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Kotryna Garanašvili is a writer, translator and interpreter working with Lithuanian, English, French, German, Russian and Georgian. She is currently a PhD candidate and associate tutor at the University of East Anglia. Her research is supported by CHASE Arts and Humanities Research Council. She is the winner of the Emerging Translator Mentorship at the National Centre for Writing and has been awarded translation traineeships at the EU Council and European Parliament. More here: https://kotrynagaranasvili.wordpress.com 

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a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Rolandas Rimkūnas, Also Is a Part of Universe, 2/25, 2004 - 2005, etching, paper, 56,7 x 77,7 cm. From the MO Museum collection.
Zigmas Pakštaitis

by
Kotryna Garanašvili

 Authors photo by Sam Boyd

 

 

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t see translation as a matter of course. Whenever I read something and decisively thought it was good, I just knew it had to be translated. Other people need to read this. An instant response, an urgency to share. There are many reasons for this, I suppose. A reader’s impulse, the natural generosity that we have in common when it comes to good writing, for one thing. On a more personal level, the multilingualism of my family must have played a part. There were 11 languages circulating in our household when I was growing up, and new ones kept showing up. Is it too much? I don’t know. I certainly know it’s enough to make you consider translation as a natural process.

Above all, I always took wanting to translate something as a sign of literary quality and value. It meant that the text was exceptional and needed to be carried across to other languages so that it could reach other readers. That much was clear. This would happen whenever I read something I liked (literally anything: a whole novel, a short story, a few memorable lines from a poem, an interview quote, a pun, a clever title).

Sometimes, I would merely think about its possible translation. At other times, I would attempt to perform the actual translation. I would address myself to this task quite obsessively, yet without genuine commitment. It was something I would have preferred to delegate to someone else. Not a particular person, necessarily – in the most general terms, I was more inclined to think of a higher power that orchestrates all things translation.

There’s a scene in Friends where they get locked out on the rooftop and Ross is trying to persuade Joey to jump down from the fire escape. When YOU get down there… An ultimate attempt at delegation:

Ross: Ugh. Well, we’re just gonna have to jump. (Joey looks at him.) Yeah. Now, we’re gonna have to make sure to land to the right of that patch of ice, okay? Not hit the dumpster on the other side and uh, and try to avoid that weird brownish red stuff in the middle. So, when you get down there… you go up to the roof and you let me in.
Joey: Oh whoa-whoa wait a minute! I have to do it?!
Ross: Yeah! Oh yeah, you’ll be fine! It-it’ll be uh, just like bungy jumping. Y’know? But instead of bouncing back up you-you won’t.
Joey: What if I smack my head on the concrete?
Ross: Well, I’m gonna lie to you Joey, it’s a possibility.
(The One Where They’re Up All Night, 2001)

The dangers accumulated in the process of translation are very real, and yes, hitting a patch of ice or a dumpster or smacking your head on the concrete are very accurate metaphors to describe them. While I was reading between languages and thinking how they should theoretically be translated into each other, it somehow never occurred to me that I would end up practically translating them. If I still choose to believe in an orchestrating power of translation, it would seem that it delegated me to do it. Yes, I can see the irony. I have now become fully committed to something I initially attempted to evade.

Before that happened, I had to explore two main questions linked to the natural necessity of translation, mainly why and how.

Why? What makes translating things so naturally necessary? In broad terms, it’s probably the alluring presence of beauty and splendour that resides in text. Explaining it is more difficult than experiencing it hands-on.

Kas protą praras, tas dangų laimės
Kas nugrims į marias, prisikels iš gelmės.

Reading these lines from a certain poem is chilling. If you don’t read Lithuanian, they will merely seem like a bunch of unfamiliar words, some of which you might vaguely recognize or deduce the meaning of, or wonder at the spelling and possible phonetics. But the chill, the beauty, the linguistic complexity, the commanding rhythm, the emotional charge are all concealed. Their presence can be felt but it is not embodied. Then the translator steps in and makes everything right.

Though they go mad they shall be sane
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again.

It appears to be Dylan Thomas, brought into Lithuanian by Tomas Venclova. The answer to the why translation is a natural necessity can be condensed into a fairly brief argument of all the things that would otherwise be lost.

