Monday, October 03, 2005

10/2 Molloy’s traductions and traducements

In English we have the verb “traduce,” meaning to lure one person to betray another.
The Spanish word for translation is “traduccion," the verb "traducire" (I think); in Italian, “to translate” is “tradurre”; the word for translation is similar in French (Molloy’s memory fails him entirely at the moment, a not infrequent occurence).

Is translation therefore some kind of linguistic betrayal?

Of course: it is never possible to reproduce exactly in a new language the subtleties in meaning of a text in some other language, no matter how good the translation. Gregory Rabassa’s translation of 100 Years of Solitude is excellent; how much more excellent is Marquez’s Spanish original?

But Molloy has in mind a more serious kind of translational betrayal, brought to mind by a weekend in Scotland. After listening hard to Italian and tuning up his ears for the preceding month, English sounded strange and unfamiliar. Molloy found himself wandering the streets of Glasgow and Edinburgh translating his English sentences into English sentences and trying to conjure their Italian equivalents. Months seemed to pass in this baroque and labyrinthine way before any words at all would come from his mouth.

This process of communication was exacerbated by the various dialects of Scottish English he heard. In a bar, chatting with the server, he was amazed to realize that the server’s directions to a busy downtown area were virtually incomprehensible—Molloy’s varied experience with Latin, Greek, Spanish, French, German, and Italian did him no good whatsoever: this was a special Scottish English he heard. Frustratingly, as with Italian, or French, etc., every other speaker in the room seemed to understand perfectly well while Molloy struggled. And, stranger than fiction, Molloy was struggling with English. His own language had betrayed him--translating was traducing. Even more troublesome was the possibility--if not high likelihood-- that the language he spoke in return, as clearly as he could, in his best pure Californian non-dialectal dialect (he took special pains to omit all the “well, likes” and “dudes”), was as puzzling to his English-speaking listener as his listener’s was to him, likewise without, as far as anyone could tell, "like," or "dude," though "dude" could have crept in any number of times and Molloy would not have been the wiser.

Meals did not exactly pass in silence: Leanne’s dialect was quite close to Molloy’s own, she being a Californian, and Molloy’s approach to the spoken language only bent and stretched slightly (as in a medieval torture chamber) by an extended residence in Michigan, where yet another dialect prevails, which requires the “a,” that pure sound, to be mercilessly twanged and nasalized. This must be the source of those occasional confusions in domestic communication, when Leanne, in the purity of her California dialect, politely queries Molloy's slightly salted version with a "What the hell are you talking about????"

Now, back in Florence, Molloy watches all faces intently for evidence of his own struggle—certainly the Italians go through the strenuous effort of preparing their sentences in their heads in advance of actually speaking them, as he does. They are masters of effortless art, however, it seems, for in preparing to communicate, their brows don’t furrow, their mouths don’t purse, their tongues don’t waggle soundlessly, and there is little or no clenching and unclenching of fists or nail-biting, hair-pulling, self-flagellation, or scarification.

Molloy, in his attempts to master fluency, exhibits all these behaviors, and more. So life is more demanding for him, and his frequent flights of irrepressible and apparently (to his great relief) inexhaustible self-pity should be indulged.


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