Copyright © by Jean Migrenne, 4/5/02
essay was written at the request
of Dan Schneider who kindly houses some of my translations in his
When I was first asked to translate a few poems for an anthology of
American poetry, I did not realize that I had what we call in French un
vice caché. That was in 1986. So far, I had spent my life teaching
English and, as things went, doing less and less poetry, since even before
1968 literature proper had been superseded by
whatever type of prose was deemed didactically up-to-date by the
inspectorate and most of those who thought that teaching a language
implied doing away with the best it can produce. Too bad.
Poetry (in French) I had read intensively when at boarding-school, one the few ways one had to spend one’s time. Translation fascinated me early enough. When it came to doing third year Latin, the big Gaffiot dictionary was a must. My pleasure was to find out the origin of the text we were given to translate from the ample list of quotations in the dictionary. In those days, between the age of 11 and that of 17, I was faced with Latin, English and German. For various reasons, the grammar of Latin and German remained beyond my understanding, and I hated doing translations into those languages, as much as I relished translating from the original.
At university, I chose English. In less than no time I realized that I knew nothing: standards were much higher, and I came from an uncultured family. It took me some time to master the grammar, but the most urgent requirement was for me to learn the language as it was written, to acquire vocabulary. Then, translation began to mean something different. Nothing fascinating there, but work with a purpose in a field I had chosen.
To me, therefore, translation was a key to the other language and, above all, its literature. Some people come from families where several languages are either inbred or thrust upon them by dire necessity. For them the problem is entirely different. They may even be inclined to believe that there is no problem. But it does not mean that they are good translators when put to the test.
Before getting down to brass tacks, let’s open our PETIT LAROUSSE ILLUSTRÉ, the standard dictionary for most French households. Its pink pages list foreign quotations, among which the famous Italian aphorism: Traduttore, traditore. And so we learn that in Rome whoever translates betrays. Betrays what, whom, how? A text, produced by a human being and rendered into another language by someone who is not, genetically speaking, its author. Substitute ‘fathered’ for ‘produced’ and Dr Freud comes in handy with a few suggestions. For, indeed, producing words is a function of the body as well as of the mind. Is not the translator re-producing, re-fathering someone else’s offspring? Is the process as essential and ominous as killing a father? Is not the text bastardised in the process? Such questions will remain unanswered for the meantime.
Let’s now turn to the ‘TRADUCE’ entries in the two main references in English lexicology/graphy.
WEBSTER’S DICTIONARY refers to the Latin traducere, meaning ‘to lead across’. Entry 1a reads (obsolete): to turn from one language or form into another. 1b: to debase or pervert by translating. 2a: to lower or disgrace the reputation of. 2b: to make mock of.
Evolutionarily speaking, and at first sight, it seems that the translators of old were not necessarily regarded as traitors; that they gradually became so in due course of time, to finish as mere slanderers no longer interested in the original job. The final stage, if translation remains our topic, could mean that translators deliberately do their mischief. This may not be a joke, after all. Cave interpretem! Translators as cross-dressers? Tread lightly.
THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY lists 12 entries. 1a (obsolete) reads: to convey from one place to another; to transport. 1b (obsolete): to put into another form or mode of expression, esp. into another language; to translate; to render; to alter, modify, reduce.
Here again, note the subtle drift from fact to distortion and loss of substance. Bastardizing again.
Illustrating the entry, this quote from Southey, dated 1814: Milton has been traduced into French and overturned into Dutch. It is common knowledge that, for English speakers, Dutch is conventionally as unintelligible as cuneiform is for me. Are we to establish a hierarchy and decide that the French are better at it than the natives of the Netherlands?
Entry 2b (obsolete) reads: to produce as offspring, or in the way of generation; to propagate. Illustrated by 3 quotes dated 1599/1641/1711. Early Freud?
Linking it all, in the last entry, this quote from Ben Jonson (Poetaster V.iii) the malice of traducing tongues.
