Overweening Generalist

Friday, June 22, 2012

Translations? A Mid-Sized Armful of Disparate Riffs OR: Does Any Of This Make Sense?

"Many addicts HP basic entry in the work that the reader can't help noting that the formation of the people after the end of the road, which leads to death, hitting something disgusting, as if they were linked to related/human skin. -Michael Chabon (Chinese) (Arabic) (English) (Ukrainian) (Dutch) (English)"

               Novelist Michael Chabon, who just happens to live in Berkeley too

In my previous blogspewage, Prof. Eric Wagner responded in the comments section with a quote from Michael Chabon, which related Joyce's Finnegans Wake to something almost sinister or evil or menacing, as HP Lovecraft's Necronomicon was meant to make us feel. The latter book, while fictional, "is" real on some ontological level - it has some ontological status, I will argue. But this isn't my point, of course. You're reading the OG and you know he digresses like Laurence Sterne on bad acid.

What "is" the first paragraph, above? "Many addicts..."?

It was an experiment in machine translation using Babel Fish. Here's how the first paragraph was derived: I cut Prof. Wagner's quote from Michael Chabon, pasted it into Babel Fish's box, and translated it into Chinese, with a nod to Prof. Searle. I then cut/pasted the Chinese (which I understood exactly zero of, looking at it) into the original translation box, chose the Chinese to be translated into Arabic (more weird characters I didn't have a clue about), and then repeated these iterations, from Arabic to Spanish, Spanish to Ukrainian, Ukrainian to Dutch, and finally, Dutch back into English.

The original quote from Chabon, as given by Wagner, was this:

"A reader steeped in the work of H.P. Lovecraft could not help observing that, to many educated people, there was something unmistakably loathsome about the Wake, a touch of Necronomicon, as though it had been bound in human hide. - Michael Chabon"

                                                       H.P. Lovecraft (d.1937)

I'm guessing the Machine thought "Lovecraft" - at some point - was really "basic entry." Anyway, the translation by Babel Fish was, I thought, ironic, in that, the original subject matter had to do with a novelist's take on Joyce's novel, which most people find the most difficult book to "translate" from Joyce's own Dream-Wake-Language (at times I've called it "Wicklang," for reasons readers of the book might understand) into their own understandings. Chabon further related Joyce's book to Lovecraft, whose profoundly extra-terrestrial, transdimensional forces of appalling indifference to human understanding or suffering suffuse his books. It's as if the Transhumanist's Artificial Intelligence Machines, from the year 2030, combined with Genetics and Nanotechnology, had reached their "singularity," and come back to haunt us with a stark omen for us all: "formation of the people after the end of the road, which leads to death, hitting something disgusting, as if there were linked to/related human skin." But then my ma always said I had a very active inventive complex...

                             Supposedly the small print is the first page?

For the translation going on in my own nervous system (i.e, "speaking for myself"), Chabon's observation has, via an iterated polyglot Babel Fish peregrination, been made far more..."eldritch," to use a word Lovecraft himself used often. And thus, what I see as ironic. 

The Reader (translation: you) may see it differently. If we keep looking at the translated passages, back and forth, we can see where the Machine got its ideas. "Bound in human hide," via its commodius vicus of recirculation via Babel Fish becomes "linked to related/human skin." Readers steeped in HPL's work became "addicts" at some point. Where the Machine got "formation of the people at the end of the road" seems somewhat less clear to me, and therefore qualifies as my favorite part of the translation.

I was actuated to think/write about translation by Prof. Wagner's answer to my question.

                               Russian structuralist linguist semiotician
                               Roman Jakobson (1886-1982) I interpret
                               his expression here as something like:
                              "Wait a minute...did I forget to turn off the 
                               stove before I drove to the library?"

Moving On
Professor Roman Jakobson, the great, great structuralist, said there were three basic types of translation, and I'll give my riffs on each, after you look at Dr. Timothy Leary for a second:

  1. Intralingual: This looks like re-wording. Hope I'm not giving Dr. Jakobson short shrift here. I would give many examples I've gleaned from academics, but I'd rather sit here and wonder about the scads of translations of the Tao Te Ching, supposedly by the Chinese person who history has (at times) named as "Lao-Tzu"...how much has THAT book changed via translation down through the years, travels, languages, changes in semantic understandings, writing systems, etc? To go back to Prof. Wagner's answer: How can I not agree? Let me give perhaps an extreme example, but I think it nevertheless fits my purposes here: Timothy Leary wrote a book called Psychedelic Prayers and Other Meditations. In some definite ways, it's a "loose" (what the hell does that mean?) translation of other previous English translations ("intralingual") of "Lao-Tzu," who was known to have been translated very early on circa 300BCE by syncretists who wished to lessen political factionalism among warring Chinese states. Leary didn't know Chinese. And furthermore, he's using his own syncretistic ideas derived from ethology, psychedelic drug experimentation, diverse religious knowledge and metaphors derived from them, and his PhD in Psychology to concoct a "guidebook" for people in the late 20th century English speaking world...to prepare for psychedelic drug trips. Leary re-worded much of prior English translations of the Tao Te Ching and translated/interpreted for an assumed audience. I think if Jakobson were in my room right now he'd be screaming at me for mis-interpreting what he meant by "intralingual," but then Roman would've been missing the point, my point. I'm a hermeticist anyway! This is what we do...<cue: canned laughter from 1960s TV sitcoms>
  2. Interlingual: I think Jakobson means "translation proper" here. Sorta like what you non-native English speakers are doing right now, as you read this blog. If you were to look at my text here and re-write it "in your own words," - in whatever language - without trying to do "damage" to what you think the OG means, I think you're having at Interlinguality. But then, as Professor Carlin said, when he noted that often in the court of law, a lawyer will tell someone on the witness stand to "tell the court...in your own words..."...this is absurd! No one has their own words! We're all using the same ones everyone else is using! But if you must use "your own words," just go ahead and say them: "Fringly cragit ponchee flooo!" (I suspect Roman would again be all frowny were he here.)
  3. Intersemiotic: As I understand it, Roman Jakobson meant "an interpretation of verbal signs by means of signs of nonverbal sign systems." Hell, that's the interpretation by one of his colleagues that I copied into my notes from some highfalutin' book on Semiotics. I'm not sure and don't remember, but Jakobson may have been able to speak English, and may have actually written those words himself. I don't know. Do you know? Anyway I think he meant something like reading a book of poetry (in translation?) and then doing something like making a painting out of how the poetry made you feel. I'm not entirely sure. You come up with a better interpretation!

