Humor and Translation

Beyond Translation

By Mark Herman

Translation, especially but not only literary translation, must go beyond words. As the absurdist playwright Eugène Ionesco famously remarked in La Cantatrice Chauve (usually translated into English as The Bald Soprano), “I reside in the capital” has a completely different meaning depending on the cultural context of the language being spoken. If French, the city is Paris—if Spanish, Madrid. Once the cultural dimension is accepted, it is possible to consider transformations beyond words, from one artistic medium to another. Indeed, some transformations have specific names. For example, “ekphrasis,” or writing about a work of visual art, can also mean the transformation of visual art into literature, and the expression “setting words to music” can also mean the transformation of literature into music.

Such transformations, called transductions, are discussed in From Translation to Transduction: The Glassy Essence of Intersemiosis, a recent book by Dinda L. Gorlée (University of Tartu Press, 2015). Gorlée is a translation theorist internationally known for her work in semiotics, which is the study of signs, things representing other things, such as symbols, words, and sentences, together with their interactions and transformations.

An example of artistic transduction discussed by Gorlée is Salvador Dalí’s 1936 sculpture imitating the Venus de Milo, but with drawers and furry handles inserted into the statue’s body. Two examples of transduction relevant to translation in the traditional sense are Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854) and Edvard Grieg’s musical setting (1875) of Henrik Ibsen’s Norwegian play Peer Gynt (1867). Both works involve intertextuality, or the dependence of a text upon other texts for its full meaning. (Translation itself is always an exercise in intertextuality.)

Throughout Walden, Thoreau, who was trained in the classics at Harvard, makes numerous references to the ancient Greek epics of Homer, including some actual translations from Greek into English. The question then arises for translators of Walden: should the Homeric quotes be translated from the original Greek, or from Thoreau’s English? But there is a larger argument put forth by Gorlée, beyond the specific quotations in Walden from Homer. This is that the whole of Walden, the world it depicts, is a transduction—Thoreau’s attempt to transpose the mythic world of Homer into his own culture and language.

In Walden, Thoreau states explicitly that, “modern … translations [have] done little to bring us nearer to the heroic writers of antiquity” (Gorlée, 148) and that the world of Walden is “itself an Iliad and Odyssey in the air, singing its own wrath and wanderings” (Gorlée, 149). One obvious instance attesting to Gorlée’s transduction hypothesis occurs when Thoreau describes a battle among red ants and directly cites the Greek warriors fighting heroically at Troy:

They fought with more pertinacity than bull-dogs. Neither manifested the least disposition to retreat. It was evident that their battle-cry was Conquer or die. In the mean while there came along a single red ant on the hill-side of his valley, evidently full of excitement, who neither had dispatched his foe, or had not yet taken part in the battle; probably the latter, for he had lost none of his limbs; … Or perchance he was some Achilles, who had nourished his wrath apart, and had now come to avenge or rescue his Patroclus. (Gorlée, 157)

And so, perhaps it is incumbent upon translators of Walden to not only channel Thoreau, but to channel Thoreau channeling Homer. This is different from creating a translation chain in which a work is translated from language A into language B and then from language B into language C.

Gorlée’s contention that a spoken play (or a verbal libretto), once set to music, is transformed is something that I, who translate sung lyrics in collaboration with Ronnie Apter, know well. It is not the words per se, but the words as sung that must be translated.

According to Gorlée, Ibsen’s words sung to Grieg’s music have undergone a double transformation, from Norwegian folklore to Ibsen’s spoken (or read) play, and from Ibsen’s spoken play to Grieg’s music drama. As Gorlée points out, Ibsen’s text self-consciously refers to other texts, including both the Bible and the Quran, and Grieg’s music self-consciously refers to music by others, especially that of Richard Wagner. In keeping with the underlying text, the music varies from comic vaudeville to sincere religiosity, with Grieg seizing much of the dramatic impetus from Ibsen.

Grieg’s music drama Peer Gynt is rarely performed, at least in the U.S., though the two Peer Gynt Suites are often performed by orchestras with no direct reference to Ibsen’s play other than the names of the various movements. The several productions of Ibsen’s play in English translation that I have attended did not utilize Grieg’s music, nor was Grieg’s music of concern when I studied the play in English translation in college. If there was music during a production, it was incidental, not sung to (though sometimes danced to), and by a contemporary composer other than Grieg.

Of course, any actual production of a play is a transduction, from words on paper to declamations and action on stage, together with costumes and lighting and, usually, incidental music. But it would be interesting to see a performance of the original musical transduction, requested of Grieg by Ibsen himself.


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