10 July 2012


"That one aspect of Bakhtin's style most inseparable from his personality is the developing idea. Its subtle shifts, redundancies, self-quotations—ultimately, its open-endedness—is the genre in which, and with which, he worked. To translate Bakhtin, I suggest, is therefore not only to translate the ideas (they can be paraphrased) but also to reproduce the sound of the open-ended, self-developing idea. This would be his 'conversation in progress,' his dialogue about dialogue, his interlocution with readers who have still to respond." (Wayne C. Booth, introduction to Mikhail Bakhtin's Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, Edited and Translated by Caryl Emerson)

As a writer and language learner I am constantly trying to use the right word in the right way. I also believe, as a language learner, that making mistakes is a form of community service. The more people laugh, the better.

Different language communities take different approaches to correcting mistakes, and maintain radically different stances regarding when you are ready to speak and when you should just learn and listen. I suppose, like child rearing and dog ownership, this really is an artifact of the parent/owner/teacher involved. Some are loving and playful and others authoritative bullies (I include dog owners who let their dogs run and pounce on strangers, because "they love people so much" as members of the authoritative bully kind).

When speaking I don't mind being laughed at, except in English (which is my first language, and the one I am corrected in most, but that's another idea, developing). But in writing I am afraid. I try to get it right and have often asked others (native speakers) to read over work (though none have been willing to, which is another idea, developing), so I don't write some ridiculous twattle that only makes sense to me.

I had a neighbor from Brazil. We'd spend hours talking. I would talk to her in Spanish. And she would talk to me in Portuguese. We'd laugh. We'd be serious. This time, talking together, bridged the 20 year difference in our age, and the dramatic variation of our experience. My wife would sometimes be with us and would answer in English. My friend's daughter would sometimes be with us and she would answer in English too. They found us amusing. When I'd get stuck for a word or phrase I'd ask her daughter to translate. They'd laugh, her daughter and my wife, and tell us both: you are not talking Spanish and you are not talking Portuguese. We have no idea what you are saying.

A few years ago I wrote my first full page in Navajo. It might be a total mess, but it is true to the people speaking (who are a total mess themselves).

I believe in writing—in the oral tradition—taking language for what it is, an opportunity, a translation. But it was only after reading Leslie Silko's Turqouise Ledge that I started to allow myself to write as freely as I speak. To use my language books, my dictionaries, my tapes to work for me in the project of communication. Keeping our languages alive requires us to speak. Keeping them in print requires a willingness to ask others to speak them as well. Most of the work I read is in translation, and every work I read has some French, Spanish, German, Czech, Italian and Polish thrown in, even if only the names, that require pronounciation. I struggle to get my tongue and teeth around them. I feel them. I hear them. I take them in, literally. They, the translators of these works, expect me to know these languages. The languages have enough weight to warrant the expectation—so they go in the translation, un-translated.

I'm writing with that in mind, knowing the languages I work with (learning and speaking) have the same amount of weight in my own life. So they go in too, un-italicized and un-translated.

My developing idea is this: if to translate is not to betray, and all language is communication, then we should make the attempt to reach from one area in language to another. Sometimes those areas are between people, but they are often within a person themselves. Allowing those areas, allowing the elasticity of mind required of reading through, makes translation difficult and rewarding. Attempting an honest experience of these moments between asks more of the world and from ourselves, and requires that we not only speak, but respond.

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