The conclusion is that there must be something evil, something rotten in this here translators’ kingdom. Whoever dares to re-create is anathema. Better address or be the mouthpiece of the Powers that be (of Above or Below) directly in tongues, don’t you think? For it all looks as if translation was no more than an imperfect tool, a substitute, a failure, a (lesser?) evil… You name it!
THREE TYPES OF TRANSLATION
Business, technology, politics, science
Whatever is written or spoken in these fields refers to situations, facts, models known, comparable, and common to the whole world. Stock-exchange quotations, the managing of a company; the parts of a plough, of a satellite; references to this war of that treaty should pose no problem. Yet, off the cuff, simultaneous translation is a matter of high competence and training. One mistranslation, and the world might take a pratfall or get nuked in no time. Translators at their desks must look for references and be familiar with what they are writing about. The perusal of dictionaries and technical literature will fit the purpose. The web now offers plenty of comparative documents and references (Beware of the quality of the language!). Here again, research, competence and conscientiousness are musts. No museum, for instance, can afford to have its notices and displays rewritten by constantly renewed bevies of irate or amused visitors- turned graffiti artists. No multinational firm can afford botched literature.
A multitude of counter examples proves the point. Just try reading the notice in your own language when you wish to understand how the damned machine should work, and what you find is pidgin. Reading the pages in Dutch sometimes help. Here, the case is one of sheer incompetence and/or inadequate research or funding.
Incompetence is either innate, and the case is hopeless, or due to deficient pay or insufficient time or consideration given the translator. But incompetence can also be unconscious, especially with those self-styled experts or specialists who play translators. Such frauds are behind all those leaflets, museum or public notices which, one day or another, will make you laugh/howl, but which sometimes, too, can qualify as crime against culture. Plenty of books have been exposing and anthologising them. Most of the time, the offended native, when confronted to such literature, will look down on such ignorant, degenerate foreigners as dare dabble in God’s language (guess which). The remedy is simple: in doubt, abstain from translating; in case of emergency, get some help from one knowledgeable native or two. Nobody is perfect, sure enough, but most howlers can be easily avoided. Conscientiousness is the ultimate word. But lack of competence is the lot of ALL translators. Why not, then, edict that no one can translate unless they are bi/plurilingual? Easier said than done, for true bi/plurilinguals are few and far between. Usually, those who claim such competence can excel at jobs that require instant adaptation or precise technical knowledge. One final word in this respect: this field may well be the only one where translation pays.
Without translation, no novel, essay or short story would ever be read in countries whose language is different from the author’s. Unthinkable. Translation is as old as the world. Problems arose with the first attempts and have kept cropping up as conditions changed. Among the main ones is the quality of the original texts, the in/capacity of those who translate to have access to them and read them properly. It often was a matter of what I call remote translation, i.e. translating from translations. Bible scholars are familiar with such problems. One consequence is that even today, for instance, some people will rather die than admit to Moses crossing not an actual sea (which implies a miracle) but a mere tidal swamp overgrown with reeds. Here, translation substitutes for dogma. Fortunately, such cases of divine, inspired, kingly translation belong to the past.
Nowadays the problem is different. A third party occupies pride of place: the publisher. And that means money and deadlines. In most cases translators cannot submit their work to a publisher and authors cannot impose their translators, if they ever care to have their own. The system is a one-way one: publishers have their own stables. They buy rights and are intent on making quick profit. Paying the translator is not their main concern. Long translations may also be subcontracted by the main translator, resulting in patchwork-like books. Translators can be friends, friends of friends, bed-fellows, well-paid relatives or exploited hacks. In such cases quality is not on the agenda. The publisher thinks that the translator is competent or does not care; does not read the translation, or does not see any point in firing the incompetent go-between. Ordinary readers are not aware of it; they buy the stuff, and that is what matters. If they read the whole book, they have a good enough idea of what the author actually wrote. Mistranslations are diluted in the sheer mass of words.
Good translation, in this case, means for the translator to be familiar with the situations and times referred to in the original text. Cooperation with the author, if alive, is necessary. The latter will, or will not, answer the former’s queries. The former should complement such lack of cooperation with research of their own and acquire or improve knowledge regarding what they are re-writing. It takes a lot of time. Translating a novel also means keeping in touch with words or phrases already used, sometimes many pages or chapters ago. Failure to comply with such requirements implies betraying the author.
