Kugelmass, Translator

(Some Thoughts on Translation and Its Teaching)

In Woody Allen’s New Yorker short story “The Kugelmass Episode,” collected in Side Effects (Allen 1982), Kugelmass is a professor of humanities at the City College of New York who, longing for some excitement in his middle-aged life and sick of the sensible advice offered him by his analyst, hooks up with a magician named The Great Persky. Persky has invented a machine that can insert living human beings into books: the client climbs into a coffin-like box and The Great Persky throws in a book of the client’s choice, whereupon the lid is closed and the client is magically transported into the chosen book.

Kugelmass chooses Madame Bovary, and appears in Emma’s bedroom at an auspicious period in between her affairs with Leon and Rodophe. She speaks English: “She spoke in the same fine English translation as the paperback” (66). They have a steamy affair, and college students all over the country wonder who this bald Jew is, kissing Emma Bovary on page 100. During the course of the affair Kugelmass brings her to New York; they stay at the Plaza, shop at Halston and Saint Laurent, see A Chorus Line and the Guggenheim—and baffled readers everywhere wonder where Emma has gone. “‘I cannot get my mind around this,’ a Stanford professor said. ‘First a strange character named Kugelmass, and now she’s gone from the book. Well, I guess the mark of a classic is that you can reread it a thousand times and always find something new’” (72). Kugelmass only brings her for the weekend, which he tells his wife he’s spending at a conference in Boston; but when it comes time to send her back, the box malfunctions, and it takes The Great Persky a week to fix it. Kugelmass frets that Emma is costing him an arm and a leg at the Plaza; plus she wants to be an actress and needs professional photos; and a colleague in comp lit at CCNY has identified Kugelmass as the new character in Flaubert and has threatened to tell his wife.

When Persky finally gets the machine working, Kugelmass sends Emma back to Charles and declares he’s through: no more affairs with fictional characters. But Kugelmass is hooked, and three weeks later he is back wanting to be sent into Portnoy’s Complaint:

This time, instead of a popping noise there was a dull explosion, followed by a series of crackling noises and a shower of sparks. Persky leaped back, was seized by a heart attack, and dropped dead. The cabinet burst into flames, and eventually the entire house burned down.

Kugelmass, unaware of this catastrophe, had his own problems. He had not been thrust into Portnoy’s Complaint, or into any other novel, for that matter. He had been projected into an old textbook, Remedial Spanish, and was running for his life over a barren, rocky terrain as the word tener (“to have”)—a large and hairy irregular verb—raced after him on its spindly legs. (77-78)

First Reading: A Cautionary Tale

What can this humorous little fantasy tell us about translation? One connection is immediately clear: Kugelmass has his affair with the Emma of a particular English translation, not of the French original. When he is projected into the novel, he goes not to nineteenth-century France but to a fictional France imagined by one of Flaubert’s many English translators. Emma speaks English—whether British English or American English or some other variety, Allen doesn’t tell us. Presumably, in any case, when she is trapped in New York and says she has to get back because “Charles will miss me” (74), she pronounces her husband’s name the American way, not the French. Also, the readers who notice Kugelmass in the book are English-speakers; in fact, Americans; specifically, American professors and students of French and comparative literature. Kugelmass is himself a professor, although of what humanistic discipline, exactly, Allen doesn’t tell us either. We assume he’s not an English professor, since he gloats the first time he and Emma make love: “‘My God, I’m doing it with Madame Bovary!’ Kugelmass whispered to himself. ‘Me, who failed freshman English’” (68). (And in that line I would go ahead and accent “Madame Bovary” on both first syllables, American-style. That’s probably how Kugelmass would say it; maybe this translated Emma too.)

Indeed the story’s boundaries and transgressions seem to be as much academic as marital: Fivish Kopkind, for example, the comp lit professor who recognizes Kugelmass in the book and threatens to go to his wife with the news of her husband’s affair, is described by Kugelmass as someone “who has always been jealous of me” (75). Both Kopkind and Daphne Kugelmass are jealous, Daphne because she suspects her husband has “a chippie stashed somewhere” (70), Kopkind because by the tacit rules of academic specialization Kugelmass has no business in a French novel, even if it is in translation. Only a professor of French or comparative literature should be screwing around with Emma Bovary.

