Struggling with Hofstadter

I’m still working my way through Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau de Marot, mentioned twice before. I set it aside for several weeks because it was just getting too painful to keep reading it. I picked it up again this week.

I wanted to like this book, I really did. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach is a true work of genius, and I’ve enjoyed a couple of his other books. And this book, Le Ton Beau de Marot, has all the hallmarks of being something I would really love. It’s about translation, which I am interested in, and particularly the difficulties of doing a faithful job of translating that captures the “true spirit” of the original, which is an aspect that I also am particularly interested in. And Hofstadter wrote this book as a healing epiphany after the tragic loss of his beloved wife, and it is sprinkled with anecdotes about their life together and how they relate to a shared love of language. It should by turns be poignant and moving and inspired and intelligent and well-argued and full of little details that have you marvelling at what a great writer Hofstadter is.

But I am struggling to get through it. And not in the good way that I struggled with Gödel, Escher, Bach, which requires concentration and clarity and deep thought to absorb the import of what is being said. I’m struggling with Le Ton Beau de Marot because Hofstadter appears to have written a curmudgeonly and unapologetically polemic screed that promotes his own opinions about translation as incontrovertible, obvious, and inviolable for any reason whatsoever, and he attacks without mercy any and all authors who disagree with his stance. His stance, moreover, is built on a house of cards.

Basically, Hofstadter’s opinion can be summarised as: a translation MUST preserve the form of the original, otherwise it’s weak, limp, unworthy, a cop-out, a travesty, and of absolutely no worth whatsoever. In particular, through exhaustive examples, he hammers home the point that a translation of a rhyming poem must also rhyme, even if that demands sacrificing some of the meaning of the original to enforce the rhyme in the new language.

From small poems he than launches into an analysis of English translations of Eugene Onegin, the classic Russian novel, written by Alexander Pushkin in verse. There have been several English translations which preserve Pushkin’s verse structure, and which Hofstadter applauds to various degrees. But there is also a well-known English translation by Vladimir Nabokov, which is an attempt to preserve as much of the meaning of Pushkin as possible, line by line, but sacrificing the rhyming verse structure. Hoftsatder is scathing in his excoriation of how ridiculous this so-called “translation” is.

The really sad thing about all of this is that Hofstadter then goes on to describe how Nabokov also wrote an extensive accompanying volume about how he approached his translation of Eugene Onegin, in which Nabokov ridicules the verse translations as unworthy travesties, and how only a more literal-minded non-verse translation can possibly convey the true essence of Pushkin’s novel to an English speaker. Hofstatder absolutely rips this opinion to pieces, blind to the irony of himself doing exactly the same thing as Pushkin, just with the opinion reversed! It’s even worse because Hofstatder actually admits that he has found Nabokov’s translation helpful to understand the true literal intention of Pushkin’s original Russian when comparing different verse translation versions to understand where their differences and divergences come from – while at the same time saying that Nabokov’s translation is a useless travesty of the original!

If Hofstatder is deliberately setting himself up as an overblown and ridiculous straw man, only to later in the book knock himself down as an example of how uncompromising black and white thinking cannot be applied to such a fluid and dynamic problem as translation, then he is doing a brilliant job. Because at this point of the book, I find his argument not only unsustainable and full of logical holes, but also rude, crude, and downright offensive. Surely the man can see that he’s using the same bitter and vindictive argument that he is criticising as unsupportable?

I don’t know what continuing to the end of this book will bring. There is interesting material about translation, to be sure, and it’s fascinating to read those nuggets. But the more I progress, the more I find myself losing respect for Hofstatder, and that’s an extremely painful thing to find happening, both after the brilliance of Gödel, Escher, Bach and given the fact that Le Ton Beau de Marot is his tribute to his dead wife. I’m finding this an extremely sad book, but for all the wrong reasons.

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2 Responses to “Struggling with Hofstadter”

  1. Robert Prior says:

    Would it be worth skimming the book to see if it’s worth continuing? I realize that might spoil it a bit if it turns out to be a good book, but you’ve only got so much free time* to spend.

    *Personally I marvel at how much you get done.

  2. Glen says:

    Where subtleties of meaning can be conveyed with a line-by line translation with the loss of some of the structure, yet some of the “feel” requires that structure, it would seem that two translations – possibly read side by side – is about the best available compromise.

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