When publishers are not concerned with short-term profit, when they deal with classics, they will give the job to competent teams of academics and the result, then, can be regarded as GOOD. But even then, there is the problem of time. Translations do grow old. Nobody could write, today, in the language of yesterday. And few would be able to read that prose anyway. To this one should add the problem of rights, once again. Translations are protected by copyright and in some cases, in some countries, the rights extend far too long or are systematically exclusive. Even GOOD translations, signed by famous names need some dusting. How come, for instance, that Edgar Allan Poe’s prose cannot be read in French other than in the Baudelaire translation? Many other cases could be quoted.
Such landmarks as the translation of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel by Sir Thomas Urquhart (second half of the 17th century) remain unique in that they convey the gist and tone of the original to a vengeance and beyond, but who, apart from the odd scholar, reads them nowadays? Rabelais has had to be updated for the general public to be able to read him both in the original and in translation. With Urquhart we have a case of overtranslating. We ought to thank him for it. It is not a matter of mistakes, but of pleasure, of sheer delight in words and wordplay. Another climactic work of art.
When it comes to undertranslating, the author is betrayed, but it may amount to mere venial sins, provided it does not stem from ignorance or systematic laziness. When it comes to mistranslating, the author is butchered.
Let me quote two cases of butchering. The first one concerns Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. About ten years ago, I had risen in status and was in a position to teach literature again, at top level. As soon as I knew that Augie March was on the syllabus for the next year, I availed myself of a copy of the original, which I had never read before, and of the French translation, in order, so I thought, to save time. What a calamity! I mentioned the problem to a colleague who was to do tutorials for me on Bellow’s work. She read the translation and pointed out this howler I had overlooked: in the story, the main character is first seen as a young Jewish immigrant trying to survive in pre-Depression Chicago. The family is visited by a ‘case-worker’. You will never guess what the translator said this person was: an ‘ébéniste’! Yes, sirree! the man who makes (his own kind of) cases…. When I spoke to Mr Bellow later in the year, he said that there was nothing he could do since the translator had been chosen by the publisher. All the early works by Saul Bellow have been done by the same translator. I have never read them in French. But does it really matter, after some 4 or 5 hundred pages…?
The other example is drawn from the French translations of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. There was a time when foreign literature, in translation, was on the syllabus of the highly competitive exam for admission to one of our Écoles Normales Supérieures. A teacher of French, who was to do tutorials on the subject, asked me to go over his Explications de textes, just to make sure that he would be teaching the right thing. The first point was that he had got it all wrong in two cases, since his comments were based on the French, which was written in the past imparfait tense, whereas the English original, written in the simple past, implied another vision of time altogether.
The second, I quote from memory, was in the same vein as above. A U.S. battleship is laying at anchor somewhere off the Riviera coast, Villefranche or Antibes, it does not matter. The main character, in his hotel bedroom, is looking outside when, suddenly, the ship’s siren goes booming, recalling the crew. All those seamen were busy having a good time ashore and, for many of them, the fun was to get dead drunk. When recalled on board, those who had ‘passed out’ had to be carried to the launch by their mates or the Military Police. Translated by ‘ceux qui avaient une permission de sortie’ : a ‘pass’ for going ‘out’, dig it? Those who were less under the influence, called the waiters and paid for their drinks. When they thought that they were being ‘short-changed’ they duly protested. The French tells you that they quibbled over exchange rates: ‘le cours du change’! Who cares? Scott Fitzgerald has never been re-translated ever since, so far as I know. Guess why. There are myriads of such cases.
Yet, this never prevented publishers in general from ignoring good translators, since no translator can turn a bad original into a masterpiece and since a well-written text makes the translator happy. Business is business, a book is meant to be sold; what happens next is none of their concern; if the translation is bad, most readers won’t even notice it. If the book does not sell it is pulped before anyone could say Jack Robinson. Modern translators should rejoice, nevertheless: at least their names are mentioned, which was seldom the case a century ago.
