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Constantine, Peter. “An Interview with Peter Constantine.” By Burton Pike. Translation Review 58 (1999): 3-7. AN INTERVIEW WITH PETER CONSTANTINE BY BURTON PIKE Burton Pike: Something that always comes up in conversations with translators is how people get started in this field. So how did you get started? Peter Constantine: I had written three books on Japanese slang and street culture and thought of myself as a linguist. In a way, these books were a first venture into translation, because they documented raw Japanese street speech—the language of gangs, drugs, prostitution—and I presented this “hidden language” along with English equivalents. I had also written some fiction. A friend, a young Dutch writer, had published a book of short stories, and I offered to translate two of them for literary magazines. That was my first experience in translating literature, and I was hooked. BP: What did that lead to? What kinds of translations did you do after that? PC: I initially felt inhibited about translating from my mother tongues, German, Greek, and English. I worked from languages that I enjoyed reading, such as Dutch, Frisian, Portuguese, and Spanish, but to which I had no personal attachment. I translated only short stories, and published them in literary magazines. The first book I translated was a collection of six early stories by Thomas Mann that had never been translated into English. This was the first time that I worked with one of my native languages. By that point, people would ask me what my profession was, and I would say that I was a literary translator. BP: You won the PEN Translation Prize for the Mann stories. PC: That took me completely by surprise. BP: You mentioned that you have three mother tongues, German, Greek, and English. How did that happen? PC: My first mother tongue, which is German, I got from my Austrian mother. We always spoke German together at home. Greek came from living in Greece, where I grew up. We didn’t speak it at home. My third mother tongue I really should call my “father tongue,” because my father is British of Turkish extraction. I was born in London and have a British passport, although I have never actually lived there. BP: According to your résumé, you have translated from a staggering number of languages. How many languages do you know and how did you learn them? PC: It’s hard to calculate the number of languages, because one tends to speak different languages at different levels. Most of the languages I work with came naturally—in other words, by chance. I absorbed German, Greek, and English from my environment. My mother’s village in Austria is on the Slovak border, so Czech and Slovak were in the air. I went to an international school in Athens, where Russian was one of the strongest offerings, so I got a good grounding in it. When I was seventeen, for instance, I realized that I could write Russian better than English: I didn’t make as many spelling mistakes. There was also a large Afrikaans-speaking population at school; in the seventies, Greek émigrés came back from South Africa, and so Afrikaans was taught as well, and I joined in the fun, or what I thought of as fun. Then too, where we lived in Athens, local Albanian was spoken; it was always in the air and in the ear. Although when it comes standard Albanian, I feel more comfortable reading it than writing or speaking it. BP: What do you mean by “local Albanian”? PC: We call it Arvanitika. It developed from medieval Albanian. There are offshoots of Albanian that are spoken in both Greece and Italy, and there is a very rich body of epic literature. These languages developed from the southern Tosk dialect, which the former communist regime in Albania forcibly turned into the standard language: a “Stalinization” of the language, like in Russia in the 1930s, only harsher. BP: Have you translated from standard Albanian? PC: I am finishing Ismail Kadare’s newest book, Three Funeral Songs for Kosovo. It is a very powerful book; Kadare is a master stylist. Most of his books that have been translated into English were translated from the French—a translation of a translation! Which is quite a dangerous thing to do, particularly with a French translation, which I think tends to “fluidify” stylistic textures. BP: I agree. French tends to be formulaic and is a highly structured language in very specific ways. I think it has less flexibility than English in translating certain types of works. PC: Yes, I noticed that the translations of Kadare into French are very good, but much further from the original than I would want to go in English. BP: Kadare’s take on Kosovo must be very interesting. PC: One of the most powerful and original skills that Kadare has is the retelling of a myth or a tale with a very original slant. In this book, he takes us back to fourteenth-century Kosovo, to the first battle of Kosovo, in which Serbs and Albanians fought side by side against the invading Turks. It is a fascinating book, and like many translators, I imagine, I find myself reading up on quite a lot of