Believe the hype: literature-loving Americans are currently living in a golden age of translation. But what is translation? And how did it get so gilt? In 2008, the omnipotent demi-gods and good people at Melville House gave me an opportunity to join in the conversation by asking me to translate Alexander Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin and Alexander Kuprin’s The Duel. The process nearly killed me. But like a pint-sized Ishmael, I bobbed to the surface and now want to find out whom to blame.
So goes the introduction to the first of series of posts by Josh Billings over at Melville House about life as "both a practitioner and voracious consumer of translation." What sounds like a rather sober-minded purpose actually emerges as marvelous storytelling graced with no small amount of humor.* Before he ever met the Russians, young Billings, it seems, had quite a fluency with Klingon. ("tlhIngan, in the original").
By the time summer rolled around, I could tell my little brother that his mother had a smooth forehead, or mutter darkly that four thousand throats may be cut in one night by a running man, without having to worry that anyone would have any idea what I was talking about.
It would be convenient, but untrue (a sort of mnemonic false cognate) to say that that first class relieved my confusion. What it did, I think, is replace it with a specific desire, and, perhaps equally importantly, with a form through which I believed I could satisfy that desire. At fourteen, I felt about as human as a lobster. I didn’t speak the language — anyone’s language, really — which was why I devoted so much time to talking in ways that no one else would understand.
This series is going to be a joy. Stay tuned.
* This seems to be as good a time as any to boast about having served as Billings' designated "new student buddy" in Warren Wilson's fiction program.