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Why Translation Matters

August 10, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In the 2010 book Why Translation Matters, Edith Grossman proposes the question: what is an intelligent way to discuss and critique translations? Near the end of the Introduction, she asks, “Even if it is unrealistic to wish that every reviewer of a translated work were at least bilingual, it is not unreasonable to require a substantive and intelligent acknowledgment of the reality of the translation. I am certainly not lamenting the fact that most reviewers do not make one-for-one lexical comparisons in order to point out whatever mistakes the translator may have made – a useless enterprise that enlightens no one since the book has already been published and errors cannot be rectified until the next printing – but I do regret very sincerely that so few of them have devised an intelligent way to review both the original and its translation within the space limitations imposed by the publication” (32). This is such a difficult question, and it is of vital importance for those interested in the classics. Most of the readers will access the books through translation. Furthermore, any canon perpetuates a specific translation, so it is in our best interests to understand a little bit about the era and translator, as well as the author and canon. To me, it makes obvious sense that the translation is a unique entity separate from, but tethered to the original by ideas and context.

Since I enjoy wordplay, I periodically dabble at translating works on my own. I like to think of it more as a conversation than a concrete, finished product. I like to try to understand the author from every angle and then, place that into my world as best I can and make sense of it. The struggle here is that I am central to the role, not the author. Rather, the translator must be aware that personal perspective and experience can be hindrances. The reader, too, then, must understand that translation is a process, a conversation, an imperfection, much as the original text is.

Translation involves a great amount of creativity. I find it a pleasurable, but exhausting exercise. I simply cannot imagine a project such as Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, for example. The barriers to this type of project are many: time, historical period, Plutarch’s history, lack of outside sources, language barriers, etc. And yet, I have had the pleasure of reading this fantastic work in the Dryden translation. I would be much poorer without it. Grossman expresses similar sentiment when she writes, “Imagine how bereft we would be if the only fictional worlds we could explore, the only vicarious literary experiences we could have, were those written in languages we read easily. The deprivation would be indescribable. Depending upon your linguistic accomplishments, this would mean you might never have the opportunity to read Homer or Sophocles or Sappho, Catullus or Virgil, Dante or Petrarch or Leopardi, Cervantes or Lope or Quevedo, Ronsard or Rabelais or Verlaine, Tolstoy or Chekhov, Goethe or Heine: even a cursory list of awe-inspiring writers is practically endless, though I have not even left western Europe or gone past the nineteenth century to compile it” (26). Grossman’s book, Why Translation Matters, asks the question: What is the cultural profit or public good that we gain from reading translations? I tend to agree with her position: where would we be without them? I honestly cannot fathom a life without these amazing works. As it is, the United States has one of the lowest rates of published translations in the world, not because foreign literature is unworthy, but because there is no system. Translators receive little pay or incentive and often go unnoticed.

A few years ago, I submitted a paper on one of my favorite books: Fortino Sámano: An Overflowing of the Poem. Translated into English in 2012 by Sylvain Gallais and Cynthia Hogue, this book represents something very important to me: dialogue across languages. The original French poems by Virginie Lalucq revolved around a single photograph. Jean-Luc Nancy then offered a philosophical discussion of the poems. Translation adds a third layer of communication. However, one of the reviewers of this paper (which remains unpublished) wrote: “It is unclear as to why this text is of importance.” I realized that my paper had not adequately expressed Sámano’s importance, which I had hoped was self-explanatory. To me, this book offers a rare glimpse of a poetic argument (in two languages) followed by philosophical discourse. We simply do not see that kind of dialogue in English. Regardless of the paper's other faults, I am still disheartened by my reader's response, particularly because it was the response of a scholar in my field and I thought the ideas of translation were self-explanatory. I see now, however, that while my writing and ideas were complimented, the content itself is marginalized. Grossman expresses this more eloquently when she states, “It has been suggested to me by an academic friend who is not a translator but is an indefatigable critic, editor, and reader, that translation may well be an entirely separate genre, independent of poetry, fiction, or drama, and that the next great push in literary studies should probably be to conceptualize and formulate the missing critical vocabulary. That is to say, it is certainly possible that translations may tend to be overlooked or even disparaged by reviewers, critics, and editors because they simply do not know what to make of them, in theory or in actuality” (47). This, I believe, reflects my experience in writing about translation.

