Saturday, February 09, 2013

Happy Birthday, JM

JM Coetzee
Today in 1940, in Cape Town, South Africa, J.M. (John Maxwell) Coetzee was born. He's a Nobel laureate, winning for Literature in 2003. His books often deal with South Africa, though he no longer lives there, but not always: Waiting for the Barbarians is set in an empire that never existed, where the author explores the concepts of duty and civilization. He also wrote a quite lovely essay on translation (no longer on line, alas), exploring it from the viewpoint of the original author. Here's a taste:
"It would be highly appreciated," wrote my translator, "if you could help clarify what Summer Palace and globe surmounted by the tiger rampant ... refer to. I wonder if [they] refer to the Old Summer Palace in Beijing that was destroyed by British and French allied force in 1848." The question may seem simple, but it holds surprising depths. It may mean: Are the words Summer Palace intended to refer to the historical Summer Palace? It may also mean: Do the words refer to the historical Summer Palace?

I, as sole author, am the only person able to answer the first question, and my answer must be that I did not consciously intend to refer to the palace in Beijing, and certainly did not intend to evoke the historical sack of that palace, with its attendant national humiliations.

At the same time, I did intend that enough of an association with imperial China should be evoked to balance and complicate, for instance, the association with imperial Russia evoked elsewhere in the book by the phrase Third Bureau, the arm of the security forces for which Colonel Joll works.

As for whether the words in question do refer to the palace in Beijing, as author I am powerless to say. The words are written; I cannot control the associations they awaken.

But my translator is not so powerless: a nudge here, a nuance there, and the reader may be either directed towards or headed off from the Beijing of 1848.

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