The high road and the side roads

Norms, affinity and distance in translation
Rami Saari

Translator, linguist and PIW editor Rami Saari on linguistic obstacles in translation, the norms affecting it, and the importance of affinity. “A person has to be destroyed by the gods at least once in life in order to understand Lorca.”

Because the lion’s share of Israeli poets and translators work without proper jobs and benefits, most of them take the freedom to write and translate as it suits them. This fact has an enormous effect on translation norms not only in Israel, but also in more enlightened countries, because elsewhere too poets and translators are forced to work without permanent positions. As the Finnish poet Sirkka Turkka puts it:

You must practice being dead,
said the poet-doctor behind the ship’s set table,
because normality quickly turns into abnormality.
Well, take black bread, sand soup
and glade pudding,
you, traveling poet,
for the next meal is far,
and the ship dates from the 17th century.

Normality may indeed turn quickly into abnormality. There’s no reason to belabor the fact that the normal quickly becomes abnormal with regard to human beings. The point here is that “normality quickly turns into abnormality” in language as well, and the opposite is also true; that is, an expression which has recently been thought to be egregiously nonstandard may easily be absorbed by the spoken language, move into written language, and from there go on to inhabit, with great speed, standard language, the norm. (Linguistic research on the normalization or standardization processes of language, mentioned here only in passing, constitutes a broad field.)

Hebrew, whose documented history is longer than most other languages, except perhaps for Greek and Chinese, is rife with instructive examples of words, expressions and linguistic structures which have moved from the realm of the normal to the abnormal, and vice versa. Normativity is especially complex when it comes to diachronic analysis, where the norms of one particular period in the development of the language are not necessarily operative at a different time. Take for example, the negation of verbs in the present tense in Hebrew through the use of the word ‘ein’, attached to suffixes which represent the personal pronouns as in einenni medabber/‘not-I talking’ = I’m not talking, and einkha maqshiv/ ‘not-you listening’ = you’re not listening. ‘Ein’ is still considered the norm, at least in written Hebrew. The norm for negation of a verb in spoken Hebrew, however, is usually just the word ‘lo’ (no) in the present tense – ani lo medabber = I[’m] not talking, ata lo maqshiv = you[’re] not listening, and so on.

In biblical Hebrew the situation is different, of course, not only in relation to words of negation, but to the use of verb tenses, and much more. In practice, the pace of linguistic change differs from language to language, place to place, and from time to time. It is difficult, if not impossible – which is my opinion – to relate to language universals with respect to register and style.

As a translator from languages that are very different from Hebrew in their lexicon and linguistic structures, my natural tendency is to classify the problems of normativity which I encounter into two categories. The first kind consists of structures that are completely normative in the source language but not at all in the target language, Hebrew. The second kind belongs to linguistic constraints whose source is the target language itself: Hebrew’s Procrustean bed forces the translator to take its measurements into consideration, even if they don’t exist in the source language.

Here are a few examples. In Finnish, it’s natural to connect kesä – summer – with a short, green season of heavy rains, the scent of birch trees and the taste of wild berries growing in the forest. The summer in Israel is something else entirely: its color is not green but yellow; it is mostly long and parched; birches cannot withstand its heat; in the forests, few in number and which sometimes go up in flames, berries do not grow. Because of these great differences, it is clear that the semantic fields of ‘summer’ in Finnish and in Hebrew, although both words signify the same season, are completely different. In this case, the translator has no choice but to use the parallel word from the dictionary, while remaining aware of the rich freight of cultural associations and connotations which change in the move from one language to another.

The semantic fields of the same word may be different even when there is no great distance geographically, climatically, and culturally as there is between Finland and Israel. For example, the Hebrew word ‘scarred’ (metzulaq) as in “a scarred face,” bears negative emotional baggage, because it refers, essentially, to the infliction of a wound, the event which led to the creation of a scar. The Spanish counterpart, cicatrizado, on the other hand, portrays a positive attitude, because the emphasis is not on the initial wounding, but to the fact that the sore has healed over and no longer recalls past pain.