To further complicate matters, translations into other languages often rely upon the English version. So, while the English may not be the original, translators rely upon the English as if it were original. Grossman continues, “Another salient reality that affects writers profoundly is the need for books to be translated into English in order for them to be brought over into other, non-European idioms, for English often serves as the linguistic bridge for translation into a number of languages. The translation of texts originally written in other Western languages into the enormous potential market represented by Chinese, for instance, often requires an English version first. Because, at least until recently, many more Chinese translators work from English than from Spanish, a considerable number of Chinese-language versions of Latin American literary works have actually been based on the English translations. Some years ago, French was the conduit language, and many Spanish-language versions of Russian books were actually rooted in French translations of the texts. Of equal significance is the possible transfer of the book into other media like film and television. Powerful filmmakers and television producers whose work is distributed worldwide are all apt to read English” (58-9). I understand the reasons for this, but it reinforces the idea that translations should stand separate from the original.

I second Grossman’s question as to how we can critique and discuss translations with an element of consistency. While there are various entities dedicated to this, they lack cohesion. I find this question of vital importance since it involves not only the important ideas we discuss, but also the language with which we do it. Grossman cites Octavio Paz who says, “When we learn to speak, we are learning to translate” (75). In other words, ideas of translation are foundational and coexistent with being and education. Perhaps we need to better understand our own language to appreciate translation. Perhaps we can add courses on translation for young students. Whatever the answer, I hope that we are careful and clear about the documents we use, naming author, but also translator.

My few experiences in creating translations have greatly expanded my love of language. I feel a connection with the way that Octavio Paz celebrates language. Grossman explains, “He [Octavio Paz] states that children translate the unknown into a language that slowly becomes familiar to them, and that all of us are continually engaged in the translation of thoughts into language. Then he develops an even more suggestive notion: no written or spoken text is ‘original’ at all, since language, whatever else it may be, is a translation of the nonverbal world, and each linguistic sign and phrase translates another sign and phrase. And this means, in an absolutely utopian sense, that the most human of phenomena – the acquisition and use of language – is, according to Paz, actually an ongoing, endless process of translation; and by extension, the most creative use of language – that is, literature – is also a process of translation: not the transmutation of the text into another language but the transformation and concretization of the content of the writer’s imagination into a literary artifact” (75-6). Whether or not you agree with the deep importance that translation plays in our lives, it is worth our while to take note of those who do the heavy lifting of bringing foreign texts into English. I, for one, would not be happy without Borges and Paz, Dostoevsky and Chekhov,  Plutarch and Homer, or Lalucq and Nancy. Therefore, I would not be happy without Dryden and Grossman, Pevear and Volokhonsky, Lattimore and Le Guin, or Gallais and Hogue.

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Caedmon’s Compounding

May 25, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

One of the more enjoyable aspects of languages is understanding how they grow. In order to allow for outside influence, a language must be able to change. Old English, for example, often used compounds as a way to form new meanings. While Old English did accept loan words from other languages, it also developed a system to accommodate acculturating forces. One of the techniques used in Old English was to link together two nouns or a noun plus an adjective. This practice was called compounding. (In fact, we still use this method today. A few modern-day examples are: network, snowball and punchline.)

One of the earliest poems in English (some would say the earliest), “Caedmon’s Hymn,” displays some really interesting compounds. As Christianity’s importance grew within the Old English culture, the language needed to expand and account for these new ideas. Poets and authors creatively combined words in order to achieve the desired effect.

The West Saxon version of “Caedmon’s Hymn” reads:

Nu sculon herigean           heofonrices weard,
meotodes meahte             and his modgeþanc,
weorc wuldorfæder,          swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece drihten,                       or onstealde.

He ærest sceop                 eorðan bearnum
heofon to hrofe,                halig scyppend;
þa middangeard               moncynnes weard,
ece drihten,                       æfter teode
firum foldan,                      frea ælmihtig

Seth Lerer (of the University of California, San Diego) translates Caedmon’s song as:

Now we shall praise heaven-kingdom’s Guardian,

the Creator’s might, and his mind-thought,

the works of the Glory-father: how he, each of us wonders,

the eternal Lord, established at the beginning.

He first shaped for earth’s children

heaven as a roof, the holy Creator.

Then a middle-yard, mankind’s Guardian,

the eternal Lord, established afterwards,

the earth for the people, the Lord almighty.

There are a couple of interesting things to note about this song. First, it is easy to see that the space (caesura) has dropped out. Typically, the caesura is a place to pause for breath between phrases. It may be replaced by commas or // in modern poetry. It was a form of controlling the breath, much as is commonly used in music.

Second, this poem contains a lot of repetition. Before books, the technique of repeating phrases or ideas aided memorization and reinforced the main idea. Caedmon sings of the Lord in many different ways, the “Guardian,” the “Glory-father,” and the “holy Creator” (among others). In such a short work, Caedmon has created metaphors that elaborate on the importance of God.

