar risks falling into: pedantry. Emerson writes:

The scholar may lose himself in schools, in words, and become a pedant; but when he comprehends his duties, he above all men is a realist, and converses with things. For, the scholar is the student of the world, and of what worth the world is, and with what emphasis it accosts the soul of man, such is the worth, such is the call of the scholar. (96)

Pedantry is a specter hovering over scholarship. The scholar may lose all touch with the things themselves, getting lost in an endless exchange of words, words tumbling over words until, if meaning itself is not lost, at least any sense of a point seems to go missing. This is, in a way, the opposite flaw to the crass materialism discussed above: where that error sees no freedom, no possibility of the new, this error sees too much freedom. It becomes detached from the world, until it spins frictionlessly in a void (to borrow a beautiful phrase from John McDowell’s Mind and World). Realism is the antidote to this error, a return to the things themselves, to the world.

This illustrates an overarching tendency in Emerson’s thought. Emerson skillfully navigates the tension between freedom and necessity. On the one hand he sees human dignity as lying in his particular conception of human freedom as our ability to act creatively. On the other he thinks that creative acts all grasp the same universal truth, a truth that is eternal and not new. Freedom, for Emerson, has nothing in common with anarchy, with “anything goes”, but instead is yoked to the harshest necessity. Because of this—and this is another constant theme in Emerson—our freedom is unstable, constantly at risk of being lost. We may fall too far into necessity, into the crass materialism that denies any possibility of the new, or we may fall too far into freedom, into creation that makes no contact with the world and so is of no value. We walk a narrow ridge, with an abyss on either side. Realism and idealism are what pull us back when we start to fall. Their role in Emerson is medicinal.