On the last Sunday of April, I participated in a talk with seven other writers about the idea of translation and how it has affected and continues to affect my life as a reader and writer. Michael Trocchia organized the event and–in the emails he sent following up to the talk–put it this way:
...we might think of translation in at least three senses:
(1) Language-translation, in which one renders a work (or its words, sentences, meanings, etc) from one language into another;
(2) Context-translation, in which one renders a work from one context into another (that is, rendering a work within a different genre, or different cultural, historical, regional, performative context, and so on--adaptation, appropriations fall into this category), and
(3) Reality-translation, in which one renders non-linguistic aspects of reality or experience into linguistic expressions and forms (see for instance DeLillo's or Langer's quotes below for something like this last sense).
With that in mind and despite having years of schooling devoted to Latin, Ancient Greek, and French, I decided to talk about the idea of "Translating the South." I began with the idea of Southern American English which, I learned, is the most widely spoken dialect and accent group in the United States (thanks in part to the popularity of Country Music). Despite this (and maybe because of it) the Southern accent and Southern American English as a dialect is ostracised and stands alone as almost a different language altogether... perhaps in the same way that the "Queen's English" used in the United Kingdom is different than the English used (generally) in North America.
This could be a reason why Southern Literature also sticks out like a proud sore thumb in the eye of American Literature. We use a different language–that is just far enough removed from what we think of as American English to allow it to stand out as something different and, in my opinion, richer.
So I came up with the idea of translating the Southern Novel.
What would As I Lay Dying read if it were "translated" into the Golden Midwestern Broadcaster Dialect? How could it be the same? Would it be as good? What exactly would we lose?
A difference between Southern American English and other dialects in the American English grouping is what I like to call "Southern Color." For better and (definitely) for worse, we accept and allow colorful uses of language, as well as colorful characters who defy and reject common sense and normality. This is taken to the extreme in a lot of cases and really shows off a writer's lack of imagination and experience/knowledge of the South when their "Southern" characters are overloaded with figurative language like similes, analogies, and hyperbole. A great example of this is most of the dialogue of a character named Hollis Doyle on ABC's Scandal. He's a quick-talkin', rhymin', slimin', villian of a politician, oh and- of course- Texan. He uses some kind of figurative and colorful language in everything he says. It's often sexual and generally related to animals (cattle).
Because–you know–that's what we're all about down here.
Translating a text from Southern American English- whether it's A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest J. Gaines or The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers– to a more vanilla (Midwestern) dialect of American English would decimate the heart of it. It would talk all the color out of the story; the Wizard of Oz in reverse.
I told a story about a friend of mine who was in a class dedicated to the writings of Mississippian Larry Brown. One of his classmates was from the North and- despite his best efforts- struggled with Brown's writing and ideas. Translating a Larry Brown story- like almost any Southern fiction- would have to start from the bottom and work up. Characters' names would have to be changed; trucks to SUVs: sweet tea to pop; biscuits to toast; humidity to dry winds; etc. But more than that- Larry Brown gets into a Southern Man's psyche in a way that none of us- including Southern Women- can ever hope to.
So in that way... my thinking, postulating, and ruminating about "translating the South" is impossible... just like translating any language is impossible.
But I would like to leave this a little more open ended... because- hey, I'm an optimist ::
-Am I missing the nuances of other American dialects that aren't encapsulated in the group of Southern American English (I'm looking at you Bostonians and Mainers)?
-Is Southern American English (and Culture) either in written or spoken form really that hard to understand?
- Why makes the Southern American Tongue so unique? (Diversity, History, Isolation, Etc).
We may never know these answers. But I had a great time discussing these queries with my fellow writers, as well as what they had to say about their own translations of translation. I found an ally in the twang and verse of Angela M. Carter, solace and serendipity in Indigo Erikson's lines of music and poetry, and Paul Somers (who was an inspiration for my subject) is a perennial favorite of mine. I made a few connections with local writers like Cliff Garstang, who invited me to a meeting of the Staunton, Waynesboro, Augusta Group of Writers (SWAG), which is part of the Blue Ridge Writers Club... something I've heard of- but have never ventured into. So we'll see how I translate myself into their community.
For now I feel like I'm getting closer to becoming the writer I've always intended to be.
Slowly + Surely
like molasses in January.