The Distance: Translating between Texts and Territories

Ivo Meldolesi, Vecchiette abruzzesi parlano per la prima volta al telefono, ca. 1950 (“Gazzetta del Popolo” - Archivio Fotografico, cart. 76, busta 5212).
Ivo Meldolesi, Old lady from Abruzzo speaking on the phone for the first time, ca. 1950 (“Gazzetta del Popolo” – Archivio Fotografico, cart. 76, busta 5212).

The recent essays on canon formation and literary aesthetics raise a vital question about the tension between faithful and successful translations. I see these essays as a twofold project: not only are they concerned with practices of translation and processes of canon formation on the “target” side, but they also have to account for the same processes in the context of the original production. It is within this field of opposite forces that the work of translation takes place, constantly pulling the text in opposite directions, sometimes demanding painful choices.

We can see the practice of translation as an attempt to draw closer different or competing literary aesthetics. From the translator’s point of view, these often work against one other: what seems “good” in Arabic might not be perceived as such in English, and vice-versa. Thinking about the original and the target literary landscape as competing forces is one possible angle from which to approach the questions of canon formation and of its translatability.

In the development of the field of translation studies, the issue of competing aesthetics has led, in recent years, to the increasingly forceful call for a more central role of the translator. This critical position aims at challenging the notion of the “translator’s invisibility” that was dominant until the last decades of the 20th century. The most resonant theorization of this change of direction is probably to be found in the work of Lawrence Venuti. In The Translator’s Invisibility, published in 1995, Venuti forcefully argues for the translator to be fully aware of his impact on the text. A “transparent” translation, one that produces a text that “does not seem to be translated” or that does not read as a translation, is a myth. The translator should not forget his decisive role in “domesticating” the text for his readership.

In my own amateur translations, I intimately fight with Venuti’s conclusions, and in every new endeavor I hope to find proof of the idea that the power of the translator is his or her ability to simply disappear. To be an excellent translator, one has to aspire to be omnisciently invisible. Each and every time I translate between my native Italian, French, and English, however, this assumption is disproven, albeit never fully. I am, then, a conflicted translator, torn between conveying what I know of a story before it travels across languages and borders, and what I know it will have to become in order to land successfully in its new country, its new language. In other words, however thoroughly aware the translator is of the two literary contexts with which he is engaging, their subtle differences in language and traditions, he or she will invariably alter the weight, taste and touch of the original work.

What it is important to stress here is that this notion of movement is already inscribed in the etymology of the word “translation”. The Latin root, trans-latio, could be rendered literally as “movement across” or, perhaps better, “from a point to another.” It is in this distance — temporal as well as physical — between origin and destination, in the interstices and discrepancies of language, that the translator operates. The bigger this distance, the more challenging the task. Let’s say, for instance, that I am trying to translate Amiri Baraka’s experimental autobiographical novel The System of Dante’s Hell into Italian. The 1965 novel, written in what Baraka himself calls “association complexes,” aims at reproducing the young protagonist’s early life in Newark’s “middle-class ghettos” through a series of pictures “of sound and image” where people and places of his childhood are charted on a loose model of Dante’s Inferno.

For our hypothetical English-to-Italian translator, the familiarity of the structure (Dante is mandatory in most Italian high-school curricula) cannot conceal the gap existing between sensibilities and experiences. The Black American experience had no counterpart in 1960s Italy. Moreover, it comes with its own set of references: The System of Dante’s Hell will not have the same impact in a country or culture where there is no baseball, no Bebop and no American South. Hence, the translator will have to thicken and expand the original work by way of footnotes, glossary, historical compendia and, on top of all, a very different syntax, probably heavier than Baraka’s “fast narrative,” certainly different.

The same is true in the case of attempting to translate a dialect into a culture whose linguistic landscape does not include dialects as such. America, for instance. The same hypothetical translator, this time attempting to translate a conversation between Luisa, a 40-year-old Italian speaker from Bologna and her old mother who only speaks Bolognese, will first look through his “Dictionary of American Slangs”, then into his “Dictionary of American Regionalisms”, and finally resolve to reluctantly translate the conversation as if both speakers used standard Italian. Or give up that job.

