An Imperfect Classic

The subject of literature in translation always fascinates me. Remember what Ezra Pound said,

English literature lives on translation, it is fed by translations, every new exuberance, every new heave is stimulated by translations, every allegedly great age is an age of translations, beginning with Geoffrey Chaucer.

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The Picaresque

If you study literature you will come across the narrative form called the Picaresque. These episodic, usually naughty yet humorous works of extended prose started in Spain in the 16th century. The name comes from the “picaro” who was the hero, or anti-hero of the work. The picaro was a bit of a rogue, in and out of adventures, petty larceny, loose or easily won-over women, and always with a sense of humor and a salty tongue. Don Quixote is really a picaresque that got out of hand and turned itself into something new … or novel.

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Translations, Slang and Other Groovy Things

The subject comes up so often I have to apologize in advance if you’ve heard all my views on this subject before. Even so, it’s good to revisit old opinions with new brain cells.

The subject came up in an online reading group which specializes in reading French literature in translation, that a novel using slang or street speech cannot be read in translation without changing the essence of the novel from being French to being British or American or name-your-country. It was furthermore suggested that the era in which the translation was done might result in an inadvertent silliness when read today (highly dependent on the number of times the author writes “groovy”).

I contend that both suppositions are not well thought out. First the question of the argot being the essence of a country’s language and therefore vital to maintaining the, in this case, French-ness of the literary work and not transforming it into an American novel with French locales.

I agree that the slang expressions in any language are often very unique to that language and important to fully understand the specific culture of that country. However, this is becoming less and less important:  many of the slang expressions are just localized versions of the same expressions developed in other countries. But even more significant, there is really no codification of street-speak even in a single country. Take a break-dancer from The Bronx and send him to a rodeo down in Texas. I suspect that Paris has a whole different set of slang expressions than exists in a small Provençal village. Besides, some of the best slang is quick to expire and terms like “faire la nique” or “going to third base at the submarine races” become dated and silly whether they are in English, American, French, or German.

The problem with much of literature is that it takes a snapshot of the culture of a country and doesn’t change. Remember that old photo of Aunt Minnie with the curly hair, and the seam up the back of her stockings? Look at Minnie today:  only the teeth look new. So should we replace the picture of Minnie in the album every few years to keep it up-to-date or should we just enjoy the nostalgia of a time-gone-by? If we insist that idioms and slang should be acceptable to a current reader, why don’t we also insist on updating other things:  the surrey with the fringe on top gets changed into a Chevy with Tuck & Roll (or is that too dated also?). But they didn’t fight at Agincourt using drones and rapid-fire cannons, nor did they consider “friendly fire” or “collateral damage.” I am comfortable reading about longbows, varlets, chastity … all those obscure things from the past.

I took Cervantes at the university from Walter Starkie and his lecture on Don Quixote started out discussing the dilemma whether he should accurately translate a 16th century idiomatic expression or whether it would be best to substitute a well-known modern idiom which is used in English to give the same sense. He chose the English, or in his case probably Irish, expression. The irony is that whether the original Spanish “rashers and eggs” or the more modern English “tripe and trouble” expression was used, how many readers understand the idiom today? Think of it:  it fifty or sixty years, or maybe even centuries, students will stop to read the gloss in their copy of Gravity’s Rainbow to help them identify and relate to some obscure event called World War II … in fact, there is current evidence that this era is fading from memory as we speak (although the War of Northern Aggression is still keenly remembered here in South Carolina).

Here I pause to consider the changes to language thrust at us by the internet. Did you ever say “Laughing out loud and rolling of the floor” in your life under any circumstances? Well, now you find LOLAROTF being an acceptable response to almost anything that even mildly smacks of humor. Imagine when publishing moves totally onto the digital platform and novels use this ephemeral short-form language to conserve download time and conform to the six-second attention span of the reader … I recommend burying a few real books in the backyard so future generations will dig them up a have a groovy experience reading them.