Sunday, 15 April 2012

Rorke’s Drift, Michael Caine... and Getting The Old Translator’s ‘Pen to Paper’...

“Your Great Uncle Stan was at Rorke’s Drift when the first shot was fired,” my old dad used to say, before each Boxing Day viewing of Zulu – oh, you must know the one! Written by Cy Enfield, co-produced by Stanley Baker, based on a true-ish story, starring newcomer Michael Caine! The well-to-do Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead – had me fooled at the time! Then again, I was only six when I first saw it... Just where did it all go wrong, eh, Michael? Only kidding...

Yep, Rorke’s Drift. Wednesday 22nd – Thursday 23rd January, 1879, when some 150 British soldiers, each with only one skopos in mind – to be sitting in the old Dog and Duck again on the Old Kent Road (or whichever the road might be) with a freshly pulled pint in front of him – would defend a supply station against some 4000 Zulus, each of which would also have only one skopos in mind – to do to the former what they’d done to 2,000 British soldiers that very morning, over yon mountain, at the Battle of Isandhlwana: to wipe them out and finish the job off.

Well, the good news is that many of those brave – for a stronger epithet! – young men did go on to hold another pint in the old Dock and Duck, and Victoria Crosses were handed out like Smarties to prove it...

One of the scenes in Cy Enfield’s film still gets me to this day: when the Zulus appear for the first time – these weren’t actors but the real thing; that proud and graceful people, and their Chief was played by no other than Buthelezi himself! And when they begin that first charge at the British fort. It’s nail-biting for the boys – another silly understatement. But that wait; each and every one of them sweating more in that minute or so – heck, it must have felt longer! – than they had throughout their entire military careers, before Lieutenant Chard – Baker’s character – finally gives the go-ahead to fire... and not a moment too soon.

But there was, and is, method behind the apparent madness, the one of seemingly allowing the enemy a bit of running space before putting them to the trigger: and I guess that it’s all to do with, well, if they fired too soon, the enemy might be too far away to hit; not only would that then waste bullets but the enemy might gain a decent idea of what they were up against, get their heads down, and move on to a plan B. On the other hand, were the British to fire too late, then they’d inevitably be consumed for being so few – the old Bard would have loved this one, wouldn’t he!

All that being said, whether getting stuck in too early or too late, it turned out that the old chief on yon hill had sent his first wave of sacrificial lambs unto the slaughter merely in order to count the British guns. There was method in that apparent madness, too.
But isn’t this supposed to be a blog about translation? I finally hear you think, faintly, beneath a kind of grating sound – are you scratching your forehead?

And yes, I reply, there’s method in my madness, too.

So here’s my roomy analogy: firstly, there’s the mighty army of translators, who claim – lots of emphasis on “claim” – that they don’t translate a novel until they’ve read it, like it were some four-lined lyrical poem or whatever; and then there are the few of us, yes, myself included – we few, we happy few – who begin the job much earlier than the novel’s final page, and, furthermore, don’t give a Dickens who knows it. I might call this a war between The Practitioners and The Theorists, the latter being the greater army, numerically – though which wouldn’t be the case if two thirds of them were to tell the truth and the remaining third were to do what they ought to do, which is to go away and annoy someone else, or, better still – anything for a laugh – have the courage to do a translation of their own – they certainly wouldn’t have been missed at Rorke’s Drift, would they!

That’s the first part of the analogy: the small army, big army-part.

The second bit is the waiting-to-fire-part – which you may well by now have guessed; I didn’t hear any scratching that time... When to pull that trigger? Or when to put the translator’s ‘pen to paper’?

Only a few weeks ago, I heard PhD student and part-time Lecturer Philip Wilson state that to translate a book without having read a word of it – line by line from the outset – would be no less than “disastrous”. And I do agree, up to a point; though all would depend on the individual translator’s experience, of course, and the particular book, but yes, the potential’s certainly there. You could say it’s like being fired at from a great distance: if the shooter’s not that good, you might just wait for him to run out of ammo and then present him with the sharp end of your tool. But what if he can shoot? Who knows, you might just want to give up and go home for your tea... I guess what I’m trying to say is that the potential for disaster is always there, and that that which fills Philip Wilson with horror – the idea of the translator immediately putting pen to paper – simply multiplies that potential. But it’s not written in stone.

Rather than only translate – in the conventional sense of the word – I also write – again, in the conventional sense of the word; translation is re-writing. Playing in two gardens rather than one, then, as it were, something I believe every translator ought, ideally, to do, allows for a greater perspective. Of course, in the real world, not every translator is going to have the time for both, and there is the argument for the more translation work, the more experience gained.

