David BellosFrench and Italian and Comparative Literature
Hugo First! or the Future of the Past
Les Misérables is one of the most widely read works of fiction in the world, yet (A) it has never been translated into English (it remains Les Misérables) (B) it contains a heap of words and expressions that nobody understands, including readers of French (C) it is partly in Latin and partly in slang (D) it refers to approximately 1000 historical and mythological figures far outside contemporary readers' cultural frames of reference. How is this possible? What does the victory of transmission over comprehensibility tell us about cross-linguistic and cross-cultural translation, past, present and to come?
David Bellos is Professor of French and Italian and Comparative Literature, and Director of the program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University. He has interests in modern and contemporary French writing, as the translator and biographer of Georges Perec. He has in recent years been intensively engaged in literary translation and translation studies. He has won the French-American Foundation’s translation Prize (1988), the Prix Goncourt de la Biographie (1994), and the Man Booker International translator’s award (2005).
Douglas R. HofstadterCognitive Science and Comparative Literature
Indiana University, Bloomington
Does Pattern Matter?
What is the Purpose of Translating a Poem?
I will open by presenting a very short poem (just 20 syllables long!) written some 1300 years ago in classical Chinese by poet, painter, and politician Wang Wei. After giving a careful literal gloss of it, I will present a sampler of renderings of this famous poem in English by a variety of translators, some quite famous and some little known. (Some of these versions are taken from the provocative little book Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, by Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz.)
I will then focus in on a rather extreme version that I (knowing some modern Chinese but very ignorant of classical Chinese) concocted many years ago, inspired by my puzzlement at the fact that not a single one of the many translations of Wang Wei’s poem that I had seen “felt Chinese” in the least to me. My version was thus a serious attempt to make a poem that, while clearly in American English, nonetheless “felt Chinese” — even felt classical Chinese. A tall order (especially for someone so ignorant of the source language)! The question is whether trying to create a poem having this Janus-like quality makes any sense — and thinking carefully about this issue raises just about every question that one can possibly imagine about the purpose, meaning, and feasibility of translation.
Just to reassure potential listeners, you need not know any Chinese (let alone classical Chinese!) to enjoy this poem or to understand my lecture. As long as this abstract isn’t Greek to you, you’ve got what it takes to grok my talk.
Douglas Hofstadter is Professor of Cognitive Science and Comparative Literature at Indiana University. His research focuses on consciousness, analogy-making, and translation. His first book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. Hofstadter, who has a lifelong love of languages, jocularly describes himself as "pilingual" (by adding various fractions together, he reaches a total of a bit over 3). He translated Alexander Pushkin's novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin from Russian into English (his "novel versification" came out in 1999), and he has published two other books on translation: Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language (1997) and Translator, Trader: An Essay on the Pleasantly Pervasive Paradoxes of Translation (2009).