Wednesday, August 31, 2005

"The contemporary American poet Ron Padgett, who has given us wonderful translations of Blaise Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire, once said that his motive in translating was feeling "I want to tell my friends about this!" when he encountered a new poet in a language his friends did not read."

Not that I'd know anything about that...
"Note: The present tense, I dare, is really an old past tense, so that the third person is he dare, but the form he dares is now often used, and will probably displace the obsolescent he dare, through grammatically as incorrect as he shalls or he cans. --Skeat."

From some thread I found somewhere, which credits the 1913 Webster's dictionary.

All this while following my hunch that the German modal verb dürfen "to be allowed/permitted to," was relateed to obsolete-ish English durst, which i had assumed to be from "dare." (As far as I can tell, I am wrong, my big Random House upstairs has dare from an old infinite "durran," cognate to OHG "(gi)turran,"--hmm. We shall see.)

I think my point was is that prescriptivist claims about incorrect usage and "correct" historical forms are much, much more likely than not to be sociological judgments than linguistic ones, just couched in half-assed linguistic terms. (everybody who says "he/she dare," raise your hands!) We definitely need more linguistic instruction in school, if only to convince people that they don't have the intuitive grasp of either their language or that of others than they otherwise might think. But mainly it was an excuse for me to write about digging into German modal verbs. And re-iterate my need for an etymological dictionary of German.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

My new side project is that I'm trying to learn to read German. So far, I have been trying to funnel vocabulary acquisition through Czech...though I will probably have to give that up. I could try to go trilingual (that would make for fun flashcards), but it's not of much benefit to me to learn to read German in Czech, regardless of how much I should practice both languages. In any event, I'm half-assedly looking for a German etymological dictionary (in German). My Rejzek's 'Czech etymological dictionary' is amazing in two ways; it forced me to use Czech to learn more Czech, (which is always key, naturally) and it tapped in to my apparent need for freeform etymological searches and lists of reconstructions and cognates. Granted, it's a little easier with German, (brechen and break, anyone?) but I still think such a dictionary would rock.

Of course, North Country Books, I find today has a textbook of what is apparently German pronunciation and articulation; but I can't really see dropping the $25 for just a sketch of general linguistic principles and (theoretically) a brief historical sketch.

Also, I'd just like to point out, for egotistical purposes, my retroactive addition to a languagelog post on the Brothers Grimm movie. Go me! Nothing like people interested in linguistics getting together to casually slam Matt Damon. And I've just dashed off another email about the increasing prevalence of the new stylized use of macrons. I think I'd rather have signs in IPA as well.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Well, I didn't want to post consecutive updates that were just counts of how much typing I'd done--so I apparently saved it all for the end.

Thirty thousand words since last Monday, fifty-five thousand total, and I'm done with Burner of Corpses...well, sort of. In any event, I have an electronic draft. Now the repetitive copyediting begins.

*laughs* And apart from the last couple hundred words, I'd spent several hours working in front of this fine piece of cinema. Any time your lead actor is "Costas Mandylor," which sounds like a subspecies of crocodile in its own right, you know it's quality entertainment. And guess what? It stayed alive just long enough to eat that evil corporate lady. Sorry if I ruined any of that for anyone.

In any event, I start the old medical records job again tomorrow morning for the next little while, so I'm just pleased I was able to meet my self-imposed deadline for getting this bad boy typed up. Give me a week or so of editing, and I might be ready to send copies out.

Monday, August 22, 2005

So, I managed to "transcribe" 5500 words today in a series of writing jags, and, as usual, this has given me perspective on what it is I'm actually doing, versus what I'd assumed my translation style was.

I had originally decided to translate longhand into a notebook for several reasons. I was in Brno, for one, and too lazy to figure out how to use the computer clusters I didn't have to pay for...and I'd happened to bring several smallish Brown U. notebooks. Combine this with a desire to be the sort of person who fills notebooks with frantic scrawl (thank you, Nick!) and we were off and running.