How is another matter. The beauty, the chill, the charge – how is it achieved in another language? Venclova’s rendition of Thomas makes it seem smooth and seamless, something that transformed and instantly adopted another linguistic guise. Needless to say, this is not the case. It might seem effortless, which only speaks of the skill and brilliance of a translator, something that is sometimes overlooked or misunderstood by readers and reviewers. Daniel Hahn talks about it in On Reviewing Translations:

But a reviewer who thinks he can praise the rhythm, the texture, the beauty of the prose, the warmth and wit of the voice, without acknowledging who’s responsible—as though those things in an author’s original simply reappear automatically after the mechanics of translation have been applied to a text—that’s a reviewer who simply has no understanding of what translation is (Hahn 2011)

No, translation is not automatic, instant or straightforward, it’s a manual labour involving an actual human translator and their set of skills, and there’s no flawlessly correct way to do it as far as we know. Venclova might make it seem right and easy, but there are so many things that can go wrong and difficult. In fact, it’s much more chaotic and dangerous than it may seem. So how can it be done?

It was clear to me quite early on that translation involves a certain kind of death. I remember a dilemma I had as a schoolkid, trying to make sense of the work by a Lithuanian poet Antanas Miškinis. I was very taken with one of his poems, Elegantiškai Sninga, and attempted to translate the first two lines – not even the whole thing, because, as I was saying, my commitment at the time didn’t reach that far. In Lithuanian, it goes like this:

Šiandien taip elegantiškai sninga
Sninga žemėn medžių žiedais. 

Yet again, if you don’t read Lithuanian, explaining as to why exactly these lines are so visually stunning might take a significant amount of time. The first line basically says that it’s snowing so elegantly today, and a picture of a still winter landscape emerges in your mind. Then the second line swoops in, bringing a different image, and transporting you to a different season. It says that it’s snowing in tree blossoms, and before this realization has properly settled in, the cold snow-covered landscape is replaced by a fragile warmth of the spring, fast enough to leave you slightly dazed at the juxtaposed turn of events.

Now the task here is clear: I want all of that to transfer into the realm of another language, English, in this case. Quite simply, I want the reader who doesn’t read Lithuanian to be overcome with the same feeling of discovery and appreciation. Preferably, I want this to be achieved without having to go into a detailed explanation. The process of translation seems one way to do it, if not the only way. It seems reasonable so far. It also seems manageable. Then this happens:

Today so elegantly snowing
Snowing down trees blossoms.

And I know by this time it’s a trap.

All the words are in the same places and their meanings do correspond, but nothing else is the same. Both languages function differently and arrange words in different ways. Directly replacing them with each other is not going to help accomplish the task. It’s not delivering the stunning beauty of the poem; in fact, it might be doing quite the opposite. It’s a distortion of everything this poem stands for. In an essay about her translation of Olga Tokarczuk, The Order of Things, Jennifer Croft notes this very thing:

Preserving Polish word order in English necessarily makes for less fluid sentences, and it sometimes results in complete incomprehensibility (Croft 2022)

Same goes to Lithuanian. There is a number of problems in this brief passage if we care to take another look:

Šiandien taip elegantiškai sninga           Today so elegantly snowing
Sninga žemėn medžių žiedais.               Snowing down trees# blossoms#

I can count at least six problems here. I used hashtags to indicate the words that feature grammatical cases, but I’m not going to highlight all the problem places in bold, because I would basically have to highlight every word and letter, and using different colours or indications might be too confusing for now, so I’ll stick to numbering.

The most important, or at least the most obvious problem might be trees blossoms (medžių žiedais). Lithuanian has an extensive case system, where the endings of nouns mark their purpose in a sentence. It results in spacious, commodious constructions: they can basically contain a lot of information without the help of prepositions. Medžių žiedais features two of the seven cases that Lithuanian uses. Medžių is the genitive case (whose? – of trees), žiedais is the instrumental case (how? – in blossoms), and so it’s a more compact way of saying in the blossoms of the trees. There are two words and two cases, which I’ll count as two problems.

Then there’s the word order. The Lithuanian version opens with Šiandien (today), bringing the reader’s focus lightly to the present moment, and taip (so), a submodifier used for emphasis. Both of them struggle to appear at the beginning of the sentence in English. Both Today it’s snowing so elegantly, or It’s snowing so elegantly today, and both options push one of these words further. Now it’s four problems.

Žemėn is yet another problem, a double problem, in fact. Its literal translation could be towards the ground, and there’s yet another case involved – a pretty rare case of the iliative case (no, pun not intended, we have enough of those already), which indicates place and direction. An image of ground or earth, something tangible is brought up, and a sense of movement is strengthened, all in one word. And there’s another subtle nuance – žemėn is slightly different from the very similar žemyn (down / towards a lower position), less formal, because iliative tends to create a slightly rough, plain, almost rustic impression. It’s six problems now, at least. And I didn’t even mention the determiners, which English does have but Lithuanian doesn’t. That definitely adds to the list of problems.

And now it’s quite evident that this short passage manages to contain the full-on danger of the translation process: the patch of ice, the dumpster, the weird brownish red stuff, the concrete.

