30 November 2010

A Note On Translation: Part the First

The Aeneid (Hardcover)The Odyssey(Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)Kitchen (A Black cat book)Rumi: The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and LongingThe Divine Comedy: Inferno; Purgatorio; Paradiso (Everyman's Library)The Plague, The Fall, Exile and the Kingdom, and Selected Essays (Everyman's Library)

Recently I have been spending a disproportionate amount of time reading other languages' famous works. From epics to existentialists my focus has been anywhere but America lately. For one, I am nearly finished with my longtime goal of reading from The Iliad through to Comedia.  Secondly, it is appealing to take in and attempt to share "foreign" paradigms. In an increasingly global-village society, works of translation help to illuminate exactly how related we eight billion individuals actually are. Translation is an important portrait of humility as well. It is the recognition that no, one civilization didn't get it all figured out before burning to the ground, but maybe we can borrow from each other and get just a little closer before our society does the same

One of the best lessons I have learned editing Cannoli Pie is that my ideas and expressions are not nearly as thrilling to promote as are the good thoughts I have learned from others. The magazine has been a great stage for much fresh talent and wisdom and translations work in the same way: one's ideas flowing through the hands and medium of another to send ripples a little farther across the literary pond. 

There is a great body of amazing literature to be read. I am personally conflicted about how far to pursue the art of my native language or whether to invest in another language in order to redistribute the wealth. This question is well framed by writers Coleman Barks and Ezra Pound. Barks is famous for Rumi, it is hard to know where Rumi ends and where Barks begins in poetry. Pound's arguably most famous poem, "The River Merchant's Wife" is actually by eighth century poet Li Po. In these poems, maybe the translators are owed more the credit for the poem as probably a considerable amount of the translators flavor is sensed over the original author's. So if I were to seek employment as a translator post grad school, who would be remembered: me or the man or woman I introduce to or recall to English readers?

On the Epics: Homer, Virgil and Dante have seen and will continue to see myriad translations but the original authors maintain the credit. Over at goodreads I chanced upon a review of The Odyssey translated by Robert Fagles which sung the praises of (insert earlier translator's name)'s ability to stay true to Homer. It bothered me. Mostly because I have read two different translations of The Odyssey and believe me, the translator matters. However, to the general reading public, the translator is just a viaduct to spread the misadventures of a bunch of oily tough guys. It may be unfair to generalize based on one misappropriated review but it is illustrative of something and I fairly certain I can back it up. Can you remember the translator of the edition of The Odyssey you had to read in high school? What about when you covered Camus in World Lit first semester in college?

Who deserves the credit for a translated work and why? The test of greatness for translators of epics seems to be how close you can get to the ancient Greek/Latin/Italian, yet for other ancient translations (read Barks) the praise comes in relating it to "modern times." Which is the correct answer? How many liberties can you take when translating a work?

There is a lot to talk about. I'll have more of my thoughts up soon;  in the meantime read what Lydia Davis has to say on this topic over at Paris Review.

1 comment:

  1. This semester I read Dyostevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (which I recommend if you haven't covered it yet) and had a very interesting discussion about the choice of translation chosen by my teacher. It is a particularly good study for this topic because Dyostevsky's language and tone change often, depending on the character. While this demonstrates what an incredible, and deliberate author he is, it can be lost on the reader if the translator doesn't catch the nuances in the text.
    This novel too is especially interesting to look at in the context of a conversation about translation because it is often taught or used in educational settings, but I have discovered that different translations are used depending on the class it is taught it in. For example, my class on humanistic existentialism requires a different translation than the psychology professor who teaches it here, because certain translations lend better examples of each.
    It is worth researching who is translating works before you read them - and what the translators' experiences are and how they might influence the novel.