The Untranslatables: Curtis Bauer

The following post is from Curtis Bauer whose translations of Jorge Gimeno appeared in the winter issue of M-Dash. Curtis’s translation, Baghdad and Other Poems, a bilingual chapbook of poems by Jorge Gimeno, is forthcoming from Poets@Work Press in 2015.

 

You most likely haven’t heard of Jorge Gimeno (Madrid, 1964), or that he is one of Spain’s most significant contemporary poets and translators. Although he has published only two books of his own poetry, he is an unavoidable poet of reference in Spanish poetry today. His surreal poems speak out against domestic violence, the wars, conflicts and unrest in the Middle East and Iraq, and they give voice to, and identify the beauty in, those who are often ignored—the homeless, infirm, abused and abandoned, in war or in some country like Spain.

When I first read his work I thought he was a poet of excessiveness, but inside that excess I found restraint. He’s ambitious and impertinent, but not ignorant of tradition. In fact, both of his books include sonnets, haiku and nonce forms, and many poems follow traditional syllable counts; although he seems to relish fracturing line, he does so with the confidence and craft of someone familiar with the terrain of prosody.

In Gimeno’s first book, Spirit In Bits And Pieces, he writes,

“Poetry requires an excess of determination,
too much for the poor human monad…
 
Because, only when it breaks, is broken, shattered, only then does it show, and
      even then
only through a thought.
 
It’s the law of the insane,”
 
indicating that an underlying element of his poetry could be the potential of language and the necessity that it serves as a lesson for the recuperation of life through the amplification of the real. This idea, this thought, which can be said about all great poetry, becomes in Gimeno a distinct signature: the strength of his voice is born in the poet’s capacity to launch the word into the air and let it drop until it’s shattered into a thousand pieces. He likes to listen to that breaking, and he likes to see what new beauty can result from breaking something already beautiful.
 
I have translated writers I have never met, and some who are dead, but I prefer to work with the living, and when possible, I like to have conversations with the writers I translate about their work. I discovered early on that Gimeno hates chitchat, and chitchat for him is any talk about his poems, their meaning, or whether I have conveyed the complexities of a difficult poem. The last time we met to discuss my translation of his second collection, The Ground Oppresses Us, the book from which the poems on M—Dash and those discussed here were drawn, he answered only two questions about images, and whether I translated a verse correctly before he lost his patience with me, ordered another beer and changed the subject. I had asked him about a line from the poem “Toma La Dignidad, Dame La Vida”:
 
No se afeita con cuchilla de aljibe.
 
I had translated it literally in the poem “Take My Dignity, Give Me Life” but I knew, from reading so many of his other poems, that I couldn’t keep it literal:
 
He doesn’t shave with a knife from the cistern.
 
He rolled his eyes, and said, “It’s obvious; the ice across the surface of a well, when you break it, it looks like a knife. That’s what I’m talking about there.” I revised my translation to the following:
 
He doesn’t shave with the ice razored over the cistern.
 
Gimeno’s poems are filled with little flashes of oddity, jarring images and sounds that jump out of a narrative and leave you wondering what happened, or what you just heard, forcing you to return to the previous verse or stanza, to reread and reread for some clue of what may have been missed.
 
Instead of chatting with Gimeno, I learned to speak with his poems. Perhaps listen to them speak is a better way of putting it. Like most translators—I assume—I am happy letting others do the speaking, content to observe and listen. The trouble I’ve encountered with these poems, however, is that they often leave me disoriented, with the feeling that I’ve missed a central component of their conversation, point of reference, inside joke, or rhetorical element that has otherwise made the poem crystal clear to everyone else. Anyone who has been disoriented knows we depend on points of reference to move out of our disorientation; the points of reference I tend to return to, especially when translating Gimeno, are sound, sense and structure.
 
Here’s a fragment from a long poem called “Música Muerta, Música Abierta” which I’ve translated as “Dead Music, Open Music”:
 
Tú eres la nevera.
Yo el imán.
 
Tú el agua,
yo piscina vacía en la vieja RDA.
 
Tanga catinga.
Yuca del Yucatán.
 
