Some may remember my review of Anne Carson’s book If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. Like everyone else, I adored her book and really took to her method of translation. Recently, I decided to investigate a little bit more about this talented artist and scholar. I found that If Not, Winter is hardly anomalous as a representative work.

In her essay “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent,” published in a 2008 edition of A Public Space, she confronts the boundary between linguistics and literary theory, hoping to develop a kind of a theory of silence. She doesn’t need more space than what she uses in the essay to do so.

The motivation for the essay has its roots in the art of translation. According to Carson, there are two kinds of silence to be reckoned with by the translator. Physical silence occurs where something the author intended to be there is missing, as with many of Sappho’s poems, largely lost to posterity. Carson deals with this by using brackets where the author’s intended expressions are missing, but she says translators may be as justified in some cases to extrapolate expressions. The other kind of silence is “metaphysical” silence, wherein “a word… does not intend to be translatable. A word… stops itself.” Carson gives an example from the Odyssey:

In the fifth book of the Odyssey when Odysseus is about to confront a witch named Kirke whose practice is to turn men into pigs, he is given by the god Hermes a pharmaceutical plant to use against her magic:

So speaking Hermes gave him the drug
by pulling it out of the ground and he showed the nature of it:
at the root it was black but like milk was the flower.
MOLY is what the gods call it. And it is very hard to dig up
for mortal men. But gods can do such things.

MOLY is one of several occurences in Homer’s poems of what he calls “the language of gods.” There are a handful of people or things in epics that have this sort of double name. Linguists like to see in these words traces of some older layer of Indo-European preserved in Homer’s Greek. However that may be, when he invokes the language of gods Homer usually tells you the mortal translation too. Here he does not. He wants this word to fall silent. Here are four letters of the alphabet, you can pronounce them but you cannot define, possess, or make use of them. You cannot search for this plant by the roadside or Google it and find out where to buy some. The plant is sacred, the knowledge belongs to gods, the word stops itself.

These silences occur with words that are a subset of unknown size of the words that must be borrowed from other languages as opposed to translated. Translators must make several difficult decisions in their work from artistic and linguistic standpoints, but it is the latter that is the most important here because there is a “spectrum of translation” they must always employ. On one end are single words that translate with virtually 1:1 correspondence to words in the other language. ‘Book’ is ‘libro’ in Spanish without much confusion. Then there’re words like ‘nose’ in English that translate with but the slightest difference into 鼻 (hana). In Words in Context, Takao Suzuki shows that the area American English speakers consider the nose covers a different portion of the face than the Japanese word, although both of course include the most important functional parts. Likewise, as discussed on this blog, Paul Kay (Berkeley) has shown that speakers of almost all languages consider the best example or shade of the word red as the same, despite differing ranges of shades that could be considered red. Nevertheless, for all intents and purposes, a single word translation will do. Next we have compound and composite word translations. The word ‘television’ seems like it translates quite cleanly to 電視 (dian4 shi4) for Mandarin (or Taiwanese if we’re being cute). But there are a few issues here: 電視 is actually a composite word, much like the original, made from two morphemes that indicate ‘electricity’ and ‘being looked at’ respectively.

At this point, we can see that for much translation, there are words that some languages possess which will be difficult to translate with the same economy. From here until the middle of the spectrum, words are translated with progressively more and more morphemes in the destination language. But when a translator is faced with the problem of translating one word into a paragraph, that might defeat so much about the original: pacing, essence, and so on. And then, of course, there’s the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in Language, which suggests that the more words we use to describe the word to be translated in order to most closely approximate the original meaning, the more its essential meaning, in addition to other connotations, is missed. Locking down the expression so rigidly pushes out meaning. Therefore, there comes a point on the spectrum where translators must seek different methods of translation besides seeking the complete and rigid expression for it.

Carson is a master of this, as I have pointed out before. In her book of Sappho poetry, If Not, Winter, she uses words such as ‘songdelighting’ and ‘radiant-shaking.’ Instead of writing out the complete expressions, she chooses innovation. She creates novel words using standard word formation rules in the destination language that may contain more of the original meaning than an attempt at complete expression might.

The second to last point on the spectrum of translation is when a word is just borrowed without further elaboration. Carson highlights the borrowing (outright theft, I’d think) of ‘cliché’ from French. She writes:

It has been assumed into English unchanged, partly because using French words makes English-speakers feel more intelligent and partly because the word has imitative origins (it is supposed to mimic the sound of the printer’s die striking the metal) that make it untranslatable.

The latter is a good reason for borrowing a word from another language. Another reason is that a speech community possesses significant demand for a word that it does not yet have. For example, French speakers started using the word ’email’ because no word in French concisely described such a concept and its word formation rules would likely not have led to such an economical word either. (The Academie Francaise has tried to stifle the use of this word in favor of ‘courriel’ and I do not know the extent of its success.) A better example is the English borrowing of ‘schadenfreude’ from German which means “taking delight in others’ misfortune.” Although I have only really heard Dorothy Rabinowitz, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer of the Wall Street Journal, use the word, I have read it on several occasions from other writers. Just beyond these words are similar words for whom some meaning can never be discovered or reclaimed without being a native speaker of the language. Multilinguals know of many such words. Some brag about them. Some keep their knowledge locked away. Some of these words also depend crucially on shared temporal experience, as ‘truth’ and ‘authenticity’ mean so much more to many Czechs than most American English speakers can understand — though they can try if they read Havel, Seifert, Kundera, and maybe some Poles as well. This is a story worth telling in another post someday.

Finally, we arrive at the end of the spectrum, yet there is no guard rail or barrier, and we stand at a precipice beyond which we cannot see anything precisely: only the bright and ineffable, like MOLY. These words land in our language with a form bearing no relationship that we can trace back to any meaning. Morphological analysis stops because it can never start. Syntax? Phonology? Save yourself because the tracks have all been covered. Carson shows several examples of the bright, ineffable silences: they are all places that we cannot go. These silences may be uttered by our inner angels, the angels above, or from even more inexplicable origins. Our choice to explore them creates possibilities that we never before considered.

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