I came to see this as a "I'd write out my translation all old-school" sort of thing, with what followed being merely transcribing. I have come to realize this was not true, and, on some level, knew it for a long time when I began leaving things directly in Czech, writing down multiple meanings for a single word, and even leaving whole passages out. Also, I failed to appreciate to what extent "tightening up some of the wording" and "making this into something more closely resembling English." was a) still part of the translating process and b) taking me away from my presupposed all-literalist roots.

Now, I think I got the idea of my true literality from my and Nick's participation in a Sanskrit class where we would do our homework (eventually, translation of dense, dense philosophical text from the Upanishads) progressively later and later...eventually getting to the point where we would regularly do our work at lunch the day it was due. The refectory was more fun with 1500-page dictionaries courtesy of the wonderfully-named Sir Monier Monier-Williams. In any event, what we did, which evidently contributed much to my self-perception of myself as a translator, was throw as direct a translation up as we could and await class time to flesh it out.

But yeah, this is an integral part of the translation process, I'm coming to find. As literal a translation as possible must precede a degree of nativization, with the standard compromises lurking at every corner. But I feel it's important that I do keep these processes physically separate--that is, to attempt to be as literal as possible on paper as a first attempt, rather than attempting very much of the nativizing process in my head, where my motivations and idiosyncratic choices will not be recorded. It should make a laborious editing process...well, laborious, but much more fruitful.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Attempted rambling refinement of my thoughts on Waldrop/Dryden:

"One does not translate words" strikes me as patently false. Words are the smallest stand-alone units of meaning, and are what everyone writes in. How could translation be any different? After all, I wrote mine word-by-word. It is by no means a negligible unit of meaning, but must be kept in mind. Mindfulness of broader sense is important too, but I think it's a mistake to suborn one to the other. The sentence as unit-of-meaning seems like some step towards this, a compromise between higher-level meaning and what one's author actually wrote, what the text is as written.

And as for his other views, It seems to me that what is meant by '"The smallest unit of prose that can be thought of as translatable is the sentence and it is not incorrect, at most an exaggeration, to say that the real unit is the entire text." (Waldrop 100) While this seems holistic and unhelpful at times "OK, so how does that help me with this one clause," it seems to be a fallout from a higher principle, that meaning is encoded on multiple levels, and that one must make judgment calls where appropriate. But the author built up text-level meaning from...well, individual words.

My main principle, if I had to elaborate it, in dealing with Fuks was "look to the author above yourself, except where forced otherwise, for you're not as clever as you think you are." I guess it's easier to render as "Trust the author." Perhaps this is only valid due to my experiences with a sparse yet rigid structure, and with sentences lending themselves to literal translation. But if he could build meaning and sense that way in Czech, I don't see the need to dick around with it in English.
In any event, I'm sure I fucked up my share of things. It's certainly a very personal, and, quite simply, a ridiculous endeavor. *shrugs* It keeps everyone else from having to learn Czech, and, as it's not the original and never will be, perhaps it must hint at compromises made and sense lost. We wouldn't want to make the language obsolete.

And as for the ridiculous,

"In an attempt to make a prose version of one of the poems, I somehow tricked myself into making versets. It seemed, when I realized what I was doing, a ridiculous thing, but what is a little flirt with the ridiculous, compared with the immense impossibility of translating any literary text? " (105)

That I understand. Damned necessary enemies. Now I have to find more of his stuff.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Subtleties of narrative, or sometimes you can have too many footnotes.

In the Fuks text I've been dealing which, one of the main characteristics of the work, and, indeed, in his writing in general, is a sparse opacity when dealing with matters of timing, which complements the slightly surreal attitude that pervades throughout where characters and actions flit about and repeat themselves. There are offhanded references to a light spring breeze, a quarter of a year after Christmas, several weeks after the events of the preceding chapter, and so on. You can figure out when things are going on with a large degree of precision, but such things are not transparent.

