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Surprised in Translation

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For Mary Ann Caws—noted translator of surrealist poetry—the most appealing translations are also the oddest; the unexpected, unpredictable, and unmimetic turns that translations take are an endless source of fascination and instruction. Surprised in Translation is a celebration of the occasional and fruitful peculiarity that results from some of the most flavorful translations of well-known authors. These translations, Caws avers, can energize and enliven the voice of the original.

In eight elegant chapters Caws reflects on translations that took her by surprise. Caws shows that the elimination of certain passages from the original—in the case of Stéphane Mallarmé translating Tennyson, Ezra Pound interpreting the troubadours, or Virginia Woolf rendered into French by Clara Malraux, Charles Mauron, and Marguerite Yourcenar—often produces a greater and more coherent art. Alternatively, some translations—such as Yves Bonnefoy’s translations of Shakespeare, Keats, and Yeats into French—require more lines in order to fully capture the many facets of the original. On other occasions, Caws argues, a swerve in meaning—as in Beckett translating himself into French or English—can produce a new text, just as true as the original. 

Imbued with Caws’s personal observations on the relationship between translators and the authors they translate, Surprised in Translation will interest a wide range of readers, including students of translation, professional literary translators, and scholars of modern and comparative literature.

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Editorial Reviews

Virginia Quarterly Review - John M. Jackson

"Caws shuns the literal translation of poetry and celebrates the ambiguity a writer can create through various translational acts. . . . This book is a delightfully satisfying read for anyone who has tiptoed this fragile terrain [of translation]."
Rain Taxi - Lucas Klein

"Caws strikes the middle ground between the demands of two different audiences. She approaches a topic on which nearly everyone has an opinion in a manner that is scholarly if not theoretical, discussing a subject some would leave to the experts in a fashion that is accessible without being condescending."
Symploke - Dinda L. Gorlee

"The reader closes the book happy in the knowledge that this elegant, well-researched, and even poetic book is written with love and attention by a talented translator and translation critic."
South Central Review - Chelsea Ray

"[Students of literature] will emerge from the study with the conviction that the act of translation is more subtle than they imagined. . . . In other words, Surprised in Translation is of interest to an audience much broader than translators alone."
Virginia Quarterly Review

"Caws shuns the literal translation of poetry and celebrates the ambiguity a writer can create through various translational acts. . . . This book is a delightfully satisfying read for anyone who has tiptoed this fragile terrain [of translation]."—John M. Kackson, Virginia Quarterly Review

— John M. Jackson

Rain Taxi

"Caws strikes the middle ground between the demands of two different audiences. She approaches a topic on which nearly everyone has an opinion in a manner that is scholarly if not theoretical, discussing a subject some would leave to the experts in a fashion that is accessible without being condescending."—Lucas Klein, Rain Taxi

— Lucas Klein


"The reader closes the book happy in the knowledge that this elegant, well-researched, and even poetic book is written with love and attention by a talented translator and translation critic."—Dinda L. Gorlee, Symploke

— Dinda L. Gorlee

South Central Review

"[Students of literature] will emerge from the study with the conviction that the act of translation is more subtle than they imagined. . . . In other words, Surprised in Translation is of interest to an audience much broader than translators alone."

— Chelsea Ray

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226098739
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 9/15/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 128
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Mary Ann Caws is Distinguished Professor of English, French, and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and the author or editor of many books, including Surrealist Love Poems, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Read an Excerpt

Surprised in Translation
By Mary Ann Caws
The University of Chicago Press Copyright © 2006 Mary Ann Caws
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-09873-9

Chapter One The Salmon and Some Parrots

TWO SUMMERS AGO, it was. Things were swaying about me, at the house of my friends, down the hill in the tiny perched village in Provence where I live my summers, and I had to hold on to the side of the dark green door. In nearby Carpentras, the vertigo expert said he would try something I thought he called "la manoeuvre saumon," or the "salmon maneuver" Fine, I said, and was astonished to find myself thrown suddenly on my side and with a great force upon the examining table. It was, he said, to readjust the little hairs in the inner ear. So "salmon" and "hearing" seemed to me intimately connected.

Only it was about mishearing and misinterpretation. As I found out recently from the Herald-Tribune, that particular maneuver-which "requires the patient's head and body to be tilted, turned and swung," directing the little particles deranging the hair cell receptors to go back to their place-was invented by a Dr. Sémont. So "Sémont" was my "salmon," and the ear is plainly unreliable.

