Translation and Style
In that entry, as in the Strange Sentences essay, I argue that the packaging/content metaphor of style/substance is bogus. As readers we seek to "extract" insight or entertainment from a work; we conceptualise the text as a "vessel" for theme and/or plot; we imagine that text as a sort of "skin" of prose with theme and/or plot "within"; we imagine theme and/or plot as a sort of deep structure, an articulation of bone and flesh "upon" which, "around" which, that prose is crafted, the "surface" we must "dig under" to get at the Meaning and/or Story. Ultimately, if we conceptualise the surface of prose as a "finish", we may well conceptualise the syntactic and lexical patterns that distinguish it as a largely decorative and superficial "patina".
This is a spatial metaphor. It is only a metaphor. Here's how it really works:
The substance of a work of fiction is the words. These are the stuff from which it is made. At the lowest-level those words are selected and structured into sentences which generally exhibit distinct features of syntax and lexicon, patterns of low-level articulation we commonly refer to as "style". Words are built into sentences, which are built into paragraphs, which are built into scenes, which are built into narratives. The selection and structuring that goes on at this higher-level of articulation leads to distinct features of narrative dynamics, patterns of drama* we might well refer to as "style" but generally do not (regardless of the fact that they are characteristic of a writer's work, maybe even their ouvre, and therefore reproducable by another writer trying to work in a similar "style").
In the act of reading we interpret that articulation, we construct these entirely imaginary things in our head -- character, plot and theme.
The point of this? The very things we label content -- character, plot and theme -- are in fact only superficial glosses of this articulated structure, crude outlines which re-present the complex drama of the text in broad summaries. Words are the cells. Sentences, paragraphs, scenes are the arrangements of those cells into tissues, organs, structures and systems, the very real and perceptible substance of the articulated organism that is a text. Character, plot and theme -- these are stickman drawings of that articulation, sketches which seek to encapsulate and convey a reader's sense of it, an artist's impression. The more detailed they are, the better they function as the representations they are, but they may well be rudimentary and reductionist. A paragraph-long description of a novel's plot may be representing the content of that novel about as well as a child who lays his hand on a piece of paper and draws a single line around it with a purple crayon is representing the anatomical substance of that hand. A description of the theme may be like a stickman drawing of a hand by the same child, a rough circle with five lines sticking out of it for fingers. Even if the representation is detailed and accurate it is only a representation and it is only a representation of the reader's reading, the abstract interpretive experiencing of the text.
Which leads us to the question(s):
Ah - but how do translations work, then? How can we clothe that structure with different cells and produce the same emergent phenomenom?
The anti-style argument is that the text's purpose is to "carry" Meaning and/or Story, that the prose through which plot and/or theme are articulated is only a means to an end. If its key function is as a "vessel", we can judge it according to how well it performs this task -- bearing in mind that "style" is of no real value in this (metaphoric) model other than as a "finish". If the prose is highly patterned but does not enable the easy reconstruction of a clear Meaning and/or Story, the anti-stylists will decry it as badly-wrought, decorative but deficient. In fact, they will see it as deficient because it is decorative, fabricating a How the Writer Went Wrong story in which a concentration on "style" led to a neglect of "substance".
This argument takes for granted that a different articulation could be substituted, that a different "vessel" could be crafted to "carry" the same Meaning and/or Story. As far as the anti-stylists are concerned, this prose "vessel" should all but eschew syntactic and lexical patterning for the sake of clarity. Hence we arrive at the term "transparent prose" as an extrapolation of that spatial metaphor. If prose is only a "packaging" of the "content", that "packaging" can be made "transparent" so it does not "obscure" the "content".