From a translation studies point of view, then, the story’s scene is specifically academic literary translation, more specifically still the reading of academic literary translations in or for university literature classrooms. In this allegory of reading, to borrow Paul de Man’s term and method, Kugelmass represents the target-language reader—and we would have to say that he is very much the kind of American masscult target-language reader against whom Larry Venuti inveighs in his work, a reader who is not really very interested in the otherness or the foreignness of Flaubert’s novel, but rather focused utterly on easy pleasure on his own terms. He longs for romance, a longing that his analyst describes disapprovingly as “acting out” (62); he doesn’t want to be changed by the affair he imagines, only diverted by it, fleetingly thrilled, made to feel temporarily alive by the tingling sensations of love (or lust). The novels Persky offers him are all English translations, but Kugelmass doesn’t exactly protest—it’s hard to imagine him whining, “Doncha have any originals in here!?”—and the “chippie” he ends up in bed with is not only an assimilated one, a highly Anglicized Emma Bovary whose name presumably rhymes with “ovary,” but a woman who even in French has become a byword for the superficial, easily distracted bourgeois consciousness that Venuti condemns. Also, of course, their talk is all of 1970s American pop culture:

Emma, to be sure, was just as happy as Kugelmass. She had been starved for excitement, and his tales of Broadway night life, of fast cars and Hollywood and TV stars, enthralled the young French beauty.

“Tell me again about O. J. Simpson,” she implored that evening, as she and Kugelmass strolled past Abbé Bournisien’s church.

“What can I say? The man is great. He sets all kinds of rushing records. Such moves. They can’t touch him.”

“And the Academy Awards?” Emma said wistfully. “I’d give anything to win one.”
“First you’ve got to be nominated.”

“I know. You explained it. But I’m convinced I can act. Of course, I’d want to take a class or two. With Strasberg maybe. Then, if I had the right agent—” (69-70)

Writing on January 23, 1995, the first day of O. J. Simpson’s murder trial, I find that reference to him particularly telling: for Kugelmass O. J. is still a great running back, not an alleged murderer, not the Nordberg of the Naked Gun movies, not even a color commentator. Readers read (in case we needed reminding!) in a specific time and place; their responses to a book are shaped by their total cultural situation.

This first tentative approach to the story as an allegorical theory of (reading) translation, then, would make the catastrophic ending poetic justice, punishment for Kugelmass’s offenses against otherness, against the foreign: instead of another “easy” novel like Portnoy’s Complaint (which is in fact even easier than Madame Bovary, written as it was a decade or so before Kugelmass wants into it, by and about New York intellectual Jews like himself), Kugelmass finds himself in a Spanish textbook, being chased by the verb tener. This is the foreign with a vengeance! The pastoral scenes of Flaubert’s (translated) novel, which Allen has been blending humorously with the neuroses of contemporary American culture, shift abruptly into a nightmarish landscape of sudden death and explosions and fire—and a foreign language, Spanish, which, tellingly, is imaged monstrously, out of dystopian sf movies like The Incredible Shrinking Man, whose protagonist at one point has to do battle with a giant spider. Surely this is an appropriate punishment for the ethnocentric reader as condemned by the entire romantic tradition in translation theory, from Herder and the Schlegel brothers through Antoine Berman (1984) and Lawrence Venuti (1995).

Second Reading: A Translator is Born

This first allegorical reading of the story is, however, entirely negative. Can we not squeeze a more positive moral out of it for translation theory?

Catastrophic as Kugelmass’s ending is from his own point of view, it is not difficult to see that the end of Kugelmass the unfortunate lover might well be the beginning of Kugelmass the translator. Indeed many a real-world translator’s passage from mono- into bilingualism and eventually into translation has been every bit as traumatic as Kugelmass’s: Squanto’s, for example, as described in William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation (1952: 79):

He was a native of this place, and scarce any left alive besides himself. He was carried away with divers others by one [Captain Thomas] Hunt, a master of a ship, who thought to sell them for slaves in Spain. But he got away for England and was entertained by a merchant in London, and employed in Newfoundland and other parts, and lastly brought hither into these parts by one Mr. Dermer, a gentleman employed by Sir Ferdinando Gorges and others for discovery and other designs in these parts.

