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.

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