Sunday, January 8, 2017

Weighing Our Words, Negotiating Our Values

In my singer-songwriter days, I lived in Germany, so this article by Sabine Heinlein in the Daily Beast, "Take it from a German: Americans are too timid when confronting hate", resonated with me. I remember being reprimanded by little old ladies in Germany for doing my aggressive New York pedestrian thing, crossing the street on a red light or in the middle of the block. I remember lying in my bikini on a cedar bench in the rosemary-scented sauna of the Neptune Spa in Cologne, and opening my eyes to the polite (and nude) young man who reminded me that the spa facilities were "textile-free" and that I needed to get naked, right now. German willingness to tell others what the rules are was sometimes off-putting for me as an American, but I had to admit that this cultural norm made for a modern society in which the majority of people looked out for each other's rights, did their best to cooperate with each other, and valued the functioning of the whole over the whim of the individual. I learned to love Germany for its beauty, its landscapes, its charming towns, its brilliant cities, and, above all, for its generous, straight-shooting, hard-working people.
During the recent election season, which was marked by a childish insistence on individualism, faulty reporting, and a refusal to think clearly about America's choice for President, I thought a lot about my German-born friends: Sven in San Francisco, who is now an American citizen, and whose life is full of sustainability efforts that make the urban environment better for everyone in his community; Katrin and Guido of Cologne who recently were out on the streets facing down the Neo-Nazis, who have been active Amnesty International soldiers for years, and whom I met because they opened their home to me when I was a stranger and traveling troubadour; and Gisela, my adopted German "Mom", who is now elderly but still opens her home in Stuttgart to travelers, and escorts chronically ill people to healing retreats in India. German cultural values like hospitality, following rules that benefit the community, environmentalism, talking directly and publicly about important issues, placing the good of community over self, physical culture for all regardless of body type, and an admiration of strong women— all are values that I came to appreciate, and that I miss now that I am back home in America.
Sabine Heinlein writes in her article: "[I]t has always struck me as odd how timid most Americans become when asked to object to something, even politely. At the dinner table, I’ve noticed, what Germans call a discussion, Americans call an argument." My sister and I were raised by a Scots-German-Canadian mother. Our German ancestors were Mennonite people who came to Waterloo County, Ontario via Pennsylvania because they were persecuted in Germany for their religious beliefs. As Claire will echo, there was never an absence of active discussion in our household, and, while all those discussions about politics, culture, history and literature at the dinner table may have sometimes made our Yankee dad uncomfortable or come between us and proper digestion, this German cultural heritage is probably the reason that Claire is now a brilliant historian and university professor, and I'm a literary translator, writer and Spanish language professor. We learned to form ideas, express them well in words, and—this part is foundational—to feel that we had a right to express ourselves to anyone, anywhere. As I remember, I was often the cultural moderator who was trying to explain to my Dad why our vigorous discussions were nothing to worry about.
One of my Spanish students, an 80+ year old retired professor from Princeton, wrote to me last week: he had arrived at his winter retreat in Arizona, and he wanted to schedule a lesson with me. He told me that he'd had a nice dinner with some of his friends there at the condo complex in Tucson, all of them also elderly Jewish folks. Writing in Spanish, he told me: "Tocante el nivel de democracia, la ultima ironía: hablé con unos amigos, judíos, y estábamos de acuerdo de que, si tenemos que huir de este país, es posible que lo mejor país para salvarnos sea Alemania." (With regard to the state of democracy, the ultimate irony: I spoke with some friends, also Jews, and we agree that if we have to flee this country, it's possible that the best country to save us is Germany." The "freedom" of post-election America now feels menacing to these Jewish elders, and modern German culture now seems safer, more welcoming than the country in which they were born and the safe haven of their parents just half a century ago. I was startled to hear that people whose judgement I admire are thinking this way.
I reflect now on culture, and how hard it is to translate. Aristotle tells us in his Poetics that the evaluation of any work of art depends on a careful analysis of what the ideal nature of that art is: comedy, for example, should show people as less good than they are, tragedy should show them as better. You may disagree with him, but the point is that to know what is "good" or "bad" depends on definitions, and definitions depend on cultural norms. Literary translation has to deal with this problem all the time, since it is not just about moving words whole-cloth from one language to another, but rather interpreting cultural and literary norms and making decisions about what will fly in the target language and what will be incomprehensible. Intelligent compromises must be struck. Texts don't always have to make us comfortable, and we can also learn from literature that bothers us.
For the past couple of weeks I've been working with an Editor at a literary review on some short stories that I've translated, and that he will publish this spring. I'm immersed in Hispanic culture and literature, he's not, and this makes him a perfect "first reader" of my work. He pointed out places in my translations that could cause the anglophone reader to stumble, that might interrupt the flow of the text. Some of his notes I accepted easily, but other edits felt intrusive, bordering on stripping the work of the author's identity as a Hispanic writer. An example: the story did not "map", according to my editor, and he wanted to clarify where all the objects were in the apartment described in the story. The need to tell exactly how the apartment was put together seemed mechanical and terribly American to me; the openness of the original text allowed the reader to imagine the room in his own way, and seemed preferable to me—as well as more in line with other Hispanic literature I know—than what my editor proposed. I suffered, pondering the additions to the text that my editor wanted, and actually had nightmares about the proposed changes. Finally, I agreed to them. Why? Well, to begin with, at some point you have to trust your editor and forge a relationship with him: give and take is the nature of this work. Secondly, I finally saw his point, that, to an American reader, the logic of the setting might seem flawed and could actually distract from the more important aspects of the narrative in a way it wouldn't distract a Hispanic reader who is accustomed to this style. My editor and I had to face each other down on this, and negotiate a diplomatic literary solution that took into consideration cultural, not just linguistic, norms. The result is a smoother translation in English, at least we both hope it is; and, while you could say I lost an argument, I had a chance to educate my editor to some aspects of Hispanic literature—and soon the story will get read by thousands of people.
Was it good or bad to change the original text, even if only slightly? A quality "imitation", as Aristotle tell us all art is, is not a one-to-one reflection of things as they are. Rather, it must reach the reader in words he can understand, and aim to achieve the same emotional, artistic objective of the original text by whatever means possible. As a translator, I have to be able to negotiate, to discuss, to explain, to defend the text I have chosen to work on on every level. I am its only advocate in the new language. Literary translation demands patient renegotiation of a text, and a humble recognition of how different people understand the same words differently. This is not for the good of the translator, the editor, the publication, or even the author, but for the good of all readers everywhere. Being a literary translator is to be a writer who subsumes her own creative ego to a much greater purpose and who aspires to possess the skill-set of an international diplomat.
In this post-election season, some of us now feel less comfortable, even afraid, in our own culture. We feel as if the greater purpose of an inclusive, democratic society that promotes justice for all has been betrayed. But perhaps it's high time this happened, because there are many among us—people of color, Native Americans, immigrants, social and economic refugees, LGBTQ people—who have felt uncomfortable in the American culture for a long time now. At last, more of us can get a little glimpse into what that kind of discomfort feels like. To transform this apparent defeat toward the good of our republic, we have to engage in vigorous, open dialogue, and—importantly— find opportunities to talk face to face with those who don't agree with us. We must confront opposing opinions, not for the immediate (and questionable) pleasure of exercising our right to get angry, but with the goal of convincing and forming intelligent alliances with people who seem intolerably "other" to us. We must have courage to have the big conversation about what we want our country to be, make compromises for the common good, and use words with care, not to beat each other up, if we hope to co-create a culture in which all of us—all of us— can feel at home.
Image: "Compromise" by Allison Braun

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