A Patuxet, Squanto (or Tisquantum) was kidnapped from his tribe in 1614; he was “brought hither”—to the “New World” (old for him), not to his tribe, not set free, as Bradford seems to imply, since he had to jump ship to return to his native region—four years later, in 1618; upon returning to Plymouth, he found his entire tribe wiped out by a European-introduced disease that had swept through the area the year before. A hard way to gain a translator’s professional skills.

Others have been taken abroad against their will as well, often less brutally than Squanto but no less disruptively: the spouses and children and servants of government officials or corporate executives or military officers (etc.) sent abroad to administer a terrtory, for example, who (the accompanying family) must deal with the same culture shock as the family member thus officially sent, but without the motivational boost of career advances or, in some cases, the explicit choice to go abroad or stay put. Sometimes first exposure to a foreign culture is less violent, but is still perceived as a form of violence by comfort-lovers who would rather not confront the new, the alien, the different: almost certainly the vast majority of foreign language learners in classrooms all around the world (not just in the Anglophone world, conditioned to monolingualism by a century and a half of political and cultural imperialism) respond this way to foreign languages at first, some longer than others. And even the most eager and adaptable students of foreign languages and cultures will at some point reel at the sheer alienness of the speech and cultural norms that surround them, will feel it as a shock to the system: look how easy all this is for them, how difficult for me; how hard I have to work to make sense of things, how hard I have to concentrate every second of the day, how many humiliating mistakes I still constantly make, and how effortlessly they glide from conversation to conversation, register to register!

And I would be willing to bet that a large majority of professional translators got into the business out of a kind of emotional parsimony, an attempt to turn their adjustment traumas to some good use. If you have to live far from the reassuring familiarity of your native culture, you might as well make the best of it—and what better “best” to make of it than the work of the intercultural navigator, the translator?

And speaking of interculturality: note that the Spanish textbook isn’t just a foreign text. Most likely it is written both in English and Spanish, instructions and grammar rules (especially in a remedial text) in English, reading texts and examples in Spanish. In his traumatic passage from mono- to bilingualism, and perhaps to a future as a translator, Kugelmass is inserted not exactly into the foreign but into the intercultural, into the interstices between cultures, into what Friedrich Schleiermacher (1973: 63) derogates as the “unerfreuliche Mitte”, the “unsettling in-between” in which, as Anthony Pym (1995) rightly says, all translators live their professional and personal lives.

Third Reading: Technical Translation

Thus transformed from a cautionary tale into an allegorical Bildungsroman, a story about the birth or genesis of the translator, “The Kugelmass Episode” also reminds us that the book into which Kugelmass is projected in the end is not only a book with foreign words in it, thus an allegorical simulacrum of the foreign, as the romantics would want it, or of interculturality, as Anthony Pym would prefer; it is also a nonfictional book, indeed a nonliterary work (at least as “literature” is commonly defined). Bluntly: Remedial Spanish is a technical text. And it seems likely to me that some of the horror that Allen humorously paints for us in the ending stems from Kugelmass’s (and by extension our own) realization that he is no longer in the familiar world of the (translated) literary classic, but in a how-to manual of sorts, a technical text that “lacks” the “imaginative” and even “human” element of Madame Bovary. This is, of course, how technical texts are typically portrayed by professors and students of the humanities: as devoid of certain humanizing qualities that make literary texts pleasant, even sometimes unimaginably beautiful, places to live in for a while. Without the “elbow room” or “freedom” lent a work by the literary imagination, it becomes a prison block of the mind, a bleak, desolate, virtually uninhabitable soulscape from which the human imagination flees screaming. Hence, presumably, the spidery monster that the verb tener becomes: it is hard for the Anglophone humanist to imagine feeling at home with tener, or with any given grammatical form in any given language; it is especially difficult, maybe impossible, to imagine feeling at home in a foreign language textbook. The humanist mind shrinks from the prospect of being trapped forever in such a dull, uninspiring, unimaginative place. Surely that would be a living hell!

