Note: My apologies for the last minute entry. You can see why here.
Somewhere between Wilde and Derrida I realized that language was something I was thrust into. It filled the world around me and gave form to everything. As I grew and became a reader, language created a temporal gateway between myself, the writer and the world they created. Its nuances and inconsistencies—as exemplified by the apex of all word-play, the pun—gave me hours of delight. Language can bend, turn back on itself and surprise. Yet, like the air, it is invisible and, like the air, its contamination or elimination would be deadly.
Rushdie’s master manipulation in the short story “The Courter” is frustrating. Whenever I come upon a writer who can transform simple words into a colorful experience, my jealousy gland flares up and I fume. And what’s brilliant about “The Courter” is how the whole story turns upon the mispronunciation of one word. By changing “porter” to “courter”, Certainly-Mary introduced a new idea into Mixed-Up’s mind and sets the rest of the tale in motion. Language, so easily manipulated by those with nefarious intent, is also the means of communicating kindness and love, and its mishaps often express something we hide even from ourselves.
Outside of my own reading and writing, language takes shape as I work with students in the Writing Center. I am always impressed with how students learning English—and many times it is their third or fourth language—have such mastery of its form. English is a particularly difficult language to learn, from what I am told, though the world is infused with it from politics to pop culture, it must be difficult to steer away from it. The jealously gland throbs again when talking to a student who worries about their paper in English, all while juggling multiple vehicles of expression in their head. How does English explain our culture to someone learning the language? At what moment does the ELL student think, ‘oh, they arrange the words this way, well that explains a lot.’
Ngũgĩ’s essay gave me a small, safely-privileged sense, of what it feels like to have your own language rejected. His school experience was the pained twin of the experience of America’s indigenous people in our boarding schools; their language rejected, demonized and banned. And it is a brilliant scheme. Eliminate the language of a culture and you slowly eliminate the culture. Remove the barrier between communication entirely and sedition is slow to stir. Assimilation, with the necessary deference to the “proper” speakers of the master language, is key to maintaining an exploitable class structure. I admit, it was difficult to hear of how my language was used this way, but I am not so naive to think that English is not a terrible and effective weapon. We routinely use this weapon on ourselves.
When I started seriously pursuing learning another language, I didn’t realize all the small connections that would be created in my brain. Japanese in its syntax is not terribly different, though differently arranged, but the switch from alphabet to syllabaries and kanji appeared to be mountainous in scale. Yet, little by little, I see how certain ideas join together to form larger ideas—my favorite so far is that the kanjis for “certain” and “death” join together to make the word “frantic.”
In learning another language you get a sense of those who speak it, and Ngũgĩ spelled this out beautifully when he said that language is the carrier of culture (Desai and Nair 153). They are impossible to separate, and while I may study for years, my upbringing in America will always prevent me from being entirely fluent in the cultural aspect of the language. My goal is to be able to read in Japanese, to get closer to the authorial intent of a text.
Walcott’s poems are another example of getting closer to the intent through language. Ironically, the pdf’s had some of the footnotes cut off, thereby rendering some of the references “untranslatable.” I will fully credit Dr. Clemens for doing this intentionally as a way to showcase how beauty may still be gleaned from a text even without a full context of the allusions or the culture to which it refers.
This is where translation gets muddy. Translation may open the door to many texts, but the view is more through a foggy window.
An example: a stanza from Pablo Neruda’s poem “Sólo la Muerte”
hay pies de pegajosa losa fría,
hay la meurte en los huesos,
como un sonido puro,
como un ladrido sin perro,
saliendo de ciertas campanas, de ciertas tumbas,
creciendo en la humedad como el llanto o la lluvia.
My preferred translation by Robert Haas, who I feel attempts to capture the lyrical nature of the original:
There are corpses,
there are feet of clammy stone,
there is death in the bones,
like pure sound,
like a bark without a dog,
growing out of certain bells, certain tombs,
swelling in the humidity like a lament or like rain.
A poorer translation, in my opinion, by Robert Bly, which can be found here:
And there are corpses,
feet made of cold and sticky clay,
death is inside the bones,
like a barking where there are no dogs,
coming out from bells somewhere, from graves somewhere,
growing in the damp air like tears of rain.
The “clunkiness” of English is clearer here. There appears to be less attention to the music of the poem as opposed to the more literal translation. Even an entire line is missing. Translation is an art, but a “lossy” one. Shapes and movement may be clear, but some meaning is lost. A desire to only read in your own language seems lazy to me—those time I want to learn French to read Derrida are fleeting, but I generally drown those thoughts in beer—yet there will still be a cultural barrier. Ngũgĩ highlights this in showing how the comprador class uses native languages—often forgotten and rejected by the intellectual elites—to heighten fear and superstition in the working class. His refusal of English in his own work, and his desire to speak to the working class in their own language feels like a repossession of discourse that some of the writers that came before him abandoned. We English-speaking, intellectual-elite should take note and remember that for the American working class, academic English reads as another language.
It’s time to translate.