Che Fece . . . Il Gran Rifiuto
For certain people there comes a day
when they are called upon to say the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has
the Yes within him at the ready, which he will say
as he advances in honor, in greater self-belief.
He who refuses has no second thoughts. Asked
again, he would repeat the No. And nonetheless
that No–so right–defeats him all his life.
–C.P. Cavafy [Trans. Daniel Mendelsohn]
Just finished reading Andrés Neuman’s audacious novel, Traveler of the Century & am still thinking about the way the title frames the novel, which is sent in 19th century Germany. My current idea is that Hans, the novel’s protagonist, is a kind of time-traveler from the 21st century who has gone back to the period in which modern literature was born. For this is a very literary novel about literature; more specifically, about translation. I should add that nothing in the novel except perhaps the title suggests the idea of time-travel: in many ways, this is a fairly conventional historical novel that focuses on the intellectual history of 19th century Europe & the confluence of poetics & politics.
I discovered the novel reading Chris Feliciano Arnold’s review-meditation in the LA Book Review. I strongly recommend his essay as an introduction to the novel & to some alternative ways of thinking about translation. Who & what is the translator? The most stable, sensitive, & reliable character in the novel is Franz, who cannot speak because he is a dog. Everyone else gathered together in the city of Wandernburg — including the city itself — lacks any sort of consistent identity. They have come from elsewhere & settled in a city that itself has a tendency to wander. No character, except for Franz & perhaps his master, an old man known only as “the organ grinder,” has anything like a consistent self-identity. All are fabulists of their own identities, whether they are aware of this or not. (Some ore more aware than others.) All are in some way divided against themselves.
That is the context into which Neuman brings the idea of literary translation. Translation, in fact, is the main action of this very talky novel. Hans takes up with Sophie, already betrothed to Rudi, the son of local aristocrats. Soiphie & Hans become lovers & co-translators, the act of translation mixed into their love-making & their love-making mixed into their acts of translation. Do lovers absorb & transform each other? Do translators absorb & transform the texts they translate? Neuman has a lot of fun with this theme & my only complaint is that the love affair is described at such great length that it begins to become tedious. I much prefer the scenes in which Hans goes to visit the organ grinder, who lives in a cave outside of town. The old man is sort of a bodhisattva who dwells in the earth (literally) & seeks to bring happiness to the people of Wandernburg by playing music on his hurdy-gurdy.
By the end of the story it becomes clear that everyone except the old organ grinder & his dog are impostors, playing roles they have only half-consciously adopted. Even the organ grinder is not really a musician: he only turns the handle of a machine that is programmed to make music. And at the end of the story, each one is alone, though, Hans, the translator & traveler, has inherited the barrel organ, the idea, I think, being that being a translator is a bit like being a hurdy-gurdy man, just turning the handle of the machine.
Vietnamese poets—this may be common in everyday speech, but I haven’t run across it—will pile up two words with essentially the same meaning. Here is an example: The poet Tô Ngọc Thạch begins a line with the phrase “Lớp lớp địa tầng” in which, as near as I can tell by dictionary crawling, both “Lớp lớp” and “địa tầng” can straightforwardly be translated as “layers” or “strata” in English. I don’t know whether I should render this as just “layers” or “strata” or something more like “layers of strata.” Clearly, I need to seek the help of a Vietnamese poet on this, but I’m beginning to think that Vietnamese writers use these doublings & sometimes triplings to elicit shades of meaning. That is, redundancy — that’s what we’d call it in the West — is a fundamental element of style in Vietnamese, particularly in literature, but also in everyday speech.
Daniel Bowling really ought to do this study with Vietnamese speakers. In Vietnamese, there is a long tradition of interaction between the six tones of the spoken language & the (mostly pentatonic) music used to accompany songs & poems. Last weekend, I was invited to the home of a family of very talented traditional musicians & treated to an informal concert of various forms of Vietnamese music. In most of these forms, because the language itself is tonal, the poet or songwriter has followed forms that place rising or falling or level tones in particular places in the verse line. The instrumentalist(s) & vocalist, also following a set of conventions, but also improvising within the conventions, perform the text so as to emphasize & play with the composer’s intentions. My sense is, though I’m not entirely sure of this, that, contrary to the Western art song / lieder tradition, the music is driven by the vocal text rather than the other way around.
The musicians I listened to played the đàn tranh & the đàn đáy, stringed instruments with a pentatonic tuning & the ability to bend notes in order to suggest the tonal slides & glides of the Vietnamese language. There is also a two-stringed lute that has no natural tuning & can be tuned to any of the other instruments. Half-way through the concert the other night, a young man showed up who was a virtuoso on this instrument, playing incredibly complex runs of notes on the raised frets. In the south, I have seen Western guitars with the spaces between the frets scooped out in order to play microtones.
Hanoi shop keepers — because their goods spill out onto the sidewalk — have a seemingly infallible sixth sense about when it is going to rain. When you see them putting up their awnings or moving things indoors, take cover because it will rain soon (mưa sớm).
It’s common in Vietnam to be asked your age, even by people you don’t know very well. In the little restaurant I’ve been going to on Lý Quốc Sư, the woman who owns the place has been kind enough to tolerate my halting Vietnamese & I have achieved the status of a regular customer. So the other evening, as she was cleaning up my table, she asked, “Ông bao nhiêu tuổi?” and when I replied “Sáu mười một” (sixty-one), she replied, “Khỏe!” which means “healthy,” but in this context meant something more like, “Wow! Not bad for an old guy!”