This attitude is reflected in literary translators’ negative conception of technical translation as well, of course. Translation tout court is shunned by many humanist scholars as limiting, confining, imprisoning for the imagination; but at least literary translation partakes (at second hand, but still!) of the imaginative genius of the original literary creation. A technical translation is a dull, lifeless copy of a dull, lifeless original. Hence, so the reasoning (or the prejudice) goes, one translates literature out of love, technical texts (if at all) purely for the money. A person who loves a literary text and possesses the requisite linguistic skills may undertake its translation in order to bask in its brilliance, to feel the freedom of its imaginative world from the inside, even if s/he is not particularly enamored of the subordinate work of the translator. Ask a person of these tastes whether it is possible to undertake a technical translation for similar motives, and s/he will laugh in your face: love a technical text! Bask in its brilliance! Feel the freedom of its world! Hah! A person who “loved” a technical text would have to be singularly stunted, dulled, limited, creatively handicapped or disabled (or “challenged”), which would be a nice way of saying “imaginatively retarded.”

Hence also, while the granting of tenure and promotion for literary and scholarly translations is still a controversial issue in academia, nobody even raises the possibility of granting tenure or promotion for the translation of technical texts. “Note the extensive knowledge of Mexican farm machinery that was required to do these three full-length translations of technical specifications from Spanish to English.” What a joke!

But “The Kugelmass Episode” can again push us past this tired old dualism. Horrifically as the Spanish textbook is portrayed, it is certainly not a dull or unimaginative place: it is populated by great hairy spidery monsters! It is a place of high adventure—even if they are not particularly pleasant adventures.

Well, yes, we might want to say, but that is just Woody Allen’s imaginative license; remedial Spanish textbooks aren’t really that interesting.

But maybe that’s the point: if Woody Allen can take that kind of license with a remedial Spanish text, can’t, at least potentially, anyone? Isn’t the “imaginativeness” of a text at least partly, and perhaps even largely, in the eye of the beholder—in the imagination of the reader? It may be true that certain texts lend themselves more than others to imaginative re-creation in the reader’s eyes, ears, mouth, arms and legs, etc.; it may be true that technical texts are more resistant to such re-creation. But the implication of those truths (if that is what they are), that it takes a Woody Allen to make a remedial Spanish text come alive imaginatively, may be that our kneejerk attacks on “boring” or “tedious” or “unimaginative” technical texts are misdirected. The problem, this would suggest, isn’t with the texts, but with their readers: if a remedial Spanish textbook is boring, maybe that is because its reader doesn’t know how to see spiders in it.

The point I’m leading up to here is that technical translators almost certainly do know how to see spiders in remedial Spanish textbooks—or, to put that more generally, that technical translators know how to make their texts come alive in a variety of highly imaginative ways, by visualizing, narrativizing, personifying, kinestheticizing them.

This occurred to me six months or so ago while I was translating a chainsaw manual from English to Finnish. As often happens when I translate, my mind started wandering; I wasn’t even sure where. I just put myself on autopilot and translated. Some front part of me was looking up words in the dictionary, building coherent Finnish sentences, doing various analytical tasks; a back part was somewhere else, lost in a reverie that felt vaguely romantic, though probably only because it remained romantically vague. And as I say, this happens to me a lot. It is an extremely common frame of mind for me to be in when I translate. At one time I might have been tempted to say that my mind only wanders when I translate boring technical texts, that I’m 100% on task when I translate literature; but it’s not true. My mind wanders when I translate literature too.

There is, in fact, a certain reverie state that seems highly productive for me as a translator of any kind of text, literary or technical; and I’m guessing that the same is true for many translators, perhaps most. The fact is, as I was translating the chainsaw manual I wasn’t daydreaming about fame and fortune, or about the laptop computer I wanted to buy, or about anything else in a nebulous future; my reverie was actually quite focused. In my reverie I was reliving all the times I used a chainsaw in Finland, usually with a Finnish friend or brother-in-law—often, for some reason, in the snow. I could feel the cold, feel the leather gloves on my hand, feel the crusty snow packed on the logs, hear the snow crunching under my feet, feel the hairs in my nose freezing together. I have never owned a chainsaw, and translating the manual I began to feel that I never wanted to, either, because I had always thought that you just pick the thing up, prime it, give it some choke, pull the starter cord, and start cutting. The manual made owning a chainsaw seem like an impossibly complicated matter. My mind wandered to the Finnish men I’d known who owned chainsaws—and without exception they were careful, methodical men who would almost certainly oil and clean and sharpen their chainsaw more or less as the manual instructed. I wouldn’t: I’d throw it in a corner and haul it out whenever I needed it, then take it to the shop when it didn’t work right.

