On Translation and Who Literature Belongs to

Bliss, I am surprised to discover, is an all-English word. In Old English, the word was bliðs, and perhaps—but not definitely—it comes from the (even) Old(er) Saxon word blizza. I’m surprised, I suppose, because the word in the mouth feels a bit like a sacred thing; it slides around behind your teeth like Latin.

Bliss may be an English word, but I felt it most recently in translation. I spent a day in Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva and barely bothered to come up for air. A sort of novel, the short book seems to have more in common with philosophy than fiction—Água Viva is a small system of thought unto itself. The last book Lispector would publish, Água Viva (translated here from Portuguese by Stefan Tobler) is an exploration of time and narrative, but completely divorced from plot.

It’s also, I’m shamefaced to admit, only the second book I’ve read this past year that wasn’t originally written in English. No, in 2012 I read mostly books written by anglophone Canadians, and almost half of what I read was published for the first time this year. I like new things, and I feel pretty great about Canadian writing, but this is just no way to live.

There’s an essay in Milan Kundera’s The Curtain called “Die Weltliteratur.” Kundera (pictured above) wrote it in French, though it’s got a German title, which his translator Linda Asher chose to keep. The essay describes the provincialism of both great nations, like France, and smaller ones, like Kundera’s own Czech Republic. Kundera describes how literature is an art form that perhaps is best appreciated as one that belongs to the world, rather to than to the country where any one story originates. He writes that works should be considered in both their small contexts and their large contexts: in France, Kundera writes, Rabelais isn’t necessarily considered a founding literary figure, but he is best read by a Russian theorist, Bahktin, and in the larger context of world literature can be seen to have practically invented the European novel. Alongside Cervantes, of course.

The tricky thing about reading in translation is the knowledge that no matter how much care the translator puts into their work, you know that you’re reading a rewritten text, a facsimile. Flaubert (who Kundera points out is not ranked as outrageously important in France, even if Madam Bovary revolutionized the novel as a realist) was famously fastidious in his word choices, hard on metaphors and in love with rhythm and assonance. Far be it from me to posit that story ever trumps style, but the sheer number of Madame Bovary translations seems to make its own case. Tim Parks had a great piece in the NYRB recently, about the tricky little ins and outs, the way words and sentences carry slightly different meanings if they’re attached to different sounds; he was writing about his recent novel being transliterated from European English into American English, but the point remains: “Any intervention in these patterns, whether simply substituting words to suit a local use of the same language, or more radically translating into another language, disturbs the relationship between sound and semantics.”

And yet, I would argue, there remains under the translated text some echo of that “small context” rhythm; the reader’s mind soaks in the words on the page, themselves steeped in the circumstances under which they were written—and then rewritten.

How fitting that these are the thoughts I find myself revisiting after I put down Água Viva. “So writing is the method of using the word as bait: the word fishing for whatever is not the word”, Lispector wrote. The book examines the simultaneous failure and necessity of language to make sense of being in the world. Words, in whatever language, are such a flawed and imperfect vehicle for capturing what it really means to be alive. We can only use them, to paraphrase Lispector, to explore invented truths. And then, just she has written it, (or as Tobler translated it): “Once whatever is between the lines is caught, the word can be tossed away in relief.”