Augmented Equivalence (a part of a research paper on translation)
What is translation? What does it mean to fully grasp the meaning of this term? We all share this basic, common sense knowledge according to which “to translate” means “1. to express the meaning of speech or writing in a different language”, and “translation” is “1. the process of changing sth that is written or spoken into another language” (Hornby, 2000, p.1438). But is this enough? As we can see from the quoted definitions, the common understanding of a translation process concentrates on the meaning to such an extent that the rendering of the form is not even mentioned. How can we combine it with the knowledge that in many kinds of translation, and in literary or artistic translation especially, the form and the linguistic specificity of the text is a vital element of the translation, actually so vital that some translators would not hesitate to claim that it is as much important as the meaning (the metonymic aspect in the translation of poetry, for example)? How can we combine this with the obviously important role of various other extra-linguistic or even extra-textual elements, like culture-specificity of the original text, the problem of dealing with the so called local colour of the original, or the discrepancy between the political awareness of the original audience and the one of the receptor or target audience, to name just the few? And this is where both the common understanding of the translation and the mere dictionary definitions fail, turn out to be not sufficient or precise enough. Where can one find some more precise definitions?
Assuming the scientific point of view, and referring to the comparatively new but already well developed branch of it called translation studies, seems to be a good answer. In the recent time, and especially throughout the second half of the last century, the translation and its aspects have been studied, analysed and described from almost every possible point of view. So what is the translation according to the science? Here are some of the definitions given by respected researchers representing various theories of translation.
According to J. C. Catford, translation means “the replacement of textual material in one language (SL) by equivalent material in another language (TL)" (Catford, 1965, p.20). For E. Nida and C. R. Taber "translating consists in reproducing in the receptor language the closest natural equivalent of the source-language message" (Nida and Taber 1982, p.12). Wolfram Wilss argues that translation “leads from a source-language text to a target-language text which is as close an equivalent as possible and presupposes an understanding of the content and style of the original." (Wilss, 1982a, p.62). According to Peter Newmark,
Translation is a craft consisting in the attempt to replace a written message and/or statement in one language by the same message and/or statement in another language. Each exercise involves some kind of loss of meaning due to a number of factors. It provokes a continuous tension, a dialectic, an argument based on the claims of each language. The basic loss is a continuum between overtranslation (increased detail) and undertranslation (increased generalisation). (Newmark, 1982, p.7)
And Susan Bassnett, who represents more extra-linguistic approach, presents another line of argumentation:
Beyond the notion stressed by the narrowly linguistic approach, that translation involves the transfer of ‘meaning’ contained in one set of language signs into another set of language signs through component use of dictionary and grammar, the process involves a whole set of extra-linguistic criteria also. (Bassnett, 1991, p.13)
What do these definitions have in common? They all allow for translation being more than a mere transfer of meaning, although it must be added that not all of them stress this extra-semantic aspect with equal weight. And the adjective “equivalent” (or “the same”, which is obviously equivalent to the “equivalent” in Newmark’s definition, or the hidden aspect of “equivalence” in the quotation from Bassnett) plays an important role in almost every one of them, especially in those presenting the strictly linguistic approach. Actually, nothing is really understood without understanding the part played by the “equivalent”, not even the Bassnett definition, since how can one judge the efficiency of “the transfer of ‘meaning’” if not by its equivalence? Therefore many theories of translation used and evolved the concept of “equivalence” and made it the core of their philosophy. Strangely enough, though, much as the concept of equivalence seems to be a fundamental one when it comes to the comparison of two text, the SL original and its TL counterpart, the translation, the scholars and researchers do not agree on the exact meaning of this notion, and the understanding of equivalence varies from one theory or school to the other. This notion has been discussed, analyzed, and evaluated from different points of view and numerous definitions offering many different perspectives have been presented. Snell-Hornby claims to have found 58 different types of equivalence within German translation studies (Pym, 1992, pp.43-44). As observed by W. Wills, who also remarks that the concept of translation equivalence has constituted a major issue in translation during the last 2000 years,
…there is hardly any other concept in translation theory which has produced as many contradictory statements and has set off as many attempts at an adequate, comprehensive definition as the concept of TE [translation equivalence] between SLT (source language text) and TLT (target language text). (1982a, p.134)
J. C. Catford distinguishes formal equivalence and textual correspondence. The textual equivalence is defined as "any TL text or portion of text which is observed on a particular occasion (…) to be the equivalent of a given SL text or portion of text" (Catford, 1965, p.27). The formal equivalence would be "any TL category (unit, class, structure, element of structure, etc.) which can be said to occupy, as nearly as possible, the same place in the economy of the TL as the given SL category occupies in the SL" (Catford, 1965, p.27).
