Translation Is Nothing to Be Pedantic About

Roberto González EchevarríaRecently, I listened to a lecture by Roberto González Echevarría on his Introduction to Cervantes class at Yale. It was quite interesting, especially his discussion of why Don Quixote is spelled the way it is in the English world. It turns out that Spanish, like English at that time, did not have its spelling standardized. At that time “x” was generally used for the “hoe” sound. Since then, “j” has become standard for the “hoe” sound, so Spanish speakers spell the novel, Don Quijote. Since we are English speakers, there’s been no reason to change the spelling for the original.

Roberto González Echevarría on Translation

I was pleased to find that he was using my preferred John Rutherford translation. But it turns out that he only uses it because he wrote the introduction. He was very critical of the translation. He even tried to get Rutherford to make changes in the translation before it went to press. Rutherford refused. According to Echevarría, this was because Rutherford was an old fashioned Oxford professor. I tend to see it differently. Who is Roberto González Echevarría to ask for changes in the translation? He isn’t a translator, and I really don’t think he has much of an idea about what translators do.

He not only complained about Rutherford’s translation. Echevarría also complained about his friend Edith Grossman’s translation, which he claimed was slightly better. He then dismissed every translation and applauded the very first translation by Thomas Shelton. I’ve seen this before: people like to throw out praise for an old translation, thereby giving them cover from the charge that they don’t like any translation. And it helps when the Shelton translation is the least circulated of the well-known translations. But it is ultimately a pretentious claim, “The first guy who dashed off a translation in a month and half is better than all the translators who came afterward.” Again: it shows a kind of disdain for the whole process of translation.

The Purpose of Translation

Elizabeth Bryer at Plume of Words wrote a very interesting article a few years back, Rutherford and Grossman Translations of Don Quixote. Like me, she is clearly a partisan for Rutherford. But she didn’t write that one translation is better than the other. Rather, they are different. Grossman is more interested in getting the words right. Rutherford is interested in getting the experience right. Both those approaches are valid. What’s not valid, is for someone like Roberto González Echevarría to decide that they are the ultimate arbiter of what is a good translation.

Bryer noted a great example:

Rutherford tends to privilege the effect on the reader; Grossman, the source text: “mozo de campo y plaza” is translated by Grossman as “man-of-all-work” and by Rutherford as “jack of all trades.” Literally, Grossman is closer to the meaning (someone who does all the work, as opposed to someone capable of doing all the work), but Rutherford presents a cleaner-sounding English.

I would go further. I don’t think that Cervantes intended Don Quixote as a precise literary effort. Indeed, it was attacked as being something of a vulgar affair. So it seems questionable to me to worry about getting just the right word in translating the book. That wasn’t what Cervantes did — and may well explain why no one ever cared for his poetry.

Translator as Collaborator

Bryer goes on to discuss something I’ve called Rutherford on myself: introducing humor into the book where it may not have been to begin with. But is this wrong? Given that other bits of humor don’t work — due to language and just time — it is fitting. And I don’t think he ever strays from the original intent. But I can see where pedants might disagree with his choices, as though the original is a holy relic.

The point is that translation is a process that necessarily warps the original. It is not even possible to read the original in the way people of Cervantes’ time did, because the language has changed. The reader is always a collaborator in story telling. But translation takes the issue to a higher level. There are different approaches to the process. But there is no Platonic ideal. I believe that the best translation is the one that brings the original to life for modern readers. And that’s why I think Rutherford’s is the best. But if you most care about a slavish adherence to the words, as Roberto González Echevarría apparently does, perhaps the best for you will be Thomas Shelton’s.

Don’t Blame Base for Republican Insanity

Paul KrugmanPaul Krugman highlighted a particular case of Republican silliness, Monetary Conspiracy Theories. Apparently, Donald Trump is now saying the Federal Reserve is keeping interest rates low because it wants to make Obama look good. It’s almost funny. After all, raising interest rates is something that the Fed does in order to put people out of work. I wonder if Trump’s supporters know this? I realize they are mostly older people, but still. The implication is that raising interest rates is something that we should want to do. Donald Trump is as much a populist as I am a fascist.