I call bullshit on this. Obviously a writer can minimise syntactic and lexical patterning in their prose, and obviously this is a good strategy for making the prose more instantly parseable. And the more instantly parseable the prose, the easier it is to integrate into the ongoing interpretative process, the easier it is for the reader to construct those abstract artifices of character, plot and theme. The result is, however, an entirely different articulation. The words are different, the sentences are different, the paragraphs are different, the scenes are different and therefore, inevitably and unquestionably, the narrative is different. Indeed, if we appreciate that the drama of the text is wholly a matter of the higher-level patterns of articulation, that these are features of the text itself, that to summarise the manifest complexities of that drama is to reduce it to vague generalities, then ultimately we must admit that the very plot and theme are different. Which is to say, if we construct these summary representations in enough detail, the process of interpretative reconstruction eventually leads us to the low-level syntax and lexicon of the text itself. One subtle detail, a single word-choice, may change the drama of the narrative radically.
And a translator has to deal with that.
In a very real sense, any translation is a different narrative because it is inevitably a different text. Different languages have different syntaxes and lexicons, which is bound to fuck with any low-level patterning based on poetical/rhetorical repetitions of sounds and structures. Where that sort of patterning is a matter of voice -- sentence-level style used as a way of subtly reinforcing point-of-view by mimicking a character's manner of articulation in the narrative itself, or by imbuing an absent narrator with their own distinct manner of articulation -- this is going to alter the drama of the narrative profoundly and pervasively.
But a good translator is going to do their best to replicate that voice in so far as it's possible. The opening of VELLUM has one character, Jack, describing the sort of scene you get in old Hollywood epics, where an old parchment map is seen "getting darker and darker in the centre, crisping, crinkling until suddenly it just... fwoom." In the German edition, translator Hannes Riffel renders this as "schwärzer und schwärzer wird, knittert und knautscht, bis sie plötzlich einfach... wuuusch!" If there's a loss here of the acoustic qualities of the "cr" alliteration on "crisping, crinkling" -- the hint of an onomatopeic crackle of flame -- Jack's relish of that image is nevertheless captured, I think, in the substitute alliteration of "knittert und knautscht". And there's actually an extra assonance added in the "sch" and "w" of "schwärzer" echoed (and reversed) in the "w" and "sch" of "wuuusch".
Do translations, actually, work...?
I can't imagine a perfect translation. The best translation, it seems to me, can replicate the narrative pretty damn well, translating the literal meaning but also doing its best to translate the low-level and high-level articulation in which voice and drama are grounded and out of which the "emergent phenomen" of character, plot and theme are constructed. I'm not sure, in fact, that as a writer I wouldn't prefer a translator of VELLUM or INK to be willing to sacrifice accuracy now and then if a less literal translation on the sentence-for-sentence level would result in a better articulation in terms of voice and drama.
What's kind of interesting to me, actually, is the idea that where a strictly direct translation may be impoverished in proportion to its failure to replicate the qualities of voice and drama manifest in the patterning of the text, a more ambitious translation which seeks to reproduce these in another language may, in the end, result in a narrative that is no less rich as a work but is nonetheless different, subtly so in some respects, radically so in others. As someone who likes the idea of "translating" ancient myths and classical plays or poetry into different idioms, not as a superficial rearticulation of the basic plot and theme -- as if the original text were only a vessel for Meaning and/or Story -- but as a sort of... palimpsest of permutations, I find that whole idea deeply appealing. Hell, THE BOOK OF ALL HOURS ought to exist in multiple variants.
Could one say that the more similar the emergent product of a translation (i.e. the structure it builds in a reader's head) the less the so-called epithet "stylist" (in the pejorative sense) could be applied to a particular author?
The simple answer, it seems to me, is yes. Allowing for the subtle/radical differences in voice and drama that may be inevitable in the shift from one language to another, there's a point here: that if a translation has to replicate the "style" of a work, to the best of their ability, in order to achieve the same reading experience, in order for a reader to reconstruct, from the voice and the drama manifest in this entirely different set of words, sentences, paragraphs and scenes, a narrative that works in the same way, then that "style" is far from superfluous and superficial.
Naturally, if the original is written in that strictly referential style we call "transparent prose", if there is little or no patterning in the prose that actually manifests voice and drama, only a straight recitation of a sequence of events, the point is moot; the translation would simply be another straight recitation of the same sequence of events, and the emergent product would probably (one expects) be fairly similar... but the writer would not be called a "stylist" anyway in this case.