Furthermore, Caedmon effectively employs compounding. Lerer translates “heofonrices Weard” as “heaven-kingdom’s Guardian” - weard being the warden, and heofonrices translates to heavenly riches. The term “modgeþanc” is really interesting also. Lerer translates it as “mind-thought”, though I find that term also unclear. Other translations simply use “thought”, but that too seems to miss the term’s full meaning. Caedmon did not simply write about thought. It is possible that since alliteration is so important to the poet, he may have included modgeþanc (rather than “þanc”) simply because it added a third “m” sound to the line. The poem pays attention to rhyme and meter and alliteration just as much as it does to meaning, though, and I believe that Caedmon would have been interested in creating compounds that advanced his point, not merely stylized it. I wonder if Caedmon is getting at the idea of a thoughtfulness that accompanies creation. To me, mind-thought in modern English sounds a little too science-fictiony, reminiscent of Doublethink in 1984. Regardless of translation, however, Caedmon clearly utilizes compounding to reinforce his point.

One final compound that I want to mention is "middangeard." A similar term appears in Old Norse, Old Saxon and Old High German. It is important to note, however, that middangeard is part of a mythology in each of those cultures. In other words, Caedmon anchors Christian elements to a pre-existing mythological term to better describe God’s effect on man. Translated as “middle-yard” here, it likely means earth, but not in the sense of dirt and terrain. Rather, Caedmon chooses this term (over something like Old English “eorthe”) because it symbolizes the human middle-ground, in between heaven and hell. Just as he is not simply speaking of thought, but of thoughtfulness, Caedmon wants to invoke the spiritual space that we inhabit and the best way to do that is to co-opt a familiar term.

In using repetition, alliteration and compounds, Caedmon creates a song that gives us a sense of how language adjusts to new ideas. He embraces Christian elements by incorporating traditional elements and adding the idea of God the father or God the Guardian. He offers simple metaphors, such as heaven as a roof, to help others access the complex ideas of Christianity. God is mentioned in nearly every line in order to solidly establish the lineage and upend previous mythologies. Perhaps this song is best heard. You can listen to a choral arrangement by the University of Louisville Cardinal Singers here.

** Much of this blog draws on ideas from a lecture given by Seth Lerer through the Great Courses. Find more about “The History of the English Language” at the Great Courses website.

 

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Translations of Chaucer

May 4, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Last week’s Quarterly Discussion focused on Chaucer in translation. I opened the discussion with the question as to how one would determine what elements make a “best” translation. This seemingly generic question is actually really difficult to answer. Some authors excelled at rhyme schemes, while others performed better with word choice, for example. Truly, there is no single response and my intent in opening (and closing) the discussion with this question was to explore the benefits of having access to the primary source (and primary language).

Necessarily, translation contains many layers. First, there is the original language barrier. Most people who read a work in translation do so because they cannot access the language of origin. Secondly, translations must navigate not only word choice, but also context and cultural information carried within a language. Stylistic issues present a third difficulty. These are things such as alliteration, rhyme scheme, line length, etc. And finally (though this list is hardly exhaustive), the translator faces the issue of the target audience. By that I mean that the translator must weigh all of these decisions by postulating how successful the translation will be in the target language. In other words, there is a very delicate balance between risk-taking and minimizing risk, all driven by the target audience.

I selected Chaucer in translation for a couple of reasons. First, I was surprised that the Great Books version was Neville Coghill’s translation. My initial introduction to the Canterbury Tales was twenty years ago in an undergraduate class where we worked slowly and diligently (if impatiently) through the Middle English. I think this text is still fairly accessible with footnotes. Having said that, I do understand the amount of labor involved in combing through a footnoted text. (Personally, I believe that Gibbon’s texts include more footnotes - and more foreign languages - than the Middle English Chaucer, but that is perhaps just me.) Since I study the idea of poetry and occasionally attempt translations, I have become very interested in the differences (and similarities) between the original and translated versions of Chaucer.

For this discussion, we compared four different texts of “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”: Nicholson (Librarius version, published 1934); Neville Coghill’s translation (published 1951; this is also the Penguin Classics text as well as the Great Books version); A. S. Kline’s version (dated 2007); and the original. Below is a short passage from all four texts which will hopefully illuminate many struggles both from a translator’s standpoint, as well as the audience’s.