While I was working on the translation, in other words, on a hot summer day in Illinois, my whole internal world was Finnish; my reverie transported me, in effect, to the place where I had last heard and used the words and phrases I needed to do this translation job.

Not that I did any of this intentionally; in fact, I didn’t even realize I was doing it until several months later, in the autumn, when I started thinking about using a page from the chainsaw manual in a workshop I had been asked to give in Mexico (where in fact, in the middle of my discussion of the translator’s imaginative re-creation of the technical text, “The Kugelmass Episode” came to me out of the blue—a story I had read at least fifteen years earlier and had not thought about since). I suppose I am partly aware of my mind wandering when I translate; and if someone from the thought police were to stop me while I was doing a translation and say accusingly “your mind is wandering!” I would probably feel vaguely guilty, like a bad boy. But in fact, by creating a multisensory scene or context for my translation, my semiconscious reverie was actually helping me translate. It was not only wordlessly dredging up Finnish words that I hadn’t used in years (and had perhaps never actually spoken, only heard); it was creating a kind of native Finnish-speaker within me, a competent and careful and knowledgeable Finnish-speaking chainsaw user, which improved the fluency of the Finnish into which I was translating.

Literary translators are contemptuous of technical translators because their work seems so mechanical, repetitive, mind-numbing in its attention to objects rather than human contexts. But a good technical writer or translator is always going to have to feel the total human context of an instruction manual, or the translation is not going to work—and I personally find it hard to see much difference between this and the imaginative work done by a fiction-writer or movie producer/director/writer like Woody Allen, or by a literary translator. Like Allen, the technical translator too sees movies in her or his head, visualizes the total human system (or narrative) of the technical text in an imaginative reverie that is not qualitatively different from that of the novelist. People use chainsaws; a manual for the owner of a chainsaw is not mere words devoid of human context, it is (at least potentially, in the imaginative reader’s mind) a rich human narrative full of infinitely methodical care and insistently suppressed anxieties about bodily harm. Indeed like all inanimate objects, chainsaws sometimes seem to have a life or a mind of their own: they buck, they kick back, their chains break, they get dull and sluggish and refuse to function. Chainsaws, like irregular Spanish verbs, can be terrifying monsters.

All right, you protest, but chainsaws are rather ordinary machines; some people see them every day, work with them constantly, depend on them. It is natural to humanize a machine like that. People also humanize their cars, their home appliances (washers and driers, toasters and microwaves), their computers and televisions. But what about less commonly used technologies, technologies that do not impinge so directly and richly on ordinary people’s everyday lives—like the microscopic components of computer chips, or chemical compounds? What about numbers, sheer mathematics? How does one find, or invent, a human context there? What kinesthetic movies play in the head of the mathematics translator?

The answer is: whatever movies the translator is capable of playing. Many people perceive numbers and noises synesthetically, as colors or smells (or both); some have even speculated that the remarkable humans known as lightning calculators multiply five-digit numbers by access to some such synesthetic medium, which gives them the answer instantaneously, holistically, rather than at the end of a long (and slow) linear sequence of mathematical operations. Is it so difficult to imagine, then, that translators of mathematical texts make those texts too come alive—that they conjure up subliminal narratives or other richly human coherence structures as they translate, and that those imaginative structures not only keep them interested and engaged in their work (prevent them from burning out) but actually help them to translate faster and with greater accuracy?

Technological objects are never just machines; numbers are never just abstractions; they are always complexly situated in vast cultural systems, whole interactive narratives of prediction and control, calculation and miscalculation, production and distribution, marketing and purchase, use and misuse. And like legal and commercial and medical documents, the texts written about them are steeped in human consequence, human connection—”nonfictional” novels all. The translator who is able to enter imaginatively into those novels, or “write” them as s/he translates, will not only enhance her or his recall of words and phrases and registers and so translate more rapidly and accurately (and make more money); s/he will also enjoy her or his work more. Humanists are right in this: people do need human contexts, human connections. Without them we do lose interest in our work, even our lives; feel an emptiness and anomie creep over us; burn out and look elsewhere for meaning. The humanists’ mistake lies in assuming that there are texts in which those connections are missing.

