Waggish

Machine Translation

Among others, The Literary Saloon discusses Wyatt Mason’s article on translation and Proust in The New Republic.

After having spent the better part of four months reading the new Viking/Penguin Proust, and the old Kilmartin/Enright Proust, and the erenow Moncrieff Proust, I will tell you there is no comparing them. No matter the local differences aplenty, the global movements of mind and the quality of vision are undeniably, uniformly there. Reading each from tip to toe, no matter which, one follows Proust’s narrator as he makes his way, “descending to a greater depth within myself”–ourselves. That depth survives in translation, in all the translations, for–however subjective assertions of “goodness” surely are when assessing literary quality–greatness is calculable, irrefutable, inviolable: a great writer survives any translation.

There is, I believe, a Borges essay that refers to the same phenomenon–that works of greatness can survive translation better than lesser pieces of art–but I haven’t been able to locate it. This case is somewhat undermined by the fact that two of the three Proust translations that Mason mentions (the new one and the Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright) are strikingly similar, and the third is not very good at all. I’d also direct true believers to Douglas Hofstadter’s translation of Eugene Onegin, which begins:

My uncle, matchless moral model, When deathly ill, learned to make, His friends respect him, bow and coddle– Of all his ploys, that takes the cake.

Whatever has survived, I doubt it’s Pushkin. Maybe you could amend the phrasing to be, “a great writer survives any faithful, competent translation,” but that introduces two subjective adjectives into the equation, of the “I know it when I see it” category.

Consider Jeff Vavosour’s article on computer platform emulation, Back To The Classics: Perfecting The Emulation For Digital Eclipse’s Atari Anthology. The slavishly perfectionist approach of people who write emulators (here’s a remarkable Apple IIgs emulator) is ironic given that many of the early games they’re emulating were themselves extremely loose ports from arcade console games, adapted to the limitations of the hardware. On the difference between ports and emulation, Vavosour artfully writes:

In its most basic approach, emulation is an on-the-fly translator. The analogy I’m fond of is this: In porting, it’s like you took a foreign movie, gave the script to someone fluently bilingual, and got that person to rewrite the script in English. You’d rely on the translator’s appreciation for the nuances of the original language, appreciation for the subtext, the message of the movie, etc. The quality of the product would be entirely a property of the translation effort, and regardless, what is important to one person is not what’s important to another. Some double-entendres and the like just don’t come across, and need to be replaced with something of equal value, or else ditched.

In emulation, you’re watching the original foreign movie, but someone has given you a translating dictionary and all the books on the language’s grammar and nuances. Looking up each word on the fly as it’s spoken, and appreciating all the impact it has, and still being able to follow the movie in real time sounds impossible. It would be, unless you could think about 10 times to 100 times faster than the movie’s pace.

Of course, this is just an analogy, since the goal is to replicate the platform for thousands of games, not port each individual piece of software. But the precision of the platform emulation is still paramount, because every quirk counted:

It really pains me when I read reviews that talk about how appalling it is that our emulation appeared to slow down somewhere, as, for example, one review commented of the smart bomb effect in the N64 version of Defender on Midway’s Greatest Arcade Hits, released a few years back. The emulation slowed down because the original game slowed down, and emulation strives to reflect every nuance of the original game. There are often timing nuances and sometimes even original code bugs, which become part of a player’s strategy in playing the arcade game. For a truly authentic experience, every one of these quirks needs to be reproduced.

Do I hear an echo of Nabokov’s famously stringent attitudes toward translation here? There is no tolerance for variation in emulation, and this is because any competent game player’s experience is located in details as small as the ones that Nabokov finds in the rhythms and sounds of words.

Of course, there is no analogue for emulation in literature, unless you can imagine a Russian pseudo-brain hooked into your synapses, translating the myriad nuances of Eugene Onegin into a lingua franca of structured senses, emotions, and images that are exactly those that a Russian reader (any Russian reader!) would have. This would have to be the mythical (and now discarded) deep structure of linguistics.

So as I return to the Moncrieff/Kilmartin Proust now, I have to think of it as being that horrid Apple IIe port of “Pole Position II” that I played back in the early 80′s, standing in the shadow of the majesty of the original console.

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