Eugene Nida distinguishes between two types of equivalence, namely formal and dynamic. Formal equivalence concentrates on both the form and the content of the message. Dynamic equivalence, on the other hand, focuses on producing the same effect on the TL audience as the original message produced on the SL audience. As an example of the dynamic equivalence Nida presents the translation of the English phrase “Lamb of God” into the Eskimo, which would be “Seal of God”, as the lamb has no innocence connotation in the Eskimo culture (Nida, 1964, p.159). As another example the translation of Polish phrase “chleba naszego powszedniego”, a part of a well known prayer, into the Eskimo can be re-quoted, following Olgierd Wojtasiewicz. Since bread does not function in the Eskimo culture in the same way as it does in Poland , it had to be changed in translation into “fish”, which resulted in “our daily fish”, as fish is the Eskomo cultural equivalent of Polish bread (Wojtasiewicz, 1992, pp.24-25).
The dynamic equivalence, which seems to be favoured by Nida, can also be described in the following way:
Frequently, the form of the original text is changed; but as long as the change follows the rules of back transformation in the source language, of contextual consistency in the transfer, and of transformation in the receptor language, the message is preserved and the translation is faithful. (Nida and Taber, 1982, p.200)
Formal equivalence (or correspondence), on the other hand, “distorts the grammatical and stylistic patterns of the receptor language, and hence distorts the message, so as to cause the receptor to misunderstand or to labor unduly hard” (ibidem, p.201).
W. Wilss proposes the notion of optimal equivalence which he incorporates into his definition of translation, which is ‘a transfer process which aims at the transformation of a written SL text into an optimally equivalent TL text, and which requires the syntactic, the semantic and the pragmatic understanding and analytical processing of the SL text" (1982b, p.3). However, he fails to list all the conditions necessary for the distinction between the optimal and non-optimal equivalence.
It is no wonder that the scientists find it so difficult to establish the exact meaning of “equivalence” as even the meaning of the concept of “meaning” is ambiguous too, as observed by Aniela Korzeniowska and Piotr Kuhiwczak:
The dabate about reading and interpretation has alerted us to the fact that the meaning is not necessarily found in the text, but more often constructed by the readers, and that the way we construct the meaning may depend on such factors as our social position, nationality, political and aesthetic preferences. (Korzeniowska and Kuhiwczak, 1994, pp.29-30)
Now, if the equivalence turns out to be such an inadequate or imprecise notion, what other tools can be used to judge translation and its accuracy, the latter of course being again equivalent to “equivalency”, to point at another paradox?
According to some researchers (for example Maria Krzysztofiak), the art of translation, especially the artistic translation, should be judged by the three components that constitute the original value of a given text, and they are the following:
ü Lexical-semantic code
ü Cultural code
ü Esthetic code (Krzysztofiak, 1996, p.128)
But do not all these notions constitute the equivalence? Not within any particular theory, but if one combines all the theories together, this seems to be exactly what the equivalence is about. And it is this augmented concept of the equivalence that the author proposes to assume in the course of the following analysis.