En mí mueren las flores de las Evas de barrio.
En ti muere el sudor de los brazos de barro.
 
I love this poem because of its wild images, its odd associations, its endless attempts to get at why or how the speaker feels attraction to the other, and that needling sensation that the speaker thinks he’s failing to communicate that attraction.
 
You are the refrigerator.
I am the magnet.
 
You the water,
me, the empty swimming pool in the old GDR.
 
Funky junk.
Yucca in Yucatan.
 
The flowers of all the community Evas die in me.
The sweat from mucky arms dies in you.
 
The poem is made up of thirty couplets of varied length and attention. The speaker fixates on objects—a sack, a hand, a refrigerator and magnet—on sensations and feelings—“I like Otis Redding, what phrasing” or “You are better than Gandhi, but you wear Armani.”—and associations—“You sound like plowing/I sound like diving” or “You are the scent of gin on the car’s hood./ I am the scent of gin on the car’s hood.”—in order to construct an ever impressive and complex metaphor about the complexities and intricacies of attraction and attachment. The poem moves in and out of the “you are this, I am that” dynamic with the one exception, which appears in the middle of the poem:
 
Tanga catinga.
Yuca del Yucatán.
 
When I first came across this couplet I read each line slowly, looking for some connection in meaning to the previous and following couplets. Nothing. I looked up “catinga” and “tanga”; “catinga” turned up nothing and “tanga” was “G-string,” though I had no idea how that joined with the other images. The couplet didn’t address any subject or refer to the speaker either; therefore it wasn’t following the established structure of the preceding seventeen couplets. Then, reading the section out loud two, three, four times more, I realized that I was hearing a change in the poem, that Gimeno was emphasizing sound here over meaning. The sounds seemed to create meaning, but the individual words that created them held no significance on their own…or so I thought. I tried
 
Badda bing.
Yucca from the Yucatan.
 
because of the striking sound, and I kept it that way for a few drafts. Nevertheless, every time I went back to the poem I would trip over the “badda bing”; I couldn’t imagine Gimeno saying it for one, and including something so intrusive and associated with a particular region in the US seemed to do the poem a disservice. And then I thought about the G-string. This was a kind of love poem after all. That G-string probably needed to be referenced, or at least winked at. So, as I mentioned previously, my second question to Gimeno that day I tried his patience, was in reference to his word, “catinga.”
 
“You know,” he said, eyes narrowing, as if intending to say you don’t know, do you?: “the woman’s scent on her G-string.” He ordered another beer. I didn’t ask any other questions about the book that day or after. But I did think about smell, about sound, about some word that might connect them and reveal the nuance of the couplet and be sonically pleasing, something that could be unpacked a little more easily, perhaps, in English, but wouldn’t necessarily be as obvious and boring as
 
G-string scent.
 
After a few more drafts, I arrived at
 
Funky junk.
 
Though it might not be a perfect translation—as if there could be one!—it approaches the complexity of the original version better than any other option I have found so far.
 


“The Untranslatables” is a series on M-Blog about those words or phrases that give us pause as translators, that stump us and then, sometimes, enlighten us. In other words, those fragments of a text that can be so hard to translate but also so utterly satisfying when and if we finally find a way to say in our language close to what they mean in another one. If you would like to contribute an “Untranslatable” story to M-Blog, write to us at mdash.ahb@gmail.com.

 

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Excerpt: Levantine Legends and Histories of Bread

The Massachusetts Review just released a special issue on the Mediterranean and it’s filled with new and exciting translations. We’re including an excerpt here from a translation of the South Slavic writer Predrag Matvejević (bio below) by M-Dash’s contributing editor Russell Scott Valentino:
 

