Bright arrogance #6


Of the “three grades of evil . . . in the queer world of verbal transmigration,” Nabokov places vernacularism at the lowest circle of Hell. “The third, and worst, degree of turpitude is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public.” In another place, he says that “A schoolboy’s boner mocks the ancient masterpiece less” than work that attempts to create a more “readable” version than the original. Since this column explores, and indeed celebrates versions that are wildly discrepant from the original, we should perhaps forget Nabokov’s contempt, and embrace the vernacularist translator—even espousing the No Fear Shakespeare series and its ilk as a harbinger of fearless literary experimentation to come, in its promise to translate the works of Shakespeare into “the kind of English people actually speak today.”

We need not, however, perhaps go that far.  "How many poetic works, reduced to prose, that is, to their simple meaning, become literally nonexistent!  They are anatomical specimens, dead birds!"  Paul Valéry's plaint echoes the concerns of Joan Retallack; if the popularity of her (much mistranslated) “poethics” is any indication, many are still invested, as was Benjamin, in keeping the poetic “uncommunicative,” or at least formally and syntactically difficult, eluding easy definition.  And this would imply a kind constant work of translation at the very core of any poetic project. “In times of rampant fundamentalism complex thought is a political act. . . . the necessarily inefficient, methodically haphazard inquiry characteristic of actually living with ideas.”  In other words, egghead shaming and hippy punching get you easy points amongst literary conservatives and presumed populists alike, but that doesn’t make it right (although it does make it kind of right-wing).

However, we could say that there is a brand of translator who takes on the intralingual warping of complexities into “plain speaking,” or navigates the complexity of the plain, as a kind of conceptual challenge.  This seems to be the case with the considerable achievement of Paul Legault’s The Emily Dickinson Reader, with its miniature toy versions of each of her poems, which bring out the strangeness of their more difficult mistress-master(s).  I stress achievement even though he presents the book as a sort of joke, a project that flaunts its failure to translate Dickinson, and an implicit travesty of those readers who would try to understand her—while at the same time partaking of the literary everymanism of the McSweeney’s brand.  I’m sure Legault is aware of the stakes of his fairly complex prank.  In placing such difficult work (full of sexual and metaphysical ambiguity) in the venacular, one is tempting the very forces that would subsume both poetry and the poet, and which Dickinson pointedly avoided.  But to assert a “my” Emily Dickinson, against the Dickinson of the public domain, of grade school “language arts” bromides, of the New Englandy kitsch that saturates American literature (and culture in general) would be to forget how “pop” Dickinson already is, even if her popularity has nothing to do with her poems or even an accurate depiction of her person—this is perhaps why Legault peppers his collection with repeated images of the Dickinson Daguerreotype, with captions that variously ventriloquize and parody the mute, unyielding, but nevertheless ubiquitous image. 

(Dickinson’s writings were introduced to the world only upon her death in 1886; as her poems were making their way into a world newly astonished by her genius, so too was the no less astonishing Coca-Cola, introduced also in 1886.) 

Legault’s vernacularizing process is perhaps more revealing in his archly conceptual translation of Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator.”  In this case, the attempt to make Benjamin “common” generates a kind of white noise.  The demands of plain speech in this case truly make the source text unreadable in the target language.  Benjamin’s dense difficulties, seeming-contradictions, and aphoristic condensations simply vanish, or become even more difficult to retrieve with a less difficult address.  Insight is immolated in favor of something everyone can see.