To carry out a successful analysis one should follow some specified procedure. What kind of a procedure could be useful when analyzing translation? One such modus operandi has been proposed by Katharina Reiss who says that to evaluate the translation one should:
ü specify the character of the text,
ü analyse the semantic layer of the text,
ü analyse the lexical sphere of the text (idioms, word plays, etc.),
ü analyse the grammatical structure,
ü analyse the style of the text,
ü analyse all other, extra-linguistic factors, like psychological, social, or political ones (Krzysztofiak, 1996, p.131).
As we can see, nothing is excluded from this model, which means that a critic of translation should consider all the possible factors he or she can think of, with the semantic and linguistic issues given only primary, but not at all exclusive, attention.
But to analyse and judge the translation one should first establish what makes the difference between a good and a poor translation. Numerous definitions of a good translation have been given throughout the ages. A British scholar Alexander Fraser Tytler as early as in 1791 described a good translation as:
That in which the merit of the original work is so completely transfused into another language, as to be as distinctly apprehended, and as strongly felt, by a native of the country to which that language belongs, as it is by those who speak the language of the original work. (Tytler, 1907, p.8)
This definition is still valid and, according to Olgierd Wojtasiewicz, a contemporary Polish translation theoretician, one of the best ever formulated (Wojtasiewicz, 1992, p.13) From this definition the author deducted three universal laws of a good translation:
It will follow,
That the Translation should give a complete transcript of the ideas of the original work.
That the style and manner of writing should be of the same character with that of the original.
That the Translation should have all the ease of original composition. (Tytler, 1907, pp. 8-9)
In 1957 Wojtasiewicz come up with the following definition of (a good) translation:
The translation of text a that is expressed in language A onto language B consists in the expression of text b in language B, with the assumption that text b produces the same mental associations among its receptors that text a produced among its receptors. (Wojtasiewicz, 1992, p.27)
Definitions like this could be piled up by hundreds if not thousands, having been conceived and being constantly conceived by a vast body of researchers coming from numerous walks of science, like linguistics with all its branches and orientations, psychology, sociology, or the theory of literature, to name just the few. But there is no point in listing them all, even if it were feasible, since they are very often contradictory towards one another, and, as observed by Theodore Savory, almost every rule of a good translation can be matched with the one that comes from a different theory or approach and contradicts it, as in the following example:
1. A translation must give the words of the original.
2. A translation must give the ideas of the original.
3. A translation should read like an original work.
4. A translation should read like a translation.
5. A translation should reflect the style of the original.
6. A translation should posses the style of the translator.
7. A translation should read as a contemporary of the original.
8. A translation should read as a contemporary of the translator. (Savory, 1957, p.49)
Taking all the above into consideration, it seems reasonable to observe that the more versed the critic of the translation is in all the theories and approaches, the better the result of his or her work will probably be, as the knowledge will increase something that could be described as “translatory sensibility”. And, especially with having in mind the above listed critical procedures advocated by Maria Krzysztofiak, it can be argued that the more creative the critic or translation researcher is in his or her thinking and coming up with unusual contexts through which the translation can be examined, the more thorough and complete the analysis will be.
List of References:
Bassnett, Susan. Translation Studies. London, Routledge, 1991.
Catford, J.C. A Linguistic Theory of Translation. Oxford University Press, 1965.
Hornby, A. S. Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary of Current English. Sixth Edition. Oxford, 2000.
Krzysztofiak, Maria. Przekład literacki we współczesnej translatoryce. Poznań, 1996.
Newmark, P. Approaches to translation. Oxford, Pergamon, 1981
Newmark, P. A textbook of translation. London, Prentice Hall, 1988
Nida, E. Toward a science of translating. Leiden, 1964
Nida, E. A. and Taber, C. R. The Theory and Practice of Translation. Leiden, 1982.
Pieńkos, Jerzy. Przekład i tłumacz we współczesnym świecie. Warszawa, 1993.
Pym, Anthony. Translation and Text Transfer. Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, New York, Paris, Wien, Peter Lang, 1992.
Savory, Theodore. The Art of Translation. Oxford, Pergamon, 1957.
Tytler, Anthony. On the Principles of Translation. London, Everyman, 1907.