Kugelmass in the Classroom

The Kugelmass of Allen’s story is among other things a teacher. We never learn what kind of pedagogue he is, how he runs his classrooms, whether he lectures (as I would assume) or has students involved in hands-on exercises or collaborative projects (not likely); all we really know about his professional life as a teacher, in fact, is that several times in the story he has to interrupt his pleasure with Emma Bovary to go teach.

But the story obviously has pedagogical implications, and I want to conclude this essay by considering a few of them. We might begin by asking whether a student will “learn” Madame Bovary more fully or effectively by engaging it as Kugelmass does, falling in love with Emma (“acting out”), or as the Stanford professor probably does, analyzing its narrative structure or symbolic structure or cultural situatedness. That question will be difficult to answer as long as the student remains an abstraction, as long as we don’t know whether s/he already “loves literature,” whether s/he comes to the literature classroom with a passionate full-bodied engagement with the text that resembles Kugelmass’s, or remains largely baffled about why anyone would want to read a novel in the first place. The former student might well benefit from an analytical approach; the latter student will probably be driven into paroxysms of frustration and suppressed resentment. A student who doesn’t know how to “love” or “live” literature, for whom the notion of dwelling imaginatively and passionately in a work of fiction is inconceivable, will yawn (at best) at analyses of symbolic or thematic or class structures, but will profit enormously from a critical pedagogy that trains him or her in imaginative re-creation: visualization exercises that connect the words on the page with the student’s own experiential background, imagery exercises designed to evoke a holistic emotional response, dramatization exercises that help the student act the book out, feel it in her or his whole body, her or his embodied social sense.

This will be doubly important for students reading in a foreign language, where, depending on their exposure to the culture in which the language is spoken natively, it may be difficult for them to make the text “come alive,” feel vibrant and real. Here various visual and kinesthetic imagining exercises can be powerful tools for bridging the gaps between “the foreign” and a student’s own experience. Even at a rudimentary or remedial level of language learning, imagining yourself being chased by a spidery tener— whatever the kinesthetic equivalent would be for that image with specific grammatical forms—is probably much more effective than just memorizing conjugations. When I was learning the Spanish subjunctive I could never keep the endless lists of rules straight in my head, not even with plenty of time, when I was doing a written exercise; when I was trying to say something—quiero que ...—it was hopeless. I first had to figure out what kind of subordinate clause I was in, then run down the various types of verb that took the subjunctive in that clause type (influence, emotion, etc.). Running this mental program fast, even when I was able to track down the right clause and verb types, took five or six seconds—much too long for speech. Somebody with an analytical bent went to a lot of trouble to systematize the Spanish subjunctive, and that’s wonderful; but it’s a lousy pedagogical tool.

But gradually I began to get a feel for it, a kinesthetic sense of when the subjunctive should be used, and came up with a much simpler rule: use the subjunctive to indicate unreality of any sort, things that haven’t happened yet, things that have only happened from someone’s point of view, etc. I tried this rule out on my Spanish teacher, but she didn’t like it; it didn’t cover the subjunctive field complexly and comprehensively enough. But the other students in the class loved it: now instead of dozens of nested and embedded rules they had just one that was fast and easy to use; and to their amazement, once they began using it they started guessing right almost every time. (And how important is it to get something right every time?) But this drove the teacher nuts. She would give us a sentence, “I hope he comes on time,” espero que ..., and ask us “subjunctive or indicative, viene or venga”; some student would say “subjunctive, venga,” and she would pounce: “Why?” “Because he hasn’t come yet.” “No!” she would crow. “Because esperar is a verb of emotion!”

No wonder Woody Allen imagined tener as a giant spider.

Actually, having personally grown rather fond of tener and even the subjunctive, I would venture to say that the grammatical spiders of Spanish or any other language are only terrifying monsters when taught analytically, with hairy rules protruding from every part of their scrawny anatomies. In this sense my Spanish teacher, and other strictly analytical teachers like her, are like authoritarian parents who tell stories about the bogey-man to keep children terrified of transgression. Most spiders, it turns out, are neither poisonous nor carnivorous. Anyone who wants to speak Spanish had better learn to make friends with them.

