Posts Tagged ‘translation’

Some literary mistakes

October 11, 2010

Last week, I wrote a piece for the Spectator’s Arts Blog about the mess-up surrounding publication of Jonathan Franzen’s latest book Freedom. A week after its much-hyped, viciously embargoed, British release, it was revealed that the publishers had accidently printed an earlier draft of the novel, not the final version. Apparently typos and grammatical mistakes peppered the text, in addition to some ‘small but significant’ changes to characterisation.

Now, after a great deal of fuss, and a great deal of pulping, the copies of Freedom in the shops are free from error. And I am left with no further comment other than that I pity the journalist or PHD student who has been instructed to compare and contrast the two different versions.

In my article (which you can read here), I suggested that typos aren’t the end of the world. Don’t they reveal the human fallibility of the author? Isn’t that somewhat reassuring? And isn’t that particularly apt for a novel about human fallibilty?

Most readers disagreed and I was left with a couple of comments insisting on the ghastly interference of typos.

But the Franzen debacle led me to wonder about other literary mistakes … here are a couple that sprang to mind.

One case is Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (which I actually happened to mention in the article because of the repeated typo of ‘Rusdie’ in the author biography in my old paperback). There are some more notorious mistakes in Midnight’s Children. To mention a few:

The characters Picture Singh and Saleem go on a train from Delhi to Bombay which is said to pass through Kurla; land is reclaimed in Bombay using concrete tetrapods; and the singer Lata Mangeshkar is on the radio in 1946.

These are all errata, factual impossibilities: Kurla is on a different railway line; the tetrapods in Bombay have only ever been used to protect the sea wall against coastal erosion – not for land reclamation; and Lata Mangeshkar didn’t enjoy any real success until the 1950s.

But for those who aren’t particularly well-versed in Indian railways, Mumbai’s coastal protection policies, or Bollywood singers, they could easily slip through the net – why would one suspect these things to be false? A more serious error is getting the date of Gandhi’s assassination wrong, which is highlighted in the text when the narrator, Saleem, says:

Rereading my work, I have discovered an error in chronology. The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi occurs, in these pages in a wrong date.

Why the mistakes? Why all these factual errors? How is one to trust Rushdie or his copyeditor ever again?

In an essay written in 1983 Rushdie defends these mistakes, claiming that they are intentional, deliberate errors. They interrupt the narrative and force the reader to question the narrator, Saleem (the reader isn’t supposed to question the actual author, Rushdie). With all these mistakes, Saleem is portrayed as full of human fallibility and unreliability. Saleem is, after all, remembering his story and Rushdie emphasises the distorting process of memory:

One of the simplest truths about any set of memories is that many of them will be false … as I wrote the novel, and whenever a conflict arose between literal and remembered truth, I would favour the remembered version.

He highlights the notion of ‘memory’s truth’, to which he gives more importance than actual historical accuracy.

All rather shakey, unreliable ground.

The other literary mistake that springs to mind might be rather less intentional. It arises in a fantastic book – Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih.

The narrator, Meheimed, returns to his native Sudan after spending seven months in England. Salih makes it clear that Meheimed wants to return to his village in Sudan and see it unchanged, as though he never left. But this desired vision of continuity is repeatedly disrupted, most emphatically through the character Mustafa Sa’eed, a newcomer to the village. As the novel progresses, it transpires that this character has also spent time abroad, in Cairo and in England, and Meheimed begins to piece together Mustafa Sa’eed’s story.

The ‘mistake’ occurs when, one evening, Mustafa Sa’eed recites in English, ‘in a clear voice and with an impeccable accent’ a poem, which the narrator says he later found in an anthology of First World War poetry. Here is the extract that appears in the book:

Those women of Flanders

Await the lost,

Await the lost who never will leave the harbour

They await the lost whom the train never will bring.

To the embrace of those women with dead faces,

They await the lost, who lie dead in the trenches,

the barricade and the mud.

In the darkness of night,

This is Charing Cross Station, the hour’s past one,

There was a faint light,

There was a great pain.