Literature: drama and poetry.
Novels or short stories are no mere catalogues of words. There is always the author’s experience lurking behind the words, there is style, slang, humor and wit, there is imagery and there are metaphors. This juggling with words, this first transfer of feelings and experience onto a sheet of printed paper poses a major problem, it takes us away from plain fact and into drama and poetry, where it becomes essential. There, translation is de facto remote.
Drama, besides, implies time and space requirements either intended by the author or introduced by the successive directors who stage the play. Translations rarely age well. We shall not dwell on this point except to say that translation then, becomes adaptation, especially for the screen, where dubbing or, subtitles impose limits that have little to do with translation any more; and to say that wit and puns and double-entendre, especially in titles must make us pause. But this is the lot of the translator of poetry as well, whether the poesy be found in prose, dialogues or poems.
For poets of the past, there is enough research, criticism and translation on library shelves for translators to find what they need if they wish to produce something new, and supposedly better, different or updated. The new translator, then, thinks that he/she can improve, and their learned, limited public will publish reviews, praising or savaging the improvement. It is an insider’s job. Praising is less frequent than savaging. A matter of which chapel one belongs to. Lack of competence is suicidal. And, if there is no improving a given translation, any attempt at doing so is doomed from the start.
Is there such a thing as a final, ultimate translation? A matter of perfection, again. Everything is perfectible, but the last percents are the most difficult of all. Each of us will have their own examples of perfection, that others may challenge. Allow me to mention one: the work of Richard Wilbur, whose translations of Molière (in iambic pentameters wherever Molière wrote in alexandrines) make us think that Molière originally wrote in English and was later translated into French. Peerless, flawless gems. Exactly like his verse; but that is a matter of personal judgement: for me Richard Wilbur is the master writer, and master translator summa cum laude.
Translating Wilbur’s poetical works, corresponding with him, was a most enriching experience; reading his praise was my reward. Publishing him was a failure. His publishers mistook the translation of poetry for the exploitation of a work of art for commercial purposes and demanded far too much. No one could afford it, and certainly not the by then ailing publishing firm I was a shareholder in. For the fact is that most translated poetry is published at the translator’s expense, one way or another, and provided the author makes no financial demands. This is what enabled me to publish a dozen books of translated poetry, either single authors or anthologies. Seamus Heaney gave me permission to publish two as yet unpublished pieces some years ago; but he added ‘if you wish to do more, see my agent’. Fair enough. But even Mr Heaney, when awarded the Nobel Prize, was not re-published in France. There is no real market for translated poetry. A few translators manage to corner it and produce famous living or past authors in translation, but I doubt they can make much money on that.
Let’s come back to Richard Wilbur. When I started translating him, someone else had been at it. I was in a publisher’s office in Paris when these other Wilbur translations were rejected. When I told the then major (now bankrupt) publisher that he was making a serious mistake, he replied that he was not interested. I never sent him my own Wilbur, which was not yet completed. What was I doing there? We were putting the final touch to my Stephen Spender translations. And so the question is why Spender and not Wilbur? I can suggest one answer, not more. A few years after first publishing translations of poetry, I had a good supply of authors ready. I picked up the phone and called this publisher. I was lucky to speak to him personally. He was very kind, listened to my list of Pulitzer laureates and other award winners and kept saying ‘No. Not Interested’. When I mentioned Spender, to pass from the U.S. to Europe, he said ‘Yes. When can I have it?’ He had never read any of my translations either put on the market by obscure and deserving philanthropists or ailing small fry, or never published. I had no recommendation whatever. When he had my translation read at my request by one of his translators, since he did not speak English himself, the return was favourable. I negotiated with Spender’s agents myself, in his own office. We worked together. He never took any author I had done ever after. We did not have the same affinities. That was that. I got a cheque for the first 50% of the meagre royalties that had been decided upon. I had to go to their offices in Paris and almost bully the secretary into paying the other half, months later. They closed shop three or four of years later, leaving behind them the second most impressive list of poets, mostly translated, ever published in France and, so I was told, a wake of unpaid translators. I bear them no grudge. It just proves my point: being published, as translator of poetry in particular, is a matter of chapel.
