Welcome to Monday, Gothic Shoppers. Like many of you, I’m not normally inclined to celebrate the first day of the working week, but given that seven days ago I completely spaced out on what day it was and failed to turn in my weekly blog post, I’m happy just to be slightly more on the ball this week.
I should warn you right now that we’re in for one of those sprawling, directionless rambles that I occasionally turn in. It’s a beautiful day; my supplier next door has me on the way to being fully wired, and I’ve got a couple of notions that have been kicking around in my head for a while. I think it’s time to throw them at the wall and see if they turn into anything coherent (unlikely, I know).
What’s up is that I went to hear some incredible jazz about a week ago, and the shortlist for the best translated book award has been announced. You get where I’m going with this, right? No? Well, I can’t be sure myself, but let’s see what happens.
First things first: It’s the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, and we at the Gothic Bookshop want to offer our congratulations and gratitude to its staff. In addition to the many services that it offers Duke Students, the Center brings excellent jazz to campus, in keeping with the spirit of its namesake. We’re lucky to have them here on campus.
As part of its anniversary celebration, the MLW Center, in conjunction with Duke Performances, hosted the great pianist Geri Allen for a performance of Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite. My friend Stompy Jones and I made the scene, and I kid you not when I say that this was one of the most exciting jazz shows I’ve seen in a good long time. It was fascinating to watch a performer at her peak bring her talent to bear on an extended piece written by another composer.
When a jazz musician such as Allen takes on a piece by another artist, her goal is to honor the original composition while making the piece a vehicle for her own voice. No two musicians will perform the same piece in an identical manner, and in fact no two performances of that piece by the same musician will be alike. This is how an older standard such as Mary Lou Williams’ Hesitation Boogie stays alive: by being constantly, subtly altered.
Is the same true in the literary world? Certainly there are multiple English translations of almost every classic text, but is the goal of a translator, like that of a jazz artist, to use the text as a vehicle for his own stylings? I’m going to have to say no. A translator’s job, ideally, is not to reinvent a text, but to keep its translation as close as possible to the spirit of the original. And the driving reason behind a new translation of a work is (or should be) a renewed attempt to get the thing right.
Now, that’s not to say that it isn’t entertaining to watch a translator go off the reservation once in a while. One of my favorite translated-lit memories is of coming across a passage in Federico Garcia Lorca’s beautiful book, Poet in New York. In the poem The King of Harlem, there’s a very simple line: Hay que huir. Now, literally this means we must flee, or one should flee. The Simon & White translation, however, has this line translated as there must be some way out of here (!!). I’m sorry, was someone a little distracted by the copy of John Wesley Hardin playing in the background? How did a Dylan lyric make its way into a Lorca poem? Or had Dylan been browsing a little Lorca when he sat down to write All Along The Watchtower? Maybe it's a private joke on the part of the translator, a tip of the hat to Bob's well-known familiarity with Lorca. I love thinking about this kind of stuff (Yes, Gothic Shoppers, I’m a geek, but you knew that already).
Weirdo exceptions aside, translations of books from other countries offer us the chance to understand, even experience, other cultures from our remote vantage point. For this reason above all others, though the translator’s role in the world of books is paramount, he must remain as invisible as possible, so as not to block the bridge he’s attempting to build.
That bridge to other cultures is something we’re dedicated to maintaining here at the Gothic. Whether it’s a book written in English right here in Durham, or any one of the broad selection of translated works we’ve got on the shelves, we like to think that we offer myriad jumping-off points for a reader to go outside his or her own experience.
So come in and browse, or let us recommend a good translated work to you. Then when you get home, slap Geri Allen’s Zodiac Suite Revisited on the stereo for some background music while you cross that bridge.