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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Knowing what you're talking about

In the shower today I was thinking: I don't know Arabic, have never travelled to the Middle East or North Africa.

I am an American, with a pretty fine-toothed knowledge of American poetry, culture, and jazz.

So when I talk about Lorca's influence in the US, I still miss things if I don't research well enough, or if something simply never comes to my attention.

If I find in 20 minutes on the internet that Lorca is a big deal in modern Arabic poetry, and gather a few references, I pretty much don't know what I'm talking about. Everything comes to me in translation, and even someone with an in-depth knowledge of those milieus could miss a lot, the same way I might in my own milieu.

Jorge Riechmann, the Spanish poet who translates Char, says that you should know the exact way in which Char uses a certain word in order to translate. So "humidité" might have a particular connotation for Char that is particular to him. The language within the language, or idiolect of a poet, Riechmann calls it. A lot of French readers of Char don't probably have that level of intimacy with his language, so it goes deep than "native speaker" knowledge.

I think it is important to simply say: you have to know what you're talking about. These are just examples of that.


Where I am going with this is a talk about Celan I have to give in Spain in May. I guess I am going after that "translation as deep reading" theory that I found implicit (and explicit) in the book of translation essays I am reading. I have to start my talk by saying I'm not a Germanist, but that Celan is a poet that can only be approached from a Comparative Literature perspective. I might look a bit at his Rumanian poems.


The deep knowledge goes both ways. You have to know the literary language & traditions into which you're translating as well as the literary language and traditions of the source. Just like, to write my books on Lorca that deal with American culture, I have to know both Lorca and American culture.


Andrew Shields said...

I happen to have just read this post by Jennifer Raff:


From the perspective of your post, Raff is talking about what "knowing what you're talking about" entails.

Andrew Shields said...

And I also happen to have just read this post by David-Antoine Williams:


From the perspective of your post, Williams is talking about those "20 minutes on the Internet" (or even less!) with which you can check the basic facts of something you want to say.

(I love the wacky etymology of "syllabus" that Williams concludes his post with.)

Anonymous said...

Yes but interdisciplinarity no longer means that, it is a cover story for cutting administrative units while innovating.

[End sarcasm, or perhaps continue it]

Yes but a quite successful person in my field went to Peru, studied Quechua on immersion for 6 months, and then wrote a book on intercultural translation about this experience; sold a lot of copies and made Full. I *guarantee* that I could not take up German for 6 months in Berlin, write a book about my immersion experience, and make Full in any Comp Lit department.

So: you have to know what you are talking about, but only at institutions that can afford it if your object of study is respected.

Anonymous said...

I mean: ...only at institutions that can afford it (can afford interdisciplinarity understood as bringing to bear the informed perspectives of several disciplines, not just little pieces of this and that) ... and only if your object of study is respected.

Jonathan said...

We had a student do a diss on Quechua poetry without knowing the language. What is it about indigenous languages that fosters that attitude?

Anonymous said...

Oh, you know, they are not real languages, are not as sophisticated as ours, you understand.