II) PROUD AND PREJUDICED
Proud you are, to see your work acknowledged; to have been able to
meet and work with the author; to have your name printed on
published matter otherwise than in the hatches, matches dispatches or
crime columns of the press. Proud you are, to have created something,
although not first hand, since you are not an author; to have improved
your knowledge; to have explored new fields of expression and succeeded in
rendering something not your own originally. You have travelled over the
world to see the authors in the flesh, in their environment, you have
become friends, temporarily of lastingly. They have visited you at your
place. They have introduced you to other poets. They trust you. Books are
inscribed and poems are written for you. And if they forget you, I do not
think there is any grudge rankling anywhere, just, perhaps the question:
what happened that brought the relationship to an end? Proud you are too,
when reviews are favourable. Favourable to you as translator, and not just
to the author you have translated. Proud you are when asked to
participate, as translator, in symposiums on poetry;
when you are able to organize readings in various places; when you
are asked to translate people you had never worked on or with; when you
see people buying your book and asking you to inscribe it for them.
The litany is long enough. Enough to pass from pride to prejudice. From ‘fierté’ to ‘orgueil’ (two translations in French for the one word ‘pride’). From the positive to the negative. The plunge is easily taken, and more often than not. Just look at two translators coming across each other: you can be sure that at least one of them is secretly wishing the other was dead, or as good as. How come? When so much of oneself has been put in that re-creation process, one tends to be in love with one’s offspring. When one sees what the other has produced, especially if the two have worked on the same author, the same text, one is tempted to be partial. A mother will easily be convinced that her own baby is the wonder of the world. Always that physical link between begetter and offspring. After all, your offspring necessarily takes after you and you do not expect to recognize yourself in what the other has produced. If you do, then, it is a matter of plagiarism. I do not believe in coincidences in this field. There are so many ways of rendering a single poem. Allow me one example.
I tried to have my Wilbur read and began trying some famous houses. I do not belong. Some don’t even open the manuscript, and if you include postage, you are not sure to have it back. Good American friends, themselves in the poetry/translation business, had been published in this country thanks to a French literary guru they knew. The price was for them to get him published in the U.S. in return. Fair enough. I knew the man’s reputation. I knew that he had translated some of Richard Wilbur’s poems in the fifties. I also knew that he had once written that Dylan Thomas was untranslatable. I later realized that he had been the most obnoxious villain in French literary circles for decades. But he had clout. I went out of my way and sent him my translations (some 90 poems altogether). The answer came (I am summarizing the long page he wrote and giving you the gist of it: a) I’ve done you a favour for the sake of our mutual friends. I would not have read you otherwise. b) YOU ARE NOT A POET AND THEREFORE I DENY YOU THE RIGHT TO TRANSLATE. This disqualifies you from translating poetry from now on. You are no good; why this stupid idea to introduce rhymes? etc. And, since he was doing me a favour, he included a few translations he had done. He had not improved in half a century. The same pompous ass producing the same accurate, flat stuff. I xeroxed the sheet and distributed it to my students, themselves used to my strictures and hard comments, telling them that they should relativize and be reassured, since even their respected, admired, venerable teacher, there, in front of them, had taken the rap. Who said prejudice?
He died a few months later and I then said to somebody that I was sure that, had he lived, he would have done and published a Wilbur himself, maybe pilfering some of my stuff. Two months ago, I took up my 90 translations that had been shelved for years, put them in the computer, polished them off a bit in the process, printed, bound and sent them to Richard Wilbur as a somewhat belated homage for his 80th birthday. He kindly answered and told me that no one had published him in France, to his knowledge, ever since we had worked together. But he knew that the man had been envisaging doing a Wilbur at the time of his death… See what I mean?
