- Bending Back and Breaking1
Using her talents as a poet, translator, and scholar Mary Ann Caws brings the translations of the symbolic "dream objects" of French surrealism alive today in her "surprising" translations into English. Caws also analyzes the technical and poetic problems encountered in her literary translation, departing from the literal meaning of the soft sculptures of surrealist poetry and moving towards some fantastic imagery, the trademark of surrealism (or superrealism). In Surprised in Translation, the steps of Caws' analysis are clear, but the size of the separate chapters is usually uneven: the chapter "Translating Together" is a little more than one page; the chapter "The Salmon and Some Parrots" has some five pages, while the chapter "Mallarmé in England and at Home" counts thirty-five pages. The chapters have been chosen regardless of their adequate length and are probably revised versions of earlier articles, prefaces, or keynote addresses, re-edited to form a whole. The writer has a guiding hand organizing the whole discussion. Her book gives a brilliant solution to the surrealist puzzle of language and has the elegance and lightness of Caws' serious art as a poetry translator.
Most literary translations are translated versions of the original literary text, but Caws states that some translations are not the same as, identical with, their originals. These translations are "surprising," out of the ordinary, needing further study to see their real meanings. What is a translation? What is a translation with some surprises? Is a surprising translation a contradiction or a self-contradiction? We are acutely aware that the triviality of the translation is characterized as a "normal" procedure, but we seem to take for granted that the translation corresponds with the unchanged original, yet we often find in the analysis a changed language. Not always so, since a surprise is amusing, [End Page 341] a joke. The shock of the surprise in translations "happens" in some form of antanaclasis, whereby we see a surprising identity of the word, sentence, paragraph, etc., in a witty repetition of the same word, etc., in a strangely changed sense. The Greek word antaclanasis means "bending back and breaking." Is the brokenness of the original or the translation considered Caws' surprise? Quintilian (first-century) already baptized antaclanasis as traductio to give a broken name to the funny and flexible forms of what we call translation—and thus upsetting translation studies or translation theory.
A bit of practical poetics we enjoy in the opening chapter of Craws' book Surprised in Translation, where the writer lives her poet's dream or translator's illusion describing the poetic freedom given to the literary translators in her misread mythology of the salmon and the parrot (1 ff.). A metaphor of phonetic interpretation builds the genesis of the translation of poetry: the term "salmon" concerns Caws' misconstruction of the "Sémont" maneuver, which is a remedy against vertigo (a surprise in itself!). The salmon caught in the waterfall remains itself, the same salmon. A salmon is and will be a mimetic fish, but Caws argues that the parrot repeats what is heard and is non-mimetic. The crucial question is: can parrots also think themselves? The shape of the salmon is and remains a slippery pun: if you clutch a salmon, it will slip through your hands unless you secure it by its tail. The parrot has the gift of the gab, speaking to all listeners clearly and easily and quite persuasively—yet surprisingly in human language. The talking parrot is both a mimetic and a non-mimetic vocal bird that functions and dysfunctions at the same time. Its eloquent beak speaks a proverbially thousand tongues. Is a parrot a translator?
A translator can subsist on a salmon diet, or maybe prefers a dialog with a translating parrot? Or, since they are unequal, two for the price of one? The truism of antaclanasis as static and dynamic types of translation speaks of overtranslation (or surtranslation) and undertranslation, anecdoted by the cover design's image, presenting a menagerie of dead exotic birds, unable to speak and unable to translate (Leroy de Barde's Reunion of Foreign Birds Placed within Different Cases, ca...