Wednesday, November 28, 2007

An immediate, instantaneous grab bag

A friend has often commented to me that she finds the New Yorker conservative and rightwing (this may sound redundant, but I think a case can be made that there are differences between the two). I listened slightly disbelievingly, seeing sort of what she meant in some articles, but hey, Seymour Hersch! Anyway, a belated reading of "The Interpreter," an article on the Pirahã language, spoken by the tribe of the same name in northwestern Brazil, confirmed my friend's opinion.

Actually, saying it was an article on the Pirahã language is erroneous, since the article focuses primarily on American linguistics professor Dan Everett and his efforts to research the language, along the way, possibly disproving Chomsky's theory of a "universal grammar" (the latter which, OK, is interesting). The tribal members themselves and their language remain opaque and "othered" to an extreme extent.

In the very first paragraph, writer John Colapinto establishes that "It is a language so confounding to non-natives that until Everett and his wife, Keren, arrived among the Pirahã, as Christian missionaries, in the nineteen-seventies, no outsider had succeeded in mastering it." With that, he seems to abandon all effort to depict the Pirahã and their language outside of the suffocating prism of Everett, whose entire CV apparently has been encapsulated in the article (we know exactly when he graduated from school and in what, when he got married, how long the hikes he endured through the rainforest were, on and on, ugh). The piece is full of cringe-inducing moments, from the various arrivals of scholar-characters who believe "they knew how to establish an instant rapport with indigenous peoples," by making popping sounds (and eventually presenting contracts to sign that give away all rights to land and oil no doubt) to the last-minute entrance of Everett's ex-wife (that she's an ex is tactfully buried several pages into the article--why? To induce "suspense"?). She's still faithfully plugging away at converting the Pirahã to Christianity (but yet she's the only other character who seems to have insight into their language. By the end, one's desperately thirsty for any opinion other than Everett's, yet she's a total sidenote. And shouldn't, at this point, missionary work among remote holdouts be outlawed, please? Isn't there enough work to be done among the heathens of NYC's East Village?).

I wanted more on this intriguingly present language, more quotes, more "translations" (Heck, I'd even take Everett's). There's only a handful of samples provided in phonetic transcription, or even English "translation." And there's certainly no direct interaction with tribal members, or even much indirect, other than some "evolutionary biologist" (gawd help us) who makes them sit at a computer and watch a monkey head float up and down, a task that's described as something even "undergraduates and monkeys" could do (I pity the eb's students). I truly appreciated the one Pirahã who fell asleep mid-experiment. Anyway, if you want to know what drugs Everett took when he was a teenager, read this article. But if you want an insightful and in-depth and non-patronizing look at the Pirahã and their language, go elsewhere (but don't go visit--it sounds like the Pirahã already have more visitors than they ever need...)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Jean Frémon

A nice review in the new issue of Eileen Tabios's Galatea Resurrects of Jean Frémon's Gloire des formes précédé de Le double corps des images (P.O.L., 2005) by Barry Schwabsky (note to self: Barry Schwabsky reads French; another note: I'm not sure the title is correct; it appears as simply Gloire des formes at P.O.L.). What I also liked: that a review of a non-translated book appears so nonchalantly amid reviews of English-language books, even though the accents (on say, Frémon) come and go.

Perhaps I imagine too much, but this review also seems to enclose themes of translations within translations: Fremon's double-identity as art director (perhaps that would be a triple-identity?) and writer (or another triple as poet and novelist), translating between the two worlds (I was going to say mediums, but the art and literary worlds are truly that). From this selection of Frémon's writings on art, Schwabsky draws only one quote (both in the original French, but also translated into English), but what a quote! It could also be applied to translation:

“On appelle témoin le morceau de bois que les coureurs de relais se passent de main en main. L’histoire de la peinture est peut-être une course relais dans laquelle le témoin est un secret.”

"Témoin is the name of that piece of wood that the runners in a relay race pass from hand to hand. The history of painting is perhaps a relay race in which the témoin is a secret.”

Substitute "translation" for "painting" and see what happens.

Happy thanksgiving!


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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Up Again

I've decided to restart my blog on translation, originally established as part of the "Translate This!" workshop at the Poetry Project at St. Mark's last fall. Alas, my decision was not influenced by popular demand (ha, ha!), but by that I think it's an interesting (at least to me) topic. I'd love it if my fellow translation travellers, particularly the people in the workshop, chimed in once in a while if they've continued any forays into other languages.

My latest translation news is publishing the first page of "The Earth's Horizons" in The Nation. I've been working on translating this text for at least five years. Les horizons du sol is by Michèle Métail, one of the few (if not the only) female members of Oulipo and was published by the cipM, a fantastic poetry center in France that is actually in danger of losing its space due to bureaucratic machinations. The text is a "history" (a term used extremely loosely) of the geological formation of Marseille, which is where the cipM is based, and written 48 characters to a line, 24 lines to a page, with accompanying illustrations.

To translate this text, I've had to discover equivalent geological terms in English, particularly in that many of the terms she uses are specific to the geology of Marseille. I've often thought I should probably have a geologist review my translation to make sure I've gotten all the terms right! My most reliable source has been an old French-English dictionary for chemists--it actually has contained definitions for many of the scientific terms that Métail uses. I then doublecheck the definitions in an English-only dictionary of geological terms. I've found the Larousse to be extremely stilted, and have found the Harrap's online much more useful.

The other challenge has been to preserve the form, and thereby the length of the original. English is a much more concise and compressed language than French, so I've often had to pad out my translation in order to achieve the 48/24 form. Also, Métail did not use any punctuation--the text is basically one long sentence with continuous geological "action," one thing (such as a mountain eroding into a valley) leading to another so I've had to try to fold in many, many "thats" linking sequences together without making the repetition too obvious.

The first page, the one published in The Nation, is the first completed page (with many more to go). I was only able to complete that page, plus page 2 and half of page 3, thanks to a mini-residency at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's Swing Space program, which had no Internet access, so I was literally forced to translate. My dad, Michel Durand, and Olivier Brossard have been my primary native speaker help on the project, letting me know when I've made grievous errors...

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