As a translator, to resolve the inescapable conflict concerning how much can be conveyed and how, I have chosen to ensure the safe landing of the work into its target culture. To do so, I have had to forget at least in part the feelings that accompanied the departure, and leave behind some of the defining traits of the original work that could not be moved without being unacceptably altered. This initial separation of the work from parts of its universe will be the underlying motive of any journey into and through translation.

A Missionary Zeal for Human Rights

Nuban "friendlies" employed by the British to suppress recalcitrant Nuban groups, 1917. From M.W. Daly's "The Sudan"
Nuban “friendlies” employed by the British to suppress recalcitrant Nuban groups, 1917. From M.W. Daly’s “The Sudan”.

On October 22nd, Ryan Boyette will be honored by Human Rights First at the organization’s annual gala at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan. As the 2014 recipient of the Human Rights First Award, Mr. Boyette will join the ranks of such esteemed advocates as Saad Eddin Ibrahim of Egypt, Denis Mukwege of Congo, and Albie Sachs of South Africa. Such recognition seems at first glance well deserved. Human Rights First describes Mr. Boyette simply as a “human rights advocate” who refused to leave his adopted home in the Nuba Mountains region of Sudan when his “aid organization” evacuated their staff in the wake of growing conflict in 2011. Over the past three years, with admirable courage and determination, Mr. Boyette founded Nuba Reports, an organization that employs an “all Sudanese” staff to document human rights violations and the humanitarian impact of the Sudanese government’s bombing campaign of the Nuba Mountains region.

The aid organization through which Mr. Boyette first travelled to Sudan in 2003 was Samaritan’s Purse. It is, indeed, a very particular type of aid organization, one run by Franklin Graham, a conservative preacher, noted Islamophobe, and the son of Billy Graham. After eight years of dedicated missionary work, Mr. Boyette resigned from Samaritan’s Purse in 2011 to avoid the staff evacuation. While his decision demonstrates considerable commitment to his new home in the Nuba Mountains, there is no indication that it signals an ideological break with evangelical work. Indeed, in late 2011, Nicholas Kristof of the NYT still described Mr. Boyette as an “evangelical Christian deeply motivated by his faith.”

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Ottoman Postcards in a Post-Ottoman World

Galata_old_postcardVisitors have fallen in love with Istanbul for generations. In the early 20th century, photographers, both Ottoman and European, captured its blue seas, red roofs, and beige buildings. Despite its beauty, the city’s riot of color obscures a troubling past of missing signs, sounds, and scripts.

Listen closely. The sounds of Turkish give voice to its history. Its raised and rhymed vowels connect the syllables of each word in a harmonious flow, but that flow has been artificially enhanced. During the creation of the modern Turkish state, authorities purged the frictive sounds like “gh” and “kh” found in Arabic and Persian. For instance, in Ottoman words like “yogurt” (Turkish: yoğurt) were pronounced “yo-ghurt” (with the “gh” sound of the English interjection “ugh!”), but in modern Turkish the “gh” was silenced, becoming “yo-urt”. (There’s a reason they still spell it “yoghurt” in Britain.)

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When the French Speak Arabic to Africans

All too often, we think of Arabic writing in West Africa—when we think of it at all—as a way to access a history beyond or outside the colonial moment. Yet this document, the front page of the weekly journal of the French colonial government in Senegal, shows that the French authorities depended on Arabic to speak to their subjects, even as they gradually tried to transform Senegambian social and political organization for their own economic gain. Far from being beyond the colonial moment, here Arabic appears integral to it.

The use of Arabic in Saint-Louis, the capital of French colonial Senegal, is not so startling in and of itself. The Arabophone geographers, most notably al-Bakri, report that Islam and its accompanying Arabic script appeared on the banks of the Senegal River, in Tekrur, as early as the eleventh century. The use of Arabic in the Western Sahel appears to have started to grow during the fourteenth century, under the influence of the trade empire of Mali, whose famed Mansa Musa lured scholars from Egypt and as far as Andalusia. Arabic written production in the Sahel reached its peak in the pre-modern period during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the area was under the suzerainty of the Songhai empire. It was in the nineteenth century, however, that Arabic writing became an important technology of government when the ulema’, or Islamic scholars, began to lay claim to temporal power, thus producing “textual polity,” to use the phrase of Brinkley Messick.

