Saturday, November 09, 2013

Individuality. And idiots.

I have no particularly strong feelings about Jonathan Franzen's novels (I read The Corrections but can't remember much other than one couch-sniffing scene and some kind of Lithuanian political unrest), but I found Joshua Cohen's review (at the LRB) of Franzen's latest book, The Kraus Project, to be not only readable but also informative.

The subject of the novel (and much of the review) is the Viennese journalist and writer Karl Kraus.

But Cohen at a few points turns to the finer points of translation:

‘The masses’ [in Kraus's view] are the by-product of the mass production of language: the linotype machine – the internet of the fin de siècle – ensured the fast and cheap dissemination of more periodicals, and so of more fast and cheap rhetoric, than ever before. In the first Heine essay, Kraus fixates on the industrial capacities of the logos, in a German masterly in its truncations: ‘Glaubt mir, ihr Farbenfrohen, in Kulturen, in denen jeder Trottel Individualität besitzt, vertrotteln die Individualitäten.’

A version of this characteristically untranslatable sentence might be: ‘Believe me, you multicoloured multiculturalists, turning every idiot into an individual turns individuality itself idiotic.’ Franzen has: ‘Believe me, you colour-happy people, in cultures where every blockhead has individuality, individuality becomes a thing for blockheads.’ He skips the neurotic beauty of Farbenfrohen, and the economical swerve of the noun Trottel becoming the verb vertrotteln; and though both omissions are forgivable, a culture where prominent American novelists can use the word ‘blockhead’ will itself become a blockheaded culture.

But the most important element lost in this passage, which follows a condemnation of the Frenchification of German, is Kraus’s paradoxical use of Individualität, a noun that had come to German from the French only a half-century earlier. In the 1760s Rousseau redefined individuel from meaning ‘indivisible’, or ‘numerically distinct’, to meaning ‘a single person’, but it was only with the second volume of Tocqueville’s De la démocratie en Amérique in 1840 that individualisme took on the positive connotation of a heroic severance of personality from the herd, and was opposed by negative, greedy égoïsme; both terms were soon shepherded into German.

The rest is also worth your time.

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