On the delicate art of translation

Excepted from Tales of a Misanthrope.

As all itches are inevitably scratched, I endeavor to burden the reading public with yet another translation of Boris Leonidovich Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. This is partly in response to Pasternak’s Sestra moya Zhizn’ having so affected me in my youth and having left upon my better and younger self a prolonged impression.

Translation is a colossal undertaking and is frequently under appreciated. Not only must the translator understand the historical and social realities which underpin the original work, he must so fully respecting the sensibilities of his intended audience, an audience unfamiliar with the cultural exigencies of another set of distinct life-affirming values; furthermore, it is of singular importance to pay close attention to every crease and fold in the fabric of this untidy drop cloth known collectively as language. It is often said that poetry is untranslatable, which only heightens the difficulties one must face when broaching Pasternak, the poet and novelist. Is a true translation even possible?

The question burning on your lips–those lips, pouting slightly, cranberry red, moist and inviting–is probably why now. Why do we need a new translation at this time?

The answer is that I am bored. But rather than dwell on such a grievous admission, let us jump headlong and unguarded into the text of the translation itself, which was incidentally influenced by a previous translation and found by means of crawling dirtily inside a series of caverns under the echoic halls of this great institution, in an underground library, built on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis and modeled after the catacombs in Lima, all in the hope of preserving books and drug paraphernalia collected from Peruvian gangsters over the course of one particularly fine decade.

And as the front and back covers, and a beautifully illustrated frontispiece (apparently replete with fat cherubs dressed in thin raiment) were repurposed as bedding material for the birthing of merry moles (which, after having read said book, interpreted it as a menage a trois featuring small mammals with bad eyesight) the translator’s name is undiscoverable. Only the date, 1968, remains legible, thus situating its publication after the universally-adopted 1957 translation.

Concomitantly, my interest in moles was piqued, and I did some extracurricular research, learning that moles are the most literary of the burrowing animals, evincing high intelligence, especially as compared to rodents, which are dimwitted and generally offput by the humanities.

And now, without further ado, let’s figuratively get our hands and knees dirty, taking care not to inadvertently crush an opium pipe in the damp floor litter, and look at the text, starting with the 1968 translation:

Lara, Babe, pass the suture.

As a craftsman and man of the times, I wanted the new translation to be more hip hop friendly. For example:

Lara, what a ho. Your Adidas walk through hospital tents.

Those who floss twice daily or who curse mainly at inanimate objects, may posit that a worthy translation must obligatorily start with the text in its original language. And here I beg to differ. Too much of the author’s baggage can taint the fledgling manuscript (here I use ‘manuscript’ as a synecdoche). Best to commence from a sensible English translation and then contextualize.

The scene where Zhivago looks across the Suez Canal and is seen by a gangrenous-looking fellow on a motorcycle who yells, “Who are you?”, should be re-situated near a strip mall, thus functioning, metaphorically, as a lament for the death of such commercial spaces. Small detail, but highly important. Besides, what was Zhivago doing in the desert? A felicitous blunder in the original, I suppose, which was finally corrected after several translation passes. There is nothing like the disinfectant of multiple rewrites.

The complete translation is soon to be available for purchase on Amazon. I contacted Jeff Bezos directly. He wrote back saying he was tied up at the moment with a personal matter. Then he launched into a tirade, incoherent at times, about exchanging goods or something peculiar as that. My honest opinion: Jeff has spent too much time in shipping. He ought to work his magic in one of those glass penthouses, the ones with a motorized bar and satin bed sheets. Are you really telling me you can’t find a place for a new translation, I thought to myself, now displaying evidence of an ague fit. Who are you, Jeff Bezos, just a guy who wants to have current events whispered lovingly into his hungry ears by a professional news anchor? (Money does not buy happiness, but rather encourages it, like a desk lamp encourages the hatching of a mysterious egg, brought to your attention by unsupervised children in the community, and where surprise is the key component.)

And here I end this Faustian tale with a direct plea to JB. Please make room for ‘A New translation of Dr. Z’ in one of your sub-zero temperature warehouses. Hasn’t the public had enough of meat dehydrators or those electric bars used to heat bath towels?

And so, there you have it, related to me practically at gunpoint, the first person account of one of my colleagues at the sanatorium, who exudes from every pore the chill sense that his work is not being taken seriously. He maintains that his next English translation, that of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, coincidentally another framing narrative, will be the one to launch his career into the thermosphere–his word–so that he too may join the pantheon of writers who are too mentally unstable to recognize their true worth in society.

