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Thoughts on translation

gbarto.com

I

t is my intention to in time produce a larger essay on problems of translation. For the moment I offer in its place a few prefatory remarks followed by my thoughts on the particulars of producing gbarto.com's first translation ( Fable or history, from Hugo's Fable ou histoire) as an illustration.

In sitting down to do a translation, one must begin with an understanding of the word that describes the enterprise. We often think of translation as the process of taking something in one language and converting it into another language. Translation, in fact, is derived from an odd participle of the Latin verb, transferre, to transfer. Translation, then, consists in transferring something - anything, in fact - from one setting to another. For example, we may speak of the translation of a writing or painting into a piece of music (a popular artistic endeavor during the Romantic and Impressionist periods). This example captures the spirit of translation far better than the conversion metaphor, because a good translation doesn't simply line up language equivalencies (which really only exist to a very limited degree); it takes the feel of a work from one language and culture and tries to reproduce its effect in another language and culture.

In reproducing the feel of a work, a translator faces numerous choices. Should one be faithful to the words? To the sentences? To the chapters? To the ideas? In the twelfth century, an anonymous "translator" did his rendering of the Aeneid. The translation was approximately the same length as the original, and yet it was devoted almost entirely to the love affair of Dido and Aeneas; that is, the beginning ten percent and final eighty percent of the Aeneid were reduced to a prologue and epilogue so that there would be room for the questions of love and honor that intrigued twelfth-century France. Today, we would certainly consider the work an adaptation at best, but in terms of bringing the tale of Aeneas from Roman culture to French culture, the Roman d'Enneas was a smashing translation success.

The Roman d'Enneas presents an extreme, but in tackling poetry especially, decisions have to be made. Noting the flowing, eloquent nature of the Koran, A.J. Arberry did a verse translation that does indeed flow beautifully, but which sometimes goes for four and five lines without reproducing a single phrase from the Arabic in quite the way the Arabic put it. Marmaduke Pickthall, on the other hand, offers a quite literal reading - literal enough, at any rate, that an amateur can pick through the original with his text as a road map. Yet the breezy beauty of Arberry is not there. So who's the better voice of God? The singer of beautiful songs - divine, some might say - or the one whose words match? It's a call the translator has to make. It's also a call the reader has to make in deciding what translation to read.

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