Ending The Blog Post
I harken back to one of my favorite living writers, Tom Robbins. In an essay collected in his book, Wild Ducks Flying Backward he writes about how his novels have been translated.  Now, most writers tend to assert something substantial got lost in the translation from their native tongue to the translated one, but Robbins goes on (see pp.209-211) about how he thinks that, sometimes, "literal back-translation" into English has improved his work. Say what you will, but I must applaud Robbins here for his cosmic sense of humor and overall non-graspingness. 

Q: Can loose translations of texts give rise to edifying misreadings? And if so, why? (You may choose to take this course for non-credit.)
                               Tom Robbins, one of my favorite 
                               living prose stylists. Born: 1936. Died: NEVER


PQ said...

Great stuff.

So I take it you DID get to read Chabon's take on Finnegans Wake in the NY Review of Books then?

If not, I'm thinking of posting the full piece on my blog and waiting to see if I get in trouble for it...

michael said...

NO! I saw that Chabon had published an essay on FW in the NYT, so I read it, then got to:

"So it was with a traveled optimism that I accepted my friend’s throw-down that morning, opened the book to its first page …

"This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:"

I'm guessing, given my brief forays into Chabon and some interviews, that he is one of the detractors? It wouldn't surprise me if he savaged it. He's always seemed a tad...precious to me. But I'll think much more highly of him if he gives FW its due.

Having had anchovies on my pizza, I wait with baited breath.

michael said...

There's a gap in my comment, and it's because I used the arrow signs that occupy the comma and period keys. I should've used (the parentheses). Anyway: I hit the damned NYT PAYWALL, which I refuse to buckle to.

Eric Wagner said...

Great stuff, as usual, and thanks for the kind mention. When you discussed Tim's Psychedelic Prayers, I imagined the camera panning to Marlo Thomas as you said, "I translate THAT GIRL."

John Ashberry has an exercise where you try to translate a poem in a language you don't know, just picking out what look like words you can guess a meaning for.

Your discussion of the intersemiotic makes me think of the different interpretations of Macbeth into Verdi's opera and Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood," etc.

Our discussion of Our Lady of Darkness has gotten me thinking. I prefer Leiber and Illuminatus! to Lovecraft in part because I care about the people in the first two more than I do about the characters in Lovecraft. Now, I love Lovecraft. When I quit the insurance company in 1987, I spent a week with my aunt and uncle in Rhode Island, and my aunt and I spent a great day in Providence visiting Lovecraft locations. In eighth grade I started the de Camp bio of Lovecraft. I remember meeting a guy at a bookstore at the mall in junior high school and he lent me The Dream Quest of the Unknown Kadath by HPL and Surrealistic Pillow by the Jefferson Airplane.

I remember reading At the Mountains of Madness in the 80's because of the discussion of that novel and the Law of Fives in Illuminatus! I ordered a pizza and kept on reading, and man I jumped when the pizza guy arrived. I thought the aliens had shown up from Antarctica due my unauthorized astral projection.

I remember when I attended Miskatonic hearing a lecture by Professor Sterne on "Modernism and Sales, or Why Leopold Bloom Sold Ads."

michael said...

I remember when Sterne was an itinerant lecturer, wandering from gig to gig for anyone paying. Eventually he settled at Miskatonic U, no? I recall being on 2-CB and hearing him go on and on about homunculi, and somehow he related it both Chomsky's linguistics and Von Neumann's Catastrophe of the Infinite Regress.

GP Skratz made some interesting translations of the Catholic Mass. Original, then the Translation:

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,
Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt caeli et terra
Gloria tua.
Hosanna in excelsis.
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Hosana in excelsis.

sandwich, sandwich, sandwich.
dynamite plays of savagery.
plenty of quality error
storybook toes.
o zany sin asbestos.
banner pick-ax key bandit anonymous domino.
o zany sin asbestos.


PQ said...

Michael, I posted the Chabon piece on my blog (it's a great article and he does give the Wake its due).

Hurry up and read it before the copyright police come after me!

SatoriGuy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SatoriGuy said...

Great post. And very synchronystic(mystic?)as I've been reading Manhood for Amateurs by Chabon this week. It's not normally the type of non-fiction I would read but the man writes some great sentences.

Similarly, Robbins is a fave of mine and I think RAW once said (about Robbins)that he writes the most beautiful sentences of any living author.

Also, thanks for the link PQ.