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Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel

2 Aug

Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel

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On WA-20 west toward the Anacortes Ferry Terminal, Michael and I found a Spanish radio broadcast with news relayed at a curiously slow pace, so that even we, with our limited Spanish, could understand. It was a multicultural station based in Vancouver. We got news of sex trafficking in Buenos Aires, corruption in Brazil, and an interview about traditional foods in a certain town in Mexico whose name eluded me: horchata tamarindo, pavo, taquitos fritos, plus socializing at church. There was mariachi music, then a pan flute.

In the next hour, the language switched to something I couldn’t recognize. Something Scandinavian? South Asian? I had no clue. But then bhangra music came on, so maybe it was Punjabi?

At the ferry checkpoint (we were on our way to Victoria, British Columbia), I lowered the radio, as if customs would find foreign sounds questionable. Once we were on the boat, I switched my phone to airplane mode and concentrated on Mirielle Gansel’s Translation as Transhumance (trans. Ros Schwartz), which Michael found at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco, when I was there on book tour in April.

It seemed appropriate to read a memoir and philosophical treatise on the act of translation while crossing into Canadian waters. Gansel’s family survived the Holocaust; she grew up in France and remembers the special occasions when a letter would arrive from Budapest and her father would solemnly translate it aloud. Some of her memories remind me of visiting Freiburg, Germany with my grandmother, who spoke a mishmash of Romanian and Hungarian with her cousin and uncle (they saved Hungarian for dirty jokes), and where the cousin’s husband spoke German and their children spoke English to me. Here is the lovely excerpt which prompted my reverie:


In the 1960s and ’70s, Gansel went on to translate poets from East Berlin and Vietnam. Something she touches upon which I would like to research further is the “de-Nazification” of German and the attempt to translate Vietnamese poetry without exoticization. She mentions Bertolt Brecht de-Nazified Hölderlin’s translation of Antigone without comparing examples. But she does offer this translation of poet To Huu (translated into English, in turn, by Ros Schwartz–oh, the layers!):

Casuarina forests,

Groves of green coconuts,

The shimmering of the white dunes

where the sun trembles,

garden of watermelons with red honey!

Gansel quotes Nguyen Khac Vien, who invited her work to on an anthology of Vietnamese poetry in translation: “Exoticism arouses simply a sense of foreignness, without being able to communicate the emotions, the deeper feelings that inspire a work.”

On that notion of digging for deeper feelings, Gansel shares her approach to translating the entire oevre of Nelly Sachs, a Jewish German-language poet who lived in exile in Sweden. She ended up rewriting the work four times, using the Bible’s four levels of meaning, according to the Jewish tradition of exegesis: Peshat (literal meaning), Remez (allusive meaning), Drush (deeper meaning), and Sod (secret, esoteric meaning).

I could go on and on and on about how much I love this slender volume about exile and empathy.  This book has opened so many doors for me.

National Grammar Day!

28 Feb

In case you were dreadfully unaware, this Tuesday is National Grammar Day. Here is an interesting rebuttal to the whole concept. Hooray for descriptivists!

Misc Updates

4 Jul

I’ve finally put up two papers from my days at Teachers College, both from a course I took in Interactional Sociolinguistics this past fall.

I’m also in the process of reconsidering the design of my website. I’m actually considering adding some color (gasp!), though something stubborn inside me wants me to stay true to the simple black and white. Any comments and suggestions on that one much appreciated.

Finally, I’ve got quite a backlog of arty tidbits to report on, hopefully by the end of the week.

Transfer to Nowhere

26 Oct

In Second Language Acquisition (SLA) there are two types of transference: linguistic and cognitive. Linguistic means you can see the influence of the native language on the second language in the surface of the structure– grammatical errors, etc. This is part of the “Transfer to Somewhere” hypothesis, that you can see the influence. “Transfer to Nowhere” is more interesting in that it is cognitive and you can’t readily see the influence. That is, one could have a perfectly grammatical sentence but it still sounds “off” because a native speaker would most likely never produce a sentence that way– that your native language shapes how you express your experience of the world. So off isn’t necessarily off or odd, I think it could also be refreshingly different. It makes me think about writers working in their second/third/fourth/etc. languages. Did Nabokov transfer Russian onto French onto English? I guess he (and Conrad) might be exceptions because they were so able to manipulate English (and I’m guessing their other languages). But then again, I don’t think the influence necessarily causes language to sound off (though in many cases it might, and it does get mixed in with the grammar issues), at least in the cases of talented language users/manipulators.

