Another View: Tracing the Foreign in Literary Translation by Eduard Stoklosinski. $35.00, 260 pp. Dalkey Archive Press.
In 2012, in a global game of Chinese Whispers, a single message traveled through seven languages and across six continents, starting in St. Kilda, Melbourne as “Life must be lived as play” (a commonly paraphrased quote from Plato), and ending in Homer, Alaska as “He bites snails.”
According to a Wikipedia entry, the now–politically incorrect name of the popular children’s game (alternately played as Gossip, Broken Telephone, Pass the Message, Operator, and Don’t Drink the Milk), derives from
Westerners’ use of the word Chinese to denote “confusion” and “incomprehensibility” to the earliest contacts between Europeans and Chinese people in the 1600s, and attribute[s] it to Europeans’ inability to understand China’s culture and worldview.
Chinese, it was assumed, like other “foreign” languages, was an incomprehensible one. Common phrases like it’s all Greek to me, mumbo jumbo, gibberish, and double Dutch demonstrate our apprehension of certain foreign languages as impenetrable glossolalia.
It is this assumption of the otherness and obscurity of the foreign in language that Eduard Stoklosinski examines in Another View: Tracing the Foreign in Literary Translation.
The author queries the concept of the foreign in the translation of literary texts and presents a number of criticisms of directionality in translation, citing “entrenched dogmas of mother tongue and native speaker” in current translation praxis and situating his inquiry in cultural, historical, and literary contexts.
It is the dictum that translators ought to translate into their mother tongue, from a position of mastery and authority, which the author challenges, arguing that, in fact,
the trial of the foreign is intrinsic to writing and translation, and that translating into a second, “foreign” language facilitates and compliments that actual motion of translation: to carry across the original text to foreign language ground.
He proposes a provocative problem in the philosophy and praxis of translation. In the industry, “perceptions persist that ‘carrying over’ deviant, estranging features of the foreign into the translating language constitutes negative, inappropriate intrusions.” The tendency to “obscure, to reduce and to simplify” the sometimes troubled relationship between the translating and translated language diminishes or negates the distinct impressions of the original text.
Ultimately, Stoklosinski pronounces concepts of mother tongue and native speaker as ideological constructs, pointing to global migrations that have altered not only language usage but also concepts of dominance, colonial, and post-colonial language cultures, not to mention the idea of a motherland.
In refuting concepts of fluency, he cites Yoko Tawada in Talisman:
I was disgusted by people who spoke their mother tongue fluently. They gave the impression that they were incapable of thinking and feeling anything else than what their language so instantly and willingly provides.
One response to the fallacy of “mother tongue supremacy,” argues the author, is the “foreign” translator, whose de-centered position make him or her less likely to normalize or clarify texts, and who is instead “drawn to articulate the inconclusiveness, the arbitrariness of the original, to trace and extend its motion of Sprachfindung, its search for language in the translating language.”
The first part of the book presents Stoklosinski’s take on the Ausländerliteratur, or literature of foreigners in Germany, his views on the validity of and potential for non-native translation, an abbreviated history of translation through antiquity into modern times, and a critique of two German-to-English translations by well-known English native-speaker translators. The second part of the book presents debut translations by the author, a native German speaker, of German authors writing in German from non-German cultural backgrounds.
In “Short Unstable Locality Guide,” Zsuzsanna Gahse illustrates how the very “deviant, estranging features” that Stoklosinski described are read as identifying features of the foreign:
Emigrants and immigrants are foreigners. If someone suddenly wanders from one place to another and doesn’t return to the original place for a while (the question, of course, is how long is a while), he will gradually look disfigured, and this is what one perceives as foreign.
Yet, when one has not wandered and has remained sedentary, declares Gahse, a “residentity” emerges. And over time, such residents “get residentities and setities, and they have a feeling the place belongs to them and not to others.”
Both Gahse’s text and Stoklosinski’s translation rewrite the non-foreigner as a de facto foreigner by demonstrating how the positions of national and linguistic identity are based in arbitrary concepts of time. Gahse’s destabilizing of identity is echoed in Stoklosinski’s decision to retain words such as “residentity” or “setities,” which he argues, “defamiliarize the English reader” and because, in the latter case, for example, “the original word Angessessenheiten is just as unfamiliar in German”.