secondary material, just out of interest. Books like The Ottoman Centuries, or collections of Serbian and Albanian epic poetry. It is amazing how in the Balkans we still remember the battles of many centuries ago, and still, in some cases, sing the epics. BP: You work a great deal with languages that are rather far out of the mainstream from the point of view of English. How do you manage to find materials to use in translating them, such as dictionaries or other cultural material you might need? PC: In some cases there simply isn’t any material that a translator can use directly. That is the case with Arvanitika, for instance, for which there are linguistic surveys and glossaries prepared by linguists, but no actual dictionaries. What you have to do in a case like that is do the translation in layers. I do the first rough draft, and leave blanks when I’m not sure of the text. Then, when I’m in Greece, I start looking for people who can clear up the mysteries of word and nuance. With Frisian—German Frisian languages like Frasch and Freesk, for instance—the situation is very different. There is the Frasch Uurdebök, the Frasch-German dictionary, and a Freesk-German dictionary, too. There I look up the word, get the German equivalent, and then figure things out from there. The Frisian Foundation in Germany actually wanted to see my translations, to vet and correct them. They take extra care with anything that has to do with the Frisian languages, because they are endangered. BP: It must be quite a challenge to bring across the cultural aspects of some of these less familiar languages. PC: Until recently, some of these cultures have been quite removed from Western experience, and some still are. The Greek Vlach communities, for instance, who speak a Latinate language and have a rich body of epic poetry, have to a large extent managed to preserve their culture. In some of the Vlach poetry that I translated, I kept coming across symbols whose meaning is culturally opaque to a non-Vlach. This presents three problems: identifying, interpreting, and translating. One example that comes to mind is a passage in which a village girl is sitting at her loom throwing the shuttlecock with different rhythms and intensity. The narrator says to her, “Don’t strike the threads with such force, I am not the vampire of your streets.” A relative of my Greek stepfather’s is Vlach and told me that until recently, Vlach girls were quite sequestered, sitting at their looms all day, and Vlach poetry often has them communicating with lovers by tapping the threads on the loom. The girl in the passage must have been upset at the narrator of the poem, who was obviously her suitor. If he is the vampire of her street, then the door would be firmly and forever closed to him. With minor adjustments, the translator can clarify or at least hint at the meaning, once he or she knows what it is, to the extent that poetry can be clarified in translation. BP: After Six Early Stories by Thomas Mann, what was your next book project?PC: After that I translated the correspondence between Hannah Arendt and her husband, Heinrich Blücher, which is scheduled to come out next year. BP: That must have been challenging. PC: It was full of surprises. When Harcourt Brace offered me the book, I was both excited and apprehensive about translating the personal writing of such a complex philosophical figure as Hannah Arendt. But the book turned out to be challenging in a way I didn’t expect: Arendt’s style in the letters was fluid, elegant, powerful—a joy to translate. But her husband’s writing was without doubt the hardest thing I have ever translated. It contained every trap and pitfall that a translator can encounter. BP: Trap and pitfall? PC: Imagine two major philosophers courting. In their first passionate letters after they met, they beguile each other with scintillating takes on Nietzsche, Heidegger, Jaspers; in his letters, Heinrich Blücher is intent on recasting the whole framework of Western philosophy. They find each other’s minds irresistible. They quote and playfully misquote writers from Goethe to Brecht. The courtship is quite amazing! Initially, Blücher feels that he is the dominant figure; he lectures and explains, but after the first year or so, it becomes very clear that Arendt is the real intellectual force. The hardest translation problem to overcome was dealing with Blücher’s fascinating but disorganized rants on Western philosophy. Endless sentences that continually fall apart, opaque references mixed with private thoughts, non sequiturs. His difficulty in expressing himself in writing was a constant source of wry comment by himself and his friends. He was a charismatic thinker and talker, an autodidact who taught philosophy at Bard, but he never managed to publish. BP: Your most recent translation was The Undiscovered Chekhov: 38 New Stories. I was extremely surprised and pleased to read so much “new” Chekhov. Where did you find these stories? PC: In the New York Public Library. In the original magazines in which they appeared. There was much commotion about the “discovery” of these stories—but they were never really lost. They simply had never been translated. Some of the earlier translators, such as Constance Garnett, might not have known about them, because they were not always readily available. But later generations of Chekhov specialists have known about them, but until recently many felt they were shocking. BP: Shocking? PC: One of the pieces, for instance, starts with “I was chased by 30 dogs, 7 of which were white, 8 gray, and the rest black.” Not the kind of opening that a more conservative audience might have wanted to equate with the man who wrote stories like “The Lady with the Lapdog.” These early stories are really brilliant, and today we are perhaps more ready to accept the unconventional and unexpected. BP: Do you have a particular approach to translation, a philosophy of how it should ideally be done? PC: For me the ideal translation would be to capture as completely as possible what the writer is doing in his or her own language and re-creating it—the speech level, the drama, the nuance of the original. I find that translators, including myself, have a tendency to want to clean up roughnesses in the original, putting into correct English what is “incorrect” in the original. The author’s rough edges must be respected. The grit, the tilted idiom, should be transported into English so that the writing really keeps its integrity and manages to do what the original does, dramatically and musically. “Ironing out” of the original text in translation is probably the single biggest mistake that translators make. My philosophy, in this sense, is that literary translators should spend a lot of time and energy sharpening their own literary skills in the language they are translating into. I find that some translators spend so much time working on the language they are translating from that their target language atrophies. If you are translating Borges, for instance, your English has to be masterful enough to echo his many ranges and effects. It is not enough to simply understand what he is doing. Right now, for instance, I am translating Isaac Babel, and one of the most challenging aspects of that is capturing the colorful Yiddishisms that come tumbling out of the mouths of some of his Odessa characters. Studying the language of such Jewish-American writers as Saul Bellow, Henry Roth, and Philip Roth has been very helpful. BP: What is the Babel project you are working on? PC: I am translating the complete works. Isaac Babel was far more versatile than is generally known. He was a very successful screenwriter, for instance. Some of his movies, like The Chinese Mill and Roaming Stars, are works of great literary merit. He worked with directors like Eisenstein. There are also important short stories, articles, and letters that should be available in English. BP: Translators are always running into problems. I sometimes think that that is the definition of a translator: a person who is always running into problems! What kinds of problems have you run into? PC: I’m on the PEN Translation Committee, and there one hears quite a few horror stories involving translators and publishers. On the whole, I have been lucky. My relations with the publishers and editors I have worked with have been mostly very good. There was one problematic book I worked on in which a wealthy, ninety-year-old German author subsidized a New York publisher to publish his memoirs. The writer had never written anything before, hadn’t lived in Germany for fifty years—which did have an effect on his German—and, from what I could tell, the book had not really been edited. The verbal agreement with the publisher stipulated that the translation should be relatively free—that I should tighten, polish, and edit as I translated. When the writer saw the end product he made a scene—not that the changes were drastic, they were still within the bounds of the type of choices a translator should be permitted. In short, he threatened to withhold the money from the publisher, who suddenly became very hostile toward me. And I received only a fraction of the money I expected. Another problem that occasionally surfaced is the foreign writers who overestimate their knowledge of English and insist on editing the translation into a very foreign-sounding work indeed. Otherwise, I must say that most of my translation experiences with publishers and editors have been pleasant. Sandy: this is the ending of the interview that was added by Burton Pike. Needs to be copyedited. BP: You have just received the Nationa Translation Prize for your translation of the The Undiscovered Chekhov: 38 New Stories. What is your recation to that? PC: I was very pleased and very surprised. I got a phone call back in September, but I still ahven’t gotten over the shock. Translators spend so much time working in isolation that it’s hard to see one’s work objectively. Receiving this prize from one’s colleagues is wonderful recogntion and encouragement, and a great contribution to increasing the visilibity of translators.
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