Archive for the ‘Language Geek’ Category

The Portuguese writer Clara Paulino thought she’d never find another language that could express the depth and nuance of her experience.  And then she did:

A few months ago I made the momentous discovery that I can write in English.

Strange discovery, one might say, given that I have lived “in English” for the past seven years and teach Art History to American students. Yet it was the sound of Portuguese that welcomed me into this world, and English is not even my second language. I was introduced to it at the rather late age of fourteen in Porto, Portugal by the intensely British Ms. Symington, who started every class by frightening us. “Picture each word as a scalding hot potato,” she’d say with glee.

In spite of years living in different countries, I never felt confused. Other languages did very well for most things, but only in the warm diphthongs of Portuguese could my inner self step onto the page – or so I thought. The creative impulse, too elusive even for Freud, must surely resist anything foreign to the earliest experiences!

For years I filled page after page with cedillas, tildes and circumflexes (Portuguese on the page resembles a cross between words and music), publishing widely in books and magazines.  Then I moved to the States to teach at a university in South Carolina. Suddenly I fell into a state of linguistic confusion and creative paralysis. “Why don’t you just translate your Portuguese stories?” asked my American friends.

But I couldn’t.  It is tricky to put anything other than a short note into a new system. A language has a peculiar, slightly odd (to unaccustomed eyes) geography, archeology, even time. It swells into hyperbolic mountains, retreats into timid valleys, blends deserts and forests in disconcerting oxymora – all in its own inimitable way; it lives on layers of semantic sediments; it stretches and contracts in rhythms as varied as the rumba and the waltz. A language breathes like an animal and winds its way towards meaning like a plant towards the sun.

If a word is planted in foreign soil, it either dies or adapts – and adaption is only another word for change. Good translators know this. They look at each word from different angles and consider all the contexts while looking for the right niche to move it into. It is painstaking, often thankless work because so much of it is invisible.

Publishers want the book out, and it needs to be readable, but does “O poeta é um fingidor/Finge tão completamente/Que chega a fingir que é dor/A dor que deveras sente — by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa –really mean “The poet is a faker/Who’s so good at his act/He even fakes the pain/Of pain he feels in fact (published translation)?  Not quite.

“Not quite” is the problem.

Don’t get me wrong. I am for the translation of texts, all texts, from memos to Shakespeare. The idea of not reading Tolstoy because Russian is a closed book to me is frightening. But I wish I could read it in Russian not only to hear its time, including the silences between the words, but its sounds too. Sound is important; sound carries landscapes on its fluttering wings, and at least for me, reading is listening. Anna Karenina in the original language conjures up a world imaginatively and sensually so different from that of any other version! Language conveys so much more than plot that, to be good, translators have to be magicians.

And though I have translated other people’s work – rarely, and with the utmost reverence – my magic tricks fail abysmally when I try to translate my own work. Sentences turn and twist in the oddest directions, and soon a text is born that carries the original only as memory. Exasperating, yes – but also a reminder that meaning is more than semantics, that it rests in form more than one could ever imagine.

So it was indeed momentous discovery when I found that places and characters came to life in English as mysteriously and miraculously as they do for me in Portuguese. I realized how well I know this language now, how lovely it is to explore its wild and secret places, how capably it translates my foreign experience.

Clara Paulino was born in Portugal and educated in England, Germany and the U.S. She has degrees in English and German Literature, and a Ph.D. in Art History, and has taught at universities in Portugal and the U.S. In Portugal she wrote articles for various magazines as well as Danças com Gémeos, a fictionalized memoir of a professional woman raising twin girls.  She has worked as a freelance translator and interpreter and is currently editing a 19th-century Women’s Travel Writing Series for the London publishers Pickering & Chatto. She is also working on a memoir about growing up in a nation under Fascism.

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Magritte's pipe - semioticsSemiotics is the study of signs, and a sign is anything that stands for something else. It took me a long time to understand this seemingly simple idea.

The argument goes like this: it is a myth to believe there is any such thing as an objective reality; ‘reality,’ in fact, is a system of signs. As Proust has said, “Everything can be several things at the same time.” Or, to put a finer point on it: the art historian Ernst Gombrich says, “There is no reality without interpretation.”

The British semiotician Daniel Chandler suggests that studying semiotics can make us “more aware of reality as a construction and of the roles played by ourselves and others in constructing it. Meaning is not ‘transmitted’ to us – we actively create it according to a complex interplay of codes or conventions of which we are normally unaware. Becoming aware of such codes is both inherently fascinating and intellectually empowering.”

The process of creating literary fiction, I would argue, is the practice of semiotics. It’s all about signs. Our characters’ reality – an artificial construct to begin with – is freighted with meaning, conscious and unconscious, for the writer, the characters themselves, and ultimately for the reader.

In his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote, “All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.”  But these signs and symbols, the dual or multiple meanings, must be subservient to the story, and not the other way around.  Otherwise the fictional trance will be broken; the characters will be types and not individuals. The novel will become a treatise.

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“No road offers more mystery than that first one you mount from the town you were born to, the first time you mount it of your own volition, on a trip funded by your own coffee tin of wrinkled up dollars – bills you’ve scrounged and saved for … ” begins Mary Karr’s memoir Cherry.

It’s been said that there are only two stories in the world: a stranger comes to town and a man sets off on a journey.  The German word bildungsroman, or “novel of formation,” is a version of the latter:  a young person (traditionally a boy) undertakes an epic journey, during which he confronts inner and outer demons, and in the process becomes an adult.  (When I think of this word I am reminded of the German poet Holderlin’s line in “The Journey”: “Reluctantly that which dwells near its origin departs.”)  Think Tristram Shandy, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Catcher in the Rye.bildungsroman

In some ways, it seems to me, every story contains elements of the bildungsroman.  A story must contain a moment of change, internal or external or both, often experienced as part of a (literal or metaphorical) journey.  This change usually involves a ‘coming of age’: the central character is enlightened or disillusioned; if he doesn’t yet understand the enormity of his experience, the reader knows that soon enough he will.

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Wendepunkt is a German word that means turning point.  In Modernism, Ray Bradbury defines wendepunkt as the moment in a novel “in which there is an unexpected yet in retrospect not unmotivated turn of events, a reorientation which one can see now is not only wholly consistent but logical and possibly even inevitable.”  This moment often involves a reversal of the protagonist’s fortunes.  Aristotle called it peripeteia, the crisis action of a tragedy.

wendepunkt In her masterful guide to narrative craft, Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway says, “A reversal of some sort is necessary to all story structure, comic as well as tragic. Although the protagonist need not lose power, land, or life, he or she must in some significant way be changed or moved by the action.”  This internal and external change, when it comes, may surprise the reader, but should be organic to the plot. Whether shocking or confusing or exhilarating, it should feel intrinsic to the story.

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