by Richard Nilsen
Make a list of the world’s great literature, those books that by common consent, “you should have read.”
On that list, you will most likely find such things as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, Homer’s Iliad, Garcia Marquez’s Cien años de soledad, Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, Lady Murasaki’s Tales of Genji,and Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
All these works have something in common: They weren’t written in English. To dive into them, unless you have learned to speak Russian, French, Latin, Japanese, you must get them in translation. In English, you get the gist of the story, but cannot get the fine points of the language. And how do you convey in English, in War and Peace, for instance, the shift from Russian to French? Do you do both in English? Then how do you demonstrate the difference? No problem for The World’s Most Interesting Man, since, according to the TV ad, “he can speak Russian — in French!”
This isn’t just a question of literature. The basic religious texts of most major beliefs come in translation. This is of dire importance when Christian fundamentalists base life-or-death questions on versions of their holy books that may distort or utterly change the intent of words in Hebrew and Greek. Perhaps this is the source of the apocryphal quote (attributed to many people, but most often Texas’ first female governor, Miriam Ferguson: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it should be good enough for the children of Texas.”)
For such matters, the question of translation is, well, fundamental. This can be a problem when even scholars can argue over the meaning of now-obscure ancient Hebrew. Some words in any such translation are little more than guesses. What is it the burning bush tells Moses? “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” A solid and direct translation simply isn’t possible. In English, we most often use the King James version: “I am that I am,” which is a great line and great literature, and nearly Buddhist in its “thusness” (Tathātā), but the original is rather more muddy. It may mean “I will be with you,” or it may mean “He who causes things to be.” Translator Everett Fox says that the phrase is “deliberately vague” and that “the syntax is difficult.” He give us, “I will be-there howsoever I will be-there.”
More familiar to Christians is the opening of John: “In the beginning was the word.” There are at least two problems in translating this. First, “en arche” in Greek means something more equivocal. It can mean “When things began,” or simply, “a long time ago,” or “Once upon a time.” A good modern English version might be “When it all started…” The Greek doesn’t so much posit the Creation of Genesis, a moment of the Big Bang, but a sense that things have been like this for a long time.
More important is the second part: “The word.” This has become a quasi-mystical tenet of some Christian sects, with preachers holding the Bible in their hands and assuming that “The Word,” is “The Word of God,” i.e., the very Bible they are preaching from. But in John’s Greek, “ho logos” doesn’t simply mean “word,” as a noun, verb or adjective, but rather means the larger idea of language and by extension it means “system” — a grammar and syntax. It is in this sense we use it in such words as “biology” and “geology.” We mean the systematic study of life or rocks. Language is a system of rules into which you can dump whatever words need to be said. The rules pre-exist the content. The writer of the Gospel most likely is saying that in the beginning was what was potential, like an unfilled application form, and God filled out the system of possible with his creation. And God, in fact he says, IS the system, or in other words, the laws of physics. So, how do we best translate “en arche hen ho logos?” And more, how can we translate it into something readable, and not go off on a treatise on ancient Greek world views?
Translators are always facing such issues, even when turning À la recherche du temps perdu into Remembrance of Things Past. Do they give us the literal meaning of the foreign words? Or do they give us some idiomatic English equivalent? Two schools exist. Many critics have noted that the newer, more literal translation of Proust is notably less poetic than the C.K. Scott Moncrieff version that has been the standard in English since 1922. The French title translates rather flatly into English as “On the search for lost time,” almost like the title of a graduate student’s dissertation. Moncrieff borrowed a line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 and gave the title a resonance in English that the original lacks.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought …
The problem isn’t usually the meaning of the words translated, but their weight and heft in the culture that spawned them. Certain words in English vibrate to their historical usage. We can hardly use such a word as “liberty” without thinking of Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry. The word has a flavor in English different from its synonym “freedom,” which has its own resonance. Liberty is personal and implies a lack of constraints; freedom is the removal of previously existing constraints. Most synonyms carry different baggage and a good writer must be aware of those connotations. Otherwise is to be tone deaf.
There are words that poets use in German literature, or French that carry such cultural baggage and when we translate them into English that extra layer of meaning is lost. Should we attempt to substitute something in English that has the same kind of emotional wallop, or should we stick to the original wording. If we translate Holly Golightly into French, and have her window shopping, the French reader will assume she is looking for a glazier — i.e., shopping for windows. If the original had been French and we translated it “licking the glass,” we’d assume Holly was more than slightly daft.