It's a death-trap.

This all goes beyond the total count of the problems or even their solutions. The actual fundamentals of translation and how we choose to approach translation is at stake here. Paul Guenther is very serious about this in Faithful Ugliness or Faithless Beauty:

The fact is that translation must be a compromise between two different languages and of all that they, individually, stand for. Language is far more than vocabulary and grammar; it is a representation of a whole unique way of life. Since the reader is often in no position to pass judgment on the merits of a translation, a grave responsibility is placed on the conscientious translator (Guenther 1962)

I remain as captivated with the beauty of Miškinis’ passage as when I first read it. The natural impulse is there: it needs to be translated. I still haven’t done a full translation of this particular poem, or these particular lines. I do have all sorts of versions of it. The early ones are particularly important. Like this:

It’s snowing so elegantly today
Snowing in white petals.
(the image of the earth disappears, as well as a highlighted sense of movement, and the rhythm changes)

Or this:

Today the snow is falling so elegantly
Falling down in snow-white blossoms.
(it takes ages to get to the point, plus the source poem never says that the blossoms are white. They might just as well be red)

And:

The snow is so elegant today
Petals are falling down from the trees.
(the double image of snow disappears, and the trees seem too much)

And also:

The snow is so elegant today
Falling down in snow-white blossoms.
(to be fair, I think it’s my favourite one right now)

With each attempt, it was becoming only too evident that they’re imperfect. I was so keen to put the beauty of the passage into English. But despite all the effort, each translated version involved shifting words around. The languages were resisting each other. Both of them were set in their ways. At that point, I was overcome with an admiration for the Lithuanian version, its structure, its sound, its aesthetic. So much so that I was willing to push the limits of English. Why, why couldn’t it transform to adopt cases, or at least be more accommodating to the complexity of Lithuanian syntax and its baroque nature?

The beauty of a language – that’s the real trap.

While there are unlimited creative solutions to every translation problem imaginable, grammar is pretty relentless. Sure, it can be toyed with, but it’s not going to radically change overnight. English does not have cases. It doesn’t have gendered adjectives. Those are the laws. I can rebel or rant or beg, but none of that will be very efficient.

I’m a fast learner, but it took a while for this truth to sink in. It contained an acute kind of sadness. It’s a fierce sort of realization that the act of translation is, in itself, a death of the source text. The text can’t exist in the same way within more than one language; its destruction begins as soon as the translation task is set.

And yet translators keep embarking on this task, often willingly, despite all the dangers that await them in the process. Even if the process might include a deadly element, there is also a phoenix-like-element of rebirth. However imperfect the result, there’s beauty in the attempt itself, always leading somewhere, and in the hope of gaining something valuable in the process. One language may not be able to turn into another, but they can adapt to each other, and there is so much to be gained. In Croft’s discussion of the rearrangement of the source text, a peaceful scene comes into view:

Now the words of the original find their reflections on the surface of the ocean, as if my translations of them were inevitable, even though others would opt for other words. Now I rearrange the original’s sentences, letting them conform to the different conditions of the shore. I rearrange them with a mind to move on from here soon, with my next destination in my sights (Croft 2022)

There’s no way to avoid the trap. There is a way to embrace it, though. There’s not only the beauty that sets the trap, there’s beauty in the trap itself.

 

REFERENCES

- Croft, Jennifer (2022) The Order of Things. LitHub, https://lithub.com/the-order-of-things-jennifer-croft-on-translating-olga-tokarczuk/
- Guenther, Paul F. (1962) Faithful Ugliness or Faithless Beauty: The Translator’s Problem. In: The German Quarterly 35, no. 4
- Hahn, Daniel (2011) On Reviewing Translations. Words Without Borders, https://wordswithoutborders.org/read/article/2011-03/reviewing-translations/
- Miškinis, Antanas (1936) Elegantiškai Sninga. http://www.tekstai.lt/antologijos/524-naujosios-poezijos-antologija-antrieji-vainikai-1936/6447-naujosios-poezijos-antologija-antrieji-vainikai-1936-antanas-miskinis-poezija
- Rosenblatt, Zachary (2001) Friends: The One Where They’re Up All Night, transcript, https://uncutfriendsepisodes.tripod.com/season7/712uncut.html
- Thomas, Dylan (1933) And Death Shall Have No Dominion, https://allpoetry.com/And-Death-Shall-Have-No-Dominion
- Venclova, Tomas (2013) Pertrūkis Tikrovėje. Straipsniai apie literatūrą ir kultūrą. Lietuvių literatūros ir tautosakos institutas

 

 

 

 

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