Mathews on Translation

[I hope this is at least slightly coherent.]

Early on in his essay “Translation and the Oulipo: The Case of the Persevering Maltese” (an online version at the Electronic Book Review) Harry Mathews states: “… an editor would be mad to employ an Oulipian as a translator.” (70) It’s a bit of an overstatement (a number of Oulipians have done translation: Perec translated Mathews, Queneau translated a number of writers including Faulkner, and Ian Monk, the British Oulipian, is best known as a translator), but it doesn’t mean he (and the Oulipo in general) don’t have something to say on translation.

What Mathews calls translation is much broader than what one most often thinks of as translation: the transposition of a written work from one language to another with a focus on the meaning of the words themselves (Mathews calls this the “nominal sense”, terminology which I will employ). When one reads a translation, in most cases, there has been a focus on conveying the nominal sense of the words into the new language with a secondary importance, moreso in literary works, though, of form or style. Mathews looks at translation as not only a translation of nominal sense but also a translation of other components of the text, for which he provides a few examples. Starting with one sentence, he translates by using new words that retain the number of letters in each original word, by taking the sound of the words in one language and writing out a homophonic sentence in another language, by replacing each word with its dictionary definition, and by rewriting it as a lipogram in e (no e’s in the sentence). The point being, that all those are translations but not all ones that maintain what we would normally consider the “meaning” of the sentences.

In his essay “For Prizewinners” (3), he makes the point that meaning is not only conveyed by the nominal sense of the words but also through the “form” (syntax) of the writing. In this instance he uses Kafka’s “The Truth about Sancho Panza”, a two sentence short story, beginning with the English translation by the Muir’s (which he claims is an excellent one), then making two new translations. In one version he breaks up the story from its two sentences into five sentences, maintaining the words in the original (except for a few minor additions for purposes of creating the fragments into sentences). In the second version he uses the Oulipan N+7 method, which involves replacing all nouns with the seventh word following it in the dictionary (the story becomes “The Tub about Sancho Panza”). What he endeavors to show (convincingly, I believe) is that as the first version, which maintains the “nominal sense” of the original, becomes less interesting on rereading, the second version accumulates meaning and interest with rereading regardless of the alteration of much of the words into rather absurd locutions, and that a good part of the meaning in the story is tied to its rhythm and form, the two long irregular sentences.

By stretching the bounds of normal translation, the Oulipian methods help to deconstruct (danger word, but I mean it here in its most banal sense) the text, foregrounding its various elements. When returning to a translation one becomes more aware of the elements beyond the nominal sense and how they contribute to meaning.

He uses his own experiences with having his novels translated as further material on the concept in the essay “Fearful Symmetries”. Among other specific examples, he discusses the translation of the title of his novel Tlooth to Les verts champs de moutarde de l’Afghanistan (The Green Mustard Fields of Afghanistan) in the French version by Georges Perec. The original title, itself a made-up word, works as a mysterious element for much of the novel. The reader is unsure of its meaning in the context of the book. Instead of trying to recreate the neologism in French, Perec used another as mysterious phrase to title the book. The effect was maintained without fidelity to the nominal sense. He continues with examples involving baseball positions and gay slang.

“This example of what we may call efficient translation suggests that one thing a translator should look for is a means of letting non-nominal meaning pass into the target language; and this in turn implies that fidelity to translation should apply not only to nominal meaning but to what may be provisionally called effect. A further implication is that reinvention rather than replication can best realize this aim.” (56)

Through the examples in these essays, Mathews shares some of his ideas about writing and translating. I will quote at some length two passages:

“Once you accept that the movement or action embodied in syntax provides the essential meaning of what you write, you will find it easier to get off the hook on which most of us so painfully dangle — the notion that subject matter gives writing its significance. If you can even hypothetically entertain the possibility that the meaning of what you write does not depend on what you write about, you will be spared needless hours and days of frustration. I suggest, incidentally, that this possibility corresponds to the experience of our nonwriting lives. Don’t you already know that to get into an argument, any subject will do? That to express love for someone, almost no words wil do? [...] You are free to write about anything — whatever you find necessary to tell your story. You are free to pick material that you are drawn to, remembering that you may be drawn to what is strange or frankly appalling. Do not resist that appeal, no matter how disgraceful or unreasonable it may look.” (18-19)

“When I translate, I begin by studying the original text until I understand it thoroughly. Then, knowing that I can say anything I understand, no matter how awkwardly, I saw what I have now understood and write down my words. I imagine myself talking to a friend… to make sure the words I use are ones I naturally speak. It makes no difference if what I write is shambling or coarse or much too long… I have gained an enormous advantage. Instead of being stuck in the source language, I am standing firmly on home ground. My material is as familiar as anything in language can be, and instead of having to move away from the foreign text, I can now move towards it as I improve my clumsy rendering, sure that at every step, with the source text as my goal, I shall be working in native English. All I have to do is edit my own writing until I eventually reach a finished version.” (78)

The former passage returns to Mathews’ call for “making it up”, as I like to think of it, a major aspect of his importance to me personally when thinking about fiction.

Does all this leave us anywhere new? Perhaps with at least a better awareness of the work behind the nominal sense that goes into the creation of meaning. In a way, it also shows a way form and content are linked, which is an important idea in the use of constraint. It is easy to dismiss the use of constraint as empty formalism or pointless game-playing or whatever, but one must realize that the form is linked to the content and that by playing with the former one opens up a wider field for the latter.

(Page numbers refer to: Mathews, Harry. The Case of the Persevering Maltese: Collected Essays. Dalkey Archive, 2003. [Not to be confused with the essay contained within of the same (well, similar) title.])