Sunday, September 30, 2007

On translating poetry

An article by Carol Rumens and discussion by divers commenters about translating poetry here, at the Guardian.

The nub:
So why translate? My first answer is that poetry in translation simply adds to the sum total of human pleasure obtainable through a single language. It opens up new language worlds within our own tongues, as every good poem does. It revitalises our daily, cliche-haunted vocabulary. It disturbs our assumptions, jolts us with rhythms flatter or stronger than we're used to. It extends us in the way real travelling does, giving us new sounds, sights and smells. Every unique poetry village sharpens us to life.

Some people would disagree, saying poetry in translation is the wrong side of the tapestry - it just can't be done. But they are talking about replication, not translation. It is perfectly true that you will never get a replica of the original - nor would you wish to. The way it works, when translator and original are in tune, is that a third poem is created. It is the child of two parents and simply couldn't exist without them.

Digression: Why are so many of my recent posts about translating literature, when it's not something I actually do. The closest I get is translating book blurbs for publishers' catalogues, which isn't always a good idea.

Back to the article, I like how the commenters got into the spirit and, among other topics, shared their own attempts at translating Neruda.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Jules Verne needs better English translations

Just because a body of work is a venerated classic doesn't mean the translations we have are necessarily good. From an article by Adam Roberts in the Guardian:
I'd always liked reading Jules Verne and I've read most of his novels; but it wasn't until recently that I really understood I hadn't been reading Jules Verne at all.

I'll explain what I mean. Verne has been globally popular since the 19th century, and all his titles have been translated into English, most of them soon after their initial publication. But almost all of them were translated so badly, so mutilated that "translation" is something of a misnomer.

Some of this I knew already. I'd heard that the original translators into English felt at liberty to cut out portions of Verne's original text, particularly where they felt he was getting too "technical" or "scientific"; and I'd heard that one of those early translators - the Reverend Lewis Page Mercier - had bowdlerised any sentiments hostile towards or injurious to the dignity of Great Britain [...] I knew too that the original English translators tended to mangle the metric system measurements of Verne's careful measurements and descriptions, either simply cutting the figures out, or changing the unit from metric to imperial but, oddly, keeping the numbers the same.

But I didn't understand just how severe the issue was until I set about preparing an English edition of a Verne title myself.

His publishers decided to put out one of Verne's lesser-known titles, Off On a Comet (Hector Servadac), in conjunction with Mr. Roberts's new book. He describes what happened next.
I thought it would be a simple matter of reprinting the original, usefully out-of-copyright 1877 English translation, and blithely said yes.

But when I checked the 1877 translation against the original my heart sank. It was garbage. On almost every page the English translator, whoever he, or she, was (their name is not recorded), collapsed Verne's actual dialogue into a condensed summary, missed out sentences or whole paragraphs. She or he messed up the technical aspects of the book. She or he was evidently much more anti-Semitic than Verne, and tended to translate what were in the original fairly neutral phrases such as "...said Isaac Hakkabut" with idioms such as "...said the repulsive old Jew." And at one point in the novel she or he simply omitted an entire chapter (number 30) - quite a long one, too - presumably because she or he wasn't interested in, or couldn't be bothered to, turn it into English.

Hector Servadac is by no means an unusual case. Whilst a few of Verne's most famous titles have been retranslated by proper scholars (for instance, William Butcher's recent Oxford University Press translation of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea is very good), in most cases the only editions we have of these works are the hacked-about, disfigured, and in some places rewritten versions originally published in the 19th century.

It's a bizarre situation for a world-famous writer to be in. Indeed, I can't think of a major writer who has been so poorly served by translation.

Mr. Roberts proposes a mass effort to retranslate Verne's work properly.
This would be the way to address the common misconceptions about Verne's writings that so infuriate Verne specialists - that he is nothing better than a jumped-up author of two-dimensional juveniles; that he can't do character; that his stories are ineptly handled or clumsily put together. None of these things is true; but until we have a full range of properly translated titles these, and like accusations, are going to continue to dog his reputation. We need more and better translations of Verne.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Rejected! Utterly untranslatable

Via Justine Larbalestier we have this New York Times article by David Oshinsky on rejection letters from Alfred A. Kopf Inc. to famous and great writers; a collection to stir hope in the heart of any aspiring writer. The whole article is delightful reading, but the part that caught my translatorish attention was Knopf's rejection of Jorge Luis Borges's work as "utterly untranslatable."

Segue into essay on the untranslatability of literature vs. the opposite school, yada, yada, many times written, many times read. For now, I will just take the time to mention that Borges's first and principal translator was Norman Thomas di Giovanni, and others who translated his work included Anthony Bonner, Willis Barnstone and Andrew Hurley. Borges himself was also a translator; and a not-translator too, for a fiction of certain of his original works was that they were translations from (actually non-existent) works in other languages. Translation comes into his work in other ways, too.

In general, one book that truly is utterly untranslatable, for reasons which the author himself discusses within the work itself: Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language by Douglas Hofstadter. Moreover this book also contains some interesting observations about untranslatability and about Borges.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

A Site for Movie Translation Mistakes

A bilingual movie-watcher can often recognize dubbing mistakes through knowledge of the original version. We find these errors horridly fascinating. "Navaja en el ojo" at "Switch off and Let's Go" points us to a collection of movie dubbing goofs. (As she points out, most, but not all of them are translation mistakes.)

A sample mistake: In an episode of "Babylon 5," there was a reference to the epidemic called "El Auxilio" ("The Help"), namely AIDS.

Submissions are invited. At the site, it says
Parece mentira, pero aun teniendo en cuenta que en el proceso de doblaje intervienen como mínimo un traductor, un adaptador de texto y el propio actor de doblaje, a veces cuelan gazapos. De momento la lista que hemos elaborado es muy breve, pero esperamos que crezca con tu ayuda.

It's hard to believe, but even though the dubbing process involves at least a translator, an adaptor and the dubbing actor, sometimes... there are goofs. Our list is still short, but with your help, we hope it can grow.

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