Wednesday, 22 December 2010

All in the Words?

In his review of the new Lydia Davis translation Julian Barnes goes through seven(!) versions of Madame Bovary to show that over the last 125 years there has been a subtle shift towards a more literal interpretation of the original French.  The problem has remained the same, of course: how to give the English reader a similar experience to that of their French counterpart; although the answer has changed slightly, and appears to increasingly lie in a more faithful rendering of the original language; as opposed to its recreation into an English equivalent.[i]  However, these different approaches appear not to lead to progressive improvements, just subtle shifts of emphasis; sometimes merely reflecting cultural changes in the host country.  Amidst which Madame Bovary herself alters hardly at all.

Is a desire for fidelity to the original all that is going on here?

The review echoes a wider phenomenon: the 20th century’s monomania with language itself.  After hundreds of years of believing words were simply the roads we travelled on in between different destinations there was a revelation: they are a whole country in themselves.  Or to put it more conventionally: language was seen as an obstacle, a sort of frosted glass, between us and reality; an insight comparable perhaps to that of Locke and the other empiricists, who showed that we mediate the world through our senses.  This was an enormous insight and had powerful effects; including the creation of a philosophy that believed we live inside language prisons; with many an Oxford philosopher serving a life sentence.[ii]   

One wonders though.  For what Barnes’ review actually shows is that for the most part we still see through clear windows; which have the occasional flaw, and dirty smudge.[iii]  

Meanwhile he grew like an oak; he was strong of hand, fresh of colour. (Eleanor Marx 1875)

And so he grew like an oak.  He acquired strong hands, good colour.  (Lydia Davis 2010)

There are small nuances; the most obvious (though Barnes lists several) is around Charles’ hands: have they become red passively or actively?  Either way, but to slightly different extents, the description illustrates his coarseness: his hands are his synecdoche. More generally, some meanings have changed slightly, there are little shifts of emphasis, and certain sentences are more sonorous than others.  While translators have lost their lives over an adverb or the placing of a semi-colon; which we rush past, like adverts in the street.  After all this literary effort we end up with only fragments of difference; within a design that is universally agreed.  Is too much attention being paid to inessentials?

Barnes’ review suggests that language may have become more important than the world it describes.  No doubt this reflects the artist himself: would there be so many translations if Flaubert was not so obsessively attached to his own linguistic materials; if he was not such a virtuoso with words?[iv]  But isn’t this to take the writer too much at his own estimation? 

What are we doing when we write?  Are we simply creating beautiful language patterns; our words like the decorations on Afghan carpets?  Or are we trying to capture a feel of the thing that we want to describe, a sort of atmosphere?  In Madame Bovary, the heroine herself and her relationship to provincial society.  That atmosphere will be made of facts, our feelings (mostly below our consciousness), and the materials we use.  The latter is usually the most conscious, and perhaps the weakest, of these elements.  It is also the one that takes us the longest.  I have rewritten this piece many times so it “feels” right, which in part means ensuring there is a fit between what I describe and its description.  But is this “fit” really about the words themselves?  We assume it is because so much of our conscious attention is spent on them.  But is this so obvious?  Could it not be something similar, but subtly different: to get a rhythm on the page that somehow matches the atmosphere inside us?  That rhythm to also have some correlation with the facts we are describing?  If this is anyway near true, apart from the metaphors, a related but separate issue, the individual details of the phrase or sentence will not be that important.  It is their general “fit”, their “feel” within the finished mosaic that counts.  The final picture to match that “feel” within us, that is not linguistic, but a strange mixture of feeling and unconscious thought.

Who loves language the most?  Book groups?  Is that what all that book chat is about?  Or writers for that matter: how much technical analysis do they perform on their favourite authors?  If they teach, or give lectures, or run creative writing classes, of course there will be lots of scrutiny.  But when we turn to their craft, how they read and its relationship to how they write, are they so sharp on the technical details?  Do they spend that much time on the phrase and sentence structure? Or is they response to the overall flow; of how it gels with the storyline; and the novel’s insights into psychology and social relationships?  And in the process somehow absorb the qualities they need.  Isn’t it the parodists and self-conscious stylists who are the ones that pay the closest attention to the actual words on the page? 

