Translation

1994-07-01

I've been thinking quite a bit lately about the issue of translation. There are of course all sorts of issues related to translation in the philosophy of language and such, but my focus here is on the aesthetic aspect. One entree is this: is translation an art-form, or at least can it be? I am thinking of course of translating literature. My only direct experience here is with translating poetry, which I used to do a lot of in my days as a Classics major. For example, consider the following three translations of a famous poem (Ode I.11, the one with the immortal words carpe diem, popularly translated as "seize the day") by the Roman poet Horace, the first a straight translation by W.G. Shepherd and the last two attempts at a poetic rendering by yours truly:

1.
Do not inquire, we may not know, what end
the gods will give, Leuconoe, do not attempt
Bablyonian calculations. The better course
is to bear whatever will be, whether Jove allot
more winters or this is the last which exhausts
the Tuscan sea with pumice rocks opposed.
Be wise, decant the wine, prune back
your long-term hopes. Life ebbs as I speak --
so seize each day, and grant the next no credit.

2.
Don't seek, my friend, you cannot know
what end's in store for you, for me --
don't trust in vague astrology --
better to shoulder what will come,
whether you'll live more years or none.
So wise up, drink up, time is short,
even now it flees, so prune your hopes,
once as high as the crashing wave --
trusting the present, pluck the day.

3.
Don't seek, my friend, we cannot say
What end's in store for you, for me --
Don't trust in vague astrology.
Better to shoulder what will be,
Whether you soon will die, or stay
To watch the shore exhaust the sea.
So drink some wine while your hours flee,
Put small trust in posterity,
And prune your hopes -- but pluck the day.

Now, I could go on and on about just these eight lines of poetry: about the gardening imagery (hence my "prune your hopes--but pluck the day"); about trying to capture the sounds of the Latin, or at least the aural softness of the original, in English (hence all the uses of 's' and 'sh' in the third version); about meter; about rhyme; about, in short, making the translation a poem, too, just as much as the original is.

As I said, this is a fiendishly difficult task. I have been approximately successful with only two poems (the above poem and another by Horace), and not for lack of trying. For example, I have never been able to capture a poem by Sappho in English, and she is my all-time favorite poet, excruciatingly beautiful in ancient Greek but lost in translation.

The fact that translation is so difficult is why I find translations lacking, and why good translations should be treasured. For instance, the poems I have read by Vistor Hugo in English have for the most part left me cold, but I think a large part of that is the predominantly Victorian translations. The same goes for translations of Romantic literature generally, which is why a translation like Brian Hooker's of Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac is to be prized.

Are there any analogies to translation in the other arts? One thing that springs immediately to mind is the transcription of works of music -- think for example of the awesome transcriptions by Liszt of Beethoven's Symphonies for piano (never heard them? Listen to the transcription of the Fifth sometime!). I once heard a concert by a guitar duo at which they played their transcription of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, and it was spellbinding.

But somehow transcription does not quite get to the heart of what is going on with translation, I think. It strikes me that the better analogy is that of the performing artist. One who transcribes merely reassigns the notes, or in the case of a piano reduction takes out many notes in order to fit it all on 88 keys. But what a pianist like Rubenstein does with Chopin (or what Alicia De Larrocha does with Granados and Albeniz) is something different -- the performer brings the piece to life for us, and is really (as Rand says) a "co-creator", not a mere "interpreter" (Romantic Manifesto, 65). Rand goes on to say: "In an almost literal sense, he [the artist who performs a work of art] has to embody the soul created by the author of the work; a special kind of creativeness is required to bring that soul into full physical reality." (Ibid.)

I think very much the same is true of the translator. You cannot know the soul of Horace's poetry or Hugo's novels or whatever without a translator whose soul rings in sympathetic vibration to that of the original author. It is only then that the work comes alive for you. No amount of Victorian conventionalism can bring a pagan poet like Sappho into your world, alive and unbound. It takes a thoroughly un-Christian soul to do it (don't forget that the Christians burned her books so rapaciously that we are left now with only scraps and fragments of poems -- we have one complete poem of hers left to us!). I think the same is true of a would-be translator of Rostand or Hugo -- he or she has to love this earth, be free of conventional thinking, etc. -- in addition, of course, to knowing the original language and the language of destination thoroughly, and to having the greatest skill and dedication. These qualities are especially important in translating poetry, as you would expect, because poetry is really just theme and style (Romantic Manifesto, 81), whereas a novel or a play has the plot and the characters to hold it together.


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