Toward Generative Translation

By Carol Ann Moon

In September 1984, I headed to the Institut für Deutsch als Fremdsprachenphilologie, a.k.a. the Institute for German as a Foreign Language. I was so excited: all of my classes for the first time would be in German! Almost all of my classmates would be non-English speakers! I would be speaking, reading, and writing German 24/7. I thought my English-German dictionary and I would be inseparable. How else would I understand this new place, its people, and my fellow classmates?

As an IDF student, I enrolled in History, Religion, and Music, along with the familiar Literature, Vocabulary, and Grammar courses. I bought my first German-German dictionary and thought I am getting somewhere. I was finally reading German definitions for their words, with sample sentences, and not just the word equivalences of a translation dictionary.

After my first semester, I wondered to myself where were my Philologie courses. Although philology did not appear in the English translation of the institute’s name or on my course schedule, I did finally learn what it meant. Philology was the way I studied language, determining the meaning of language through literary criticism, history, and linguistics (as opposed to Übersetzen und Dolmetschen, translation and interpretation, which was studied at another institute at the University of Heidelberg.) People may ask me to translate this or that, or to interpret, but it is not my expertise. In an attempt to be helpful, I give it a try. But, as I was back then in Heidelberg, I am still today a philologist.

About ten years later, I began my Master’s in German in Florida. Two poets from Germany came to spend the hot weeks in July in Gainesville with us. One was Zehra Cirak and the other one was Sinasi Dikman; both authors were of Turkish descent, but lived in Germany and wrote in German. They each held a wonderful reading, and my classmates and I were invited to interview them afterwards. We would be putting the interviews together with lesson plans and exercises involving some of Cirak and Dikman’s poems for a Goethe Institute publication for teachers of German. Not once, during this time, did I think of myself as a translator.  With new M.A. courses in DAF (Deutsch als Fremdsprache) curriculum rubrics, orthography reform, protest songs, and East-West Germany Reunification, I was full speed ahead – an educator philologist – with a zest for poetry on the side.

When did I first feel like a “translator”? It was when I began working as a librarian and I was asked to help a patron in Dade City, Florida read a letter from a German bank regarding his inheritance (or, in this case, sadly the lack of one). In this situation, the man did not want the full-ness of all of the possible meanings that the words in the letter raised. He wanted the accurate facts of whether he had a claim or not to any monies sitting in a bank in his relative’s Rheinland town. My librarian-training helped me prepare a succinct report. But translation work of this type (legal contracts and the like) would never be my cup of tea.

I finally grappled with some philological-style translation work for the first time when I was asked to reflect on different English language translations of poems by Rilke. I spoke to a 300-level poetry class of my friend and colleague Kurt Van Wilt. The students could see side-by-side in their text the different words selected by different English-language translators (various Rilke scholars), for the very same line in a Rilke poem. Of course, this was very worrisome for the students; they wanted to know how to pluck THE best word out of a German – English dictionary and arrive at Rilke’s exact meaning. For me, this confusion and chaos and uncertainty were very normal and exciting. For me, this consideration of a multitude of word choices in English, and not just a precise one, and reading about Rilke’s own life story comprised just the tip of the translation iceberg. The Latin prefix trans- in translate or translation prepares us for a word meaning that pertains to movement across, beyond, and through something. The focus is not so much on the starting point or on the destination, but on the journey.

Soon after the Rilke translation comparisons with students, I read aloud a Zehra Cirak poem “Nicken mit dem Kopf heisst nein” for an Open-Mic Night at my library. Afterwards I loosely translated it aloud into English for the audience, but in essence I already felt my German reading was a translation in and of itself. I was not Zehra Cirak, and so I would not read her work like she would read it herself. Having sat in her presence years before, as she described her rejection of her parents’ Turkish ways and their rejection of her new German ways, I could really just hope to pronounce good German sounds at the Open-Mic, having not travelled to Germany at this point in over ten years.

Speaking of sounds, I recently had the distinct pleasure of studying with poet, translator, and scholar Urayoán Noel during my third Stetson MFA low-residency. I was introduced to his digital translation process, a process that favors a sound-based translation over a meaning-based translation. I was encouraged that in Noel’s use of a Web 2.0 voice-recognition program there is a sense of fun (dare I say love) that he is having with language, as well as a parody of language translation software technology (wow – the results can really be far off the dictionary word-meaning mark), as well as a re-acquaintance with and renewed sense of appreciation of Spanish-language poetry icons.

And so, I wish to sum up my musings here with another prefix definition: Philo- is from the ancient Greek philia and means to love. As a philologist, I love language. I look at “translation” as a time to lovingly (and, like Noel, playfully) dwell on language for other possibilities or dreams that are beyond and across and through. Language is alive and is multi-disciplinary. The translation dictionary is just one of the many ways to appreciate language or unlock linguistic meaning, and should, perhaps, like translation software, be used with caution or with a great sense of adventure.

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