What appears below is a sample of the kind of paper students in my Fall 2016 section of ENGL 2340: World Literature through the Renaissance are asked to write here. Its topic is one that would need approval, although it would likely receive it if requested. It does, however, adhere to the length requirements expressed to students. They are asked for 1,300 to 1,625 words, exclusive of heading, title, page numbers, and any necessary Works Cited entries; the paper below is 1,328 words long as assessed by those standards. Its formatting will necessarily differ from student submissions due to the differing medium. How the medium influences reading is something well worth considering as a classroom discussion, particularly for those students who are going into particularly writing- or design-intensive fields.
One of the best-known works of medieval Welsh literature, The Mabinogion relates a number of stories that compose what Jeffrey Gantz describes as the only collection of medieval Welsh folktales available (10). No few translations of the tales allow them to be studied and appreciated by those who have no facility with one of the last living Celtic languages, but all such translations necessarily impose other standards and other perspectives on the text. They are distortions of both the original language and the target (Conley 20-21), and so they will necessarily have different valences for different audiences. Following Naoki Sakai, they are not neutral; they specifically privilege and address particular usage communities, whether intentionally or otherwise. Which communities are addressed can be inferred from any number of features, ranging from the diction in the target language to the editorial apparatus–or gaps therein. One example among many that can be found inheres in Jeffrey Gantz’s translation of “Pwyll Lord of Dyved,” the story with which his rendition of The Mabinogion begins. In it, editorial apparatus points towards–but not at–a bit of political commentary easily passed over by many readers; those readers who do see the commentary, likely to be erudite cynical punsters (or those who fancy themselves such, at least) may well be those Gantz seeks to address most directly.
The political commentary in question inheres in a bit of wordplay that relies on an emblematic reading of character names. Gantz begins to motion toward it in a footnote appended to the first word of the tale, noting that the eponymous Pwyll of “Pwyll Lord of Dyved” bears a name meaning “sense, judgment” (46n1). The name is a fitting one for a ruler, as it is often hoped that those in power have some idea what they are about; this is almost certainly the case for the late twentieth century initial readership of Gantz’s translation from the Welsh, particularly given the upheavals of the Baby Boomers beginning to come into full adulthood and those who led the Greatest Generation passing on or retiring from active work. Motion towards the word-play continues as the character of Arawn King of Annwvyn is introduced; Gantz glosses the word tentatively as meaning “not-world” (47n5), implying that it is like More’s Utopia, a no-place, something not to be found within the world. The motion is completed in a later comment, one that takes place after Pwyll and Arawn have concluded their bargain and grown into fast friends; narration remarks that the Lord of Dyved “was called Pwyll Head of Annwvyn ever after” (51). Following Gantz’s glosses, he became known as Sense, Head of Nowhere, a comment not explicitly heralded in the editorial apparatus, although it can be inferred from those things that are so announced.
The joke itself, of course, is in its thrust a commonplace. Complaints about the irrationality of those in power persist in the literary and historical records, ranging in intensity from polite mentions that other decisions would be preferable to vitriolic screeds that rage against the inanity of governance, in length from such quips as Lord Acton’s to tome-length deconstructions of authority. Many of them make for entertaining and humorous reading. That Gantz’s translation–and, presumably, the original work being translated–would make such a comment does not, therefore, serve to narrow the audience for Gantz’s translation further than those who, already cynical, look for ways to heap aspersion upon things; making a widely understood joke bespeaks a wide audience.
The way the comment is presented, however, helps to direct the joke towards a narrower group. For one, unless Gantz’s reader is also a reader of Welsh, identifying the valence of Pwyll is a task requiring a glossary. So is discerning the meaning of Annwvyn. (Since the text is published in 1976, it is not one that can readily assume the availability of machine translation–but even for readers that have such access, using it to untangle proper nouns is not necessarily a go-to task; names are often readily accepted as themselves, having no greater significance.) Gantz provides one, as noted above, but a Cymræg/English dictionary would also suffice–and in both cases, the possession and use of such a device denotes a particular kind of reading (and reader) commonly associated with greater education and formal training, thus, however arbitrarily, with greater intelligence. That is, setting up the joke in editorial, scholarly apparatus positions the joke to be taken up not by a casual reader, but by a “serious” one.
Many people can be counted on to look at the words presented on the page when they read a book or a story within one, however, so while embedding clues to a joke in footnotes begins to move that joke away from casual readers, it is not enough to take it fully away from them. (Admittedly, endnotes, requiring more effort to follow and removing explanation further from the explained, might do so.) Obliging that provided pieces be assembled, though, at least carries the joke further afield than the easy reading a causal reader might do would go, placing it more firmly among the paths trodden by the (perhaps self-styled) erudite. Gantz’s translation of “Pwyll Lord of Dyved” does not make a comment when the eponymous character is relabeled as Pwyll Head of Annwyvn; it does not point out the punning reference to the absence of good sense amid the governance of corporeal nations. Instead, it leaves readers to infer that such a comment is being made, demanding a higher level of reading comprehension than openly announcing the contents of the joke would. A cynical pun is thus aimed at those who look more deeply into things than might otherwise be the case–and such people are often held to be more intelligent.
It might well be argued that failing to call out the joke means the joke was deemed unimportant, or perhaps that it was not noticed or intended. Yet the fact that the components of the joke are identified and explained when they are first presented suggests that their result bears attention, as well; again, names of people and places are readily accepted as complete within themselves, needing no other meaning to be significant and needing no explanation to identify characters and geography. (Indeed, Arawn’s name is not defined; nor are many other names in the text.) Too, it is not to be expected that scholars–and the editorial apparatus and prefatory blurb for the volume, which identifies Gantz as having earned a doctorate in language and literature from Harvard (1), both indicate that Gantz is a scholar–would fail to notice a clever combination of textual elements in their areas of specialty, even if those outside it might not. And mention of the intentional fallacy allows for discard of whether the joke is meant or not; whether it was meant consciously has no bearing on whether it has a given function. Gantz could have been responding to subconscious or prevailing cultural ideas–the years leading up to 1976 were not a time of great trust in government–and it is a commonplace that people do things that others view as funny without any premeditation to that end.
That there is a bit of humor at work among the scholarly paraphernalia in Jeffrey Gantz’s translation of “Pwyll Lord of Dyved” is clear. That it is a comment bespeaking the age-old cynical conceit that government is senseless is evident. That it relies on word-play, making it a pun, is groaningly obvious. That it consists of parts embedded in places where only more educated–and therefore “more intelligent”–readers are likely to look can be sussed out. That the joke itself has to be sussed out means that it restricts the audience for the joke–and perhaps the audience Gantz’s translation has in mind, not simply one of scholars, but one of scholars who look for cynical commentaries and who revel in subtle puns wherever they might be.
- Conley, Verena. “Living in Translation.” Profession, 2010, pp.18-24.
- Gantz, Jeffrey, translator and editor. The Mabinogion. Penguin, 1976.
- Sakai, Naoki. “Translation and the Figure of Border: Toward the Apprehension of Translation as a Social Action.” Profession, 2010, pp. 25-34.