Space for Quignard, Archilochus, Sappho

Pleasure and action make the time seem short. Like our valiant Moor though with barely the determination. Indebted in an odd way to some dreadfully ponderous journeys that opened space for reading, of course more of Pascal Quignard’s brooding.

The most ravishing of Seagull Books’ Quignard publications to date must surely be The Sexual Night, whose lavish production makes up almost for my inability to track down an original copy of Quignard’s Sex and Terror, by all accounts equally striking. Quignard’s probing of being, sexuality and our origins is constructed around depictions of sexual imagery from across the ages. He questions how art is used as metaphor and artifice for the sexual night, that darkness that precedes our birth.

Quignard writes, ‘Desire is a much “blacker” thing, a much more “atrocious” thing than modern societies present it as being. The inner meaning of desire is a “ray of darkness”.’ He turns once again to myth to trace out the nature of this blackness and its essential nature. Sex, reading in its broadest sense, nature and death: the quintessence of being.

His On Wooden Tablets: Apronenia Avitia, a less necessary, odder publication from Burning Deck, not without charm; like scrabbling to brush the dust off some fragments in order to piece together the narrative of a life from shopping lists, to-do lists and diary jottings.

Otherwise this week, thinking on flowerville’s a song for staying in, and continuing to explore Jaeger’s Paideia Volume 1, this week’s chapter on Archilochus who took Homeric epic and turned it inward to express both personal and mass sentiment, and Sappho, tenth among Muses, who went further inward to describe innermost sensation with a simplicity and sensuousness that is rarely matched,

Grossman: Why Translation Matters

All art, literary or otherwise, undergoes a process of translation between thought and language. I found in my notebook an old quotation from Daniel Herwitz:

Art becomes philosophy proper when the philosopher brings out its inner voice (which is the voice of the thinker) through a process of clarification/translation.

In her penetrating book Why Translation Matters, Edith Grossman, writes:

If writing literature is a transfer or transcription of internal experience and imaginative states into the external world, then even when authors and readers who speak the same language, writers are obliged to translate, to engage in the immense, utopian effort to transform the images and ideas flowing through their most intimate spaces into material, legible terms to which readers have access. And if this is so, the doubts and paradoxical questions that pursue translators must also arise for authors. Is their text an inevitable betrayal of the imagination and the creative impulse? Is what they do even possible? Can the written work ever be a perfect fit with that imaginative, creative original when two different languages, two realms of experience, can only approximate each other?

Grossman argues that the act of translating a book from one language to a second is comparable to the original process of creation. Translators are the unrecognised heroes of the literary world. Why Translation Matters is Grossman’s passionate polemic against publishers and critics disdain for translators.

I believe that serious professional translators, often in private, think of themselves-forgive me, I mean ourselves-as writers, no matter what else may cross our minds when we ponder the work we do, and I also believe we are correct to do so.

. . . .

And as Ralph Manheim, the great translator from German, so famously said, translators are like actors who speak the lines as the author would if the author could speak English. . . Whatever else it may be, transaltion in Manheim’s formulation is a kind of interpretive performance, bearing the same relationship to the original text as an actor’s work does to the script, the performing musician’s to the composition.

I like that analogy.

Chapters one and two present the core of Grossman’s proposition, including a fascinating account of her experience of translating Don Quixote. The final chapter looks at the decisions which must be made when translating poetry.

Grossman makes her case convincingly. As Thomas Bernhard has said about literary translation:

Doesn’t interest me at all, because a translation is a different book. It has nothing to do with the original at all. It’s a book by the person who translated it. I write in the German language. You get sent a copy of these books and either you like them or you don’t. If they have awful covers then they’re just annoying. And you flip through and that’s it. It has nothing in common with your own work, apart from the weirdly different title. Right? Because translation is impossible. A piece of music is played the same the world over, using the written notes, but a book would always have to be played in German, in my case. With my orchestra!

Ultimately, this position is indefensible, as Grossman argues:

Imagine how bereft we would be if only the fictional worlds we could explore, the only vicarious literary experiences we could have, were those written in languages we read easily. The deprivation would be indescribable. Depending on your linguistic accomplishments, this would mean you might never have the opportunity to read Homer or Sophocles or Sappho, Catullus or Virgil, Dante or Petrarch or Leopardi, Cervantes or Lope or Quevedo, Ronsard or Rabelais or Verlaine, Tolstoy or Chekhov, Goethe or Heine: even a cursory list of awe-inspiring writers s practically endless, though I have not even left western Europe or gone past the nineteenth century to compile it. Then try to imagine never experiencing any literature written in the countless other languages you  may not know: in my case, these would include Polish, Czech, German, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Turkish, Russian, and all the myriad languages of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. The mere idea creates a prospect that is intolerably, inconceivably bleak.

So, in preparing to read Don Quixote, am I to read Grossman or Cervantes?

[Thanks to Francis for the discovery of this book.]