Monday, January 17, 2011

Translating Tapestries

"Translation from one language to another is like looking at a tapestry on the wrong side." When Miguel de Cervantes put these words into the mouth of his protagonist, Don Quixote, he was speaking for millions of us forced to read great books in translation.

I first read Death in Venice by Thomas Mann decades ago. As is my practice, I made margin notes. These I later transcribed to the book’s inside back cover. About ten years after the first reading, I read a later translation of this German masterpiece.

During this second reading, I awaited in vain the appearance of turns of phrase I had earlier noted. The1925 translation: His steps followed the promptings of the demon who delights in treading human reason and dignity underfoot.  In 1954, this became: His footsteps guided by the demoniac power whose pastime it is to trample on human reason and dignity. Fine, possibly truer to the original, but I prefer the earlier rendering.

We are doomed merely to prefer one translation over another.

We may only hope for a translation that conveys the essential thought of the author. Witness The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Salient among other translations, we have that of Edward Fitzgerald -- a magical blending of the poet's thought and the translator's command of our language. A 1979 translation of the Persian astronomer's work conveys his ideas, but not in the glorious language of Victorian Fitzgerald.

My English professor criticized a translation of the French gem The Little Prince by lamented Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Much meaning has been missed, he said, and urged us to read the original. I noted powerful differences. For example, one English dedication has the author claiming the dedicatee needs "cheering up." The French states that the author's friend "a bien besoin d'être consolée." Not the same, especially if one is aware of the context. The book was written during the dark days of the Second World War. The author's friend was hungry and cold in Nazi-occupied France, while he is warm and well fed and in New York. More than cheering up was needed.

All of this came to mind as I attempted to reconcile two translations of The Book of The Courtier, the Italian Renaissance work of genius by Baldesare Castiglione. In later editions, "a salutary craft," becomes "a healthy deception", "a grossness of dull wits" reads "obtuse insensitivity," and for "subtleties" we read "sophistries".   Unless we look at the front of the tapestry -- reading the original Italian, we will never know which translation approaches closest to the author's intent.

Even within our beautiful language, we face problems. The various editions of the works of William Shakespeare (who died on the same date as Cervantes) present problems. We may understand "tainted" becoming "diseased." But what of "the all-binding law" modernized into "the all-building law"? In Measure for Measure, Angelo has been transformed from "precise" to "prenzie," whatever that means. What is the difference between "headstrong jades" and "headstrong weeds" when they both mean spoiled horses?

Given all this, perhaps Cervantes did not write the opening observation of this essay. I may have merely quoted what one of this many translators wanted me to read.

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