Last month Jane Marie Todd was awarded the annual Translation Prize for Nonfiction by the French-American and Florence Gould Foundations for her translation of Dominique Charpin’s Reading and Writing in Babylon. For HUP she has also translated Aviad Kleinberg’s Flesh Made Word, Maurice Olender’s Race and Erudition, Anne-Marie Eddé’s forthcoming Saladin, and many others. What follows below is the speech she delivered upon receiving the award.
I would like to thank the French-American Foundation and the Florence Gould Foundation for this award, and for recognizing a group of people who do not ordinarily get a great deal of recognition. Translation is not an easy way to make a living; nor is it an easy way to make a name for yourself, since you are always writing in someone else’s name.
I have been a full-time, freelance translator for about twenty years. For the most part, I translate scholarly works for university presses and art catalogs and other publications for museums. I do not have a position at the university. That means, on one hand, no titles, no promotions, no regular paychecks, no travel funds from my home institution, no paid vacations, no sabbaticals. I do not even have library privileges at a university library, so I cannot order books from Interlibrary Loan or access JSTOR when I need a quotation from a scholarly journal. On the other hand, I spent enough years in academia not to be envious of academics.
Is it any wonder that translators are a modest and unassuming lot? We are happy just to have regular work, to get interesting projects, and to be paid promptly and relatively well. I therefore want to thank Sharmila Sen, my editor at Harvard University Press who commissioned the translation of Reading and Writing in Babylon, for supplying me with all those things for a number of years.
Despite its drawbacks, translation is a wonderful way to make a living. I work at home in comfortable clothes, with my little dog dozing at my feet. From my desk chair, I journey through time and space and explore the most diverse disciplines imaginable: from Old Babylonia to the Byzantine Middle Ages, from the early days of cubism to contemporary Afghanistan and Iraq, from the Chinese literati painters to the gods of ancient Egypt, from Fra Angelico’s monastery to Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge, and from Mme de Pompadour’s opulent château to the tiny Gan kingdom in Burkina Faso. One day I might be following complicated arguments from Kant or Spinoza, and the next day I will be asked to translate advertising copy for a milliner’s shop in Paris: “Chez Katharina M, the hats twist into arabesques and whorls... They whirl and pirouette, so airy that—on seeing them—you imagine a bird in flight or the sweep of a rippling gown…” I have always had wide-ranging interests: my degree is in Comparative Literature and I wrote my dissertation on a psychoanalyst and a philosopher. But I can’t think of any other profession where I could learn so much about so many different things.
I am a language nerd: I love learning new words, new specialized vocabularies, and even new diacritical marks (did you know that the Turkish alphabet has a letter “i” with no dot over it?). Translation is extreme close reading, and one of the pleasures it affords me is to be able to follow an author’s thought processes, to see how a mind works with and through language.
Here are two things I learned while translating Dominique Charpin’s Reading and Writing in Babylon. The first is that, when compared to the task of the Assyriologist, translating from French to English is a breeze. Let me read a longish passage from the book to serve as an illustration and to give you a feel for the writing. The section is entitled “How to Read a Cuneiform Tablet”:
When a photograph of a cuneiform inscription and the translation of its text are placed side by side, the uninitiated remain perplexed, wondering how one got from one to the other. This is often a long and difficult labor, about which specialists do not expatiate. In that respect, they are like old-time chefs who disliked divulging their recipes. I should now like to invite the reader to a visit to the Assyriologist’s workshop.
We must first recognize the radically different character of cuneiform writing when compared with our own: it consists of incisions made in the surface of an unbaked clay tablet with the aid of a triangular-shaped calamus made of reed or bone… The impression of that stylus produces a “spike” or “wedge”… Combinations of several wedges form a sign: the simplest is constituted by a single horizontal or vertical wedge, while the most complex may consist of a dozen. It is the play of shadow and light that makes the written signs visible, and lighting from the left is necessary if the signs are to be read accurately...
At a single glance, as a function of the shape of the tablet, the layout, and the paleography, an experienced epigraphist will be able to say, even before he starts to read the text, whether the tablet before him is, for example, a bookkeeping document from the pre-Sargonic period, a letter from the Old Babylonian period, or a Neo-Assyrian scholarly text...
Cuneiform is not an alphabetical writing system with twenty-six characters: the “standard” repertoire contains nearly 6,000 different signs… Identifying the signs is only the first stage. Assyriologists must then select the value of each one and arrange them into signifying units, since there are no word separators or punctuation…
It must first be determined in what language the document was written, since cuneiform was used for very diverse languages… Once the language… has been identified, the Assyriologist’s… instinct comes into play… Take the example of a text composed in Akkadian. The notation of that language may be done with phonetic signs… The problem is that a single sign may have several phonetic values. Hence the sign NI, when preceded by BE, will be read /LI/… But in the sequence PA NI, NI will be read /NI/…
Things become even more complicated in that a sign, in addition to its syllabic value(s), may have one or more logographic values. When the Akkadian scribes borrowed cuneiform writing, they kept the ideogrammatic value that certain of the signs had had in Sumerian: [a] sign pronounced KA… designates “mouth” in Sumerian. An Akkadian scribe could therefore use that sign to notate the word pūm, which designates “mouth” in his language. In a passage containing the word KA, if a syllabic reading of the sign does not make sense, the possibility of an ideogrammatic reading must be considered.
And so on.
The second thing I learned from translating Charpin’s book is that some of the oldest written documents preserved are debt contracts. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
I myself have a debt of gratitude to pay. When I was fifteen years old, I fell in love with the French language. I brought home a publicity poster for the Summer Language Institute at the University of California Santa Cruz and asked my parents if I might attend. Now my parents were very conservative people, religiously and politically; my father was an FBI agent. They had misgivings about sending their fifteen-year-old daughter to live in a college dormitory in a hotbed of the counterculture in the summer of 1972. But they believed in education, and they allowed me to go. That was at age fifteen. Since the age of twenty, my knowledge of French has provided me with a livelihood and with a good life. I therefore accept this award in memory of my parents, David Todd and Dorothy Brimley Todd, for making it possible for their daughter to pursue her passion.