Knowledge of grain and of bread was passed from generation to generation. The ancestors bequeathed tools and techniques to their heirs, similar in their appearance, familiar in their uses. The kneading trough for dough resembled the cradle in which newborns were rocked, the bed in which one lay down to sleep, the coffin in which the body was laid out after death, the boat that ferried it from this shore to the other. The sifter and the sieve are close relatives, as are the filter and the net, just as the retina (from the Latin word for net) of the human eye filters the light and carries the image through.
       These various means and mechanisms passed through long, uncertain times: from the tinderbox and fire ring to the hearth and the oven; from the sharpened stone to the knife; from the deer antlers that were probably first used to plow the barren fields to the wedge and then the true plow; from foot stomping and grindstones, for which the jaw may have served as a model, to the millstone turned by water or wind, by mules and by slaves. These tools, each according to its nature and function, characterize bread’s past and its present. As do the amphorae, baskets, bags, and buckets in which the grain and flour were carried and transported. In the stone- or brick-lined oven the dough would acquire its finished form. It became a loaf of bread—served on a table, offered at a feast, blessed on an altar, given as alms on the street, robbed on the highway.
       Accompanied by song, prayer, and plea.

 
To read more, go here.
 


 
Predrag Matvejević (b. 1932) is a Central European phenomenon. Born in Mostar of a Croat mother and Russian émigré father, he has always felt himself an outsider. An intellectual to the core, he has never settled into a single, well-defined field, though one might say that all his life he has been what only in recent years has acquired the label of “cultural critic.” In the seventies he was a driving force behind the Yugoslav Praxis group, which aimed at reforming Marxism along the lines of the pre-utopian, pre-scientific, pre-dogmatic “young Marx”; in the eighties he stood up for the increasingly splintered Yugoslav state, both explicitly in his polemical Jugoslavenstvo danas (Yugoslavism Today, 1980), a sophisticated theoretical justification of multiethnic co-existence, and implicitly in Mediteranski brevijar (A Mediterranean Breviary, 1987), a poetic evocation of the elements Mediterranean cultures share. (The latter won the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger and Prix Européen de l’Essai when it appeared in French in 1992 and the Premio Boccaccio Europeo when it appeared the following year in Italian. It was published by the University of California Press in 1999, in the translation of Michael Henry Heim, as Mediterranean: A Cultural Landscape.) In the nineties, hounded out of the newly formed Croatia by Franjo Tudjman’s nationalist regime, he taught at the Sorbonne and the University of Rome (La Sapienza). Until his retirement in approximately 2011, he divided his time among several scholarly institutions, becoming once more a persona grata of sorts in Zagreb.
 
The latest of Matvejević’s books, Kruh naš (Daily Bread, 2009), matches closely the stylistic idiosyncrasies and formal innovations of his oeuvre, pulling together history, storytelling, philology, anthropology, popular culture, and personal essay. The excerpt recently published at The Massachusetts Review comes from the first of the book’s seven essays—“Bread and Body.”
 
Russell Scott Valentino has authored two scholarly monographs and translated seven books of literature from Italian, Russian, and Croatian. His most recent books include the co-edited (with Esther Allen and Sean Cotter) volume The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim & a Life in Translation (Open Letter Books), and the monograph The Woman in the Window (Ohio State University Press), both published in October, 2014.

The Untranslatables: Addie Leak

The following contribution is from Addie Leak, a freelance editor and translator based in Iowa City, IA, where she is also a Provost’s Postgraduate Visiting Writer in the creative writing track of the English department. She translates primarily from French and Spanish, and her work has been published in the Huffington Post, The Postcolonialist, and the Buenos Aires Review, and is forthcoming in 91st Meridian and Drunken Boat.  The poem discussed below is from the collection La Mille et deuxième nuit [The Thousand and Second Night] (1975) by Moroccan poet Mostafa Nissabouri. This is a book that played an important role in the creation of a postcolonial Moroccan literary identity; its poems provide an often-surreal vision of the tension in Morocco after its 1956 independence from France.