 

Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll

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Matty,

It is with deepest regret that I must inform you of my passing in 2018. This in large measure explains my conspicuous absence. Rest assured, I am accustomed to the experience, having died once before in 1991 as a result of abusing powerful intoxicants, a wily mélange of alcohol and over-the-counter cough drops. Nonetheless, as I am wont to say nowadays, when the grim reaper calls, it won’t be on your galaxy S9. Death is ultimately sudden, even when you have been expecting it all your life. By-and-by, I propose to revisit the subject on the occasion of my third death, which is foretold to end under the crushing weight of a tractor in some mud-laden field.

My recovery has been swift but I am still frail. Presently I fear my huge investment in copper will be my undoing. A savvy investor yourself, you can well understand how I blame the Chinese for most of my malinvestments. If not for crippling debt they might actually have an economy in need of base materials. But other than not being able to make a quick, obscene profit from commodities, what is it people don’t like about copper right now? It has a nice sheen. Why the hate? Personally I find the sight of coppery locks curled upon the temples of a grammar student almost too dizzying to bear. Nevertheless I believe copper will be the next big thing since gadolinium. Of course certain divestitures were necessary; for example, I no longer own my huge collection of Victorian pornography and had to auction off some of my cars. Parting with the Lambo was difficult, as the searing image of its sad eyes and dinted forehead filled me with mean-spirited melancholy. That’s when I attacked the tow truck driver, a toothless automotive “professional” wearing a ruddy baseball cap. “Careful with that chain,” I said to him with the same amount of goodwill on offer by madman wielding a paring knife. As though dropped from a steep cliff or nudged from the cozy comfort of a C-47 and facing an uncertain future over barren land, an idea lodged itself within the hazy periphery of my fanatically morbid mind. Was the altercation truly about dentistry? Was having a perfect set of creamy canines and of masticating molars–stroked daily with the vellicative touch of silky strands of dental floss, oh! those easily titillated incisors–correlated with a penchant for fast cars? Let’s face it, the poor sod would never own a Lamborghini and that was as certain as snowfall in Sweden. And verily, his fetid odor was not a reprisal for his conspicuous lack of the trappings of wealth, but rather a natural statement about inevitability. Oddly and fittingly, there’s nothing natural about a Lamborghini, and out of the two I’d cast my lot with the downtrodden over the hydraulic on most days.

He had the eyes of a weasel yet the bonhomie of a seasoned swine. I also got the feeling he was just putting in his time, and that at 5 o’clock he’d abandon everything mid-doing and leave for another planet. Then suddenly, as though out of character, he took me back millions of years and spoke heatedly about lobsters and serotonin. I humored him with an attentive ear. Was he making a cogent point about hierarchies? Had he recently done a repo on the SUV of an evolutionary biologist?

Still, he must have been a Marxist. But from my vantage the stench of Mao Zedung’s [sic] delusions ( it’s unmistakably the stench of death) seems to cast a pall over the revival of that brand of governance. In contrast and in stating the obvious, any meritocracy will have excesses, but such unevenness is the spark of life, its guiding principle. If I’m at sea and Poseidon decides to throw a shindig, I’d rather have a qualified captain at the helm than the cook or a chamber maid with unappreciable navigation experience, save for her ability to circumnavigate the captain’s escritoire with long goose feathers (the video, available in certain sectors of the internet, is quite exquisite). I don’t have anything against cooks, toothlessness, or ornithology when it comes to it, but the thought of my cabin filling up with water without a genius seaman at the helm does not give me succor. There is a time and place for everything (suddenly this missive takes a pithy turn, co-opting the worse instincts of the greeting card industry) and this is the time for a decorated naval officer.

Mat, as impending death hangs around me like gaminesque groupies ensconced in the backstages of unwholesome rock concerts, I rediscover your writing. And as the likelihood of my slipping into a coma increases with each passing day, with each marauding cloud, I beseech you to inform me of your forthcoming literary awards from institutions which still dole out as a token of esteem statuettes of naked gods and goddesses, carved with anatomical precision. Porcine literature, your unapologetic niche, is bound to palpably surface as tales of pig farmers migrating to the bustling city are just beginning to capture the public imagination. It is my fervent hope that serious critics start to honor the very best in what has been termed Pig Lit by fans of the genre. As such, I may enjoy, vicariously through your good self, the pleasure of being feted as a literary maven, thus, delicately and seemingly, vindicating my years of despoiling perfectly salvageable paper with Byzantine sentences and intransigent vocabulary. You are my only hope now, Mat. Don’t be an ass.

As an additament, the Finns have sadly banned the use of dental amalgams, some malarkey about toxicity, which coincidentally use copper; nevertheless, I continue to blame the Chinese for my misfortunes.

Sincerely,

P.

Mat’s writing can be found anywhere condoms are sold or alternatively by scouring his pockets if you happen to spot him pacing the length and breadth of Brighton Beach.

If that wasn’t enough, his work can be found on his blog or on the floors of local animal shelters.

https://drysailorboy.wordpress.com/