Clearly, the salmon case with its (my) nonexactness would be the opposite of what happens in the case of the parrot, wouldn't it? We think of parrots as perfect repeaters of what they hear: they don't have hearing troubles or get dizzy from them. In Julian Barnes's brilliant story Flaubert's Parrot, the chase for the "authentic" parrot who would have served the author for his model of the giant parakeet in "Félicité" (one of his stories in Trois contes) results in total con fusion about which might be the genuine parrot. Geoffrey Braithwaite, the heavily un-ironic academic who narrates the tale, finds in the Hôtel-Dieu of Rouen a bright green stuffed bird labeled: "Psittacus: Parrot borrowed by G. Flaubert from the Museum of Rouen and placed on his work-table during the writing of Un coeur simple, where it is called Loulou, the parrot of Félicité, the principal character in the tale" (Barnes 16). But in Flaubert's residence at Croisset, he finds another parrot, deemed "less authentic than the first" (21), having a more benign air. Finally, he ends up confronting the notion of not two or just three but fifty or so parrots, in a splendid mockery of the ideas of repetition and exactitude, exemplifying "the Flaubertian grotesque" (17).

Among the specialists in parrot culture, Bruce Thomas Boehrer is notable as the author of Parrot Culture, which examines the bird's history, from Alexander the Great, who imported the parrot into India, to today. He also discusses private parrot passions, including that for the Alexandrine parakeet and his own bird. If the famous Alex of my favorite story has his own heritage transcribed in the repetition of his name, the whole idea of parroting in art and text has numerous recounters, and the bird reappears everywhere, from Shakespeare and John Skelton's "Speke, Parrot" of 1525, to Edgar Allan Poe. Think of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, Kate Chopin's "The Awakening," Princess Marthe Bibesco's Green Parrot, Flaubert and Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot; of Colette, Woolf, Gabriel García Márquez, and Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake; and the artists Courbet, Manet, Renoir, Miro, Cornell, Max Beckmann, and Frida Kahlo; and then the various White House par rots, including those of Martha Washington, Dolly Madison, Grace Coolidge, and the Roosevelts; and the celebrated ex-parrot of Monty Python's Flying Circus, to say nothing of the wild parrots of Brooklyn, who have inspired a 2006 "Urban Parrots" calendar. "Let them guide your flight," reads the text.

In Jonathan Safran Foer's piece for Conjunctions, called "Finitude: Selections from the Permanent Collection," we find the following wall tag:

Shakespeare's Parrot's Parrot's Parrot's Parrot's Parrot's Parrot's Parrot's Parrot's Parrot's Parrot's Parrot. 1942-? Striped West Indian Parrot, approx. 14 x 5 in. Museum purchase.

Little is known of the man who is widely considered the greatest writer in history. The best insight into who he was may lie in the parrot perched before you, a tenth-generation descendant of the parrot given to Shakespeare in 161o as a gift by his friend and fellow poet Michael Drayton. The Bard was exceedingly fond of the bird, and would speak to her as one might write in a journal-to chronicle, reflect and confess. When he died of fever six years later, Anne Hathaway kept the parrot, and introduced into its cage a younger parrot, to learn what the older could teach it. She never spoke to either of them, and forbade guests from speaking in their presence. A line of Shakespeare's parrots was raised in the painstaking silence of her love, and when she died, our reverence. And so we ask you not to speak while in this sound proof room, but only to listen. We ask you not to compromise the very weakening but direct line from this parrot to Shakespeare. And when it begs you, "Talk to me," as it has the habit of doing, we ask you not to give it the company of your voice-it is not the parrot, remember, who begs to be talked to, and while Shakespeare may reach us through the parrot, it will never work in the other direction. (73)

Contemporary critics are haunted by the notion of the parrot; wit ness the controversy over Alex, the African gray, whose skills at age twenty-three are lauded by Irene Pepperberg, his owner and trainer, in her book The Alex Studies. Do parrots think or just repeat? What about their cognitive processes? My own parroting passion came about first through reading, in Hillel Schwartz's Culture of the Copy, another story about the very smart Alex, which he reports having taken from a publication by Dr. Pepperberg. (That the story isn't entirely veridical I didn't find out until later, when I consulted Irene Pepperberg, a fact that perfectly illustrates the issues of translation, retranslation, and retelling.) Anyway, here is the story, as Schwartz tells it.

In Alex's cage there was a mirror, toward which he would turn, saying, "I am going to go away" (Schwartz 152). One day, looking in his mirror, he asked his trainer, out of the blue, it seems, "What color?" Said the trainer: "That's gray. You are a gray parrot." Alex said to the mirror or to himself in it, "Gray parrot" (Schwartz 152). This, on my first reading, seemed to me already a step beyond simple repetition, something about identity seeking and curiosity. Instead of simply repeating something, the parrot was initiating a discussion with his mirror image, albeit defined by someone else's answer, by some authoritative outsider. He was accepting the definition, and upon reflection, as it were, he might have been trying to persuade himself to accept it.