First of all, Chaucer writes in rhymed iambic pentameter. Since this sounds archaic to the modern-day ear, the translator first has to decide if they will stick with that same rhyme scheme. Secondly, Chaucer includes jokes throughout, using words with double meanings that may have faded away over time. In some cases, the translators chose to create a new joke, one that would work with the contemporary audience. In other cases, the translator ignores the joke. What license does a translator have in making these decisions? How much introduced content is actually new content? For example, in order to replace the Old English forslewthen, which means slow to act, or to delay, Coghill adjusts the metaphor and loses the layered meaning of a man about to set sail who is incapable of stemming his own “tyde”. Coghill writes, “But as I see you mean to stay behind/ And miss the tide for willful sloth of mind” instead of the original line: “But sith I see that thou wolt heere abyde/ And thus forslewthen wilfully thy tyde”.

Analyzing translations can be a tedious process, but it is the most enriching language experience I can imagine. In studying these texts, we gained insight into: root words, etymology, cultural adaptations, similes and metaphors (both new and old), effects of acculturation, and more. Furthermore, when translations of Chaucer differ, then the moral, main idea, character or understanding of Chaucer and his times, might also change. The stakes may be even higher when thinking about something like Tocqueville’s Democracy in America or Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, in which the moral is educational. The following passage demonstrates just one (of many) deviations that we analyzed during this discussion.

 

“Ful sooty was hir bour, and eek hir halle

In which she eet ful many a sclendre meel.

Of poynaunt sauce her neded never a deel.

No deyntee morsel passed thurgh hir throte;

Hir dyete was accordant to hir cote.” – Original

 

“Right neatly was her bedroom and her hall,

Wherein she'd eaten many a slender meal.

Of sharp sauce, why she needed no great deal,

For dainty morsel never passed her throat;

Her diet well accorded with her coat.” – Librarius (Nicholson)

 

“Sooty her hall, her kitchen melancholy,

And there she ate full many a slender meal;

there was no sauce piquante to spice her veal,

No dainty morsel ever passed her throat.

According to her cloth she cut her coat.” – Coghill

 

“Full sooty was her bower, all melancholy,

In which she ate full many a scanty meal.

No pungent sauce was needed for her veal;

No dainty morsel ever passed her throat.

Her diet, her cottage struck a single note.” - Kline

After reading through these passages, we wondered: Do we have the same impression of the widow after reading these four lines? Why do Coghill and Kline introduce the term melancholy? Did Chaucer intend for the widow to be surrounded in dirt, or simply soot from the ever-burning fireplace? Did the widow feel impoverished? How does “veal” change the passage, if at all? If we assume that Chaucer is intentionally including words from Latin, French and Old English, does the word “piquante” fit here, or does it distract (since we no longer navigate language tri-lingually or are, at least, not aware of it)? “Cote” is the Middle English term for cottage, so is the introduction of “coat” appropriate?

Basically, if this is the character that Chaucer uses as the introductory frame for his morality play, how much change still maintains the same message? And, is it important to aim for the same? At the end of our discussion, we still struggled to state precisely what is “best”. The translator must make value judgments and so must the audience, thus complicating the very business of translation!


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Chaucer Translations

March 30, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

In April, we will be discussing two of my favorite things in the Quarterly Discussion: translation and Chaucer. I love Middle English texts because they show such difference between Old English and contemporary English. Old English was originally spoken by Germanic tribes such as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. As the Anglo-Saxons formed larger communities, Old English began to overpower Latin as the dominant language in Britain.

There are some stark differences between Latin and Old English. For example, English is structured around the subject-verb sentence structure. If we rearrange the word order, meaning may very likely change. In Latin, however, word order matters much less than the form of the words. Nouns are inflected for case, number, gender, and verbs are inflected for person, number, tense, aspect, voice and mood. Since Latin depends on these constant word endings, the language can attain a rhyme scheme that sounds awkward in English.

In fact, the first English poems depended upon alliteration and repetition instead of rhyme scheme and syllable count. As British arts began to commingle with the highly stylized French poetry, the style began to change. As so often happens when languages collide, the arts begin to absorb and reflect the other culture's style. Middle English began to assume some of the words and styles from French poetry. Beginning roughly in the 11th century, it continued into the 1500s. Since Chaucer constructed The Canterbury Tales between 1387 and 1400, it is important to understand a bit about Chaucer's main dialect: Middle English.