When a Pulitzer winner I had not been able to publish for a decade, too, asked me the other day to contribute a few translations to be published in a magazine I knew, and which had taken some of my stuff before, I okayed the idea. Translations were forwarded. The response was that the author had decided to modify a few words. Why not? After all, these texts had been sleeping under layers of dust almost for as long as my Wilbur. But I demanded that the altered versions were sent to me for approval. I am sorry to say that I categorically rejected at least a major one, but I okayed the others, revamping the translation to fit them. In the process, I saw that my drafts needed polishing off and a rewrote a couple of stanzas, thanks to those alterations my author had suggested and which I had found irrelevant. There is always some good somewhere, even in what one does not palate. Proud, or prejudiced? My argument was: this item I reject because I am French and know that what you, English speakers, suggest just cannot do.
Same number, flip side. Last year I was commissioned by a local Museum to produce a translation of La Marseillaise. (I was working for them at the time –and still am, as a matter of fact). My first reaction was to tell them that it was impossible, that I did not translate into a foreign language. But that was a challenge. I woke up in the middle of the night and produced a first draft for the 7 verses. I emailed them immediately, saying that it would take me at least a month to get through, if ever I did; that they could not have it for tomorrow; that I was going away on holidays for two weeks in two days’ time. Before driving away I sought help from reliable sources. One is my former professor at the University of Caen, Sylvère Monod, himself a master translator of prose, who had been following my new career as translator of poetry, the other is a distinguished U.S. poet and critic who shall not be named. Just wait and see why. Back home two weeks later, my fax machine had disgorged reams of paper and my computer mailbox was full. Both sources had delivered. Sylvère Monod gave a few hints and made a number of remarks, pertinent as always. My U.S. correspondent had produced a whole translation. I took up mine, which I had been working on along those two weeks, integrated the Monod contribution and introduced quite a lot of the U.S. one. I soon arrived at what is now the final, acknowledged, published, copyrighted and even soon-to-be-performed-in Australia version. I made it clear that it would be presented as the work of 3 translators. Monod agreed. The U.S. translator refused to see his name associated to something that he, as competent native speaker and writer, was not 100% responsible for. But he kindly allowed me to make use of his contribution. Proud or prejudiced? Take your pick.
III) TRANSLATION: IMPOSSIBLE
If translation is not done for money, it is done for pleasure, for
culture’s or friendship’s sake. It may even be a climactic experience.
If it is so, why should not the translator overdo it and allow it to
become a vice, caché or not? Addicts will know no limits,
particularly those arising from supposedly untranslatable works. What hard
work and pleasure it must have been to translate Finnegans Wake!
What cannot be translated? Certainly not feelings and sensations. We are all made of the same stuff, whatever our penchants. Let’s take our cue from Terence, the Roman comic dramatist who had one character say in Heauton Timoroumenos ‘I am a human being, and therefore all that is human is my concern’. But, certainly, what exists only in the language spoken by one group of people, because the thing referred to is not present anywhere else in the word, cannot be translated. Descriptive poetry is full of birds, flowers, trees and wildlife in general that have no equivalent elsewhere. There are Latin words to name them, internationally accepted, but useless in poetry. Their translations sound ridiculous. Ask Sylvère Monod about his famous grouse and he will tell you that the solution was to keep the word in French. But what can you do when American blackbirds are not necessarily all black, or when the birds there do not fly over this part of the world? Ask ornithologists; find something that fits the idea and does not sound unpronounceable; rack your brains; do not ‘explain’ (too long); do not cop out like a coward. Traditore!
Another problem, for which there are solutions, in the translation between French and English, comes from the fact that the grammar and syntax of English, its percentage of monosyllabic words, make it a concise language, much more so than French, with its systematic use of articles and all that. 10% longer is about what a French line or sentence roughly appears to be when compared to its English equivalent. Good translators are put to the acid test here. When one deals with poetry, one must add another, most important factor: sound and word stress patterns have nothing in common. No two vowels or diphthongs sound the same. Just try rendering medieval alliterative poetry in French…
The translator necessarily produces something different. Alexandrines tend to sound like associations of dactylics and/or anapaests. Certainly not what iambic pentameters are expected to sound like. But then the extra syllable helps supply the extra percentage, and no one expects you to write French pentameters. Yes, the music is different. But no native English speaker would like to attend a performance of Molière in English that would sound alien to their ears. No obstacle, really.
