"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Lifting Yesterday – A Chapter Two Supplement: The Oral Tradition and Translation

In 1999 I attended a Bishop conference in Ouro Prêto, Brazil. A trip of a life-time for me, the memories of which remain vivid “after — how many years?” The paper I presented was about Bishop’s translation of Mina Vida de Menina (The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’). My focus was on how Bishop incorporated her own idiom, received in large measure from her childhood in Nova Scotia, into the translation, with special focus on her grandmother’s influence. Below is an excerpt from this paper, which was never published. If you are interested in reading the whole paper, I am offering a pdf of it gratis, part of the supplement to Lifting Yesterday.
Casa Mariana (Bishop's Ouro Preto house) with poinsettia tree. Photo by yours truly, September 1999
Excerpt from: “‘It Really Happened’: The Confluence of Elizabeth Bishop’s Nova Scotia and The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’

....What we read in the Diary is what might be called the first transcription of oral tradition to written language. Listen to how Bishop translated it: “She told us the story” (5), “telling stories about people” (9), “he told some very funny stories” (16), “one of my father’s stories” (19), “the story of her confession” (21), “the story of the owl” (27), “a story of the old days” (71), “the children tell stories” (73), “mama told a story” (95), “we begin to tell stories” (131), “make up some story” (138), “I like mama’s stories better than papa’s” (140), “Reginalda...knows the most stories” (140), “our aunts amuse us by telling stories” (158), “I like the stories about the old days better” (158), “he told me the story” (179), “mama tells stories of bygone days” (224), “sometimes she tells us stories” (275). And there are many more examples.

The Diary is also filled with a wonderful array of aphorism, one of the vital elements of the oral tradition which survives even in highly text-bound North American culture. Listen to how Bishop translated this element: “God helps more surely than getting up early” (265); “From day to day God smooths the way” (214); “Nothing comes free; money makes the mare go” (226); “The unlucky can’t cry forever” (108); “Marriages and shrouds are made in Heaven” (154); “A crooked stick can’t be straightened” (127); “What the eye doesn’t see the heart doesn’t feel” (43); “The fingers of the hand aren’t all the same” (37); “You must have been born with a caul” (103); “The place is a regular asylum” (188); “Those who have children will never have full bellies” (187).

While she tried to remain true to the tone and texture of the original, Bishop incorporated a good deal of her own colloquialism and idiom into the translation. I offer only one interesting example — there are many. One of Bishop’s favourite words was “awful” (and its variations). Listen to how many ways Bishop brings it into the translation: “awfully sorry,” “awfully funny,” “perfectly awful,” “how awful,” “awful things,” “something awful,” “an awful lot,” “this awful fault,” “that awful dentist,” “it’s awful,” “the rice is awful,” “it must be awful,” “so awful,” “awful uproar,” “really awfully bad,” “too awful,” “an awful shock.” And, again, there are many more examples.

The reason these forms of expression (story, aphorism, idiom) appealed to Bishop was because they went straight back to her own childhood. Great Village at the turn of the twentieth century was a world where written language and texts played major roles, but this place and time remained in many ways a highly oral culture — itself structured around storytelling and aphorism as the medium for education, entertainment and individual and communal creativity. People, places and events were known through what was said about them — the past, present and future were contemplated in the kitchens, parlours, churches and schoolrooms not only through words on a page, but through monologue, dialogue, experiential and expressive oral tradition.

Perhaps the most important nexus of oral tradition in Bishop’s and Helena’s childhood worlds was grandmother. In 1958 Bishop wrote to her maternal aunt, Grace Bulmer Bowers: "'The Diary' is doing pretty well, I think....It was hard to make it sound natural and quite often when I got stuck about how to translate some of the grandmother’s remarks or expressions, and I couldn’t translate them literally, I’d try to think of what Gammie would have said! I think it worked pretty well." (12 March)

Victoria Harrison has pointed out the way Bishop merged one of Gammie Bulmer’s favourite phrases, “Nobody knows,” with Dona Teodora’s way of speaking (176) — there are several examples of this particular confluence in the Diary: “Grandma said that all that is a mystery, that we never really know these things for sure” (102); “Nobody knows what it was” (199); “Nobody knows what she wants” (132); “God knows what he’s doing” (211). Helena herself adopts the phrase, “Nobody knows what a person is like inside” (65).

However, the link between these two grandmothers is apparent almost every time we encounter Dona Teodora in the Diary. Though Gammie Bulmer was not a wealthy widow with a houseful of ex-slaves, she was the matriarch of a large family, the arbiter of family disputes, the hostess of a regular stream of visitors (relatives and friends), a participant in the charitable activities of the community, a devout practitioner of her faith and a partly rational, partly credulous believer in the mysteries of life and death. Though smaller, Gammie Bulmer’s home was in many ways similar to Dona Teodora’s chácara, “a house with extensive gardens, or even a small farm, but not necessarily in the country” (Diary xxxv). These homes were the centre of family life. Moreover, besides “Nobody knows,” both women had a store of other aphoristic utterances. And with one of these, we see directly the practice Bishop described to Aunt Grace. One of Dona Teodora’s favourite exclamations was, “Forte coisa!” which Bishop tells us in a note literally means “Strong thing” or “Fine thing.” Bishop chose to substitute the literal English translation — which diminishes the complex connotation of the Portuguese — with one of Gammie Bulmer's actual phrases, “I never in my born days!”
Again, if you would like to read the entire paper, let me know and I can send you the pdf. I also want to reiterate, you can subscribe for Lifting Yesterday at any point. The cost is $25.00 for ten pdfs, which can be sent all at once, or once a month. Contact me at slbarry@ns.sympatico.ca.
A Great Village Update
 Our Great Village correspondent Patti Sharpe sent these photos the other day. Earlier this week, the old Great Village bridge was finally completely dismantled. The iron structure was lifted, impressively, and set on the ground, where the beams were cut up (we all assume for scrap). The end of an era, as this dear old bridge has been on this site for well over 100 years. As Bishop might say, “Good-bye to the bridge.”
Photos taken by Harold Sharpe

1 comment:

  1. I'm sorry that the mechanics of Blogger will not permit me to make your corrections directly to your original comment, so I have had them appended to it here. Thank you for your understanding! -- JAB