 

 

The Moroccan poet Mostafa Nissabouri relishes playing with and subverting the norms of the French language. Unsurprisingly, translating his 1975 collection La Mille et deuxième nuit has been both incredibly rewarding and incredibly tricky. The challenges often boil down to the level of the word. In a dreamlike, dystopian poem that is very much about a sense of place that has been compromised by decades of colonization, Nissabouri writes:

 

je me suis surpris à psalmodier
                                    le rêve écarlate des grenades
mais aucune grenade n’arrivait à éclore
                                                     sans engendrer
des nœuds gordiens des vautours pommes d’or et
des mers d’indicible amertume

 

Literally:

I caught myself chanting
                                 the scarlet dream of pomegranates
but no pomegranate managed to bloom
                                           without begetting
Gordian knots vultures apples of gold and
seas of unspeakable bitterness

 

The rub: “grenade,” or pomegranate is, yes, also the French word for the handheld explosive device that Anglophones will recognize in the French word. It’s an intentional double meaning. Nissabouri’s “scarlet dream of pomegranates” is not a leisurely daydream in a beautifully tiled villa. The red of pomegranate juice mixes with the red of blood spilled; the apple of discord causes strife within a newly independent Morocco; the seas between Morocco and its former “protectors” are bitter.

 

The first two lines presented here are repeated at the end of the poem. It’s vital that the double meaning be made clear to allow the eeriness of the image to stick with the reader. What to do…?

 

The solution that I came up with (and here, dear readers, I humbly submit to a vote, if you are willing) is this:

 

I caught myself chanting
                                 the scarlet dream of pomegranates
but no pomegranate managed to explode
                                    without begetting
Gordian knots vultures apples of gold and seas of
                                                     unspeakable bitterness

 

Option Two, which is more subtle:

 

I caught myself chanting
                                 the scarlet dream of pomegranates
but no pomegranate managed to burst
                                    without begetting
Gordian knots vultures apples of gold and seas of
                                                     unspeakable bitterness

 

I like the sounds in the second option but fear losing the violence of the former. Do grenades burst? They are thrown, detonated, they explode, they kill, they maim. Burst sounds too much like an overripe fruit—no?

 


 

 

“The Untranslatables” is a series on M-Blog about those words or phrases that give us pause as translators, that stump us and then, sometimes, enlighten us. In other words, those fragments of a text that can be so hard to translate but also so utterly satisfying when and if we finally find a way to say in our language close to what they mean in another one. If you would like to contribute an “Untranslatable” story to M-Blog, write to us at mdash.ahb@gmail.com.

The Untranslatables: Kelly Morse

The following contribution is from Kelly Morse, a poet, creative nonfiction writer, and translator. From 2009 to 2011 she lived in Hanoi, Vietnam, and returned in 2012 on a Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship after receiving her MFA in poetry from Boston University. Most recently, her work has been nominated for Best of the Net 2014, and she will be a resident at the Vermont Studio Center in 2015. More about her work can be found at http://www.kelly-morse.com.

 

 

Vietnamese poetry has a rich history of dual identity, where seemingly innocuous subject matter is laced with an underlying ribald poke at cultural mores. Being a tonal language, structurally Vietnamese operates by “every syllable [having] a linguistic pitch that creates the semantic meaning”[1]. While not every syllable is assigned all six tones to create six different words, there is an incredible amount of overlap.

The most famous example of the tonal system trotted out to impress Western people at parties is the Chinese ‘ma’ chain. Here is the Vietnamese version:

ma – ghost

má – mother

mà – but (formal register)

mả – tomb

mã – horse

mạ – rice seedling

This system generates a perfect atmosphere for word play, important in a culture where many topics are referred to only obliquely. For example, Vietnamese joke about sex constantly—just not directly. Instead, there are references to suggestive foods, natural scenery, or words that echo another meaning entirely. The most well-known poet who perfected the art of the extended sexual metaphor was Hồ Xuân Hương, whose seventeenth century poems ‘The Paper Fan’ and ‘Three Mountain Pass’ echo with images of young concubines.

Lý Đợi is a contemporary Vietnamese poet who satirizes basically every social, political, and moral pillar of Vietnamese society—which is why his work is censored. One of his poems, titled “Steamed,” takes the form of a Buddhist cemetery meditation that lists thirty-two ways of dying. In keeping with this classic form, at the end of each description of a way to die is the word “death,” modified with an emotion or action in its “most extreme” state.