(It should be noted that there are two classes of literature, and one can be successfully translated, since the quality of the book depends on what is being said. Hence, a good translation of the Iliad or The Count of Monte Cristocan work just fine in a new language, because the story is paramount. But that other class of writing, where the effect depends on how it is being said can defy the best translator. I have never found a good translation of Goethe, for instance. In English, his poetry often sounds commonplace. But I am assured by a native German speaker that Goethe’s poetry is the best from his country by being written in the most elegant of German language. Horace in Latin is similar; in English you wonder what the fuss is all about; in Latin, it is the height of sophistication and elegance.)
I want to give a small example of a translation problem. Consider the first four lines — the invocation — to Ovid’sMetamorphoses, which is surely the most influential of all classical books on European literature.
Ovid is fluent and clear in Latin; it is one of his hallmarks. But because Latin is an inflected language, the word order can be jiggered around for poetic effect without losing the meaning. In fact, he can — as many classical authors do — hold his most important word till the end of the sentence, like a punchline to a joke.
In Latin, the lines read:
In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
Corpora. Di, coeptis nam mutastis et illas
Adspriate meis primaque ab origine mundi
Ad mea perpetuum deducite tempora carmen.
If we attempt to give this in English, word for word, it is gibberish:
In new, bears my mind changed I speak of forms
into bodies. Gods, my enterprise (for you changed also them)
blow my our priority beginning of the world
unto my keeping going our times poem.
If we rearrange the words into something that makes sense, it reads:
To start, my aim is to speak of forms changed
into bodies. May the gods inspire me (for it was you who did the changing)
to keep my song going unbroken from the beginning of the world
to my present time.
You get the sense, but is still lumpy, because there are things left understood in the original that a translator must add, and then, to make it run smooth, you may have to elaborate some idea that Ovid has left spare.
We can gloss a few of Ovid’s subtleties. For instance, he doesn’t say “change bodies into new forms,” but the opposite, “change forms into new bodies,” which is technically a hypallage, which means, the has metamorphosed the meaning. Clever bastard. “Adspirate meis” implies the wind blowing into the sails of ships, but also the inspiration that poets exhort at the beginning of an epic. “Deducite” means to draw like a chain, to pull it taut, implying (as he succeeds in doing) that all the tales in his poem will connect and stretch out over the length of the book. This is underlined by “perpetuum … carmen,” a continuous, unbroken poem. You might best translate the final line as “Chain together my unbroken song from the beginning of time to now.”
The first translation in English was by Arthur Golding in 1567. It is the version Shakespeare cribbed from. He has:
Of shapes transformde to bodies straunge, I propose to entreate,
Ye gods vouchsafe (for you are they ywrought this wondrous feate)
To further this mine enterprise. And from the world begunne,
Graunt that my verse may to my time, his course directly runne.
Did you catch the hint of Chaucer in those last few words — “the Ram in his half-course yronne”?
In 1632, George Sandys published his influential version:
Of bodies chang’d to other shapes I sing.
Assist, you Gods (from you these changes spring)
And, from the Worlds first fabrick to these times,
Deduce my never-discontinued Rymes.
There is surely a hint of the opening of the Aeneid (“Of arms and the man I sing…”) It helps establish theMetamorphoses as an epic.
The next important translation was a group effort by a team of translators including John Dryden and Alexander Pope:
Of Bodies chang’d to various Forms I sing:
Ye Gods, from whom these Miracles did spring,
Inspire my Numbers with Coelestial heat;
Till I my long laborious Work compleat;
And add perpetual Tenour to my Rhimes,
Deduc’d from Nature’s Birth, to Caesar’s Times.
A more Victorian effort comes from Brookes More (1859-1942), published in 1922, rather late for the antimacassar style:
My soul is wrought to sing of forms transformed
To bodies new and strange! Immortal Gods
Inspire my heart, for ye have changed yourselves
And all things you have changed! Oh lead my song
In smooth and measured strains, from olden days
When earth began to this completed time!
I have to stop here, because my keyboard has run out of exclamation points. And I’m sure this is more of Ovid’s first four line than you ever wanted, needed, hoped or feared to have suffered. Sorry for that. But I wanted to give some sense as to the difficulties in getting all of one language into the bottle of another. If you cannot read the original, you must accept getting a lesser version. Or at least a different version: Arachne has changed into a spider, Daphne into a tree. But for many works, that is better than none at all.
Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic. A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina. We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal. We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.