13/6/2020 0 Comments
On translation as science fiction
If Dionysus is a god of identity transformation, can we see him as the god of translation? To this question, asked by Simon Perris, I say a resounding yes, I love the idea of translation as identity transformation, it is what I loved about reading the first selection of Stephanie Burt’s Callimachus translations I came across in the London Review of Books, the feeling that I was reading a Callimachus poem through a Stephanie Burt poem and that one writer was transforming into another writer right in front of my eyes. Callimachus worrying about imposing on his friends with another manuscript becomes Burt needing “to learn how not to speak, when not to hit send,” or, if not Burt herself exactly, at least Burt imagining Callimachus with a laptop, knowing how Callimachus must feel. In the prologue to the translations Burt offers an even more provocative way of thinking about the transformations of translation, when she suggests that a translation of a classical work that borrows images and objects from the time in which it is translated could be read as a form of science fiction, an form of alternative history in which computers, netflix, synthetic hormones and so on had all already been invented over two thousand years ago, or what Callimachus might have written as a preternaturally prescient science fiction writer imagining a future in which all the problems of his time and his own life took place surrounded by all these as yet uninvented inventions. And it makes me think about the science fictional quality of all writing, and all reading, which always involves a Dionysian identity transformation, when I turn, for instance, an idea, an image, some words into a poem by Anna Jackson, even if I am not turning a poem by Catullus into a poem by Anna Jackson, or when, for instance, Jan Morris writes, about her thought diary entries, that she is “getting rather tired of me,” of the “carefully-honed persona” - what a nice sort of person - in whose voice the thoughts are written. And what about the way in which, reading a Jan Morris entry, my own identity is transformed as I become perhaps not Jan Morris herself, but someone listening to Jan Morris, a friend of this likeable 92 year old? Which isn’t quite the same as the way when, reading a poem by John Keats, for instance, or even a translation of Callimachus by Stephanie Burt, I become not a listener but an inhabitant of the words and the thoughts and the emotions they express, as if I, too, am hesitating to hit send, or failing to hesitate, not having learned, perhaps not really entirely wanting to learn, when not to. And what about the even stranger fact of reading itself, which may not have been science fiction in the time of Callimachus except in the way laptops are science fiction in the translations of Stephanie Burt? Reading might have been ordinary to Callimachus but some of the earliest works he was reading, and translating, and appropriating, and bringing into the future of his own present day had their earliest origins before the written language was yet in play, when it would have been the strangest kind of science fiction to imagine that it could be possible for someone to speak to someone else across centuries in time, and without any sound being made at all, by someone interpreting coded symbols that represent not even words but sounds, sounds that the reader hears only in their own head, turning them back into words, words they might be half believing are their very own.
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These are paragraphs without essays or books to go in.