I clutch my knees in crowded rooms.
I sleep through the days like they aren't there.
I can't dream of anything in the din, the crash of bodies
in this Cape Cod colonial. An early moon lies
on my neck like a wet compress. I lap up the pond
of porter on the counter-top. I spy droplets
on my lover's thighs. Outside, men fry. Their sockets
bulge. They stare into the sun. They breach my gaze.
I glaze over. A baritone slinks out of the wreck.
I bare it all to a man clutching a cold Black Shack
& I sink back into what is on draught. His shouts shrink
to whispers in the clatter of the room. What burnt man,
in denim, doesn't dream of the body of a boy
on the brink? His eyes sizzle on the shore. I see him
crush & curl on the cobbled streets of the only place
that will let him live. I see the men I've loved as years
that will never happen. I hold them up
like they will make the universe.
Agency versus Fidelity in the Act of Translation
I recall to my mind some words of John Felstiner from his essay "'Ziv, That Light:' Translation and Tradition in Paul Celan." In his essay, Felstiner expounds upon his experience of translating a poem of Celan's, "Nah, im Aortenbogen":
CLOSE, IN THE AORTIC ARCH,
in the bright blood:
the bright word.
weeps no more.
all that was wept.
Quiet, in the coronary arteries,
Ziv, that light. (98)
Felstiner uses the word "quiet" in place of the word "still" in German. He discusses his process for choosing the word: "I need a word meaning motionless as well as soundless. 'Quiet'? yes, that would do. But the symmetry between Nah and Still requires an adjective of one syllable. 'Calm'? 'Hushed'?" He then asks "why not 'still' itself? The adjective fits beautifully, and also we can hear the adverb 'still'... Keats's Grecian Urn, Eliot's music in Four Quartets offer rich precedents for a grammatical ambiguity I think Celan's poem also presents us with. Yet still in German has no sense of something prolonged, enduring..." and then Felstiner asks something which, when I came across it, resonated within me: "ought I to add that idea?" (107) How much agency does the translator possess in their act of translation? How much are they permitted to presume for themselves? How much of my own voice can I explore while still achieving fidelity?
In Why Translation Matters, Edith Grossman quotes Octavio Paz: "When we learn to speak, we are learning to translate." (75) If we are in accordance we must acknowledge that our every attempt to speak, to write, to learn is an attempt to construct the vocabularies for our inner-lives, to build identities and relate ourselves to the world in which we reside. So what happens when we try to translate the work of another? If one cannot be faithful in the act of translating their own inner life, how will another's language be treated faithfully? Will it not be an inevitable bastardization of the writer's original text? The act of preserving another's intention runs the risk of becoming too "seamless," (a harsh word for a translator according to Edith Grossman) of falling into the shadows and not allowing one's own voice to thrive in the work. On the other hand, a translator insisting upon his or her own voice may become overbearing and we suffer the loss of the original author in the piece. How does one walk that line?
These questions make me think of the first time I well and truly considered the power of translation, of the multifaceted complexity of carrying over the words of another. It came when I read East of Eden, in the form of the Hebrew word Timshel, originating from the story of Cain and Abel. The character Lee speaks of the word and its different translations. He explains that in the King James Bible the word Timshel is translated into "thou shalt rule over sin." In this version, the word is a promise from Jehovah to Cain, an advocacy for predestination. In the American Standard, the phrase becomes "do thou rule over it," and here it is a command from Jehovah to Cain to overcome his base temptation. Lee expresses confusion in the differences between these two translations and then speaks of his experience with studying Hebrew, in an attempt to better understand the original Hebrew text. His studies lead him to discover what he believes to be the closest interpretation of the word Timshel: thou mayest. Placed into context, the phrase would then become "thou mayest rule over sin." This becomes significant for Lee, as he surmises that it must inherently imply "thou mayest not." In his own words: "'Thou Mayest'! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice." (Steinbeck 301)
In the context of the novel, this dialogue is instrumental in assisting the character Adam Trask in finding a newfound purpose in his life, saving him from his own self-destruction. It assures him that no matter how deep the roots of his sin lie, there still remains the chance of redemption, and what's more to the choice to choose that path for himself, the path which has been obscured for so long.
I turned the word over, seeking to understand it not just for the meaning but for its structure. Timshel. There is force in that first syllable, Tim. The English translation captures that force as well as its antiquity, "thou," and with that antiquity comes authority. The auditory force in Tim is found in "thou" as well. It engages the lower register of the voice and insists that one take their time before allowing it to fully leave the mouth and enter into the world. The second part, shel, moves softly, and expands upon its utterance. It spreads into the air and fills the space, and also contains that feeling of necessary prolonging. To my ears it is appropriate that the word should translate to "mayest." "Mayest" holds breadth. "Thou shalt," and "do thou" are too linear, too directed. One phrase predicts the way which will be taken while the other commands the journey. "Mayest" allows for freedom. Together, "Thou mayest" is endowed with a mixture of authority and benevolence, appropriate for the gift that it offers: choice.
The choice is the greatest gift afforded to us: "Thou mayest," and "thou mayest not." It gives humanity an agency that surpasses all beings. Timshel gives us the option to accept what happens to us and let that become the central meaning of our existence. Yet we have the agency to refuse this and instead subscribe to one of our own making. In a sense, this is the supreme gift given to the translator as well. The translator is the humble passageway of thought through language. We strive to explain the internal life and in working to translate another's work we may dilute our own for the sake of achieving that lofty ambition of fidelity to the original author. Yet, to read, to comprehend, to translate is to build; the greatest gift given to the translator is the freedom to construct their truth by experiencing fully the truth of another. One has to adapt to the work, destroy it, love it for its strengths and weaknesses, and learn it as intimately as possible in order to give it its full due; it is the closest reading one can give. We are gifted a choice as to how to approach the work, with the most desirable result being a perfect melding of the language of the original writer along with the identity of the one translating. Of course, nothing is perfect, no matter how hard one tries. Yet, in that futile aspiration one will find beauty being created.
Edith Grossman cites a quote from Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gassett: "Human tasks are unrealizable. The destiny of Man--his privilege and honor--is never to achieve what he proposes, and to remain merely an intention, a living utopia. He is always marching toward failure, and even before entering the fray he carries a wound in his temple." (67) That fidelity may be unreachable, but it is honest and true and demonstrative of the thorough effort of the translator. When I approach my own work, striving to achieve clarity, and to sift through the pieces of my inner world, I hope to find what may well be my own truth. It could possibly never happen, but I will move closer each time I do so. When I approach my translations, I hope to come close to give that writer the fairest treatment I can. And if I am ever in doubt, I will remember what Adam Trask said to his son Caleb in the final passage of East of Eden. Caleb Trask kneels at his father's bedridden form and asks him for forgiveness. Adam places his hand upon Caleb's head and says but one thing: Timshel! (Steinbeck 601)
 Nah is the first word of the poem, "Nah, im Aortenbogen." Felstiner switches it with "Close."
Felstiner, John. Ziv, That Light: Translation and Tradition in Paul Celan. The Craft of Translation. Ed. by
John Biguenet and Rainer Schulte. Chicago. University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Grossman, Edith. Why Translation Matters. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.
Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.