There’s no point in googling this, or leafing through anthologies searching for the first line ‘Those women of Flanders’. This poem would never be found in a First World War poetry anthology. What would be found in its place is Ford Madox Ford’s ‘In October 1914 (Antwerp)’. Here is the corresponding extract:

These are the women of Flanders.

They await the lost.

They await the lost that shall never leave the dock;

They await the lost that shall never again come by the train

To the embraces of all these women with dead faces:

They await the lost who lie dead in trench and barrier and foss,

In the dark of the night.

This is Charing Cross; it is past one of the clock;

There is very little light.

 

There is so much pain.

Mustafa Sa’eed is reciting a bastardised version of Ford Madox Ford’s poem. How on earth has this happened?

Season of Migration to the North was originally written in Arabic and so the poem, in the original text, must have appeared in Arabic as well. When Denys Johnson-Davies translated the novel into English in 1969, he translated the poem into English. Perhaps he didn’t recognise the poem’s provenance and so didn’t find the original for quotation. It seems a bit mean for Tayeb Salih not to have let him know!

What we have now in Season of Migration to the North is an English translation of an Arabic translation of English. It shows what a complicated and distorting process translation can be – how impossible it is to neatly reverse, instead bringing one further and further away from the original.

It is a bit like the distorting process of memory, pointed out by Salman Rushdie. When remembering something, one can’t just reverse time and go straight back to the unchanged moment. In the process of going back things change, details slip, factual impossibilities occur.

And if one takes translation on a bigger scale – the literal ‘bearing across’ not just of language but of a person – a similar distortion occurs. Season of Migration to the North is about the translation of the narrator and Mustafa Sa’eed from Sudan to England and then back to Sudan. And, as I mentioned, Tayeb Salih is keen to emphasise the changes in Sudan when each character returns:

We pass by a red brick building on the Nile bank, half finished…I tell him that when I was here only seven months ago they hadn’t even started building it.

If change happens in physical translation, then surely in this tiny microcosm of Ford Madox Ford’s poem, then change must happen too. It can’t move seamlessly from English to Arabic and then back to English – change and disruption must leave their mark. Perhaps Denys Johnson-Davies deliberately continued the process of translation rather than finding the original poem.

Or else there’s rather a glaring mistake. Lucky for the publisher that Tayeb Salih isn’t still around to make such a Franzenesque fuss about it.

Almodovar’s ‘All About My Mother’ and Williams’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

February 4, 2010

I watched Almodovar’s All About My Mother (Todo Sobre mi Madre) last night. It inspired a few thoughts about translation, which I shall endeavour to write about here.

Early on in the film, Manuela, the main character, takes her son to see a play. He wants to be a writer and it’s his birthday treat. The play, like the rest of the film, is in Spanish. But, as soon as the camera alights on it, there’s something very familiar about this play. It is clearly a moment of climax – three men sit at the rear of the stage playing poker, while a nurse chases an eccentrically-attired woman around the stage. It’s only moments before I recognise the play to be Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, confirmed in an instant when another actor address the woman as Miss Dubois.

The play takes on a great deal of significance in the film, and Almodovar shows excerpts of it several times. We are clearly invited to see links between the play and the film, perhaps made most explicit when Manuela says, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire has marked my life’. Almodovar has etched this American text into his character’s existence.

This line reminded me of Walter Benjamin’s essay, ‘The Task of the Translator’, in particular the moment when Benjamin quotes Rudolf Pannwitz:

Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a wrong premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of turning German into Hindi, Greek, English …

Bear in mind that this was originally written in German. Pannwitz goes on to say that the translator ‘must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language’.

According to this principle, Almodovar has achieved a feat of translation in the character of Manuela. Manuela’s life has been so influenced by Streetcar, so ‘marked’ by it, that she only makes sense with this foreign text. Almodovar has taken Pannwitz’s idea of expanding the mother-tongue and extrapolated it to show how a mother-narrative, so to speak, can be expanded and deepened by means of a foreign narrative.

For instance, Manuela says she is ‘moved’ by Streetcar’s character Stella, who, when we first see Streetcar in the film, leaves her husband, taking her baby with her. Manuela met her husband when they were both acting in Streetcar and we can hazard a pretty good guess that when she left Barcelona for Madrid, running away from him, carrying her unborn son inside her, this idea was inspired by Stella’s actions at the end of Streetcar.