Krugman’s point is that Trump may be crazy to think this, but back in 2010, Paul Ryan was arguing that “quantitative easing wasn’t a good-faith effort to support a weak economy, but an attempt to ‘bail out fiscal policy,’ preventing the fiscal crisis Obama’s policies were supposed to produce.” Same thing. But Paul Ryan isn’t just a moderate in the eyes of the mainstream press — he’s a super serious wonk! This isn’t just about monetary policy, of course. The entire Republican Party is crazy. They are all pushing the same nonsense. If you were a Republican voter, what would you want: a candidate who believed crazy things but spoke soft, or a candidate who believed crazy things and ranted about them? That’s not hard.

The Republican Party has pushed further and further to the right until they are all bunched up at the edge of the fascist cliff.

What we have here is a Republican base that is paying attention. There is nothing surprising about what they believe. What is shocking is that we have an establishment media that slices and dices the Republican Party. There is a clear narrative: there are crazies in the party, but it is at base a good old fashioned traditional political institution. There is no reason to believe this. They are basing their judgement on rhetoric, not policy. Trump yells about “illegals,” so he’s an extremist. Marco Rubio does not do this, so he’s a moderate. But the two men don’t actually disagree about immigration policy.

It’s clear enough what has happened. The Republican Party has pushed further and further to the right until they are all bunched up at the edge of the fascist cliff. So until they all decide to just take the plunge, the only thing Republican politicians can do is find more and more extreme ways to verbalize their displeasure.

But how did we get to this point? The media have just followed along, defining as acceptable political discourse anything that enough Republicans were shouting about. Supply side economics was always a crock. No non-partisan economist thought it would work. And after 35 years, it has failed to ever work. But will establishment reporters counter Republicans who spout this nonsense? Of course not! Allowing it has worked great for them these last decades; no reason to change now.

So let me reiterate. Republican base voters are making sense in being attracted to Donald Trump and Ben Carson and Ted Cruz. The “establishment” Republicans aren’t offering policies that appeal to reasoning, so all they are offering is crazy policy with boring rhetoric. The fact that the mainstream press can’t tell that the “establishment” and “extreme” candidates are offering the same policy is why we find ourselves with an insane Republican Party to begin with.

Morning Music: Hey Jude

Girl - Tiny TimThis is our second day on with Tiny Tim’s last studio album, Girl. As stated before, the title refers to The Beatles song. But he did another of their songs, “Hey Jude.” But unlike the original version, which is over-serious and grand, Tiny Tim’s version is pure Latin fun — “Cha cha cha!” I think that’s a critical element to his work. He loves the songs. He respects the songs. And he’s not afraid to play around with them.

Of course, now I expect to get someone coming on here explaining to me that I am an awful person for not holding the original version of the song in high enough esteem. Indeed, I see that Weekend Edition highlighted the song in, Annoying Music: Beatles Cover Songs. But really, is there anything more annoying than Paul McCartney taking a one minute ditty and pushing it past seven? Tiny Tim’s version makes me want to get up and dance. Cha cha cha!

Anniversary Post: Smurfs

SmurfOn this day in 1958, the Smurfs first showed up in the funny pages. That’s distinct from the television series, The Smurfs. Same characters, but it took a while before they got off paper. And they didn’t have their own comic. They first appeared in Johan and Peewit — a Belgian comic created by Pierre “Peyo” Culliford. It was a medieval cartoon, like Don Quixote, in a way. Johan is a brave night who rushes into dangerous situations. Peewit is the court jester, but gets dragged along on Johan’s adventures. Whereas Sancho rides a donkey, Peewit rides a goat.

Like Peewit, the Smurfs are dwarfs, but of the blue variety. Frankly, I don’t find them nearly as interesting in Johan and (especially) Peewit. I want to run out and find some of the books. The Smurfs got their own strip a year after they first appeared. And the rest, as they say, is history. And like most history, they are racist. The enemy of the Smurfs, the evil magician Gargamel, is a stereotype of a greedy Jew. But more than that, there is the question of the “black Smurf.”

The first Smurf book was, Les Schtroumpfs Noirs. When it was translated to English, it was turned into, The Purple Smurf — with the requisite change in the coloring. You can see a comparison:

The Black Smurfs

I found an interesting article at Simply Maya, 55 Years of Belgian Blues. They put Les Schtroumpfs Noirs in the context of its time. It was the first Smurfs book, and it came at an important time in Belgian history, “‘The Black Smurfs’ came at a time when colonial empires were falling and just three years earlier Belgian Congo had gained independence to form what became the Democratic Republic of Congo, after years of brutal rule under Belgian kings where millions of African people had been killed.” It’s funny how our unstated assumptions ooze out onto the comics page.