Found in translation


Into EnglishLanguage translation fascinates me. It’s a mix of language skill, art, interpretation, science and, apparently, divination. Maybe even magic.

Going from one language into another is far from a simple step of swapping words in dictionary manner – Flaubert’s le mot juste. Any fool can do that. Hell, even Google can. A single word can be a fulcrum, and the decision to use one word instead of another can utterly change the meaning. I wrote about this in The Municipal Machiavelli. The translator’s choice of even a single word – in that case the choice between the English words ruin and destruction – can alter the reader’s emotions, understanding and appreciation of a work.*

Back in the 17th century, English poet, satirist and translator John Dryden divided translations into three forms:

…metaphrase, paraphrase, and imitation. Metaphrase is literal, word-for-word translation; paraphrase follows the sense of the author, rather than his precise words; imitation departs from the original at the pleasure of the translator, and really constructs a new poem on the basis of the old. Dryden rejects the two extremes of metaphrase and imitation, and chooses the middle way of paraphrase.(Full article here)

Dryden explained his approach in his introduction to his translation of Ovid’s Epistles (1680), the work that launched his late-life career as a translator. He evidently gave the process a lot of thought:

All Translation I suppose may be reduced to these three heads.
First, that of Metaphrase, or turning an Authour word by word, and Line by Line, from one Language into another. Thus, or near this manner, was Horace his Art of Poetry translated by Ben. Johnson. The second way is that of Paraphrase, or Translation with Latitude, where the Authour is kept in view by the Translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly follow’d as his sense, and that too is admitted to be amplyfied, but not alter’d. Such is Mr. Waller’s Translation of Virgils Fourth Aeneid. The Third way is that of Imitation, where the Translator (if now he has not lost that Name) assumes the liberty not only to vary from the words and sence, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion: and taking only some general hints from the Original, to run division on the ground-work, as he pleases. Such is Mr. Cowley’s practice in turning two Odes of Pindar, and one of Horace into English.
Concerning the first of these Methods, our Master Horace has given us this Caution, Nec verbum verbo curabis reddere, fidus
Interpres — Nor word for word too faithfully translate.

Dryden wryly commented that, “Too faithfully is indeed pedantically: ’tis a faith like that which proceeds from Superstition, blind and zealous.” He later includes the line from Horace’s Ars Poetica, or the Art of Poetry, on Horace’s own translations of Homer’s Odyssey: “Brevis esse laboro, obscurus fio,” which translates as, “I strive to be brief, I become obscure.” (Horace remains a favourite of mine, too, but mostly his Odes and Epodes.)

There have been many, many other approaches since Dryden. The Russian-American linguist Roman Jakobson offered his own, three-headed approach to translation:

Intralingual translation or rewording. In which the verbal signs of language are replaced/interpreted by the verbal signs available in the same language. For example prose rendering of a poem in the same language.
Interlingual translation or translation proper. In which the verbal signs of one language are interpreted / replaced by the verbal signs of another language.
Intersemiotic translation. In which the interpretation of verbal signs are done by means of nonverbal sign system.

While not a translator myself, it is  a spectator sport for me. Over the last few years, I’ve written many posts about translations and translating, offering alternatives I’ve found to selected phrases, verses and epigrams, trying to unshell the kernel within the skin of language by weighing various versions and sniffing for the right context.**

Where possible, I have bought multiple copies of the same book by different translators, trying to fully appreciate the original text and/or the author’s intent. I have numerous copies of the Dhammapada, Tao Teh Ching, plus works by Cicero, Horace, Seneca, the Gnostics, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Dumas, Marcus Aurelius, Plato, Herodotus, Chaucer, and others. I have 19 different translations of Machiavelli’s The Prince. I often read these books in parallel, to see how one translator turned the same piece into English. It’s a slow, clumsy process, but rewarding if you have a passion for language.

I was delighted to find two works which do this sort of parallel translation between the covers, allowing me to see how a work in another language may be revealed in English. The first is issue 42 of McSweeny’s Quartery, edited by Adam Thirlwell, which offers, “Twelve stories appearing in up to six versions each.” It’s described on the inside cover as “an anthology of stories in an assortment of languages and literary styles edited in one language.” After each story are notes on the translations by the translators.

What is also fascinating in McSweeny’s No. 42 is the translations into English are re-translated into another language, then that into another, and so on through several iterations, until finally translated back into English. The reader can compare the original translation with the final, so see the way it evolved. The results are entertaining. This is, however, more like literary hacking than pure translation. I cannot read most of the languages, so I can only go on the English results, but based on what I can see, the translators often seem to use more artistic licence than rigorous control.

