Saturday, December 10, 2005

My fallible brain gets lost in translation. So far I have gone to three Christmas parties and other events at which free alcohol is served, and I end up having conversations with people which begin, "I was reading somewhere, I can't remember where..." or "Yeah, I was talking to someone recently about that - now who was it?"

Perhaps this says more about my approach to social interaction than anything else: I use my daily media consumption and personal interactions to build a database of interesting conversational topics which I draw upon in subsequent interactions. The trouble is that my memory isn't as reliable as a searchable database, and it has no disambiguation function. So, for example, if Virginia is talking about her brother's exchange student, I start entering "exchange student" humorous into my brain-database and say "Oh yeah, did your brother turn him gay?"

Virginia looks confused and I realise my brain has mistakenly cross-referenced her story about the Jewish-French exchange student who went on a rampage of Australian pork products and hot chicks before dooming Virginia's brother to a stay with his hardcore Orthodox family, with Nicole's story about the straight American exchange student whom she introduced to partying, and who returned to the States as a liberal homosexual.

But I am quite proud of my brain in other ways. For example, when I first watched the video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller" I was dismayed and thought "There's no way I can ever learn this." But now, there is a part of my brain that knows the dance routine perfectly and will never forget it. In the same way, it has been fifteen years since I began learning poems in French to recite for the Alliance Française competition, yet I can still recite all the ones I learned perfectly. Here they are.

"La Puce" de Robert Clausard
"Le Milliardaire" de Jean Tardieu
"Il Faut Aussi Etre Très Poli Avec La Terre" (de Soyez Poli) de Jacques Prévert
"Les Roses de Saadi" de Marceline Desbordes-Valmore
Le Monde Est Trépidant de Trains et de Navires" (de La Conquête) de Emile Verhaeren
"Des Fruits, Nathanael, Que Te Dirais-Je?" (de Nourritures Terrestres) de André Gide
"Septembre" de Claude Roy

I had to google them in order to paste the right accents in, because this computer doesn't have accents, and I noticed that many of them are actually excerpts from longer poems, and the versions I learned had lines edited out. Although I loved "Septembre", my favourite poem was Les Roses de Saadi. Due to a photocopying error, our entire class thought the author's name was Valmorc and was only enlightened by the examiner.

The translation is my own shonky work and aims to give a sense of the poem's rhythm rather than an exact rendition of each word, so mangez merde if you don't like it.

"Les Roses de Saadi"
de Marceline Desbordes-Valmore

J'ai voulu ce matin te rapporter des roses ;
Mais j'en avais tant pris dans mes ceintures closes
Que les nouds trop serrés n'ont pu les contenir.

Les nouds ont éclaté. Les roses envolées
Dans le vent, à la mer s'en sont toutes allées,
Elles ont suivi l'eau pour ne plus revenir ;

La vague en a paru rouge et comme enflammée.
Ce soir, ma robe encore en est tout embaumée...
Respires-en sur moi l'odorant souvenir.

I wanted this morning to bring you some roses;
But I'd taken so many in my belts' closures
That the too-tight knots couldn't hold every bloom.

The knots burst. The roses flew away
In the wind, to the sea they all went astray
They followed the water, never to return;

The wave appeared red, and as if set alight.
My dress is still all embalmed by it tonight...
Breathe it on me, a memory in perfume.

I have been thinking about translation a bit recently. Just today I finished reading Platform by Michel Houellebecq, and I'm also reading an anthology of folk tales collected by the Brothers Grimm. (Everone familiar with my lame reading habits has asked me slyly, "There wouldn't be a film about this out at the moment?") You may recall that I was a little obsessed with fairytales a while ago. Anyway, I took great intellectual pleasure in picking up the repeated motifs between the stories, and in reading the introductory essay, which first looked at the narrative form and the motifs, then at the historical context in which the Grimms collected them, then at the working relationship between the two brothers and the differences between editions, and finally at the psychoanalytic and Marxist readings of the tales.

But what grabbed me was when the editor/translator said "This is the first edition of the tales to be written in everyday, twentieth-century English". I looked at the front of the book and the edition was first published in 1982, so it is perhaps a little out of date. But it struck me how much we take translation for granted, and what a difficult task the translator has: balancing the need to convey the author's precise word usage with the need to create a similar literary style in another language. I only realised it in a small way when I was translating that poem. I remember that the foreign language versions of The Simpsons struggle with the show's famous neologisms.

I am sure some academically inclined readers have specific examples of crappy translations of continental theory, but I discussed this over coffee with my new housemate Natalya, whose PhD deals with psychoanalysis so she's reading a lot of Freud and Lacan. She said that many key terms were mistranslated in English editions, and as a result a lot of the Screen theory of the 1970s was based on quicksand. And I remember from when I went through my disastrous attempt to 'get' Deleuze, that Claire Colebrook wrote how difficult it was to convey Deleuze and Guattari's wordplay in English.

J'aime les histoires.

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