A different problem is the lack of certain structures in the target language. Every attempt to translate adjectives which contain a negative prefix in the original language into elegant Hebrew is likely to fail, ending in clumsy and overly long expressions; these words have no counterpart in normative, fluent Hebrew. In Spanish (and sometimes in English) one can say inexistente (‘nonexistent’) and innegable (‘undeniable’) and imprescindible (‘incomparable’ in the sense that there is no substitute) – these are correct, ordinary words. But this isn’t the case with Hebrew. It would be hard to point to one solution to deal with this translation problem. Usually it is possible to find some sort of close equivalent in Hebrew vocabulary – for example, for ‘undeniable’, one might use the Hebrew nikkar or bolet – (meaning prominent, obvious); for the inability to find a substitute, ‘incomparable’ – xiyyuni or naxutz – (meaning vital or necessary) – depending on the context.

No less troublesome are structures which are not normative in the source language. Take, for example, a compound form of the Catalan verb estar, which means ‘to be’ – in the third person singular ha estat – ‘has been’. Catalan, like Spanish, differentiates between a verb which expresses a fixed and permanent being (esser in Catalan, ser in Spanish) and a verb which expresses a temporary and changing being (estar in both Catalan and Spanish). The normative Catalan compound form of esser with the participle is ha estat but in the spoken language one most often uses the technically nonstandard but very common ha segut. What should the translators into Hebrew do? Should they preserve the deviation from the standard (in the source language) in the target language? And how would one do that, considering that Hebrew has only one past tense (no difference between ‘was’, ‘has been’ and ‘had been’), and no difference between “to be temporarily” and “to be permanently”. Moreover, the Hebrew verb lihyot (‘to be’) has neither passive participle nor parallel, incorrect forms.

And what should the translator from Greek do about a string of Turkish curses? Should he sprinkle the Hebrew text with Arabic curses? Or should he rather use Russian or Yiddish curses, not less popular in spoken Hebrew than the Arabic ones? Or should one ignore the linguistic differences in the original and translate the entire text into Hebrew only?

The questions are many and the answers are few, different in each situation. The Catalan example is just the tip of the iceberg; in many languages, like Albanian and Finnish, it is perfectly acceptable to incorporate structures, whole sentences and even paragraphs in different dialects within the standard written language. The range of such options in Hebrew is much smaller; in modern Hebrew there are no local dialects, and the differences between standard Hebrew, army slang and upper class affectation in no way resembles the differences between, for example, standard Albanian and the dialect of Kosovo or that spoken in Sicily.

Some of the difficulty in translating into Hebrew does not derive from what the language lacks, but paradoxically, from what it has, for example, grammatical gender. In Hebrew this is an obligatory element, and there is no stratagem that enables the translator to ignore or avoid it. A Finnish poet may write rakastan sua, a Spanish poet te quiero, a Catalan t’estimo and a Hungarian szeretlek, but the Hebrew translator is forced to choose among four forms for “I love you”: ani ohev otakh (man loves woman), ani ohev otkha (man loves man), ani ohevet otakh (woman loves woman), ani ohevet otkha (woman loves man). That is, even for such a simple poetic utterance as this, the Hebrew norm requires that the translator inquire, as far as he or she can, whether the speaker is a man or a woman, and the gender of the beloved one. I don’t know whether Hebrew is a macho, chauvinist or sexist language; as a linguist I don’t believe in calling languages names, whether compliments or insults, but the example above shows that there are cases when grammatical gender represents real sexuality: poet or poetess, beloved man or beloved woman.

This isn’t so when it comes to nouns in general. Gender categorization varies from language to language, and is always arbitrary when it comes to nouns, which aren’t gendered in the extra-linguistic reality. Languages like Greek, Romanian, Russian and German divide nouns into masculine, feminine and neuter; in Albanian and Catalan there are vestiges of neuter nouns, but they mostly make do, like Hebrew, with masculine and feminine. Basque, Finnish, Estonian, and Turkish are free of gendered nouns, and there are languages whose categories are not based on masculine and feminine but rather on divisions among humans and animals, round and sharp objects, etc.