But the reason for putting my case forward is based on my agreement with something else that Philip said that day – I categorically agree this time. And that is that when we pick up a book and begin to read it, we search for a “way in”; he described it as “looking for a door”, which could be anywhere between the first page and the last – have you ever abandoned a book because it’s simply gotten on your nerves? Oh, don’tget me started on Henry James! Yes, I said Henry James, not James Joyce... Anyhow, my friend Philip is right: that is the process exactly. And for me, that is the moment to put pen to paper, opening the door without banging your head at either side of it for having either rushed or hesitated; not too early, not too late. I can just see the old chief on yon hill, laughing with his ancient companions at the British for having begun to fire too early – “Disastrous!” I hear him cry, holding on to his elderly belly. Or for them having done the opposite: left it too late – “They’ve forgotten which film they’re in!” he screams with delight.

Willard Trask, a prolific and erudite translator for nearly fifty years, said that “Translation is what happens while you do it.” He talked of the “helical” rather than “unilinear”. I think he was talking about the writer’s groove. He, too, never read a book end-to-end before beginning to translate.

We all, of course, know that every book contains two levels of meaning: there is determinate meaning, embedded in the linguistics of the text, which, as Professor Jean Boase-Beier tells us, “demands cultural, linguistic knowledge of the source language; and then the necessary sensitivity of weakly implied or ‘second order’ meanings”. She also asks us: “How do we read and how do we translate what goes beyond the actual words on a page, and how do we ensure literary translations preserve the mind-altering qualities of the original? Style,” she says, “conveys attitude and not just information... it is the expression of mind; and literature is a reflection of mind... we must be stylistically aware...”

Again, I agree, almost wholly. Being stylistically aware is essential, because, yes, the style of an expression “tells us something about the person who uses the expression.” But that idea is also qualified by the above quote “what goes beyond the actual words on a page.” What intrigues me most, though, in Jean’s quotations, is the first of the two questions: “How do we read and how do we translate...? The translator’s “thumbprint” will always exist in a translation, we’re not robots, and that’s the beauty of it; and why we prefer some translations to others. But in order to construct something which might reasonably have been the author’s intention, just maybe we should start to think more about the way we, indeed, read a translation.

Any translator will tell you that s/he reads a book that s/he intends to translate differently to the way s/he reads for ‘pleasure’. And I sometimes ask myself why. After all, is the reader of your translation going to read it so differently to the reader of the source text? A writer doesn’t sit down and think: “I want to fill this next paragraph with adverbs of morbidity! Does s/he? The chronicler sitting on a sand-bag at Rorke’s Drift might have done, when he was able to keep his plume still, but that’s different. Or is it? Wouldn’t those adverbs of morbidity have presented themselves quite naturally within the context? The writer is aware of the process up to a certain consciousness, but, essentially, s/he simply writes, allowing the muse to dictate.

The really interesting – and perhaps crucial – part concerning the source writer’s task, however, is the editing process. For it is here where s/he, paradoxically, goes about trying to make the text read/sound more ‘natural’ in expression – however artificial, this is what we expect as readers; the great literary paradox! In light of this knowledge, then, the question I need to ask is this: Is not our job, as translators, to replicate our experience as readers? I believe it is. And I believe that the secret to a success, or a more ‘faithful’ translation, may lie in that very first reading, in those natural, spontaneous reactions of ours: by going for the jugular once we’ve opened that door. Once we’ve travelled with the flow of the text – the way the original author hoped we might; they don’t sweat over the editing process for nothing! – we may then go about own editing process.

Those who categorically disagree with my theory will tell me that I’ve not given much thought to recurring metaphors, symbols, leitmotif and so on – and what about all those clues in detective fiction? And I say: “But I only noticed that recurring metaphor on page 74 myself! So why should I make it easier for the reader of my translation?” And just as a reader has to turn back a number of pages to confirm that the metaphor is a recurring one, why shouldn’t the translator do the same? Furthermore – scandalously for some – the writer of the source text never set out with the idea of recurring metaphors in the first place – believe me, these things just happen somewhere along the line and writers merely exploit them! We might then, finally, deal with the editing sweat as we were meant to do: in the same fashion as the source text author – if s/he had to go through it, why shouldn’t we?

Gosh, I bet I’m making a lot of translator friends with this piece! And it’s not like I’ve got that many to start with...

But, that’s me and I’m sticking with it... for a while at least...

As for my old dad’s well-worn joke at the beginning of my blog – you don’t have to go back, I’ll tell you now: the line about my great uncle Stan being at Rorke’s Drift when the first shot was fired – his punch line would be: “He was in The Queen’s Head on Stannington Street when the second one was fired...”

I bet my fictitious uncle Stan had already seen the film... Or just maybe he thought Lieutenant Chard had left it that little bit too late... before putting that translator’s pen to paper.

Thanks to Jean-Boase-Beier, BJ Epstein, Philip Wilson, Cy Enfield, Michael Caine, Stanley Baker, to my old dad and my fictitious uncle Stan... and to the Great Zulu people of the Great Buthelezi.

I’m Chris Rose and my details are given further down, just after a previous blog entitled ‘Translating a Tom Stoppard Play on Words’. But if you’d like to drop me a line – whether you’re interested in translation or just a fan of Michael Caine films – my email address is

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