These ruminations have important implications for the training of translators as well. If in fact it is true that all translating, of technical as well as literary texts, is considerably more imaginative, creative, and subconscious than dominant analytical models of the process would allow, then we are doing our translation students a disservice by drilling them in rules and analytical systems—the stylistic system of a technical register, for example. What translators need to facilitate their work is not a conscious and analytical repertoire but a subliminal one—highly sophisticated, to be sure, full of fine distinctions and complex connections, all the sublimated traces of earlier analytical processes, but subconscious.

And this suggests that, whenever we teach student translators analytical material—contrastive linguistic systems, register analyses, terminologies—we should devote at least as much classroom time to the sublimation of this material, the effective internalization or “intuitivization” of what was once rational, as we do to its actual analytical presentation. How do Spanish students get from the jillion rules for the subjunctive to its actual fluent use in speech? How do student translators get from analyses of the transfer parameters between two languages—Spanish and English, say—to the ability to transfer material between them quickly and effectively and enjoyably?

Once again, “The Kugelmass Episode” suggests that the best technique for facilitating that sublimation is imaginative projection: inserting yourself creatively, dramatistically, visually, kinesthetically into a text, any text, even a remedial Spanish text or chainsaw manual. Imagining yourself being chased by a spidery verb, if that’s what works for you. Remembering and imaginatively reliving past experiences that bear directly or indirectly on the subject matter of the text. Scrabbling together invented (fictional) contexts for subjects of which you have no direct experience, from books you’ve read, movies and TV shows you’ve seen, people you’ve talked to. Acting out. Creating what amounts to a literary construct as an imaginative pathway from mechanical understanding of individual words and phrases through to a living, pulsating feel for the text’s human connectedness in the source and/or target languages.

A significant consequence of this approach might be that literary translators will find a new and enhanced role to play in translator training programs. At present there is frequently a tension in such programs between literary translators, who feel that their work is the only interesting kind of translation, and technical and other nonliterary translators, who feel that their work is the only commercially viable kind of translation. Especially in countries like the U.S. and the U.K., where it is difficult or impossible to earn a living by translating literature alone, there is a widespread feeling in translator training programs that on purely economic grounds there is no justification for the teaching of literary translation—a perception that sits ill with literary translators’ sense of self-worth. But if literary translation can be reframed as an imaginative channel that will help all translators translate better, faster, and more enjoyably, perhaps there is an economic justification for classes in literary translation after all.

Just how that would work is another story, and a long one. I have written a textbook, Becoming a Translator (Robinson 1997), that offers some specific exercises designed to help student translators sublimate or internalize analytic material more effectively; at this writing it is still in production, so I still don’t know how well it will work. Suffice it to say here that the pedagogical discussion about training translators has in most respects not even begun: putting texts in front of students and saying “translate!” does not, I think, exactly constitute a pedagogy. Maybe that is the best way to teach translators; maybe it isn’t. At present it seems to be more or less a default choice, as no one knows what else to do —what else might be done. Kugelmass, bizarre as the idea seems, may offer a direction: what the student translator needs is not an analyst, but a magician.


Allen, Woody. 1982. “The Kugelmass Episode”. In Allen, Side Effects. New York: Ballantine Books, 59-78.

Berman, Antoine. 1984. L’Épreuve de l’éstranger: Culture et traduction dans l’Allemagne romantique. Paris: Gallimard, 1984. Translated by S. Heyvaert as The Experience of the Foreign: Culture and Translation in Romantic Germany. Albany: SUNY Press, 1992.

Bradford, William. 1952. Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647. Ed. Samuel Eliot Morison. New York: Knopf.

de Man, Paul. 1979. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust. New Haven: Yale University Press..

de Man, Paul, ed. and trans. 1965. Madame Bovary: Backgrounds and Sources; Essays in Criticism. New York: Norton.

Pym, Anthony. 1995. “Schleiermacher and the Problem of Blendlinge”. Translation and Literature 4(1):5-29.

Robinson, Douglas. 1997. Becoming a Translator: An Accelerated Course. New York and London: Routledge.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. 1973. “Über die verschiedenen Methoden des Übersetzens.” In Hans Joachim Störig, ed., Das Problem des Übersetzens, 38-70. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. Translated by Douglas Robinson as “On the Different Methods of Translation.” In Robinson, ed., Western Translation Theory From Herodotus to Nietzsche. Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing, 1997, 225-38.

Venuti, Lawrence. 1995. The Translator’s Invisibility. London and New York: Routledge.


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