The constraints of gender in Hebrew also apply with respect to number. When I translated Peter Esterhazy’s Helping Verbs of the Heart into Hebrew (Schocken 1996), I came across a sentence whose literal translation was “I wish I could live two lives: one life I would live for you and one for myself.” In Hungarian the word “life” is singular, and there’s no problem with that theoretically, to live two or more lives. Because the noun is plural in Hebrew, there can be no literal translation. And so I translated “I wish I could live twice: once for you and once for myself.” However, it’s important to remember that ways of getting around a problem aren’t always available.

Furthermore, the norms of standard Hebrew with regard to gender and plurals aren’t always the same as what is acceptable in the spoken language. How many Israelis would really use, as demanded by the rules of correctness, the feminine plural verb for “go down,” instead of the masculine singular verb, when saying or writing “The sheep go down the mountain”? And how many would use the correct, irregular plural forms in concord with their correct, exceptional gender? How many Hebrew teachers know that the correct form of “the misunderstanding” places the definite article in front of the prefix and not in front of the root? How many know the correct infinitive form of “to emerge” is not the form most popularly used? Not only translators, but poets need to think over these matters, for the basic question underlying all of them is whether the normative use of a language is more important than the communicative aspect or whether sometimes one must give up norms in the service of understanding.

A linguistics workshop on normativity and an evening for the Israeli literary journal Hadarim were the catalysts for this essay on affinity/proximity and distance in translation. At first I was put off by the subject because it seemed to me that I could talk only about proximity, and that I wouldn’t have anything to say about distance. On second thought I understood that the presentation of both topics together is correct. That is, if this were simply a theoretical problem, I would gladly avoid all bother and say, in Sirkka Turkka’s words, “I speak about death when I mean life. I walk, my papers scattered, I have no theory, only a cursing dog. When I ask for brandy, they serve me ice cream, it seems I am Spanish despite everything; the part in my hair is low, indeed, I am not from here.”

But since I am really not from ‘here’, and since for me the issue is not theoretical but existential – happily and unfortunately translation is my daily bread – I have no choice but sharing with you my attitude towards affinity.

I live, write and translate out of affinity, out of complete solidarity, whether I want to or not. This sense of solidarity limits, of course, the materials I allow myself to deal with, because no one can identify completely with every person or poem. Being close to a work is to me a vital necessity for a good translation. If I sometimes also seek distance it is primarily in order to become acquainted with the border between words and the world which does not depend on them, in order to maintain my place in this world, the world about which Sirkka Turkka writes: “Here I lie with my dog like a halved fish, live tooth marks sunk in our flesh. And Jesus says: But your sorrow is yours only, your only one, your very own home in this world.”

I lived a good part of my life between 1996 and 1999 in the world of the book Poet in New York by Federico García Lorca, while translating it into Hebrew. The opening poem is ‘Vuelta de paseo’ which I saw fit to translate as ‘Back from cruising’. [Translated as ‘After a walk’ in the Penguin Spanish-English edition of Lorca’s Selected Poems, 1997 – LK]. This poem, among others, was discussed at a symposium sponsored by the Spanish and Latin American Studies department of the Hebrew University in the winter of 1999. The discussion of the poem was conducted in Spanish but the program was in Hebrew and the lecturer translated the title into Hebrew as ‘Back from a walk’. Perhaps some might think this is a small point, but in my opinion the question is substantial; what do we understand of a poem when an experience is not normative, and yet it comprises the essence of a (poet’s) life? Without the affinity based on similar experiences, we might think this was a ‘walk’ and not ‘cruising’. A person has to be destroyed by the gods at least once in life in order to understand Lorca.

I am not saying that without experiences similar to that of the poet, a translator fails to transmit the poem to his or her language, but it is completely clear to me that each of us has a scale of feelings and experiences, a repertoire of types of behavior and levels of awareness, that permit or do not permit us to deeply understand the Other and the Other’s writing. There is a limit to what we experience and what we understand. Translating out of affinity/proximity means to me to set the borders in the right place.

Translated by Lisa Katz. Quotations from the poetry of Sirkka Turkka are English approximations of Saari’s Finnish-to-Hebrew translations.

First published in Haaretz, September 10, 1999.

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FINNISH POETRY translated by Saari to Hebrew
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