In fact, if the strict referentiality of "transparent prose" makes it easier to create a translation that results in the same reading experience, if a reader of the German edition is able to construct the same Meaning and/or Story as a reader of the French edition largely because the prose is designed with no function other than the delivery of its denotative "content", this is precisely because a straight recitation is a flat recitation.
I mean, if the prose is only a means to an end, if it's only purpose is to enable the reader to construct this... outline drawing of a child's hand in purple crayon, it's not like the prose actually has to have any depth. Depth is only required if you want the reader to appreciate the work as an actual textual articulation -- as a static composition of a narrative and as the dynamic process of that narrative being played through. In that latter case, the very enjoyment resides in the word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence (re)creation of the text in the imagination.
It comes from seeing the 3D image develop layer by layer, moment by moment, like an image on a scanner morphing from cross-section to cross-section. You see a dot that grows to become the circle of a fingertip, flattened and edged at the top with the thin line of a nail. Another circle appears to one side of it, then a third circle on the other side. You don't know that these are fingers yet; you don't put the image together in your head even as the bone becomes visible at the centre of each circle, still don't realise what's going on as the pinky comes in. The vertical cross-section moves on over joints though, towards the knuckles, and you start to suspect. A fifth circle comes in way off to one side -- the thumb. Suddenly you're over the knuckles and these four circles have joined together, fused by the flesh of the hand, but still with the distinct bone structure. The thumb is getting closer now, the last piece of the puzzle moving into place. When it all comes together, when the scan is complete, when you have the last cross-section where the hand ends and the wrist begins, you can switch view, look at the model of the hand in three dimensions, turn it this way and that. Look at it from one angle, from above, as if it was laid flat on a piece of paper, and what you see is the general outline of it, the plot.
With transparent prose that process of articulation is not the point. The only point is to give the reader all they need to construct that outline and no more. And all they actually need is a single horizontal section slicing through the hand about halfway down, between back and palm. All you need is that two-dimensional image printed out line by line on a dot matrix printer. First the curve of one finger appears, then another, then another. You don't see the nails because they're not in this cross-section, but who cares? That's just superfluous detail. The image of flesh and bone is built up in rough dots of black ink on white paper. It's kinda fuzzy, but who cares? It's the end result that matters. And in the end you have your blurred black-and-white image of a hand, with enough internal detail to satisfy the undemanding reader. Hey, at least the plot is blindingly obvious. You could pick up a crayon and draw over the outline of that hand right there and then.
Or you could redraw that image in another colour, blue ink instead of black, or in another medium entirely, paint on canvass, chalk and charcoal, scan it and email it for a reader in another language to print out on their full-colour laser printer. That translation will in all likelihood create the same emergent product as it is rattled out of the printer line by line in another edition, in another country, for another reader. Hell, the handiwork (no pun intended) of the translator might actually tidy up some of the blotchy fuzziness born of the writer's disregard for the subtleties of prose. I wonder how many translations of THE DA VINCI CODE correct that glaring inconsistency on the first page or so where, in the same line, at the same time, a character "freezes" while "turning his head". This is bad prose rather than transparent prose, strictly speaking, but it is born of the functionalist aesthetic at its most pragmatic, a "that'll do" attitude in which the writer may well know those two things can't happen simultaneously, but, hey, the reader will get what I mean, right? They'll understand what I'm trying to say, and that's all you need with prose that is only a means to an end. No point spending time looking for a more apt word than "freezes" or a grammatical construction that actually relates those actions sensibly; the prose doesn't have to be polished, doesn't have to do the job well, just has to get it done.
This is superficiality in writing if anything is. Those low-level details of syntax and lexicon are all about adding an extra dimension to the prose, giving the reader a series of 2D cross-sections to reconstruct rather than a series of 1D lines of printed dots. Imagine each line of printed dots appearing in the rapid sweep off the printer's head from left to right, each dot a word, each line a sentence. This is the linear experience of reading transparent prose. Now imagine each cross-section appearing on the screen in a similar way, the image manifesting in the left-right sweep of a sentence being read -- except each word is not a dot but a vertical line of pixels. The experience is still linear but each word has an added dimension of meaning, a dimension that reveals more structure, more substance.