When the official narrative is controlled, when readers and writers are alienated by the languages they speak and read, explains Marica Bodrožić in “Tito is Dead,” concepts of national and literary identity are outwardly abandoned:
There were many whose hearts were beating on both sides. Still, or rather therefore, the houses burned, and in the cellars of those who had fled, books were found that had to be classified as dangerous in view of a world in flames. Nothing got lost at that time, no one was friends with one another, and it was meaningless to show understanding for one’s neighbor because he had a fondness for Russian or German literature. The kind of literature he held dear was revealed by his abandoned library. Everyone had become neutral, without history, without biography; curiously enough, a “national memory” was preserved in the process. It was probably due to the eyes of Big Brother because once again they were monitoring events.
But in fact, as Herta Müller describes in “There Are Different Eyes inside each Language,” words are not direct correspondences to experience:
It’s not true that there are words for everything. And that one always thinks in words isn’t true either. To this day, there’s much that I haven’t thought in words. I haven’t found any, not in village German, not in town German, not in Romanian, not in East or West German. And not in books. The inner districts don’t coincide with language, they drag people to places where words can’t reside. Often it’s what matters most about which nothing can be said anymore, and the impulse to talk about it only works well because it is missing the point.
Stoklosinski’s choice to keep what he describes as Müller’s “somewhat archaic angles, in dislocated sentence structures”—the vaguely unsettling use of the word any, the run-on sentence that flows out of the “inner districts,” and the tripling of the pronoun it to yoke three referents that attempt to describe the inexplicable— articulates the irony that words are used to describe precisely “what matters most about which nothing can be said”.
In the middle section of the book, Stoklosinkski analyzes and retranslates two very short selections from works previously translated by native-speaker translators: Susan Bernofsky’s translation of Yoko Tawada’s “Zungentanz” (“Tongue Dance”) and Michael Hofmann’s translation of Herta Müller’s “Hertzier” (“The Land of Green Plums”).
There are two types of translations: those translated for the first time, and those that have been previously published. Of the former, the reader who is unable to read the original must perform an act of faith and decide whether the work succeeds in the translated language and enlarges that culture’s literature. The latter opens up dialogue and offers the opportunity to compare how translators’ choices form a text.
As a framework for his analysis of Bernofsky and Hofmann’s translations, Stoklosinski uses translator Antoine Berman’s “analytic of translation,” which identifies several common textual deformation tendencies that can occur in translation.
In Bernofsky’s translation, for example, Stoklosinski points out areas where, according to Berman’s framework, Bernofsky has made translating choices that have created “lexical loss”. Where Bernofsky translates Mundhöhle (literally “mouth cave”), simply as mouth, (“My tongue is always somewhat swollen when I wake up, much too large to move easily within my mouth”), Stoklosinski retains the word’s literal composition with the phrase mouth’s cavity (“When I wake up, my tongue is always somewhat swollen and much too large to move within the mouth’s cavity”). Stoklosinski also points out that syntactical changes such as moving the dependent clause (“when I wake up”) to the end of the sentence makes the text read more smoothly than the original, thereby eliminating the awkwardness and dislocation of speaking and writing in a non-mother tongue language that Tawada describes.
Such analyses are certainly fascinating and helpful for anyone interested in how the choices translators make about texts can shape the original work. And Stoklosinski’s analysis seems to confirm his thesis. However, the samples are too brief to permit a judgment of an analysis of either Bernofsky or Hofmann’s translations.
Another View demonstrates exciting potential in translation study and praxis. It is especially significant in deconstructing assumptions about fluency and linguistic identity. The author makes some persuasive arguments for considering and even preferring non-native translation of texts, the most controversial of which is the possibility that linguistic competence may in fact constitute an act of linguistic imperialism.
Stoklosinski, a translator into English of German writers such as Thomas Bernhard and Hermann Lenz, is also a researcher and translator in the field of Holocaust studies. Another View: Tracing the Foreign in Literary Translation: Contemporary German Writing from the Ethnic Margins in English Translation is his doctoral thesis, published last year by Dalkey Archive Press.
Jessica Michalofsky’s reviews, non-fiction, and fiction have been published in The Globe and Mail, Brick, The Winnipeg Review, Geist, and Joyland.
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