Wilss, W. The science of translation: Problems and methods. Tubingen, 1982a.
Wilss, W. Translation equivalence. In: Noss, R.B. (ed.) Ten papers on translation. Singapore, 1982b.
Wojtasiewicz, Olgierd. Wstęp do teorii tłumaczenia. Warszawa, 1992.
(copyright © 2003 by ThesisPark)
Ethnicity and Ethnic Identity (a part of a theoretical chapter of a dissertation on racial stereotypes and prejudices)
There seems to be no consensus among the scholars and researchers as to the answer to the following questions: What is ethnicity and what is ethnic identity? One of the most fundamental texts on the subject, Donald Horowitz’s Ethnic Groups in Conflict, published in 1985, claims that the concept of ethnicity is "based on a myth of collective ancestry, which usually carries with it traits believed to be innate. Some notion of ascription, however diluted, and affinity deriving from it are inseparable from the concept of ethnicity (1985: 52). Horowitz also describes ethnicity as an umbrella concept which "easily embraces groups differentiated by color, language, and religion" (1985: 53). The description given by Horowitz can hardly be regarded as a precise definition of the concept, which is reflected by the fact that, for example, there is no consensus whether Hindus and Muslims living in India should be counted as two ethnic groups as both groups consist of people who share the same religion but may come from different ethnic backgrounds, which is reflected in their not looking alike and not sharing the same language or ancestors. In fact, shared ancestry is stressed by many definitions available in the literature of the subject. For John Hutchinson and Anthony Smith, for example, an ethnic group is "a named human population with myths of common ancestry, shared historical memories, one or more elements of a common culture, a link with a homeland and a sense of solidarity" (1996: 6). Max Weber defines ethnic groups as the "human groups that entertain a subjective belief in their common descent because of similarities of physical type or of customs or both, or because of memories of colonization or migration (1996: 35). As added by Weber, "this belief must be important for the propagation of group formation; conversely, it does not matter whether or not an objective blood relationship exists" (1996: 35). Fearon and Laitin define an ethnic group as "a group larger than a family for which membership is reckoned primarily by descent, is conceptually autonomous, and has a conventionally recognized 'natural history' as a group" (Fearon and Laitin 2000: 20).
As one can see, all these definitions have descent or ancestry as crucial elements of the concept of an ethnic group. What they differ at, however, is the answer to the following questions: How should ancestry be combined with other features and what additional features must be taken into account to describe a group of people as an ethnic group? Perhaps a precise definition of ethnicity is still a thing of the future. But so is culture difficult to define – and yet not only does it not stop the concept from being used by people, but also it does not limit its use in scientific discourse. Certainly, Turks living in Turkey may be considered an ethnic group, and the Turkish immigrants living in Britain may be described as an ethnic minority group.
The issue of ethnicity and ethnic identity is closely connected with the concepts of ethnic stereotyping and prejudices, which in turn are associated with the existence of racial discrimination.
List of References:
Fearon, James D. and David Laitin. 2000. Violence and the Social Construction of Ethnic Identity. International Organization, 54 (4), Autumn 2000: 845-877.
Horowitz, Donald. 1985. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Hutchinson, John and Anthony D. Smith. (eds). Ethnicity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Weber, Max. 1996. “The Origins of Ethnic Groups.” In: Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith, eds., 1996: 35-40 .
(copyright © 2006 by ThesisPark)
Translation Strategies and Techniques (a part of theoretical chapter of an MA thesis on film translation)
There seems to be no agreement among scholars on how to refer to the ways in which the translator may practically deal with the problems they encounter during the process of translating. Most commonly they are referred to as translation strategies, but sometimes strategies are replaced by techniques, procedures or methods. This misunderstanding may be caused by the fact that translation strategies may be established on at least two levels. The first level encompasses the general approach to dealing with translation problems and could be named meta-strategy level. The example of such meta-strategies would be foreignization and domestication. The second level consists of practical strategies of dealing with a particular translation problem, such as whether it should be translated literally or with the use of equivalence. It must be noted that the second level strategies may be chosen within some particular meta-strategy category.