A fingertip in transparent prose: space; flesh; bone; flesh; space. A fingertip written with "style": space; flesh; a column of flesh topped with keratin; bone with flesh below and above topped with keratin; a column of flesh topped with keratin; flesh; space. The first image is rudimentary, lacking in detail. The second, with its extra dimension, tells us that the flesh before the bone is joined to the flesh after the bone, encases the bone above and below, surrounds it, and that there's a thin line of keratin running along the top of this fleshy thing.
By giving us the flesh above and below the bone the cross-section tells us the whole thing is one unified structure... just as stylistic choices of lexicon and syntax unify parts of sentence by giving the whole thing features that are persistent throughout it, textual characteristics as signifiers of consistency, markers of the voice in which it is all being articulated. It's the difference between a sentence like "The woman was very attractive," versus a sentence like, "The babe was frickin hot."
By adding that depth, the cross-section even adds the detail of the fingernail that is completely absent in the first representation... just as additional meanings are generated by selecting words with specific connotations and acoustic consonances in place of words which simply carry out a basic denotative function. It's the difference between a phrase like "dog with mange" and "mange-ridden mutt".
There's nothing wrong with transparent prose, of course, in so far as it's the writer's choice what they want to write and the reader's choice what they want to read. The prose is just a means to an end for some. All they actually want is that dot matrix print-out that does the job for them. The whole 3D imaging malarky? Hell, that's actually a bit over-complicated for their liking. Reconstructing those cross-sections into a form in their imagination is too much hassle. That extra dimension only makes it more confusing. They're not sure which angle you're meant to look at it to find that all-important plot. For some of them, in fact, that extra dimension means it doesn't have a plot at all... because it doesn't have an outline clearly delineated in black ink. And that's fair enough. It's not my bag; hell, I think it makes for an intrinsically shallower form of literature. But each to their own; there's nothing wrong with wanting pure entertainment. Just don't spin me some bullshit about how the work you don't get is "style over substance"
In fact, if we imagine theme as the skeletal structure of the hand as revealed in that dot-matrix print-out, I'd say (partly just for the mischief of it) that the philosophers are worse than the philistines in some respects, when they fall into the old "style over substance" hokum. When one reads a work for the "content" of theme, for Meaning, seeking "substance" in a skeletal substructure, this is just as reductionist as reading a work for the "content" of plot, for Story. If plot is an outline in purple crayon around that dot-matrix print-out of the hand, theme is only the bones of the narrative, sliced horizontally on that flat print-out, and filled in with a pink highlighter. And any intellectualism that loses it when you add the third dimension, that can't deal with the ligaments and sinews, cartilage and muscle, all that "style" that makes the underlying skeleton harder to make out... well, that's kind of a shallow intellectualism. I mean, there's nothing wrong with wanting a bit of insight. Just don't spin me some bullshit about how the work you don't get is "style over substance".
Admittedly, I'm kind of thrawn in this respect. The whole "style over substance" argument just makes me want to write some mad shit that can't be made sense if you don't allow for that third dimension. Like a 3D image of a hand only with the fingers curled into a fist, so it's just a big fricking knuckly lump if you're looking at the outline and a ball of bones all folded over one another if you're looking at the skeleton.
Or maybe with one finger left sticking out. The middle finger, obviously.
*A definition of "drama" as technical and precise as those of "syntax" and "lexicon" is, I think, possible within a model of narrative dynamics grounding Todorov's theory of equilibrium (and disruption) in a system which models the interplay of subjunctivity levels and modalities (boulomaic, deontic and epistemic). Notions of plot and theme would not feature in this definition. Characters and settings would, but only in so far as these function as textually-delimited agencies and environments to which those subjunctivity levels and modalities are attached.