__‘But your Marseillaise in English does not rhyme’ said a good friend of mine, one of the best contemporary American poets.
__‘Why should it? Provided it can be sung. We’ll see what the Melbourne Chorale will do,’ replies the translator.
Rhyming would have entailed the selection/elimination of too many words, which would have taken us too far away. A translation ought to remain what it must be: the reflection of the other language’s right arm in a mirror, where it becomes your left one. The same, and not the same, at the same time.
What about authors who publish in two languages? What about bilinguals? If they are truly bilingual, they will produce two different texts, both sounding equally natural and idiomatic. In that they are unsurpassed. But the texts produced are not translations stricto sensu. The translator will bend towards what the bilingual is able to achieve. The reverse is not necessarily the case. Lack of competence in the translator and faulty bilingualism do not escape the critical eye. As for readers, they will not necessarily care, or just cannot notice if they know only one language.
What about interferences, statics? Faulty punctuation, substituted words, wrong stanza patterns will cause the translator to go astray in spite of himself. This is sometimes the case with the Dylan Thomas Collected Poems. This was the case with Stephen Spender’s. The launching of my face-to-face book of translations was done in the presence of the author who pointed out a mistake I had made, and said that it was due to a couple of faulty lines in a poem that had never been put right after publication.
Humor, wit, jokes, puns are also obstacles that sometimes turn out to be insuperable. Not that one lacks words, but when background references are specific to one civilization those who were not born into it must do without the original. This is the case even within one civilization, when references have disappeared along the years. A contemporary English-speaking audience may laugh when they hear Shakespeare referring to ‘horn/s’. For them, now, the word refers to exacerbated virility. A French audience, and an Elizabethan one, would take it as a sign of cuckoldry. From positive to negative. Ask Falstaff what he would have preferred it to mean.
And finally, prejudice, again. I was once invited as panel member in debates under the aegis of a gay/lesbian group. A point I made, among others, was that one did not have to be labelled this or that to produce good translations. Love and sex basically revolve around the same constant factors, whatever one’s inclinations might be. And not all literature is exclusively based on sex and love. The debates were in English and French, either or both. My point was that what mattered most was the translator’s capacity to understand and render what the author had written. In so doing I referred to the Freudian interpretation mentioned above and used words that are differently received in the two languages. When a French speaker says that ‘le traducteur doit bien pénétrer son auteur’ there is no question of ‘penetration’ understood as a machist exercise. Soon afterwards I was taken to task in some (Australian?) paper by a prominent journalist, and vigorously vindicated, as translator, by a no less prominent poet. Both lesbians. My careless blunder? The correspondent’s prejudices? The revelation that I was unconsciously a chauvinist ithyphallic pig? The revelation of her… what? The impossibility of translation?
A couple of years later, another U.S. poet, among the best known, had said that she would not mind being translated by Jean Migrenne. I sent her a few samples of my production. New York publishers were interested in the venture. And then nothing. Another poet, a mutual friend, approached the once would-be translatee. From what I gather, the rejection was partly due to the fact that my name had been misinterpreted. Jean is a man’s first name in French. The lady did not want a man to do the job. Translation: Impossible.
Enough of the first person. For a different point of view, if you
wish to know more, ask others. If you want to go into the problem
scientifically, there is plenty of literature for you to read, written by
competent scholars. No fun, no anecdotes, just facts and theories that
explain why good is good and bad is bad. They offer guidelines for use in
schools. They may even stick to them themselves. They are deadly objective
If you want to split your sides, get yourself a copy of the translation into French of Dylan Thomas’ Prologue supplied by the Altavista bot. Prejudiced again, you see.
[Dan replies: Some very interesting points- but my teeth were gnashing with the mention of the word Master in the same sentence as Richard Wilbur. I cannot comment on him as a translator- but on his own work I’d put him in league with songsters such as Heinrich Heine & Paul Verlaine- OK formally, but zero substance. Perhaps a better comparison is with Walter de la Mare. Vapid- but pretty vapidity. Either way, go with James Emanuel!]
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