To avoid misunderstandings related to various uses of terminology by different authors, it is proposed in this thesis to distinguish between strategies and techniques, with strategies relating to general approach to translation problems (e.g. choosing foreignization or domestication as the dominant approach), and techniques relating to all the detailed procedures of dealing with specific translation problems.
Jean-Paul Vinay and Jean Darbelnet in their essay entitled "A methodology in translation" claim that the number of techniques (which they refer to as strategies) potentially available to translators is probably infinite (2000: 84). Nevertheless, the same authors propose to distinguish seven major translation techniques and they arrange these categories in such a way that each following category "correspond[s] to a higher degree of complexity" (2000: 84). The following seven categories are listed by Vinay and Darbelnet:
1) Borrowing – which is, according to Vinay and Darbelnet, "the simplest of all translation methods" when it comes to dealing with "a lacuna" – i.e. the gap in the target language vocabulary (2000: 84). Borrowing means that the SL term is transferred to the TL text in its original form.
2) A calque, further divided into lexical and structural calque. A calque is very similar to borrowing and may be described as a special type of borrowing in which an entire expression is borrowed from the SL and all its elements are translated literally.
3) Literal translation, also known as the word for word translation, may be described as a calque applied to linguistic structures other than fixed expressions.
4) Transposition. According Vinay and Darbelnet, transposition is the method of translation which "involves replacing one word class with another without changing the meaning of the message" (2000: 85).
5) Modulation – which involves a change in the point of view as the result of translation.
6) Equivalence – which is usually a fixed word or expression in the TL that is commonly accepted as the translation of the SL word or phrase. Vinay and Darbelnet use the example of the French word cocorico and its English equivalence cock-a-doodle-do to illustrate how equivalence works. As they explain, this "simple example[…] illustrate[s] a particular feature of equivalences: more often than not they are of a syntagmatic nature, and affect the whole of the message. As a result, most equivalences are fixed, and belong to a phraseological repertoire of idioms, clichés, proverbs, nominal or adjectival phrases, etc" (2000: 90).
7) Adaptation – which is a special case of equivalence, a situational equivalence. It is the most complex of all translation techniques. As defined by Vinay and Darbelnet, adaptation involves the "cases where the type of situation being referred to by the SL message is unknown in the TL culture", and the translator is forced "to create a new situation that can be considered as being equivalent" (2000: 90 – 91).
As further explained by Vinay and Darbelnet, the above listed categories of translation techniques may be divided into direct (literal) translation strategies (the first three, borrowing, a calque, and literal translation) or oblique (indirect) translation techniques (all the others) (2000: 84). All of these techniques may in practice "be used either on their own or combined with one or more of the others", and they may be "applied to different degrees at the three planes of expression, i.e. lexis, syntactic structure, and message" (Vinay and Darbelnet, 2000: 93).
List of References:
Venuti, L. 2000. The Translation Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge.
Vinay, Jean-Paul and Jean Darbelnet. 2000. A methodology in translation. Translated by Juan C.Sager and M.-J.Hamel. In: Venuti (ed.), 2000: 84 – 93.
(copyright © 2007 by ThesisPark)
Basic Issues and Concepts in Bilingual Lexicography (a part of a section of a chapter on the principles of dictionary compilation)
Piotrowski (1994: 4), when considering the question of the most important issues of bilingual lexicography, provides the following definition: "[t]he basic problems are those which relate to any BD, which can be found in any BD" (with BD standing for bilingual dictionary), and not necessarily those that have been given most attention by the scholars and researchers. As a support for his claim, Piotrowski demonstrates that many issues that have been discussed in detail in the literature of the subject are not universally observed in bilingual dictionaries – for example, "the problem of meaning discrimination" (1994: 4).
Some of the issues which may be regarded as being "of particular significance to the bilingual metalexicographer" were proposed by Hausmann (1986, as quoted in Piotrowski 1994: 4-5) and can be listed as the following questions:
1) What are the functions of bilingual dictionaries?