A question then follows.  What is more important for a writer: the world they describe or the descriptions they use?  In art the trend towards abstraction allowed for the creation of a self-contained world; where material, content and form were one.  It was a sort of top security prison painted in wonderful colours.  However, the history has shown that this cannot be duplicated in literature: words are just not pure enough; they are too attached to the objects they describe.  Thus no matter how beautiful the language it still has to relate to some thing beyond itself.  If this is true, why has language become to be seen as so important; and for whom?

Philosophers and bookish people generally tend to live a life dominated by words, and even to forget that it is the essential function of words to have a connection of one sort or another with facts, which are in general non-linguistic.  Some modern philosophers have gone so far as to say that words should no longer be confronted with facts but live in a pure, autonomous world where they can be compared only with other words…  This is one of those views are so absurd that only very learned men could possibly adopt them.  (Bertrand Russell, My Philosophical Development)

It has everything to do with the incorporation of literature into the academy.  Those bookmen and women who with tweezers pull whole paragraphs apart; while their study windows are too full of monographs to see the trees outside or the setting sun.

Flaubert was an artist, and like all artists of quality would have experienced the tension between his tools and his objects of contemplation.  This may account for the obsessiveness of his language: the first stirrings of the later fanaticism.  It may also reflect the nature of the object itself.  Jonathan Raban, in his review of the same translation, writes of the paucity of Madame Bovary’s ideas: they’re more Primark than John Lewis.  Thus part of the book is about the texture of its heroine’s thought, and its language.  Once on that road you could imagine its author getting lost; quite easily.    But he got home in the end.  And this is reflected in the book’s wider truth; it is not just concerned with the arrangement of words on a page.[v]  It is about the narrowness of a provincial society; and the yearning some people have to escape it.  And how difficult, if not impossible, that escape proves to be. 

Full and flushed, the moon came up over the skyline behind the meadow, climbed rapidly between the branches of the poplars, which covered it here and there like a torn black curtain, rose dazzling white in the clear sky, and then, sailing more slowly, cast down upon the river a great splash of light that broke into a million stars, a silver sheen that seemed to twist its way to the bottom, like a headless snake with luminous scales; or like some monstrous candelabra dripping molten diamonds.  The soft night was all about them.  Curtains of shadows hung amid the leaves.  Emma, her eyes half-closed, breathed in with deep sighs the cool wind that was blowing.  They did not speak, caught as they were in the rush of their reverie.  Their early tenderness returned to their hearts, full and silent as the river flowing by, soothing-sweet as the perfume the syringas wafted, casting huger and more melancholy shadows on their memory than those the unmoving willows laid upon the grass.

They are outside, but it has the stillness of a room.  This passage catches a fragile intimacy; with the natural world both beautiful decoration and a quiet foreboding – there are hints of decadence and fall.   It is as if the countryside has been turned into a boudoir; and the two metaphors describe the moonlight beautifully.  But wait, why two?  Isn’t one enough?  Are headless snakes usual in lovers’ bedrooms?  It is a lovely description, but it jars a little with the rest of the scene.  Were Flaubert’s descriptive capacities given too free a reign, with the desire to capture the moonlight’s brilliance overflowing his control?  Or did he need a symbol, some incongruity, to give some other meaning, to show the moment’s unreality (though surely the “monstrous” candelabra was enough to alert us to his general intent)?  Was a little inconsistency allowed, to create larger resonances?  That the overall architecture of this passage had, in this one short phase, to give way to something just a little more important….  that we had to realise that Emma was Eve, just before the eternal exile.  That outside the garden of language there is another world that forces its way through the ornate gates and over the moss covered walls.  A world we all have to confront, in the end.

[i] Though not literalism.  See Ann Pasternak Slater for its dangers in her review of a new translation of Doctor Zhivago
[ii] See Ernest Gellner’s Words and Things for an attack on the Oxford Linguistic school; the disciples of Wittgenstein’s later language philosophy.
[iii] Of course there is a distinction between how all languages are separated from the external reality and the differences between languages themselves.  However, if these latter differences are slight it does suggest the texture of the language itself is of relatively little importance when describing our experiences.
[iv] The translations are almost certainly a form of literary Olympics – some of the quotes from the current translator suggest this strongly.
[v] Truffaut writes of how artists are interested in conveying a meaning; but critics only talk about form.  (See his Letters)

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