Some of these most extreme states of death cross over easily into English, but others become awkward when translated literally. Below is a line that can stay more or less identical in both languages:

Lâu ngày không được xuất binh, BUỒN chết

Lâu ngày             (for) a long time

không được        not okay/acceptable

xuất binh             to go to battle  (tonal pun with xuất tinh – to ejaculate)

BUỒN                   signifies negative emotion, usually sadness or boredom

chết                        death

 

Not allowed for weeks to go into battle: Bored to Death

 

And here is a line where I chose a less literal translation:

Bị bắn xuống đất, TÉ chết

Bị                    prefix that signals negative connotation towards the action

bắn                 to fire/shoot

xuống            go down, onto

đất                  earth/ground

                   to fall

chết                 death

 

This line could be translated as “Was shot onto the ground: Falling Death,” but I instead chose:

Shot to the ground: Fallen Soldier

 

Why? In translating this line, I played up an aspect of the poem that non-Vietnamese wouldn’t know, but that is integral to understanding the underlying joke: as the reader goes along, she realizes this oh-so-serious meditation is narrated from the point of view of sperm. This revelation comes via innuendos, creating tension between the form’s original intention and its misuse. Colloquially, sperm are referred to as soldiers while the man is either the general or boss. By the fourth or fifth “death” a native speaker would be in on the joke, so I strove for the same in the translation.

According to this Vietnamese metaphor for conception, these soldiers are on a mission to meet a princess who will either give them an egg or not, depending on their worthiness—a reference to the Vietnamese origin myth. While the egg backstory can’t be explained without seriously adapting the text, the image of soldiers contemplating their questionable deaths is more directly situated in the poem, through words like “battle,” “post,” and “general.” By applying English clichés that double as puns for the deaths, I hope to signal the elasticity of the language inherent in the piece, and to re-insert humor sometimes lost in the (mostly) literal translation.

Some excerpts:

  1. Not allowed to go into battle for a long time: Bored to Death
  2. Refrain all day long until at last given the okay to leave one’s post: Happy Ending
  3. A hundred million poor brothers rushing up together: Death of a 1,000 Elbows
  4. After charging ahead, find out the general only planned to liberate himself: Wrongful Death
  5. Shot to the ground: Fallen Soldier
  6. Shot against a wall: Rough and Ready Death
  7. Wiped with toilet paper: Left Out to Dry Death
  8. After a good polishing, to yet again be tossed aside like garbage: Death Stinks

. . .

  1. Given one egg: Proud Papa Death
  2. Given two eggs: Majestic Swan Dive Death
  3. Refused an egg: Walk of Shame Death

 

I couldn’t have done this translation, full stop, without my co-translator Nga Ly Hiền Nguyen. Without her, the underlying meaning of the poem would have been lost in English.

 

Below is another example that demonstrates the duality of the language. How would you translate it?

Chủ nhân suốt ngày bôn ba lách luật, CẠN KIỆT chết

 

Chủ nhân                 boss/general

suốt ngày                 all day long

bôn ba                       to run after wealth/honors

lách                            to make one’s way (pun – to slip through a slit)

luật                            the law

CẠN KIỆT                deplete

chết                            death

 

 

[1] Balaban, John. “Translating Vietnamese Poetry.” The Poem Behind the Poem: Translating Asian Poetry. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2004. Print.

 


 

 

“The Untranslatables” is a series on M-Blog about those words or phrases that give us pause as translators, that stump us and then, sometimes, enlighten us. In other words, those fragments of a text that can be so hard to translate but also so utterly satisfying when and if we finally find a way to say in our language close to what they mean in another one. If you would like to contribute an “Untranslatable” story to M-Blog, write to us at mdash.ahb@gmail.com.

ORIGIN STORIES: ALEX NIEMI

The following post by Alex Niemi is the first in a series entitled “Origin Stories.”  Alex is our associate editor.

   

My mother’s good friend Bonny once told me that I became interested in languages when I heard her blithely chatting in Mandarin at Hunan Spring with Uncle Peter.  This was a favorite restaurant with a killer crab special and Uncle Peter was always smilingly generous with shots of whiskey.  Bonny informed me that up until knowing her, I had only been interested in video games, which, given the hours I spent playing Zelda as a child, could be entirely true.  I’ve slowly started telling this story myself and over years of doing so, it is the only genesis story I remember and hence the one I’m telling here.  But I loved languages early.  I read my high school French textbook out loud in my room (we sadly didn’t offer Mandarin).  I argued with my counselor to let me take more languages instead of computer tech.