2) What level of equivalence should be selected?
3) What is the basis of selection of equivalents?
4) What culture-bound aspects should be taken into account?
5) What should the user-oriented organisation of the microstructure be like?
6) What user-oriented typographical arrangements should be made?
For Piotrowski, however, the single most fundamental issue relating to the field of bilingual lexicography is the problem of equivalence, by which he means "the nature of equivalence and various constraints on equivalents", such as "the level of equivalence, the basis of selection of equivalents, and culture-bound elements" (1994: 5). As further observed by Piotrowski, this most basic issue is, paradoxically, rarely noticed or discussed by the researchers, which is due to the fact that it very rarely becomes the issue of any controversy (1994: 5).
List of References:
Piotrowski, Tadeusz. 1994. Problems in bilingual lexicography Wrocław: Uniwersytet Wrocławski.
(copyright © 2008 by ThesisPark)
Donald Barthelme – His Life and Oeuvre (a part of an introductory chapter of a thesis on Barthelme's fiction)
Donald Barthelme, who died in 1989, is considered one of the most influential and respected representatives of American postmodern literature, also known as innovative or self-conscious literature. He published four novels (including the last one, published post-mortem), but – as John Barth (1989), another highly praised American postmodernist, wrote in an article that appeared in The New York Times shortly after Barthelme’s death – “the short story was his long suit”, and this is what he was most valued and honored for.
Donald Barthelme was born on April 7, 1931, as the son of Helen (Bechtold) and Donald Barthelme Senior. Although he was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he started his early literary career in Houston, Texas, where his family moved when he was two (his father, a well-known architect, became a professor at the university there), as the author of short pieces of fiction and poetry, for which he won some awards, and as the editor of numerous school newspapers. Donald Jr. entered the University of Huston in the fall of 1949, aiming for a journalism degree. During his student years he edited two college newsletters, Cougar and Acta Diurna, and also founded a university literary magazine entitled Forum. In 1953 he was drafted before graduating and served as an US Army press officer in Korea and Japan (it must have clearly been this experience that he drew upon when conceiving Visitors, one of the Forty Stories, specifically the part presented in Case Problem 19.2, in the second chapter of this work). After coming back home he worked briefly (1955-1956) for the Houston Post as an entertainment editor and critic (film criticism was one of his most favourite domains). In 1957 he graduated from Huston University with a degree in journalism and started his career as a fine arts critic and journalist. In 1961 he received a job as a director of the Contemporary Arts Museum in Huston, but resigned after a year and moved to New York, where he became the editor of Location, an art and literary review. He started to publish short stories. His first book, a collection of stories titled Come Back, Dr. Caligari, appeared in 1964. He became a regular contributor of short stories to The New Yorker. In 1967 he published his first novel, Snow White, a disturbing, sad and comic at the same time, highly erotic parody of the well-known fairy tale. Altogether he published three more novels, The Dead Father (1975), Paradise (1987), and The King (1990, post-mortem), and eight collections of short stories, Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (1968), City Life (published in 1970 and included in the Time magazine's Best Books of the Year list in 1971), Sadness (1972), Amateurs (1976), Great Days (1979), Sixty Stories (1981) - for which he got nominated for a National Books Critics Circle Award, PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and received a Los Angeles Times Book Prize a year later - Overnight to Many Distant Cities (1983), and Forty Stories (1987). In 1974 appeared a volume of nonfiction, Guilty Pleasures. An additional volume of various pieces, mostly uncollected previously, entitled The Teachings of Don B.: Satires, Parodies, Illustrated Stories, and Plays of Donald Barthelme, was published in 1992, and in 1997 one more book, Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme, appeared. He also wrote successfully books for young readers and in 1972 received a National Book Award for children's literature for The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine or the Hithering Thithering Djinn. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Authors League of America, and PEN Club.
