Thursday, October 22, 2009

Interview with Richard Sieburth, Draper Master Teacher in Literary Cultures

Draper is privileged to have Professor Richard Sieburth as our Master Teacher in Literary Cultures. Richard has a joint appointment in the Comparative Literature and French Departments at NYU, is a noted Ezra Pound scholar, and is also a respected translator of German and French texts. His English translation of Selected Writings by Gérard de Nerval won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month-Club Translation Prize in 2000 and his translation of Emblems of Desire: Selections from the "Délie" of Maurice Scève was a finalist for the PEN Translation Prize.

Richard's most recent translation, The Salt Smugglers by Gérard de Nerval was published in August. This week, he took the time to answer some questions about translation for in.ter.reg.num.

1. How did you come to be a translator?

When you grow up, as I did, in a bilingual household (German-English), you tend as a child to be fascinated with the secret language your parents are speaking (you imagine, in order to exclude you). I imagine most translators are driven by this kind of infantile curiosity: not Freud’s child voyeur who happens to “see” some primal scene (a tergo or not), but rather one who “listens” to or “overhears” a language not primarily intended for him. The act of translation would thereby involve the fantasy of readdressing this forbidden language to yourself, and then reperforming it in your own tongue in order to recapture its intention.

Later, while in boarding school in Switzerland, I spent a great deal of time traveling across the cantons in trains. You become a translator by simultaneously observing the landscape flowing by beyond the train window and noticing, written below it like some sort of allegorical inscription, the quadrilingual command: NICHT HINAUSLEHNEN/ E PERICOLOSO SPORGERSI/ NE PAS SE PENCHER AU DEHORS/ DANGER! DON’T LEAN OUT. Are these all saying the same thing?

2. What has been your most difficult translation project? What has been the most enjoyable?

Translating the rhymed dizains of Maurice Scève was probably the most difficult from the purely formal point of view: there was so little room to maneuver. Think of Marcel Marceau the mime feeling his way with his hands along the surface of an invisible mirror that is caging him in. Hölderlin, whom I translated in my mid-twenties, was a pure joy. It was what Schiller would call a “naïve” translation, as opposed to a “sentimental” (self-conscious, ironic) or “elegiac” translation. I actually visited Hölderlin’s landscapes near Tübingen just to get a sense of how the light or sound broke across the local hills. I translated Büchner’s Lenz in the course of a (mild) nervous breakdown, though I can now no longer remember which provoked which. Scholem I translated during and just after Sept. 11th, with the acrid after-stench of the Twin Towers floating through my window. Translating Michaux has perhaps been the most total blast. Nerval lies somewhere between a fond sibling and a scary Doppelgänger.

3. Do you subscribe to a particular theory of translation? Do you believe it possible to apply the same theory to all texts, or does each project require a more individualized approach?

The only translation theorist who has made a real difference to me is Antoine Berman. But the more I think about it, the more I tend to believe that there is no Theory of Translation, only a History of Translation. This is what Benjamin means by the original’s Nachleben or Fortleben. Translation merely articulates the history of the original (or the history of its translator’s encounter with it). If a translation does not register the “historicity” (ugh) of its encounter with the original—if it cannot define the “time” at which its language meets (or greets) the language of the original—the “event” of translation has not really taken place. How to theorize the “eventness” of the event? Here’s Hölderlin: “Try taking it by surprise, and it turns/ To a dream; try matching it by force,/And punishment is the reward;/Often, when you’ve barely given it/ A thought, it just happens.” Translation: a way, perhaps THE way, that language “happens.”

4. What would you say is a common myth about translation?

The most prevalent (mis)conception (or myth?) is that a translation is somehow “like” or “equal to” to the original. That it is a “metaphor” of the original, thus somehow “substitutable” for the original. Yes, the words “translation” and “metaphor” are etymologically “translations” of each other. But Benjamin’s great insight is that a translation is not “like” the original (via some sort of “equivalence” theory of truth as the “adequation” of two terms), but that it exists “next” to the original, “after” the original, as a “result” of the original. Therefore the relation is profoundly metonymic, not metaphoric.

5. Who is a translator whose work you admire?

I agree with Ezra Pound that Arthur Golding’s version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is “the most beautiful book in the English language.” I very much dig Florio’s Montaigne & Renaissance translations in general. Perverse as it may sound, I have a greater interest in translators from English than into English because their work renders the “event” of translation so much more evident to me. [I love watching English-language films with foreign subtitles]. Thus: Pierre Leyris’s French versions of Hopkins (or Coindreau’s French Faulkner), or Celan’s Shakespeare. Or some of the current castings into French of Zukofsky (of course, Zukofsky’s Catullus is an ongoing instigation). But for me THE most important translator has been Pound. Of late, I have been increasingly whelmed by his late Confucian Odes.

6. What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a translator?

Learn languages, many languages, in order to lose your own. Learn to listen. I.e. Learn to be excluded from what you hear [see above] or think you speak.

Above all, stay in touch with the best of contemporary writing (and singing) in your OWN language. Anybody can learn a foreign language. What’s hardest is then trying to (re)learn your own.

No comments:

Post a Comment