If I continue to feel so strongly about that story, it is because of the play on and beyond the mimetic by its primary enactor, as we have been accustomed to thinking of parroting as the mimetic moment par excellence. This parrot manages to make the question of identity interesting, both his own and his opposite in my own mythmaking, in the mistaken identity of the salmon that never existed except in my earshot. This would be the perfect salmon maneuver, finding something through a mistake or long shot, and finding it all the more convincing through this slippage.

Irene Pepperberg's own published recountings of her training of Alex and of their relationship added other angles to the story: how Alex could recognize colors like orange and blue, as well as shapes like triangles and squares; how he demanded his rewards; what their relationship was like. But it was still the question Alex asked ("What color?") and his repetition of his identity to himself and to his mirror ("Gray parrot") that enticed me. I began to repeat this story often, in many sorts of diverse contexts, and the reactions were just as diverse. Writing a piece on some of the excitement these days on the relation between art and text, "Looking: Literature's Other," I ended it on my Alex story. An obsessive reaction, clearly: at moments I thought perhaps it had something to do with Wittgenstein's use of language and discussions of cognition-but what? It was quite as if an event had transpired, an anecdote had been told, in some language that I could not or could no longer translate. I kept trying to put together this story of mistaken identity, in the case of the salmon, and found identity, in the case of Alex the African gray parrot, the unchallenged hero of my tale.

A year later, in February 2005, the tale of Dr. Pepperberg and Alex develops, filled in by a third recounter, now with a surprise. In Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, Alex, now twenty-five, reappears, in a differently angled telling of his tale, in relation to the autistic personality. It turns out that Dr. Pepperberg had asked Alex questions such as "What color?" and "What shape?"-and so the purport and the shape of the question were familiar to him. Grandin's phrasing of the event, and her marveling at it, stresses the moment when Alex started asking questions on his own-unusual in animals and in autistic humans:

One day he looked at his reflection in the mirror and asked Dr. Pepperberg, "What color?" After he'd asked about his own color six different times, and heard answers like "That's gray; you're a gray parrot" six different times, he knew gray as a category. From then on he could tell his trainer whether or not any object she showed him was gray. (251-52) Here is what Grandin marvels at: Alex's recognition of abstract categories, such as "blueness," "redness," "squareness," and so on, in previously unexperienced situations, an ability she links to re classification. Whereas the autistic and-in general-the animal personality focus on the concrete and the classification, here Alex is into abstract thinking and reclassifying, jumping orders of things. In her book Through Our Eyes Only? Marian Stamp Dawkins gives, says Grandin, the definition of true cognition as the ability to solve a problem under novel conditions (Grandin 243). So Alex was capable of cognition.

The other point about Alex's training was that, as opposed to behavioral modeling (reward and punishment), Pepperberg used "social modeling": with Alex watching, she would show her assistant a lovely blue crunchy piece of bark-something Alex would dearly love to get his beak on-and then ask, "What color?" When the assistant answered correctly, then he could play with the bark (Grandin 250).

But the totally surprising element is this: One day, at the media lab, there was a long question-and-answer period between Dr. Peperberg and Alex, in front of visiting colleagues, about the color of some plastic refrigerator letters and the sounds associated with them. She had not yet given Alex the nut he was used to receiving after correctly answering. Dr. Pepperberg would ask, "Alex, what sound is blue?" and he would make the sound "Ssss" and for the sound of green, he would say, "Sssh." On each occasion he followed his answer with "Want a nut." And, as Dr. Pepperberg recently told me, she was trying to get in as much as she could with the few minutes she had with the visitors and ignored his request, telling him to wait. But then he lost his patience, and said Dr. Pepperberg, as quoted by Temple Grandin: "Alex gets very slitty-eyed and he looks at me and states, 'Want a nut. Nun, uh, tuh.'" Writes Temple Grandin: "Alex had spelled 'nut'" (282). He was way ahead of the trainers, who had been working with him for twenty years without knowing he could spell. They did not know, despite being experts in animal cognition, how to perceive.