While studying Romance languages in college, I somehow cultivated a desperate desire to become an Early Modernist.  I studied travelogues from the sixteenth century.  I’m not really sure why the sixteenth century, other than the fact that my advisor was a very kind man who loved Montaigne and something about spending a lot of time in archives seemed sort of dreamy.  I was distressed to notice, however, that spending a lot of time in archives and rewriting the politics of Jean de Léry made me unexpectedly sad.  I didn’t think Jean de Léry would appreciate my views on the body and empire.  I felt a little like I was being rude, telling my two readers what his descriptions of cannibalism really meant.  I still loved French, though, and abandoned my archival work for a seminar on translation.

At this point my language wanderlust had also gotten me tangled in Russian because I was dating a guy who told me that Russian poetry was, in no uncertain terms, the best poetry and that my poor Anglophone brain would never get it (I know that sounds like an irrational reason to learn a language, but I don’t think any of us got here through our staunch utilitarianism).  So I tried very presumptuously to translate Pushkin for my first ever workshop.  This professor was also kind and encouraging, telling me to try my hand at some simpler texts and maybe, if I had the drive, apply to a master’s in translation.  And I did. There I was, having been told to do many things, deciding myself to abandon many others, toting strange language books around in my bag in Iowa on days when the weather depressed me, but mostly overjoyed.  Translation is such a love thing.

But now that I’ve shared my origin story, we at M-Dash would like to know, how did you wander into translation?         

Alex Niemi, Iowa City, IA

 


 

“Origin Stories” is a series on M-Blog about how people find translation as a hobby, love, or vocation.  If you would like to contribute an “Origin Story” to M-Blog, write to us at mdash.ahb@gmail.com.

The Untranslatables: Lucas Klein

The following contribution from Lucas Klein is our first post in a blog series we’re calling “The Untranslatables.” Klein was awarded the Lucien Stryk Prize in 2013 for his translation of Xi Chuan’s Notes On the Mosquito: Selected Poems, which he discusses here

 

there is a crowd of commoners as purple as red cabbage—the line, from my version of “The Distance” 远方, epitomizes something of Notes on the Mosquito (New Directions, 2012), my translation of the selected poems of contemporary Chinese poet Xi Chuan 西川. While my version figures the metaphor in terms of a distinctly European ingredient, as Xi Chuan wrote them, the purple commoners are perhaps paradigmatically Chinese, which is to say their description speaks to Chinese conceptions of reality in colloquially Chinese idioms: 有一群百姓像白菜一样翠绿.

Neither the grammar nor the vocabulary of the line is particularly complex or obscure in its language of composition:

有                 yǒu                    there is / are

一群             yìqún                a group of / crowd of

百姓             bǎixìng            “hundred surnames”

像                 xiàng                like / as

白菜             báicài               bok choy

一样             yíyàng             same as

翠绿             cuìlǜ                 jade green

 

“There is a group of ‘hundred surnames’ as jade green as bok choy.” Nor is the cultural knowledge very advanced: “hundred surnames” is a very old (as in, millennia old) expression still in use that refers, as almost all students of Chinese learn in their first semesters, to common people, the families who do not constitute the nobility; additionally, it helps to know that bok choy (whose English comes from the Cantonese pronunciation) means “white cabbage.” This explains the poetry of the line: “there is a crowd of non-nobles as jade green as white cabbage.”

The line deals with the essences of Chinese, but with a twist. While many scholars have codified the Chinese aesthetic as metonymic and literal, the poetry of Xi Chuan’s line operates by revealing the fiction in the Chinese language’s conceptualization: white cabbage is not white (that it is modified by the quintessentially Chinese “jade green” twists the twist with even more torque). At other moments in my translation I have left the Chinese allusion for the educated reader to follow or the interested reader to look up, such as in Eagle’s Words 鹰的话语:

32. An enthusiast of the Analects of Confucius refutes another enthusiast of the Analects of Confucius to a bloody pulp.

33. Du Fu has received too much exaltation, so no other Du Fu could ever win anything.

32. 一个熟读《论语》的人把另一个熟读《论语》的人驳得体无完肤。

33. 杜甫得到了太多的赞誉,所以另一个杜甫肯定一无所获。

In this instance, though, I sacrificed the insinuation about Chinese in particular to imply that all languages may contain such falsehoods and misnomers: as purple as red cabbage, because, of course, red cabbage is not red. And to reproduce the poïesis of Xi Chuan’s alliteration, such as with the chiasmus of /b/ and /x/ (IPA [ɕ]) and the repeated /c/ (IPA [tsʰ]) in yǒu yìqún bǎixìng xiàng báicài yíyàng cuìlǜ, I preceded it with, there is a crowd of commoners.

Lucas Klein, Hong Kong

 


 

“The Untranslatables” is a series on M-Blog about those words or phrases that give us pause as translators, that stump us and then, sometimes, enlighten us. In other words, those fragments of a text that can be so hard to translate but also so utterly satisfying when and if we finally find a way to say in our language close to what they mean in another one. If you would like to contribute an “Untranslatable” story to M-Blog, write to us at mdash.ahb@gmail.com.

Excerpts: Foreign Words

Last week, World Literature Today named the AHB book Foreign Words one of “25 Books that Inspired the World.” The novel by Vassilis Alexakis was translated by Alyson Waters, who we interviewed in the latest issue of M-Dash.

It’s a beautiful novel, filled with smart, insightful ruminations on language and on the small eureka moments that come sometimes when learning a new one. Much of the book is excerpt-able, but we’ll settle for the following short passage. Enjoy.

 


 

I try to play my two roles—professor and student—to the best of my abilities. As soon as I learn a word, I hasten to teach it to myself:

“Do you know how to say ‘tomorrow’ in Sango”

“How?’

When I was in school I never asked my teachers questions. I was bored in class. Just the sight of the blackboard was enough to depress me.

“How?” I ask again.

I make myself wait for my answer in order to pique my curiosity.

Kekereke!” I declare at long last.

“Why, it’s an onomatopoeia!”

“Precisely. You will notice that one says cocorico in French and koukourikou in Greek. Is this because the rooster’s cry varies slightly from one country to the next? Well, it doesn’t matter. In Sango, this onomatopoeia was used to form a noun that means ‘tomorrow.’”

Sometimes the affected manner I take on in my role as teacher makes me want to laugh.

“And how do you say ‘today’?” I ask slyly.

“We’ll look at that later.”

“Kekereke?” I suggest.

“Kekereke.”

How many words have I retained in six weeks of work? Not many. I learned more quickly when I was younger. My mind is slow to cross the distance that separates words. It lingers on the blank spaces as if they too were part of the language. Will I have the strength to make it to the end of the task I have set for myself? I realized just how huge it was as I was leafing through W. J. Reed’s textbook. Had I underestimated Sango, as one does so easily when one doesn’t know a language? But it would be even more painful to go backwards and forget the little I’ve learned. This is because one becomes attached to words, like one does to people and things. I was sensitive to the quaint charm of the metaphor ngu ti Nzapa, “the water of God.” In ancient Greek there was an equivalent: Zeus is raining, they said. I imagine that my father, who was very devout, would have appreciated this metaphor, and that he would have been happy to depart on a rainy day. I hadn’t expected to find a term as biting as de, “cold,” in the vocabulary of a tropical country. It renders perfectly the sensation I had when I touched my father’s forehead. He passed away on the seventh of March: browsing through the short chapter that W. J. Reed devotes to numbers, it was fated that I stop on that number. It has a seriousness, a weight in Sango that neither Greek nor French give it: mbasambara, that’s how you say “seven” in Sango. On the other hand, the two high notes that go with kua, “death” (I should really write kúá), make me feel uncomfortable. They ring false in my ears, they mock the word, they lack respect for its meaning. Kekereke delighted me, and so did kutukutu, “automobile.” The noun that I prefer, however, is the one given to fickle women and prostitutes. They are called “butterflies,” which in itself is rather common, but the word for them is delicious: pupulenge. Marcel Alingbindo says it is an insult. I never tire of savoring it.