Babel and The Bible

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I especially like Pieter Brueghel the Elder's interpretation of the Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel towers high as allegory, as genesis story, as good ol’ fashioned storytelling. Painters have depicted it countless times, and theologians, literary theorists, and linguists have read into it a million ways.

I brought out my Theories of Translation book and read over philosopher Jacques Derrida’s essay on Babel. He writes that Babel as a name is the name of God, yet Babel as a noun (and now as a verb in English) signifies confusion. Here is his thesis, as I read it: “In giving his name, a name of his choice, in giving all names, the father would be at the origin of language, and that power would belong by right to God the father. And the name of God the father would be the name of that origin of tongues. But it is also that God who, in the action of his anger, annuls the gift of tongues, or at least embroils it, sows confusion among his songs, and poisons the gift.” (That last phrase is a pun on the German noun Gift, which means “poison”). Later in the essay he goes on to say, “This story recounts, among other things, the origin of the confusion of tongues, the irreducible multiplicity of idioms, the necessary and impossible task of translation, its necessity as impossibility. Now, in general, one pays little attention to this fact: it is in translation that we most often read this narrative.”

Let’s face it: the stories of the Old Testament are confusing. The God of the Old Testament is especially confusing, full of vengeance and jealousy, enigmatic and indecipherable. He is nothing like the New Testament’s God, a Being who is as equally full of love and sacrifice. And so if we build on Derrida’s thesis, the Tower of Babel story is one of the most telling of the Old Testament God’s character: he sets himself as the origin, as the word, the primogenitor, and yet punishes his people so they cannot speak of him. God becomes unknowable, unpredictable. And so his people must rely on translation, which is anything but reliable.

Adam and Eve in fifteenth-century Italian orchard?

It is thus troubling when religious fundamentalists hearken back to the literal words of a religious text: not only have cultural norms changed over the course of 2+ millennia, the words themselves have most likely been translated. Of course, Muslims consider the Quran to be God’s word, verbatim, passed to the prophet Muhammad in Arabic. There is a standardized compilation of Muhammad’s text that has not changed, and the Quran in translation is technically not the Quran. Even in the case of this holy book, though, words that have remained in common usage have connotatively and qualitatively changed and thus there plenty of subtleties that contemporary Muslims would understand only with the assistance of historical accounts. (Side note: in translation class, we read a relatively long article that spoke only of one particular Italian word that is most commonly translated into English as “orchard;” the point of the article is that “orchard” does not call to mind the images that the Italian word would for fifteen century Italians, and yet the article concluded that “orchard” is the best–and only–possible translation of the word).

Christians who read the Bible in English are reading through at least two translations, and most likely many more: for some versions Aramaic made its way into Greek, and from there Latin, then German, and finally English. If plenty can be lost in a direct translation, imagine the material that is lost in four. And yet some translations are said to be divinely inspired. The Septuagint, the Ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament was said to be created like this:

King Ptolemy once gathered 72 Elders. He placed them in 72 chambers, each of them in a separate one, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each one’s room and said: ‘Write for me the Torah of Moshe, your teacher.’ God put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did.”

If the Tower of Babel tells the story of the splitting of tongues, the writing of the Septuagint sounds like a miracle of God’s atonement. What He has separated and confused He reunites so that all may speak and know His name. As we Americans say, E pluribus unum.

Rhyme and Reason and Beowulf

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Among contemporary American poets, rhyme has largely fallen out of favor. Poor rhyme. It’s actually not rhyme’s fault, though–it’s English’s fault.

The 13th century troubadour tradition often used rhyme so that the songs might be more easily memorized by the singers. This tradition was popular in France, and spread to Italy and Spain. Do you see a pattern? These are the lands of the Romance languages. And you know what English is? Not a romance language.

In fact, the Anglo-Saxon oral tradition relied heavily on alliteration and not at all on rhyme. The reasons for this are obvious once you think about the differences in our languages. Italian and Spanish words only have five vowel sounds each, whereas English has about twenty depending on your accent. And because many Italian and Spanish words end in vowels, you have a much better chance of finding good rhymes without forcing them (after all, you can only rhyme love with dove so many times). Indeed, it’s difficult, especially in the post-Seussian literary landscape, to writing rhyming poetry in English without it sounding childish. Thus it is even more difficult to translate rhyming poetry into English, since most translators would opt to keep the rhyme scheme (as I did with Sor Juana’s poem) thereby contorting the new poem in ways the original was not.

Beowulf is one of the great epic poems of the Anglo-Saxon tradition, and uses an interesting pattern throughout: each line is alliterative within itself, and each line has four beats with a break halfway through. The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney translated the entirety of the work about a decade ago, and wrote a very interesting forward on his process of translation. After feeling daunted by the task ahead, he “noticed that without any conscious intent on my part certain lines in the first poem of my first book confirmed to the requirements of Anglo-Saxon metrics. These lines were made up of two balancing halves, each half containing two stressed syllables–‘the spade sinks    into gravelly ground: / my father, digging.   I look down.’–and in the case of the second line, there was alliteration linking ‘digging’ and ‘down’ across the caesura. Part of me, in other words, had been writing Anglo-Saxon from the start.”

Heaney goes on to talk about individual word choice, often picking words that look ancient in the Old English, but were still in common usage by his Irish aunts and grandmothers. He concludes that the tradition from which Beowulf sprang was his own ancestry, and thus he felt creative license to take on the translation. The primary language he’s translating is not so aesthetically different from the secondary language into which he’s funneling the poem.

