Friday, January 13, 2012

Three Thoughts on Translation, Elation, and Relation (Part 3)

Part 1 here, Part 2 here.


January 4, 2012. After two days of apocalyptic spring, the Boston temperature dove into the single digits, a development I wasn't aware of when I left my parents' house with hair still shower-wet. It froze almost immediately as I ran my downtown errands, using my brand-new iPhone to navigate the quirky streets of the city where I was born but where now, after six years of only occasional visits, I remembered mostly images, not directions.

A T-ride later, I was back in Newton, that upright, high-strung suburb of professional parents and ambitious offspring steeped in the last dregs of old-school New England reserve. After a family dinner, I picked up my friend Kate and went with her to see "Young Adult" at the local indy movie theater. (Kate, who studies film in Denmark, is by far the best movie companion I've known.) We were both on break from grad school, and, just like the film's morose protagonist, visiting a hometown that felt vaguely foreign. After the movie, I drove Kate back to her parents' house and she invited me in.

The Krosschell home is my favorite in Newton. Their three-story house, perched on a tiny dead end street, is deep green on the outside and utterly cozy on the inside. From the porch, you can peer into a warmly-lit living room, where someone is almost always reading on the couch pushed up against the wide window. Mia, a quiet, inquisitive mini black poodle greets you at the door. On visits in recent years, Kate and I have broken from our teenage habit of escaping immediately to the chilly basement, pausing instead to chat with a parent in the living room. Cindy and Jim, both writers, have excellent reading recommendations and always seem genuinely interested in my literary-world wanderings.

Tonight, though, the living room was empty with the exception of a full, crystal-lit Christmas tree. Kate made tea and we ensconced ourselves in a couple of comfortable old armchairs. I set my mug on a coffee table next to a stack of New Yorkers, a couple short story collections, and a literary magazine I didn't know.

Since middle school, my conversations with Kate have been littered with French words, phrases, sentences. She was always better at the language than I was -- all the more after she spent a year in Paris, and then another in Normandy -- but we could generally understand each other. Until this night. At first, I thought I had just lost my French through lack of practice. But the new phrases in her speech weren't French; they were Danish, the language she is learning in Copenhagen. Usually, seeing my puzzled look, Kate would stop and explain the meaning of her new words; occasionally I had to ask. Kate was, of course, ecstatic in Denmark, in love with the language, excited about her new roommates, and still passionate about film. "Passionate" is a good descriptor for Kate in general. Passionnée. Lidenskabelig (according to Google translator). She was clearly still "young and idealistic," a curious phrase she has used to describe herself for years, as though anticipating some sudden collapse into cynicism.

My own brand of idealism, marked by rare but delirious minor revelations, hasn't fared as well. Certain things in life have been very good, but the isolation of grad school -- the pomposity and ultimate vapidity of too many things -- the sense of years slipping, of time evaporating unrealized -- these continue to grate. In uninterrupted English, I told Kate about dinner at a professor's house at the end of the fall semester. Maybe it came to mind because that house had much in common with Kate's -- same antique feel, same preponderance of books and literate magazines, same reliance on un-showy, eminently comfortable furniture. Instead of Mia, a sociable gray cat; instead of two tall blond daughters, an energetic young son and sweet toddler daughter. But the engagement with culture -- and specifically, the studied vaunting of culture over money, the determined emphasis on the home as a place for quiet reading rather than sensory indulgence -- this was the same.

At table were the six seminar students, my professor and her professor husband, and her children. My professor, a sharp scholar with an elephant memory and waifish figure, sat to my left. We discussed finals stress, our plans for reproduction (all female students; make of it what you will), and our individual family lives. All of us were feeling the shock of domestic stability after a semester of hunkering in our inherently temporary apartments, in our inherently temporary lives. And so our minds leaped back to the domesticities we had once known.

At some point, the toddler transitioned from her high chair to my professor's lap: a mound of soft, fat baby at home on her mother's slim thighs. She looked up at me with round blue eyes; I grinned awkwardly in response. My professor noticed, smiled, petted her daughter's head. I guessed we were all thinking about the dramatic differences of our life stages. Propertied versus nomadic, established versus striving, parents versus children. What alarmed me was that, though not yet a parent, I was infinitely less like this beaming little girl, now waving her arms at me, than like her middle-aged caretakers.