For an amusing experiment, you can try this yourself, using Google Translate. Take a paragraph – like this one from Albert Einstein:

Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits him best a simplified and intelligible picture of the world; he then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience, and thus to overcome it. This is what the painter, the poet, the speculative philosopher, and the natural scientist do, each in his own fashion. Each makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of his emotional life, in order to find in this way the peace and security which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience.

I put this through Google as Spanish > Danish > Russian > French > German > English and got this:

A person tries to do what is best for them, a simplified and understandable picture of the world; So try to replace and overcome this cosmos with the world of experience. That is what the artist, the poet, the speculative philosopher and the naturalist, each do in his own way. Each of them makes this space and its structure its emotional axis of life, to find peace and security that he can not find in a small thermal center of personal experience.

Each iteration takes us further from the original. McSweeny’s 42 is more focused and less prone to random choices than Google, of course. But still, it’s not the literary exploration of translation I would have liked. Fun, yes, and certainly worth exploring.

The second book is Into English, a collection of 25 poems in other languages, each one translated by three different people, with a commentary on each by a fourth translator. Poetry, because it is a different usage of language, often highly condensed and symbolic, can be far more more difficult and challenging to translate. The juxtaposition of poems show that translators can take widely different approaches, much more akin in many cases to Dryden’s imitation. At least to my uneducated eye. Thomas Devlin, reviewing the book on,*** noted:

In reading the book, you can also patch together an ideological history of translation. More than one writer talks about Virgil’s statements about how translating a poem is “song replying to song replying to song.” Joanna Huss Trzeciak Huss cites Walter Benjamin, who said “the translator’s task is to restore to wholeness a vessel that, after Babel, has been shattered into fragments.”

Edward LearI dug out my copy of Into English today to recognize World Poetry Day (Mar. 21). It seemed more fitting than trying to remember some of Edward Lear’s limericks (There was an Old Man with a nose,…), or Lewis Carroll’s fantastic poetry (You are old, Father William…), both of which rattle around in my head.

Poetry continues to move me, and I still read it a lot these days, although I seldom attempt to craft any poems myself (I did write a lot of poetry back when I was in my 20s, but that was an Ice Age ago…). And I have a fair number of books of poetry translated from other languages including Pablo Neruda, Wang Wei, Li Po, Tu Fu, Horace, Catullus, Dante, Goethe, Rilke, Homer and others. How accurate are they? How well do they capture the poet’s original intent? I can’t say. But I am content with the results being “in the style of…” or “in homage to…” or even “in imitation of…”

Dryden, in his introduction, throws some light onto the challenge of translating poetry:

No man is capable of Translating Poetry, who besides a Genius to that Art, is not a Master both of his Authours Language, and of his own: Nor must we understand the Language only of the Poet, but his particular turn of Thoughts, and of Expression, which are the Characters that distinguish, and as it were individuate him from all other writers. When we are come thus far, ’tis time to look into our selves, to conform our Genius to his, to give his thought either the same turn if our tongue will bear it, or if not, to vary but the dress, not to alter or destroy the substance. The like Care must be taken of the more outward Ornaments, the Words: when they appear (which is but seldom) litterally graceful, it were an injury to the Authour that they should be chang’d: But since every Language is so full of its own proprieties, that what is Beautiful in one, is often Barbarous, nay sometimes Nonsence in another, it would be unreasonable to limit a Translator to the narrow compass of his Authours words: ’tis enough if he choose out some Expression which does not vitiate the Sense.

Basho: Autumn CrowIn Into English, the notes by Hiroaki Sato on translating a 15-character poem by Basho – the famous “Autumn Crow” hokku (haiku) – explain how easy it is to make assumptions but how difficult it is to see past them. Sato explains that Japanese nouns do not distinguish between singular and plural, or as he says, between countable and uncountable. So the crow may instead be crows. Does it matter whether one or many? Yes, to the translators and readers.

And what about punctuation? English walks on punctuation stilts. A single comma can make a world of difference to a simple sentence. “Let’s eat, Grandpa!” is very different in meaning from “Let’s eat Grandpa!” The former could be a Norman Rockwell image of a call to join a family dinner. The latter might be a post-apocalyptic vision of hungry cannibals. Translators may need to insert punctuation for the English version, even when none exist in the original. This, by the way, is not simply about poetry: ancient Greek, Egyptian, Latin and Hebrew documents didn’t use punctuation.