So I had to review my heretofore readings of Alex and his own parroting experience on three separate occasions, relatively far apart in time, to get my own animal-in-translation experience in shape. Re adjustment, rereading, and-sometimes-rewriting are part of what translation has been about for me. Really, translation is about all of this: mishearing and parroting correctly, making jumps in orders and reclassifying, perceiving in concrete and abstract terms, allowing and creating the slippages and reshapings that will best work. Finally-most crucially-it may be about rethinking in order to retranslate, with some degree of surprise. Perhaps it is about being, as in a re cent group of experiments reported in the New York Times, not timid birds but bold ones. Here's to the bold birds.

Chapter Two Translating Together

AMONG THE MANY collaborative translations I have been involved in-all of them instructive and few of them, I like to hope, disastrous-one of the most appropriate and most amusing was the joint work that Patricia Terry and I plunged ourselves into when we tackled part of Stéphane Mallarmé's journal La Dernière Mode for my 2001 edition of Mallarmé in Prose. We had previously translated together such poets as André Breton, René Char, Victor Hugo, Louise Labé, Valéry Larbaud, Pierre Reverdy, Victor Segalen, Philippe Soupault, and Paul Valery, as well as a few poems by the Master himself.

What seemed so appropriate this time about the idea of a collaborative translation was tackling the various voices assumed by Mallarmé for this short-lived journal, the great majority of articles written by himself, in the guise of Mademoiselle X, Mademoiselle Satin, Marguerite de Ponty, Brébant's Chef de Bouche, Olympia la négresse, and a bunch of readers from Alsace and elsewhere. In these various voices, we discussed costumes and food and travels and la bored over the varieties of cold cream and bustles endlessly. Not one moment was dull.

How could we possibly approximate the many voices of these personae? Marguerite de Ponty's smarmy camaraderie: "There is, in jewelry, something permanent-don't you agree? ... Let's admire the Jewel itself. Where shall we find it?" (79) and her simpering: "As for lace, we prefer it to be very precious, made by the hands of the fairies themselves, in their total ignorance of mediocrity" (81). A reader from Alsace enthuses about "the curls of Baby Jesus" atop the Christmas tree. And so on: we were finally so taken by our endeavor that we wanted to imitate it-fortunately, that project came to naught.

When you know each other's translating mind well enough, you can see what is coming to something and what isn't: that is the truest sense of the collaborative work.

Chapter Three Greeting, Slippage, and Shaping

AS SOMEONE SPECIFICALLY interested in the translation of poetry, of the free verse variety, I will come down squarely on the side of occasional long shots, slippages into the non-mimetic. A desire for mime sis or a close-as-possible parroting turns out to be relatively boring, both to prepare and to read, whereas some sort of slip away from the original seems peculiarly fruitful. Each of the chapters in this book deals with a different sort of history and slippage from the mimetic into a poetic address closer to a salmon maneuver, or surprise.

Poetic address: I am thinking of Avital Ronell's reflection on the "Greeting" and how that fits-indeed, shapes-my idea of translation. For her, "the Greeting first establishes a distance so that proximity can occur...." That distance subsists between the original and our rendering. Ronell quotes, in her contribution to "The Legacy of Jacques Derrida," his Aporias, that distance he marks in translation and the condition of the self. "Such a difference from and with itself would then be its very thing, the pragma of its pragmatics: the stranger at home, the invited or the one who is called" (Ronell 465). J. Hillis Miller, in the same collection, points out the essential call that Derrida would have the reader obey, in responding to the wholly other or "le tout autre" (Miller 483). We must all allow ourselves "to be greeted by the poem-that is to say, met or truly struck by it" (Ronell 18-19). Furthermore, "the Greeting is a staying behind but also a going along" (26). It is indeed like Derrida's idea, in his "Voyager avec," of traveling with, part of the discussions called La Contreallée. Dérive, arrivée, catastrophe-"Voyager Avec": here the object of the preposition avec, "with," is left open, for all of us as readers, translators, travelers of texts, greeting and being greeted. Similarly, W. J. T. Mitchell invokes, in his What Do Pictures Want?, Louis Althusser's notion of "hailing" (49), and in the same volume reflects on the notions of othering, twinning, division, and yet uniting (as in the Twin Towers) and cloning (as in Dolly the sheep)-none of these reflections are foreign to the idea of translation (49, 22-25). (Continues...)

Excerpted from Surprised in Translation by Mary Ann Caws Copyright © 2006 by Mary Ann Caws. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents


Preface: A Note on Surprise 
I The Salmon and Some Parrots 
II Translating Together    
III Greeting, Slippage, and Shaping          
IV Mallarmé in England and at Home      
V Woolf in Translation     
VI Pound at Liberty          
VII Becket’s Business         
VIII Shakespeare, Keats, and Yeats, by Bonnefoy   
Coda: Surrealism as Surprise   

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