So yeah, c'était bizarre, I said to Kate. Mia pawed at my knee and the living room continued to swathe us in the illusion of adolescence.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Three Thoughts on Translation, Elation, and Relation (Part 2)

Part 1 here.


On July 4 of the same year, the weather in Provincetown, Massachusetts was disappointing. Thick clouds hung low over the harbor that runs parallel to shop-lined Commercial Street. Cool gusts of drizzle blew in sideways from the dark, choppy water. My parents were visiting a friend there for the holiday weekend, and I eagerly joined to escape my Providence apartment for a few days of seaside play. In the afternoon, we were supposed to migrate to a house with a view of the annual parade, a characteristically flamboyant affair involving dozens of patriotic drag queens. But I was allowed to spend the morning (originally marked for the beach) shrouded in a hoodie on the deck of Sharen's condo, reading Fitzgerald's last completed novel Tender Is the Night.

Tender is a terrible novel in many ways, and, over-conscious of Bob Dylan and Woody Allen's withering pigeon-holing of Fitzgerald readers, I was trying very hard to stay attuned to its flaws. They're easy to find. Fitzgerald was drinking heavily at the time he was writing the final draft, and it shows in the text's poor organization and irritatingly overwrought themes of aging, decline, the tragedy of wealth, and the emptiness of society. But page by page, snips of Fitzgerald's language would prove so gorgeous that I couldn't help loving it. I enthusiastically underlined passages, like this one, that supported my theory that Fitzgerald was really more of a failed poet than he was a prose artist:

The conductor shut a door; he telephoned his confrere among the undulati, and with a jerk the car was pulled upward, heading for a pinpoint on an emerald hill above. After it cleared the low roofs, the skies of Vaud, Valais, Swiss Savoy, and Geneva spread around the passengers in cyclorama. On the centre of the lake, cooled by the piercing current of the Rhône, lay the true centre of the Western World. Upon it floated swans like boats and boats like swans, both lost in the nothingness of the heartless beauty. It was a bright day, with sun glittering on the grass beach below and the white courts of the Kursal. The figures on the courts threw no shadows.

I didn't much care what would happen to Dick, the psychiatrist who marries his beautiful rich patient, or Nicole, his insane spoiled wife, or Rosemary, the dewy starlet who seduces Dick. I cared about the decorations, the non-plot-related paragraphs or even sentences whose intense concentration of talent and keenness marked them as the novel's real substance. It was almost time to leave for the parade when I came across this conversation between Nicole and her soon-to-be lover Tommy:

“Five years,” [Nicole] continued, in throaty mimicry of nothing. “MUCH too long. Couldn’t you only slaughter a certain number of creatures and then come back, and breathe our air for a while?”

In her cherished presence Tommy Europeanized himself quickly.

“Mais pour nous héros,” he said, “il nous faut du temps, Nicole. Nous ne pouvons pas faire de petits exercises d’héroisme — il faut faire les grandes compositions.”

“Talk English to me, Tommy.”

“Parlez français avec moi, Nicole.”

“But the meanings are different — in French you can be heroic and gallant with dignity, and you know it. But in English you can’t be heroic and gallant without being a little absurd, and you know that too. That gives me an advantage.”

“But after all —” He chuckled suddenly. “Even in English I’m brave, heroic and all that.”

She pretended to be groggy with wonderment but he was not abashed.

It's probably important to admit that, this specific summer, I was (possibly due to overindulgence in Fitzgerald novels) guilty of feeling, as Cynthia Ozick puts it in Foreign Bodies, "proudly, relentlessly, unremittingly conscious of [my] youth." At the time, this consciousness didn't seem even slightly embarrassing, so I jumped up from my seat, heart actually pounding with the possibility that Fitzgerald and I could have shared a thought. Even such a trifling thought.

I had to move. Downstairs, out into the street. I strode down quiet lanes of antique wooden cottages to Commercial, the town's main drag, where the drag queens were already preparing for the afternoon festivities. Hairy breasts and knee-high glitter boots; three-inch lashes and five-o-clock shadows. Fantastical wigs and opulent lipsticks. More convincing performances of femininity than I had ever been able to muster, to be sure. The town, with its quaint Puritan-cum-Portuguese weathered seaside aesthetic, provided a delightfully bizarre background for such technicolor extravagance. Inhaling salt air, I hurried along, dodging the slow-moving crowds already gathering in defiance of the dreary day.