In April, the group of participants in our Quarterly Discussion will review a variety of Chaucer translations. This practice is so interesting because it simultaneously reveals a wide variety of things. First, the Middle English is recognizable in structure (much moreso than Old English). Therefore, reading the original is not impossible. Most originals are now printed with excellent footnotes and background information for those words that have slipped out of the English language since Chaucer's day. Second, we learn about Chaucer himself. What sort of biases, prejudices and experiences he had can be reflected in a work of this magnitude. Finally, we discover cultural clues, such as clothing styles and stereotypes. Since Chaucer was an incredibly playful artist, the reader is required to ascertain tone as well. Is the cultural stereotype, for example, serious, playful or insulting? How will we know through language alone? There will be questions that are impossible to answer, but I find that discussions about Chaucer's works are always entertaining and rewarding.

As a teaser, I have been comparing some of the Chaucer translations, and I find the following bit particularly interesting. Chaucer modeled "The Franklin's Tale" after the French story-telling style of a breton lay. We know, then, that the narrative will be rhymed and involve chivalry. The language is highly stylized and assumes that the speaker is an educated man. Therefore, when the Franklin says “But, sirs, I'm not a cultivated man/ And so from the beginning I beseech/ You to excuse me my untutored speech”, the reader already knows that this is untrue. Chaucer chose the style to fit the speaker, tale and theme. But Chaucer also chose how to deliver the lines. From the very first lines, then, his tale incorporates irony and ambiguity as much as it uses elevated rhetoric.

"The Franklin's Tale" revolves around Dorigen, a fair maiden, who is won over by the knight Arvéragus. They swear their love to each other, but must part soon after their wedding. When Arvéragus is sent away for two years as part of his knightly duties, Dorigen pines away for him. During this time, another suitor approaches Dorigen. Though she rejects him, she does mention that if he can move mountains, she would love him. She says this because it is the mountainous, rocky shore that blocks her husband's safe return. Unfortunately for Dorigen, the suitor finds a magician who eventually moves the mountains. When he proves that he has fulfilled the pledge, Arvéragus consents to the coupling as the only way to save Dorigen's honor. Crestfallen and ashamed, she approaches the suitor and he forgives her debt. After hearing this whole tale, the magician (also called the philosopher), then, forgives the suitor's debt. So, in the end, no one errs other than in words. No crime has been committed, though the magician remains unpaid for his trick.

By looking at the final lines of this tale, we can gain an understanding of some of the tricks with translation.

First, the original reads:

This philosophre answerde, 'Leeve brother,/ Everich of yow dide gentilly til oother./ Thou art a squier, and he is a knyght;/ But God forbede, for his blisful myght,/ But if a clerk koude doon a gentil dede/ As wel as any of yow, it is no drede!

'Sire, I releesse thee thy thousand pound,/ As thou right now were cropen out of the ground,/ Ne nevere er now ne haddest knowen me./ For, sire, I wol nat taken a peny of thee./ For al my craft, ne noght for my travaille./ Thou hast ypayed wel for my vitaille./ It is ynogh, and farewel, have good day!'

And took his hors, and forth he goth his way./ Lordynges, this question, thanne wol I aske now,/ Which was the mooste fre, as thynketh yow?/ Now telleth me, er that ye ferther wende./ I kan namoore; my tale is at an ende.

 

Next, the same section of text from the Great Books series version (translated by Nevil Coghill) reads:

Then the magician answered, “My dear brother,/ Each of you did as nobly as the other./ You are a squire, sir, and he a knight,/ But God forbid in all His blissful might/ That men of learning should not come as near/ To nobleness as any, never fear.

“Sir, I release you of your thousand pound/ No less than if you'd crept out of the ground/ Just now, and never had had to do with me./ I will not take a penny, sir, in fee/ For all my knowledge and my work to rid/ The coast of rocks; I'm paid enough for what I did,/ Well paid, and that's enough. Farewell, good-day!”/ He mounted on his horse and rode away.

My lords, I'll put a question: tell me true,/ Which seemed the finest gentleman to you?/ Ere we ride onwards tell me, anyone!/ I have no more to say, my tale is done.

 

While this translation has a lot to offer, I want to look at just one line for the sake of brevity. Coghill translates: “Which was the mooste fre, as thynketh yow?” as “Which seemed the finest gentleman to you?” According to a variety of Middle English sources, “fre” can be translated as noble, free, of noble status, gracious, and generous. Which word best fits the syntax, meter, meaning and author intention? These are difficult questions, made particularly difficult in a translation of something that may also be tongue-in-cheek. I think it is important to note that Chaucer's original leaves open the possibility that Dorigen may have been the most “fre”. The translation, however, does not because instead of the ambigious “mooste fre”, it asks who was the finest “gentleman”. In my mind, that single word changes the passage quite radically.

Translations are never perfect, but they are fun to explore. I think we will gain much insight from our comparisons. Feel free to join us! Email asimon@hmu.edu for more information and to join the conversation!

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