Interactional Sociolinguistics

27 Sep

I’m taking a course in Interactional Sociolinguistics (IS). It looks at how culture and society is replicated and created in social interaction, a microanalysis that has larger implications. One big area of research that I’m particularly interested in is how IS can elucidate intercultural/interethnic misunderstandings. A lot of work has been done on “gatekeeping.” A study that’s been mentioned in a lot of the introductory readings relates the story of a South Asian man interviewing for a job in London who missed multiple (almost imperceptible) cues to promote himself; likewise, the interviewers did not take into account/did not know/did not realize that promoting oneself is not an acceptable practice in his culture. Another area of research that looks interesting is cross-gender (mis)communication, which works on the assumption that genders are almost separate cultures.

We got a taste of the microanalysis in class this week, looking over transcripts of conversations and trying to find and interpret the contexualization cues. Repetition turned out to be an important feature for creating solidarity in a conversation (though that doesn’t go across the board– every situation is different). What I liked about the exercise was how similar it felt to literary analysis, taking apart the smallest features and finding meaning in them.

Code Switching

8 Sep

I’m excited. All right, I know I said that in the last post. But now, in addition to autumn, I’m excited about a symposium I’ve registered for, on African & Diasporic Languages. One of the recommended readings is on Code Switching, which is using different languages within a conversation. This immediately brought to mind a trip I took to Germany with my grandmother in 2003; we visited her cousin and uncle, and it was a quadri-lingual affair. My grandmother spoke Romanian with her cousin and uncle, her cousin spoke German with her family, her family spoke English with me, and everyone who knew Hungarian reserved that for curses and other colorful language. So I suppose the code switching there was between Romanian and Hungarian. I can sort of guess at the significance of it, in my very vague, impressionistic understanding of the two cultures and languages and their histories. I’ve been told Hungarian just has better swear words. I wish I knew more of the language than I do; all I can say is the arcane greeting, “I kiss your hand” and “igen” (yes).

In any case, I’m looking forward to the symposium.

Diseased Articles

23 Mar

In Grammar class last night we were talking about articles and why certain proper nouns take the definite article and others don’t. One reason is shared situational-cultural knowlege. We use “the” when all members of the discourse know about the noun, as in the sun, the moon, the diner, etc. A lengthy discussion ensued regarding diseases.

Why do we say the mumps, the measles, and the plague but not the AIDS or the cancer? What’s so strange and silly about saying “I’ve got the cancer”? (One person pointed out that Forrest Gump said his mother had the cancer.)

One hypothesis was related to historical linguistics. At some point in time many people got measles, mumps, and black plague, so it became shared cultural knowledge and thus took on the definite article. Perhaps, then, as AIDS and cancer become even more embedded in society, they will also take on “the.”

Do I smell a research project?

word coinage: Clogosphere

9 Mar


N. The thousands (millions?) of blogs of no consequence, “clogging” the internet.

I thought I was a genius, making this word up (see Anca’s ego; see Anca’s ego puff). Then I googled it and realized it already existed, with varying defintions (see Anca’s ego deflate). I hope that if I’m a clogger it is in the more innocuous sense, that is, of no consequence. The other sense being corporate with nefarious intentions. To my knowledge, I am not secretly an evil corporation.

But I do so enjoy the growing lexicon, which *sounds* like an evil corporation.

Aks the aminals about pasghetti

1 Mar

Neat thing I learned this week:

“Bird” and “first” used to be “brid” and “frist” in Old English. So the switching of sounds within a word (called metathesis if you must know) eventually solidified, changing the standard of English we use today.

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