Apart from being a writer, Barthelme followed the footsteps of his father by becoming a respected scholar. He taught creative writing at the University of Buffalo, Boston University, the College of the City of New York, and the University of Houston. The list of the authors that he recommend to his students comprised Rabelais (Gargantua and Pantagruel), Laurence Sterne (The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman), Heinrich von Kleist (short stories), Flaubert, and Flann O'Brien. Donald Barthelme died on July 23, 1989, in Houston, where he had moved back in 1980. Left behind him were four wives (he had married four times) and one daughter.
As has already been said, Barthelme was an outstanding representative of postmodern literary art. He was “the most cunning experimenter and the most thoughtful explorer of the fate of fiction in the era after realism and modernism”, as Malcolm Bradbury chose to put it (Barthelme, 1987: Bradbury’s words cited on the back cover). Like many other innovative writers, among which the names of John Barth, Richard Brautigan, Robert Coover, William H. Gass, Thomas Pynchon, and Raymond Suckenick must be mentioned, Barthelme was playing wild (or “going rampage”, one should probably venture to say) with the style and the form of his narrative, which might perhaps be best illustrated by the story entitled Sentence, which consists of an over six pages long single sentence, or, to be absolutely precise, a part of a sentence, as it starts with a conjunction “or” and terminates without any period whatsoever, a part of a sentence that is aware of its existence and even of its future place in the history of literature, as it remarks in one place: “…but no, we cannot have that kind of pornographic merde in this majestic and high-minded sentence, which will probably end up in the Library of Congress…” (Barthelme, 1987: 161).
Barthelme rejects almost all the traditional tools and values of a writer. He is not a storyteller any more, in the sense that Homer used to be when he was creating his Odyssey, or Miguel Cervantes spinning the story of Don Quichote, or Diderot conceiving the adventures of Jean the Fatalist. Barthelme's stories are not those good narrative stories of the past. Actually his stories, "written on all sorts of occasions and in response to all sorts of stimuli and overstimuli", as the author himself describes them (Barthelme, 1974: introductory notice), are not stories any more. What they are could be described as some kind of hard-to-define-pieces-of-prose or, in some instances, just clusters of sentences or words that would not pass for prose should they be examined by some traditionally minded literary critic. The story itself, its plot, chronology, events that could be placed in certain time or characters that could be located in some defined place – these are not to be found. Donald Barthelme's stories seem to be in fact a perfect embodiment of the idea expressed by Mark Twain in an introductory notice to The Adventures of Huckelberry Finn: "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot". It also seems as if Barthelme would feel honour bound to demonstrate how imperfect or dishonest his great predecessor had been in fulfilling this controversial and probably never truly intended promise.
Along with the story and its plot gone are also the long-established values that used to organise language: its structure, grammar, syntax, conventional figures of speech, and even logic. And this is what makes it possible for Barthelme to embark on his main task, which is to concentrate on language itself rather than on some story to tell. If one reads his stories looking for some hero or main character, here it is: language and its problems; language that is exhausted from all the abuse that it has suffered throughout the ages of its deliberate or unconscious misuse by its speakers; language that refuses to fulfil its duties, which is mainly to express the writer’s thoughts, and also to reflect and to comment upon the surrounding reality; language reduced to newspaper headlines, advertising or political slogans, popular clichés that most people think by and utter.
There is only one thing that Barthelme’s language is not reluctant to express, and this introduces another, apart from itself, “hero” of Barthelme’s fiction, which is chaos. Chaos of public information systems, chaos of our mass culture, chaos of words deprived of their context, chaos of all the junk piled up by our civilization. Due to numerous destructive cultural processes, words that were once true and meaningful are loosing their sense. Most of them have already become, as Barthelme calls it, “the stuffing of language”. “We may very well”, he continues, “reach a point where it [the proportion of ‘stuffing’ within language] is 100 percent. Now at such a point, you will agree, the question turns from a question of disposing of this ‘trash’ to a question of appreciating its qualities” (1967: 35). Hence Barthelme’s ambivalent position as a writer, his disapproval or condemnation and a simultaneous “fatal attraction” to cultural and linguistic chaos.