And then there’s capitalization. Japanese hasn’t any (neither did Latin and other ancient languages), but we use it in English to distinguish words or word types. And word order, too… it’s not the same as English in most languages. What about idioms?

You can read Basho’s poem and some additional translations here. It’s number four in the document. The poem itself, with a transliteration and a word-for-word translation (according to the document) is:

kare eda ni             withered branch on
karasu no tomarikeri    crow has settled
aki no kure             autumn's evening

The document linked above offers nine translations, including these four below (I won’t try to replicate the various spacings and offsets the translators have used to give these pieces visual motion):

on a withered branch
a crow has settled–
autumn evening
trans. Barnhill, Basho’s Haiku

on a bare branch
a crow has alighted . . .
autumn nightfall
trans. Ueda, Bash? and His Interpreters

Autumn evening;
A crow perched
On a withered bough.
trans. Blyth, Haiku, vol. 3

Crows resting
on a withered branch—
evening in autumn
trans. Shirane, Early Modern Japanese Literature

There are four core elements here: the time of the year (autumn), the time of the day (later – evening or night), the location (a branch or bough) and one or more birds (rook or crow). Of the nine, only one chooses more than one crow.

In Into English, the three translations are similar, but again show the personalities and approaches of the translators coming through, as well as being comments on the eras in which they lived and worked:

The end of autumn, and some rooks
Are perched upon a withered branch.
trans. Basil Hall Chamberlain, 1902.

This clearly was written by someone in the UK, because rooks are common there, but not so much elsewhere. And while related to other crows, they are not exactly the same as other crows. A Japanese crow may be the Indian jungle crow, the Large-billed crow, the Carrion crow or the relatively rare, larger Northern (Common) Raven.

Crows play an important part in Japanese mythology and symbolism. The crow was a “a…mark of rebirth and rejuvenation; the animal that has historically cleaned up after great battles symbolized the renaissance after such tragedy.” So is this bird here after some larger, more dramatic event? Or perhaps it presages one?

The crow-god Yatagarasu was a symbol of guidance in The Kojiki, Japan’s oldest record. If seen as a single crow, rather than many (the crow-god would be singular), perhaps it has come to guide the reader (or the author). But to where?

Then there are the crow tengu Tengu means “heavenly dog” and are protectors of the dharma, related to the Buddhist incarnation of Karura. They act as analogies to the Coyote in Amerindian lore: spiritual tricksters, punishing transgressors. According to the Japan Chronicles:

The Crow Tengu is the first and ancient form of the Tengu. The Crow Tengu were originally evil and had the body of a man, but the wings, face and beak of a crow. These Crow Tengu would kidnap people, start fires and rip apart people that damaged their homes of the forest. They also might abduct people and release them later, leaving them in a state of dementia. However, now the Crow Tengu are more like the Tengu of today and often serve as messengers for the Yamabushi Tengu.

So perhaps the crow(s) is there to watch the author (thus the reader) to make sure he or she doesn’t stray from the Buddhist laws (the dharma).

Note the difference between a “withered” and a “leafless” branch. Withered suggests a dead limb, the end of things, and has a colder image; leafless could just be the normal cycle of leaves falling in autumn, a more natural image, with a promise of rebirth. Nightfall suggests a darker, later time than evening, another ending. Then there are the different verbs: alighted, resting, perched, settled – all offering different states of motion and attention.

And this is the only one of the three to identify more than one crow, although the number remains vague. It could be two. Or three. Or one hundred.  It matters because it will help uncover that the poet intended by the crow(s). A single crow – or raven – can be (as Edgar Allan Poe noted), merely a harbinger, a messenger, an observer. In English, the collective noun (the term of venery) for multiple crows is “a murder.” That carries its own suggestive weight.

Here’s the other two translations from Into English:

On a leafless bough
A crow is sitting – autumn
Darkening now
trans. Harold Henderson (1925)

A black crow
Has settled himself
On a leafless tree
Fall on an autumn day.
trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa (1966)

The latter is gender specific: himself. It also has that odd redundancy in the last line: fall and autumn. Or did he mean the leaves fell in autumn? That, too would be redundant. The other translators all picked a bough or branch: Yuasa has a tree instead. Admittedly, they are connected, but anyone who observes crows knows their penchant for the highest – and often empty – branches at the periphery of the tree, not within the shelter of its boughs near the trunk as some birds choose. And do we need to be told a crow is black?