On a final note, my dad overheard Kerri Miller, a wonderful interviewer and commentator on Minnesota Public Radio, complain of the usage of “so” to start stories. Apparently, she is sick of her interviewees signaling with “so.” I was bothered by her pet peeve–what else should we use besides “so” to start jokes or signal the beginning of something new? Luckily, as I was perusing my copy of Heaney’s Beowulf, I came across this very issue. The Old English poem begins with the exclamatory word whaet; Heaney explains how he chose the perfect word to start his translation:

Conventional renderings of hwaet, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with “lo” and “hark” and “behold” and “attend” and–more colloquially–“listen” being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullionspeak, the particle “so” came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom “so” operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention. So, “so” it was.”

So there, Kerri!

Dub step

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For the first few months I lived in Spain, my roommate and I often turned on the TV to catch late-night American movies and shows. We bemoaned the fact that all of these English offerings were dubbed instead of subtitled for Spanish viewers, wishing we could hear the familiar voices of George Clooney and Bart Simpson. We talked about how strange it is that Spanish voice actors make a career out of dubbing one particular American actor so that Brad Pitt, for instance, always sounds the same in Spain even though it’s not his actual voice.

Too hot for Franco

There’s a reason, though, that dubbing is the only means of translating films and television in Spain, and it’s more insidious than mere tradition. For the forty years that General Franco was in power, he sought to control Spanish society through strong censorship of all “foreign” elements. He even suppressed cultures native to Spain, such as Basque and Catalán, for the sake of creating a unified national identity. Thus, all films and literature that came to Spain between 1936 and 1975 were edited in the translation process to show Spaniards only what Franco wanted them to see. Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot, for instance, showed too much immoral behavior for Franco’s liking and so the film in Spain was shown with many of the most humorous scenes deleted.

Translation, then, is often more than an artistic pursuit. The reasons that some works literature are translated while other works are not are frequently political, and linguistic choices can be made to emphasize certain elements for the new audience. Indeed, Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible, which asserts that salvation is granted on faith alone (and not through good deeds), led to the Protestant Reformation.

I found that my small town in Spain was sorely in need of a translator for neither artistic nor political reasons, but just to make sense. A restaurant near my apartment offered their menu in English and French, and I loved reading  the loosely translated names of their dishes. Aged sheep cheese became “Cheese of sheep old man,” while a bread basket became “Table of bread.” When they weren’t sure which word to pick from their English dictionary, they just included both translations, neither of them correct: scrambled eggs with blood sausage became “In a mess (untidy) of pudding rice.” And my favorite: “Attacked of fantasy of mushrooms.” With a name like that, who cares what’s really in the dish.

The offending, or perhaps delighting, menu

How to be a translator

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What you’ll need: fluency in at least two languages, a rhyming dictionary

Songlist: Speak My Language by The Cure

Further reading: The Craft of Translation

I got my dad a book of poems for Christmas by the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Tomas Tranströmer. The poems in this edition are translated from their original Swedish into English by several different people, including poet Robert Bly.

This got us to talking about the translation of poems–is it possible? What’s the best method? Who best to do it? I brought up American poet Jane Kenyon who translated twenty of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova’s poems…without knowing any Russian. She had a fluent Russian speaker create English transliterations–direct translations of each word, with notes on subtleties–and from those she created her own poems.

Perhaps this doesn’t sound like much of a translation. Perhaps it seems like Kenyon was using Akhmatova’s poems more as inspiration than subject. Or perhaps it seems presumptuous that Kenyon did not need the original language to create poems loyal to the originals.

Unfortunately, loyalty is one of the most controversial and difficult subjects in the field of translation. To whom does the translator owe the greatest loyalty–to the author, the work of literature, or the audience for which the new work is being created? As the Italians say, Traduttore, traditore (Translator, traitor).

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

For a college course on translation, I did a project on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a brilliant Mexican woman who entered a convent so as to continue her studies, and wrote biting criticisms of the sexism rampant in her 17th century society. One of her most famous poems, Hombres Necios (Foolish Men), attacks the hypocrisy of those men who condemn prostitutes for their sin and yet are the same men who frequent brothels.

Translating this poem was difficult enough–she writes in a very formal style with strict rhythm and rhyme scheme, which is hard to pull off in English. To add to it, though, I also decided to translate a parody of the poem, Hembras Necias (Foolish Females). In translating the parody, I realized I had to parody my translation. Which is to say, the parody that I wrote in English related more to my translation of Hombres Necios than to the parody in Spanish, so that English readers might see the connection and understand the puns involved. This led to me another conclusion: all translation is, in a sense, parody (so long as we think of parody not necessarily mocking the original work but being created in its form).

In this project, I used the theory of Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, who said that all literature and indeed all language is in continual dialogue with everything that has come before and will be changed by everything that comes afterward. Nothing is said or written in a vacuum. Translations, then, are just a part of this dialogue. “Perfect” translations cannot exist, because words in different languages are not equal–they have different connotations, different histories, different users. So perhaps there is no correct way to create a translation of a poem. As the translator does not wish to replace the original, the best she can do is submit a new work in the ever-shifting landscape of literature and hope the it continues the dialogue in some meaningful way.

Merry Christmas!

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Your moment of zen:

Skiing with fire

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There are a million Christmas Eve traditions across the world; one of my favorites happens at Grand Targhee Resort. The night before Christmas skiers are invited to traverse down a green-circle slope holding torches. The effect is something like the image below: fire makes a braid across the snow. I’m sure Santa loves flying over Targhee.

Skiing is beautiful

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The movement is beautiful:

The technology is beautiful:

Every moment is beautiful:

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