The chaos of both form and content is best represented by the following stories: The Explanation, RIF (which stands for reduction-in-force), Affection, The Educational Experience, The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace, the already presented Sentence, The Film, Overnight to Many Distant Cities and Great Days. In all of these stories the plot is so well and deeply hidden that it is as good as no plot at all. Also the main characters are obscured beyond the limit of recognition (even though the two of these stories, RIF and Great Days assume a form of a regular, one would like to wish, dialog between two speakers), leaving language as the only surviving agent.
But however desirable this perfect aim would seem, it is practically not possible to talk exclusively about language and chaos, especially if one is to fill the content of several voluminous books with it. And here are some other themes - or virtual obsessions, in some instances - that Barthelme explores with particular passion, with references to some most obvious examples from his short story collection Forty Stories (1987), henceforth referred to as FS:
1. All the cultural or civilizational junk, not only the above-mentioned linguistic one, but also empty rituals, meaningless acts, mass culture characters or unnecessary objects – these are to be found, deeply penetrated for the slightest detail, in almost every story, and particularly in Sakrete, a story that deals with the problem of trash literally (or, should one possibly say, litterally?), as can be illustrated by the following passage:
The committee, which feels that the garbage of the Louis Escher family may be misrepresenting the neighborhood to the criminal community, made a partial list of the items disposed of by the Louis Escher family during the week of August eighth: one mortar & pestle, majolica ware; one English cream maker (cream is made by mixing unsalted sweet butter and milk); one set green earthenware geranium leaf plates; one fruit ripener designed by scientists at the University of California, Plexiglas; one nylon umbrella tent with aluminum poles; one combination fountain pen and clock with LED readout; one mini hole-puncher-and-confetti-maker; one pistol-grip spring-loaded flyswatter; one cast-iron tortilla press; one ivory bangle with elephant-hair accent; and much, much more. (FS: 195)
The above-mentioned "empty rituals" are also present in this story: "Members of the two committees exchange secret grips..." (FS: 196).
2. Everyday reality, with all its particulars, of either ordinary or extraordinary individuals, with some stress on the latter, which often takes a form of some outright genius coping with surprisingly common thoughts or struggling his way through life within a post-industrial society (The Genius, Conversations with Goethe, Paul Klee, The Temptation of St. Anthony).
3. Futility of modern art and other disciplines, particularly journalism, that are set on adding to the information chaos instead of explaining or organising our world (Visitors, The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace, Lightning, January).
4. Puzzle behind traditional stories, fables or myths and their relation to the present, everyday life, which can be illustrated by Sindbad or Bluebeard, both being the "brokeback fables", to use the expression conceived by the author himself in an introductory notice to Guilty Pleasures (1974).
5. Relation between dream and reality (The Wound, A Few Moments of Sleeping and Waking).
6. Lack of communication, especially inability to express emotions or deeper thoughts (On the Deck, The Explanation, RIF) and inability to understand other people, as illustrated by the following funny passage from Visitors:
Looking out of the windows in the early morning he can sometimes see the two old ladies who live in the apartment whose garden backs up to his building having breakfast by candlelight. He can never figure out whether they are terminally romantic or whether, rather, they’re trying to save electricity. (FS: 114)
7. Archetypal communication gap between men and women (Chablis, Affection, Jaws).
8. Emotional disorientation after divorce or separation (Visitors).
It can be said that Barthelme's writing is, in a nutshell, a creation of a child playing freely with language, fascinated by its natural, almost limitless flexibility, a child who is also a very intelligent and versed adult, or scholar, interested in exploring the most touching spheres of humanity, human culture and civilization.
List of References:
Barthelme, Donald. 1967. Snow White. New York: Atheneum.
Barthelme, Donald. 1974. Guilty Pleasures. New York: Delta.
Barthelme, Donald. 1987. Forty Stories. London: Secker.
(copyright © 2003 by ThesisPark)
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