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The (Jewish) Christian Question

Freud cartoon
By David Levine

A comment on Gil Anidjar’s paper “Jesus and Monotheism” and its discussion at the MESAAS department colloquium on September 11th.

Murder, it soon becomes clear, goes far beyond the “who-done-it?” digressions, down which Freud (and Anidjar) takes his readers. This word designates more than a crime, far more than an action. It describes a kind of relation: the relation of a father to his sons, of a son to his father, of a people to their leader and, ultimately, of Christianity to Judaism.

What Anidjar terms “the Christian question” is an inquiry about this relation. But this inquiry is not about Christianity’s relation to just anyone. It is what we arrive at when we turn the screw of “the Jewish question” one more time. When we ask what it is about Christianity that so persistently maintains this relation—“murder”—to its Others. Certainly this question goes far beyond “the Jewish” one, but in Anidjar’s reading of Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, the “(Jewish) Christian question” takes center stage.

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Between Miracle and Afterthought: Hebrew in MESAAS

My parents, native Israelis with wide and deep ties to the Hebrew language, insisted, always, on maintaining a Hebrew-speaking household in the U.S. so that my two sisters and I might carry on in the world with “a miracle” of a language at our disposal. I remember my father telling me excitedly that, “before 1948, no one made love in Hebrew!” I was fascinated by the thought of a language existing by virtue of some dedicated people carefully applying ancient, known words to their contemporary surroundings. I would imagine them staring at birds or one another in an attempt to string together some sounds and silences that might do justice to a subject’s fullest character.

But studying Hebrew literature in MESAAS has been one long attempt to bend my thinking to accommodate the reality that modern Hebrew literature is a contemporary Middle Eastern affair. Or is it? Hebrew literature and Israeli culture fits into MESAAS geographically; but Hebrew has long been a shared cultural language of the Jews that only in the 20th century became a spoken vernacular in Israel. A question of belonging arises: how does modern Hebrew literature fit into MESAAS when we look beyond basic points of contact, such as the Semitic origins of the Hebrew language or the many centuries of political-Zionist poetry?

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Teaching Notes III

For those of us who teach or will be teaching an introductory course of Islamic Studies in the United States, there are a number of pedagogical challenges we uniquely face as instructors. In order to reach a deep and critical engagement with the texts, histories, aesthetics, narratives and politics at play in a course such as “Islamic Civilization,” a form of “de-programming” must take place.

I say “de-programming” because instructors are certainly not engaging with “blank slates.” Many students enter our classes having already developed an idea or opinion of Islam, Muslims and related terminology (such as shari’a, jihad, Islamic state, burka, etc.), and this is reflected in their questions and papers. Here’s a sampling of the questions I received through an exercise I conducted at the end of the last academic term:

“What makes Islam hate Israel?” “What is the burka?” “Do mainstream Muslims read the Qur’an?” “Is there such a thing as Islam without belief in God (Allah)?” “Should Muslims get the blame for human misery?” “Is a democratic and religious state possible?” “When do most Muslims visit Mecca (what part of their life)?” “What is the Muslim position on human nature?”

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Archives and Canons

What is the opposite of a canon? Perhaps an archive, which contains an overwhelming array of texts that very few people intend to read. I sometimes feel like Raph and I are working our way through an immaterial archive that stretches across the globe. This “archive” contains digital copies of short stories culled from published collections, underground literary journals, blog entries, Facebook posts, and unpublished manuscripts. It also presumably includes letters stowed away in old backpacks and journals forgotten in desk drawers. An infinite array of things just waiting to be catalogued and, perhaps, one day, interpreted.

The challenge of transforming such an archive into a collection is partially the brute effort of finding the materials, compounded by the difficulty of working with texts that are rarely annotated. For instance, we have found digital copies of stories typed by hand by literary enthusiasts into labyrinthine websites like Sudanese Online. The multiple copies create multiple versions which, without a robust editorial effort, jostle one another for authority, not unlike the way in which Sudanese folk tales proliferate in near infinite variation. Although unlike scholars who work on manuscripts, Raph and I are not in the business of sussing out the authentic version of a given text, such variations and inconsistencies take us back to the question of how a literary canon is formed.

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