But something jarred while watching the play in the film. The thing is, I studied Streetcar at school, and I was sure that something about Almodovar’s excerpts from it didn’t quite add up. I found my old copy of the text, filled with sixteen-year-old scribbles, and watched those bits of the film again, play-script in hand.

I realised that something quite uncanny had happened. The first thing that became clear was that the scene had been cut, less significant parts removed and more dramatic ones sown together. I imagine this was to make it more simple, more understandable to the viewer who only sees a minute or so of the play. But the really crucial change is that, in Williams’s play, Stella stays with Stanley. The final image is one of Stanley soothing Stella:

Stanley [voluptuously, soothingly]: Now, honey. Now, love. Now, now love. [He kneels beside her and his fingers find the opening of her blouse.] Now, now, love. Now, love …

Stella remains in Stanley’s modern (echoed in the repeated ‘now’), sexual (suggested here with ‘his fingers find the opening of her blouse’) world. She doesn’t run away with their baby.

In the play that Almodovar shows, however, the final image – and the one that has been so significant for Manuela – is Stella leaving Stanley. The subtitles go like this:

[Stanley] Come on. The worst’s over.

[Stella] Don’t touch me! Don’t ever touch me again, bastard!

[Stanley] Watch your language. Stella come here. Stella.

[Stella] I’m never coming back to this house. Never! [Stella walks off stage]

[Stanley, calling after her] Stella, Stella.

[Ends]

So the effect of the translation is not straightforwardly one-way. While it seems as though the American text has marked the (Spanish) narrative of Manuela’s life, it is actually the Spanish translation of the text that has marked her life – if it had been the American version, perhaps she would not have run away from her husband with her unborn child.

Examining the two versions of the play more meticulously, it is clear that the words themselves – not just the narrative thrust – have changed. Translation is evidently a radical process. Instead of getting the original English of Tennessee Williams’s play in the subtitles, we get something very different indeed. We get the end result of two translations: an American play, translated into Spanish, and then translated again into English for the subtitles. The word ‘bastard’, for example, isn’t used once in the original play. For every part of the play that Almodovar shows, there is a marked disjuncture between the text of the English subtitles and the original text of the play.

In the original, for example, Blanche asks Stella to get something from ‘the heart-shaped box I keep my accessories in’. In the version we see in All About my Mother, this is altered to:

[Blanche]: Where’s my heart?

[Stella]: She means her jewel-box, it’s heart-shaped.

Almodovar then cuts to Manuela watching the actors, closing her eyes in, what we infer is, pain. The question, ‘where’s my heart?’ is of great significance to Manuela, harking back to earlier in the film, when she went to Coruna to see who received the heart of her dead son in a transplant operation. A ‘heart-shaped box’ would not have the same resonance. The re-translation of the play back into English has been vitally affected by the Spanish.

Some phrases are sacrosanct. ‘Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers’, uttered by Blanche to the doctor at the end of the Streetcar we see in the film, is identical, word for word, to the line in Williams’s play. There’s a remarkable scene about half-way through the film, when Huma Rojo, who plays Blanche in the play, is being driven through Barcelona by Manuela, who she has only just met, to try and find her girlfriend and fellow actress Nina. Huma turns to Manuela, in the car, and repeats the infamous line perfectly. The phrase is utterly characteristic of Blanche, and is also utterly characteristic of Huma. This is an example of Pannwitz’s ideal translation: a phrase, albeit spoken in Spanish, that has kept Williams’s unmistakable tone, deepening and expanding Spanish with the American-English idiom. The retranslation in the subtitles shows it to be identical to the original version; the phrase is meaningful enough, strong enough, to survive intact.

But this is the exception rather than the rule. Almodovar’s translation of Streetcar into All About My Mother is far more dialogic. The American play affects the Spanish, but the Spanish also affects the American play. I can only conclude that while Streetcar may have ‘marked’ Manuela, All About my Mother has also, indelibly, marked Streetcar.