Not surprising at all, I suppose, that I finally halted at the used bookstore. Tim's has been around forever and is always stocked with all the classics and that half dozen books you never knew you needed. I really needed nothing - had a stack waiting for me back at Sharen's - but wanted in my swooning college-girl way to be surrounded entirely by spines. I wandered the shop's tiny rooms, lingering at last in the Anthology section. A very old, squat book caught my eye. It was edited by Edmund Wilson, a critic whose name I had just learned via Fitzgerald. But it was the title that mattered: The Shock of Recognition.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Three Thoughts on Translation, Elation, and Relation (Part 1)

Reading Lydia Davis's new translation of Madame Bovary has dredged up some old impressions about what it means to switch from one language to another. First one below; two more to come.


In the spring of 2008, I spent many afternoons seated outdoors at a certain café on the market square of a certain medieval city in Southern France, wholeheartedly acting the part of the Study Abroad student, pen in one hand, rapidly cooling espresso in the other, eyes flitting to and from the the grid-lined notebook that I had selected because it was so different from the types available in the States. On the square, miniature trucks were starting on their daily work of cleaning up the debris from the morning market, whose merchants unabashedly abandoned piles of produce refuse, fish heads, and chicken feathers on the square's smooth golden stones. Farmers having departed, the trucks would unleash their hoses, spraying and soaking the massive granite slabs while maintenance workers swept the trash. Soon the stone would glisten in the ever-strengthening sun, and a breeze in the plane trees would create mad sparkles on the ancient square made as naked and new as if hundreds of people hadn't been haggling there an hour before or 300 years before.

The gridded notebook was rapidly filling with lines of poor French in my sloppy, hurried, left-handed writing. I was working on a truly awful story about a wistful, itinerant boy who falls in love with a childhood friend and, later in life, tracks her down to declare his passion. The ending is, of course, quite grim in a gratingly melodramatic way. But for the most part I didn't care. For the first time in my writing life, sentences were tumbling from my mind; I didn't have to yank them out with excruciating force. I didn't feel the need to test every word for irony and ambiguity, nor to put them through the idiot exam. Instead I felt unencumbered, ecstatic, thoroughly surprised at my own ability to produce freely. This sense of freedom grew, in part, from the fact that I had not thoroughly mastered the language and therefore didn't really (couldn't, really) hold my prose to any rigorous standards.

But the freedom also derived from an incipient sense that French literature, and words in general, can be much more straightforward than English-language literature. It is not less complex, beautiful, or expressive, but it seems to contain less anxiety about potential attacks, potential dismissals of romanticism, of emotionalism, of naïve sincerity. I can't remember much of what I was reading that would have given me such an impression. Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire, and Balzac certainly figured into the mix. Just as influential were the conversations I was having with French peers, who expressed their views with incredible clarity and lack of self-mockery or doubt. There was also the time a friend said, in French, that he loved me, and I had to assure him that in English he did not.

This paragraph comes a third of the way through my story, which (it must be admitted) relies heavily on the color blue as a symbol:

From the top of the staircase, I could see Lavande's parents and my own hovering by the front door. Suddenly, my father moved, and for the first time I saw Lavande. Oh, how I froze! I hadn't met many young girls, and certainly I had never seen a girl like her, frail as a summer cloud, with fine soft hair, almost white, and ivory skin so transparent that I could see her blue veins coursing underneath. Her eyes were so blue that I could discern their color though the long staircase separated us. Many years later, I would read an old poem that describes exactly what happened to me at that moment. Damon, a shepherd frustrated in love, recalls the moment in his childhood when he first saw his would-be lover picking apples. "Ut vidi, ut perii!" he says. "I saw her, and I was lost!" Only after reading this poem did I decide my feelings for Lavande could be called love. At the moment of our first meeting, with the staircase dividing us, I merely thought I was very afraid.

I do remember hesitating here. I looked up to the glistening granite square where the trucks were finishing their market purge, where pedestrians traversed the worn stone with baguettes under arm and a North African accordion player squeaked out the tired standards by a fountain. I looked up to the broad plane leaves and the bright Mediterranean sky. Elation and mortification filled me in in equal measure. I was 21, a student of literature, old enough to recognize a terrible story but still perhaps young enough to write one innocently. Bending back to my notebook, I wrote, in French, in the margin next to my new paragraph:

This would make no sense in English. In English it would receive nothing but laughter. Never translate it.