Sunday, October 21, 2012

Translating Tapestries -- Something Like That

"Translation from one language to another is like looking at a tapestry from the wrong side." When Miguel de Cervantes put these words into the mouth of his protagonist, Don Quixote, he was speaking for me and countless others.

I first read Death in Venice by Thomas Mann in 1973, in English. As is my habit, I made margin notes which I transcribed to the inside back cover. About ten years later, I read a later English translation of this German masterpiece.

During this second reading, I kept waiting for remembered turns of phrase and certain metaphors to make their appearance. In vain. What I was searching for was the work of the translator. A 1952 translation reads, "His steps followed the promptings of the demon who delights in treading human reason and dignity underfoot." In 1954, this became, ""His footsteps guided the demonic power whose pastime it is to trample on human reason and dignity." I prefer the earlier rendering.

At best, we hope for a translation to convey the thought or idea of the author into our language. Witness the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Among the English translations of Omar's insights, the best known being that of Edward Fitzgerald. It's a magical blending of the poet's thought and the translator's formidable command of the English language.

One of my English professors was critical of the only (I believe) English translation of the French gem The Little Prince by the lamented Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Much meaning has been missed. He urged us to read the original. I did, and noted significant differences.

The English dedication says that the author's friend needs "cheering up". The French states that he "a besoin d'être consolée." Not the same at all. More than merely cheering up, the dedicatee needs to be made more comfortable. After all, it's the dark days of the Second World War. The friend is cold and hungry in German-occupied France. The author is warm and well fed in New York.

All this comes to mind as I consolidate, as it were, two translations of Baldesare Castiglione's Renaissance work of sheer delight, The Book of the Courtier. Comparing two editions, "a salutary craft" becomes "a healthy deception", "a grossness of dull wits" reads "obtuse insensitivity" and "subtleties" is "sophistries". Unless we check the front of the tapestry, we will never know which translation approaches closest to the author's intent.

Each new translation conveys a variation from earlier translations. This perhaps illustrates the awesome growth and changes in the English language. Even staying within our beautiful language, we have problems.

The various editions of the works of William Shakespeare present problems. We can accept "tainted" in one edition becoming "diseased" in another. But can be see "the all-binding law" as "the all-building law"? In Measure for Measure, Angelo has been transformed from "precise" to "prenzie". What is the difference between "headstrong jades" and "headstrong weeds" when they both mean rogue horses?

Given all this, perhaps Cervantes did not write the opening observation of this essay. I may simply have quoted one of his many translators.

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