I'm not above over-footnoting things, but as a matter of course throughout the translation of the work I had been unpacking as many of these details as I could, with the intent of providing them later. (In an event not to spoil this yet further for anyone who may end up reading it, when I have it transcribed, I shall talk about things at a level of remove) This involved such things as dealing with the calculations necessary to obtain the exact date of some church holidays, or the day of the week the events of a historical action had occurred. Naturally, smug with my success at having done so, I planned on sharing these exact dates as footnotes, and have them all scrawled down at various points.

Now I think that would defeat the purpose altogether, allowing my own obsession with the text to overwrite, and inappropriately so, a level of detail, and more or less undermining the point. As historical curiosities, sure, they're fun to know, and least for me. But I can keep them that way. Well, other than babbling about it online.

"But here it is: the translator is a collaborator, not exactly with an author, living or dead, but with a text. Thus there are two phases any translator must go through: first to read something, then to write something.

This is why the naïve scribbler is so very very wrong to suppose that translating is the easy way to write a poem, a story, a play, that all you have to do is know the language of the original and, as it were, transcribe it in your own.

Try it. "

(from Waldrop, p 98 of this paper. [pdf; much obliged, as usual, to languagehat])

I disagree with some of Waldrop's later points--especially with the re-hash of Dryden's "one does not translate words," which has some merit (inasmuch as the tone and frequency of the words involved can contribute to an overemphasis on morphological clarity, thus ruining the tone of a sentence), but not as a general rule. Still, I am trying. And it seems that having a whole bunch of words on paper may only be the beginning. Interesting.

Monday, August 15, 2005


Yes, it's true. I, through my Hollywood connections, have indeed gotten the inside scoop on what's going to be included in the new philology action movie starring Heath Ledger and Matt Damon!

Now, while fans of EXPLOSIVE folklorist action might be disappointed in the fact that many of the peasant interviews and data-collecting of European folk tales got left on the cutting room floor, you'll realize that it had to be when you see what's been left in!

Jake's (Heath Ledger) appointment as secretary of Jerome Bonaparte's library in WESTPHALIA! Will's (Matt Damon's) contributions to the Deutsches Wörterbuch, foundation of modern German etymology! Jake's literary endeavors! The publishing of the three-volume DEUTSCHE GRAMMATIK! The struggles with the development of what was going to come to be known as Grimm's Law! Consonant correspondences in the Germanic languages! Academic arguments with RASMUS RASK!

And yes, movie fans, they leave it open for a sequel! Though Grimm's Law was the first non-trivial formulation of systematic sound change, the rule as stated remained incomplete--the ORIGINAL VOICELESS STOPS were especially hard to deal with! And though the movie closes with Jake's death in 1863, the movie closes on--you guessed it--KARL VERNER scribbling away in his study!

But I guess we'll have to wait to see just how those Germanic stops ended up voiced! It'll be worth another $9.25, believe you me!
Making the leap to Blogspot.

Even changing a longstanding handle. Well, my love of mollusks did certainly predate my love of weird anagrams involving my name.

Hopefully I'll be able to babble about translation and etymology more here, in addition to the occasional rant about how much more I like pen-and-paper writing. The notes on translation and etymology are likely to be either anecdotes from experience, for the former, or correspondences I find amusing.

Namely, things like the fact that English mollusk [>Latin mollis/molluscus 'soft'] has a correspondence in Czech, měkkýš, [>měkký "soft", though the Czech does not seem to be genetically related to the Latin] formed by the adjective plus a nonproductive terminological suffix - ýš. Another of the words that shares this is is the noun hroznýš, "[boa] constrictor", from the adjective hrozný, "terrible, horrible, awful." This allows for a play on words in the Czech that's nonexistent in English. This, naturally, occurs in chapter one of Spalovač mrtvol, the book I've been translating. Paraphrasing from memory, it's something like "everyone knows in advance what to expect from a constrictor; it's in the name, after all."

I guess that still carries in the English, for one would expect constriction, but that's at a level of remove from expecting outright horror. And that's why it's footnoted, of course.

And this is most of what I think about all day.