Translation and Shapes

“I came to language only late and only peculiarly. I grew up in a household where the only books were the telephone book and some coloring books. Magazines, though, were called books, but only one magazine ever came into the house, a now-long-gone photographic general-interest weekly commandingly named Look. Words in this household were not often brought into play.”

This is how “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place” – a speech given by Gary Lutz at Columbia University in 2008, later published in The Believer – begins.

I believe this essay still offers an alternative level of reading text. What particularly strikes me is Luts´s concept of the “topography” of a sentence, and while never explicitly saying so, he refers to the shapes of sentences via the letters and words chosen.

For example, describing a short story by Christine Schutt, Lutz begins to enumerate the symmetry of the phrase  “acutely felt, clearly flat” right down to the letters in the words chosen:

“But what is perhaps most striking about the four-word phrase is the family resemblances between the two pairs of words. There is nothing in the letter-by-letter makeup of the phrase ´clearly flat´ that wasn’t already physically present in ‘acutely felt’; the second of the two phrases contains the alphabetic DNA of the first phrase.”

Later on again, he notes the physical form of the letters within this paragraph:

“I once saw a man hook a walking stick around a woman’s neck. This was at night, from my mother’s window. The man dropped the crooked end behind the woman’s neck and yanked just hard enough to get the woman walking to the car.”

While you might notice the repetition of certain letters in the excerpt, I would have never gone to the imaginative lengths that Lutz does:

“The w seems warily feminine; the k seems brashly masculine. In the fourth and final sentence of the paragraph, the two characters mate and marry in the unexpected but beautifully apposite participle winking, a union resulting in what is in many ways the most stylistically noteworthy word in the paragraph.”

While this may seem like a stretch – particularly their marriage – it seems nearly undeniable that once you begin reading with this kind of scrutiny of letters, it becomes difficult not to notice “verbal topography”.

Lutz, as he recognizes, is looking for a certain type of fiction, quite the opposite of a page turner. This would also be the antithesis of Karl Ove Knausgaard´s prose – at least in the English translation – as Ben Lerner so astutely observed.

Truth is, I like page-turning prose and don´t dwell enough on as many pages as I would like – especially after my experience with the Knausgaard books (if that is the author´s not the translator´s style, as Christopher Eva suggests in his response to Lerner´s review). Yet, I think giving the scrutiny poetry often demands of a text fits well with this idea of the topography of words, as well as what Lutz calls “lexical inevitability”.  

When I first began translated in the work of Spanish poet José Daniel García, I began to look for equivalency of effect in the “topography” of lines.

This is JDG’s version:

“El veneno florece en la burbuja.”

A word-for-word translation looks like this:

“The venom flourishes in the bubble.”

I think we can hear and see the “lexical inevitability” in this line from his poem “Cuerpo Tendido”. On the imagistic level JDG employs the “venom” and the “bubble” – linked with the resonance of “flower” in “flourish”. The paradox contrasts with the idiomatic level of this line: a dismal and ephemeral phrase.

If we begin to apply Lutz’s topographical approach the line becomes much richer. In this reading the flat, low-lying “venom” rolls into the stalky word “flourishes” which we imagine curling inside the round “bubble”. Where can we see this? Well the “fl” of flower, here present in “flourish” looks something like a flower growing from its stem. The round bottom of the three “b”’s in bubble resembles the round shape of a floating bubble. In this case, even the literal translation reflects the “lexical inevitability” that Lutz praises.

In other cases, however, the rudimentary word-for-word translation won’t suffice.

In one untitled poem from JDG´s collection Coma, we perceive a series of fast, clear images regarding a nameless figure; the poet limits our attention to an event described in minimal detail.


The literal word-for-word might be:

He solved the parasite problem

with iodine and pliers


its morbid head

until it was removed.

Shiny black and red

                                        its minuscule

glossy cadaver.

Like so much of Coma the sterile tone of medical language mixes with the treacherous and grim. In this case, the “parasite problem”- a euphemism – is the removal of hard black and red bugs. In the original there´s also a great deal of ambiguity, creating that dream-like sensation that being can simultaneously be more than one thing.  Also, we don´t know who exactly is removing what. Did this person “remove” their own head?

Sometimes, as David Bellos posits in his wonderful book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, that equivalency in translation is a lost cause. In cases like these it’s important to remember that a translation is in the end something new, as the poems original key convention (being written in the Spanish language) is lost. Therefore in a sense I pilot this new version of the original.

For me, in JDG’s compact poem, the image that most stands out to me is that of a tick – as ticks heads must be removed in order to kill them. So in thinking about this image of the tiny ticks head, I wanted to reflect this in my translation and I thought about the “topographical” level of the text. In the end I vied for this:

“Took care of the parasite problem

with iodine and pliers


their macabre heads

until they burst.

Shiny black and red

                  its tiny

varnished cadaver.”

I aimed for the ambiguity of the original in not including a subject in the first sentence. This way, the reader isn’t sure who it is with the “parasite problem”.

In the second stanza, I thought that “miniscule” looked long compare to the bug itself and used “tiny” – a word that in itself is small. I also thought “tiny” might also sound like “tick”, a word that with its “k”, conjures up the spiny limbs of the parasite.

I opted for the lengthier “macabre heads” rather than “morbid” because I liked the contrast of the longer line, the the next line cut short by the “burst”. I also like “burst” because it too looks and sounds like what it is. While it’s not an onomatopoeia, its indirect resemblance creates a more subtle version of a BLAM! The b is roundish in look and sound but it ends in the hiss of an s with the finality of a t.

While perhaps cumbersome when translating some as long as a novel – as I am now – “topography” adds a new element to the translation of more condensed texts like poems but short stories as well.

My concern is that unless we are all reading on the topographic level, it will go unnoticed perhaps by many. And while I think in reading original literary texts we are perceiving that “topography” if even subconsciously, if someone were comparing an original to the translation, comparing decisions (often word-for-word) comparisons – a favorite game for those judging the “quality” of a translation – these differences or attempts at a similar lexical topography would go unnoticed.

On the experimental end of the spectrum, Publishing Genius put out, Old Gus Eats, a visual translation of a few stanzas from The Odyssey. The translator Polly Duff Bresnick has no knowledge of Greek. The result is something often funny and incomprehensible. Yet, the visual symmetry between the two texts offers a different way of understanding the original.


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