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Anthony Barnett’s InExperience and UnCommon Sense in Translation

Anthony Barnett’s InExperience and UnCommon Sense in Translation

Allardyce Book ABP

This lecture on translation delivered at Meiji University, Tokyo, in May 2002, has been lightly revised and is prefaced with a new note updating references.

Barnett confronts the slippery world of translation theory by boldly asserting that there is no usable theory of translation other than treating each text to be translated in terms of its own necessary requirements and using your head. He utilises Umberto Eco, whose book Experiences in Translation offers practical and imaginative solutions to various problems, Yves Bonnefoy, who believes that translation is not only possible but also poetry rebegun, and his own experiences. He uses the word uncommon to indicate that a common sense solution to a translation may not be obvious, and that something unusual or uncommon may be seen eventually to be the obvious common sense solution. There is, he argues, a way through to the poetic equivalent in the second language.

The lecture is full of illuminating asides and examples of what he means. Barnett notes that poetry, whilst a special use of language, may not be special in every way by comparison with packaged food labels and product instruction sheets, which come in several languages. He wonders why the translators may opt on the same packet for a less precise equivalent and a potentially hazardous result, and notes the necessity to avoid calamitous results by confidently refusing nonsense.

His first example refuting the impossibility of translation is the Italian poet, Giuseppe Ungaretti’s two line poem, ‘Mattina’ (‘Morning’) ‘M’illumino / d’immenso’, literally ‘I am illuminated / with immensity’ and other possible but unpoetic versions. He explains how he found the solution ‘I am blessed with light’ one morning. The line certainly has more poetry than the literal translation and is in harmony with the original.

Amongst further examples, Barnett considers Donald Keene’s problem with translating Midori iro no sutokkingu by Abe Kōbō. When Keene asked the playwright whether the translation should be singular or plural, there being a lack of distinction in the Japanese, he replied that it was his problem. Keene settled for the plural, The Green Stockings. Barnett notes that he failed to utilise the help given by the non-committal reply and could have dispensed with the definite article and the plural to arrive at the more poetic, Green Stocking.

In his consideration of Bashō’s famous frog haiku ‘Furuike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto’, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa as ‘Breaking the silence / Of an ancient pond / A frog jumped into water / A deep resonance’, he cites the concrete poet and Benedictine priest, dom sylvester houédard’s fortune teller origami construction from 1965 where the reader manipulates the folded paper to reveal ‘frog / pond / plop’. This wonderful solution to the translation moreover also has the mouth and shape of the frog, the hollow and shape of the pond, and splosh of the plop as the fortune teller is manipulated through its various combinations. This translation is a shade more minimal than say Cid Corman’s ‘old pond / frog leaping / splash’.

Barnett also points to the example of exceptional author-translators and cites the practice of Samuel Beckett and Isak Dinesen of re-writing their original work in translation. Sentences are recast and passages removed, and sometimes added.

The lecture is full of practical common sense and comes with an appendix ‘Thinking About Translation’, addressed to a translation symposium in Bremen and a translation of Leopardi’s ‘The Infinite’ poem, with accompanying note, as an insert. The translation ends:

In this immensity my mind goes under:

And my foundering at sea is sweet.


David Caddy 6th July 2014



One response »

  1. Charlie Hadfield

    Hi David

    Looks very interesting. Thanks for the info. I have just finished reading David Bellos: Is That a Fish in your Ear? The amazing adventure of Translation. Do you know it? Penguin.

    Every cloud….one of the Oversteps crowd was too ill to travel, so I was given his slot to read on Sunday at Ways with Words in Dartington. First reading on home turf for twelve years!!

    I am working on some new things and will send on to you in due course…. going back to NZ for the month of August

    All best wishes



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