I like the sense of the sky “darkening now,” because it reflects action, and puts the reader into the frame with the bird and tree. But the silence also bemuses me. Crows are loud and raucous. These simply sit and watch; a sense of foreboding, a dark presence with some subtle menace or threat. In the first of these two, the crow sits, not perches or alights. The latter suggest motion; the former stillness.

And that’s just one poem to ponder. It’s a delightful read, if for nothing more than I get to think about language over and over. And, of course, to read more poetry on World Poetry Day.


* My own language skills are not quite mono-linguistic, but not particularly fluent in anything outside English. I have studied some Spanish in night school, and can speak it with a gringo’s awkward fluency when in Mexico. I studied French in high school, and lived and worked in Montreal, all many decades ago, but I don’t recall much of it except when I try to think of a forgotten word in Spanish, and a French one pops into my head. I took a bit of classical Greek in university, almost entirely forgotten, and I continually tinker at learning Latin when I have some spare time. I took some basic courses in Hebrew in the mid-70s, too, in preparation for a trip to Israel.
** Including, but not limited to:

*** Devlin opens his review with a story:

There’s a story that says when the Old Testament was being translated from Hebrew to Greek for the first time, 72 translators were hired to do the job. Each of them worked on the project separately, and when the results were compared, each translation was exactly identical to all the others. This was considered a sign from above that the translation of the text was indeed God’s Word. If this story is true, it would definitely need to be a divine miracle, because finding even two translations that are the same is basically impossible.

It’s amusing, but he’s vague and even incorrect in several details. First, the legend says they were 72 Jewish scholars, not merely translators. Their faith is important because they were translating their sacred texts from their native Hebrew into Koine Greek, for the Greek king of Egypt, in the 3rd century BCE. That also suggests they were Alexandrians, from the large Jewish community in that city at that time. But it wasn’t for another 600-or so years before that mythical translation became known by its Latinate name, the Septuagint (from the Latin for 70). And they didn’t translate the whole Old Testament (as Christians call it), but only the Torah: the first five books (the Books of Moses, or Pentateuch). The rest of the canon was slowly translated piecemeal into Greek over the following centuries, and clearly not by the same group of scholars. There were numerous other translations into Greek over the centuries, but they have mostly been lost in time. And almost since its creation mistakes and mistranslations in the Septuagint have been identified, so it’s far from a perfect work. Plus, it’s a myth. But his conclusion is right on.

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    My Horace collectionAfter I wrote this piece, to close off World Poetry Day I picked up McClatchy’s collection of Horace’s Odes, translated by 35 different poets. I read many of these translations late into the night.

    While not side-by-side (each Ode is translated only once), reading it with some of my other translations of Horace gave me a chance to do some parallel examinations. But mostly I simply read it by itself.

    This collection is quite a treat because it contains such a wide range of styles and talents, but a singular passion for poetry. Reading through it reminded me again how beautiful, how moving Horace is, and how human passions, human emotions and human observation have not changed in the millennia since he wrote.

    Checking my library this morning, I counted eight different editions of the Odes; seven by different translators, the eighth being this collection. I also have a few selections of his Odes in collections of poetry (or some old Latin textbooks), Plus I have several editions of his Epistles and Satires. All told, I counted 14 books in my Horace collection (okay, two are actually collections of translations of many Latin authors, and one is about Horace, not simply translations).

    Latin poets are tough to translate without applying some interpretive (imitative?) art because – as the introduction to McClatchy’s book points out – Latin is an inflected language where the endings of the word matter more than the word’s position in the sentence. Very much the opposite of English. Horace could move words around for better rhythm and rhyme, yet not lose the meaning. That’s hard to do quite so well in English. Eyres mentions some of this, too, in Horace and Me.

    But aside from the technical issue, the collection is important because it again gives us another way to read Horace and poetry. Those are things we should not lose in this busy, distracted world.


    Picked up The Book of J by Bloom and Rosenberg at the local used book store. A very different, poetic translation from those I’ve read in the past. I skimmed through some of the notes and commentary – the majority of the book – last night, too. Very interesting approach. I was keenly interested in how the translator approached Genesis – a work that has been translated many, many times before and which are the source of much contention about intent and accuracy. I found Rosenberg’s translation remarkably easy to read and moving. A far cry from the old King James edition.

    For a non-religious guy, I sure have a lot of books about it. I’m also reading The Year of Living religiously and wanted to read in parallel some of what Jacobs wrote about. This may not be the best choice because it doesn’t hew to standard religious lines. But yet it felt better to read.

  3. Pingback: Back to Horace No. 2 – Scripturient

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