From the Original Naiveté

This is the first entry of a crude, digressive series on the subject of literary translation.

On their 2002 album, ( ), Icelandic glaciergaze (inventing genres as we go) titans Sigur Rós employed a “fake” language for the record’s lyrics. They dubbed the tongue Vonlenska (or Hopelandic), which was composed of a one eleven-syllable phrase (“You xylo. You xylo no fi lo. You so”—conceding this discovery to the unabating nerds at Pitchfork). The phrase is subsequently dismantled and rearranged throughout the album. Whether or not the band was entirely conscious of the message it was sending listeners, the gesture seems to say, “Hey, Americans, maybe lyrics aren’t all that important to music.” Moreover, maybe translating the songs that they did write in a “real” language (Icelandic) is even less important.

Translated from the Hopelandic.

Good for music. There’s some irony to the fact that the man who precedes Sigur Rós in my iTunes library is Japanese bedroom-pop artist (blaming/crediting Pitchfork again) Shugo Tokumaru. If we’re to carry the above logic down, what the rail thin multi-instrumentalist is yammering about in Japanese matters little in the face of the staggering (some say nauseating—not me) sense of enthusiasm present in the musician’s composition. I tend to agree—mostly. Music, if we’re to believe critic Walter Pater, is the condition to which all other art aspires (I heard he had said this in a seminar on Dante anyway). Morrissey’s croon then, with its pitch, its sneer, and occasional trill (that is to say, its musical qualities), is just as important (if not more so) as the man’s brilliant ability to generate winningly literary lyrics. Similarly, Frank Black’s nasal delivery, yelps and barks, and abrupt vocal mutations (changes of pitch and inflection) are perhaps the reason why Pixies songs transcend their disjointed, esoteric psychosexual lyrics and Old Testament allusions (“Uriah, hit the crapper!”), and Black’s seemingly crazed fits of French (“I am un chien Andalusia!) and Spanish (“Vamos a jugar por la playa!”). Again, good for music (and for you, for escaping my needless posturing of tastes therein).

It wasn’t until I read of Albert Camus’ L’Étranger (a novel I largely took up as a too young attempt to better understand The Cure’s “Killing an Arab”) that I started concerning myself with the notion of literary translation. Before picking up the Matthew Ward translation from the French, I had consumed portions of Dante, Homer, and Virgil with little thought paid to the how it arrived in English—in some cases, I read from these texts online, where a translator wasn’t even credited. I was perfectly content with my belief that I had, in fact, tackled those Western literary giants until I picked up that Vintage International paperback. The title of English translations of the novel is loudly disputed in the rows of philosophy or fiction (or sometimes in the “Banned Books” display—next to New Moon— incendiary stuff, that Stephanie Meyer) of Borders and Noble. The Outsider and The Stranger both seemed to have very different implications for protagonist Meursault—I also realized my reading of any foreign text was suspect. So, I did what anyone would do in the pre-iPhone era—I picked my camp from the copious translations by judging their covers.

This one looks pretty smart.

Luckily, Ward’s translation is among the noted attempts at a proper translation. Despite the fact that I was in competent hands, I couldn’t help but entertain the fleeting notion that I should learn French. After all, this was my favorite book after one read-through, no doubt a product of the thickening fog of social networking, with its hyperawareness of the self’s taste and a teenaged hyperwillingness to share that discovery on MySpace (or the now ancient AIM profile–cave paintings really). There existed a very earnest sense that I would never understand Camus if I didn’t read him in the French—the trial versions of Rosetta Stone and borrowed textbooks would ultimately fail me, however, and I would go on to read La Peste (now he was my favorite author!) with forced complacency, forever dogged by a faint recollection of story of Babel in the Bible. Now, however, I armed myself by picking up good translations; at least those extolled by armchair critics on Amazon or college professors.

If I’ve neglected Tokumaru-san after summoning him above, let me bring him back to demonstrate that his presence in my iTunes library is a fairly recent refinement of my role as an American otaku (employed here to mean nerd in place of a more literal or expressive translation). I do not wish to wholly disassociate myself from the typical fan of anime or cosplayer (yes, I do), but distinctions must be made (after all, I don’t do costumes outside the safety of certain pagan holidays—or my home). A certain brand of Orientalism (used here preemptively; I’d rather not concede it another, more rabid graduate student, who, having just encountered the term, is eager to employ it) was ever-present in early 90s childhood, one that I am not innocent (nor completely rid) of—its the type that saw Akira blasted on the Sci-Fi Channel on Saturday mornings and further explorations of the anime genre (in its subversive, blood-plumed glory) with friends in the darkened, finished basements of our youth. More “realistic” depictions of Japanese culture took the form of Karate Kid on VHS; the beloved Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita—once a captive in a Japanese internment camp during World War II) seemed to be caught up in Hollywood fetishising of martial arts and Eastern “mysticism” with his ability to work a Christ-like miracle on Daniel-san’s broken leg. If it weren’t for the poignant scene in which Miyagi, a troubled Veteran of WWII, drunk and rambling about his dead wife, the film would be all but unwatchable. Depictions of noble samurai and the notion of Japanese exoticism lead me to the study of the language in college, but I left (having failed the last of four semesters twice) with a more complex understanding of the culture through its linguistic subtleties. In the simplest of terms, Japanese not as self-involved as English, at least not without some effort on the part of the writer/speaker.

Understanding Japanese (both written and spoken) is a less emotive endeavor and in many ways largely contextual, which makes translating it to English a particularly precarious, a sentiment echoed in Edward Seidensticker’s essay “On Trying to Translate Japanese:”

The character of their extraordinary language has surely had some effect on the character of the Japanese. It would be impertinent of a foreigner to say what, but one catches a hint in the behavior of novelists and critics. They first lament their poverty, which need not worry us. Compared to the poverty of serious writers in other countries, it is a fiction. Next, and more significantly, they lament their inability to have strong feelings of personal identity. Many of them seem to look upon their foggy, floating prose as in part responsible and are determined to change it.

I currently find myself readying six poems by modern/contemporary Japanese poet Hiroshi Kawasaki (more on him in a later installment) for a course on translation, despite my earlier admission of being failing student of the language. I will have a great deal of help from my friend (more on him later, too), a native speaker of Japanese and will be armed with The Craft of Translation, the book of essays in which Seidensticker’s appears. I will also have the befit of workshop, peer commentary, and, of course, my professor. I’ll admit my excitement and apprehension now before abject frustration and futility make house (an expectation the aforementioned book’s introduction seems to soothsay).

So, if this discursive entry has led us (me) anywhere, it is through my first fumbling experiences with the concept of translation. While I understand there are many people out there who, upon hearing “Hoppípolla” (“Jumping into puddles”) for the first time, rushed online in search of an English translation from the Icelandic, I, upon reflection, can confidently say I was never all that interested. Perhaps it had something with the expectation of disappointment, but my disinterest was really more innate than all that, even after grapplingwith Camus translations or poorly dubbed video games, films, and animation from Japan. There’s something of a similar cavalier (dare I say punk) about the attitude presented by Sigur Rós eleven-syllable untranslatable phrase, something that values music above meaning. It’s not an entirely realistic ideal as I approach my own literary translations, but it will be an important consideration as to provide these poems an enjoyable stay in English.