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27 May 2010

TSR: Jerome, D'Ablancourt

The first piece is, as I've said, by St Jerome and dates from the end of the 4th century. The background was that Jerome had provided a private translation of a letter sent by Pope Epiphanus from Greek into Latin. The letter, to Bishop John of Jerusalem, had included a discussion of possible heresy. The translation had been leaked, and people had accused Jerome of mistranslation. His letter is an angry rebuttal of that. I think the anger and the intensity of Jerome's argument must come from the fact that this was an issue concerned with heresy, where there were big risks. The accusation, which Jerome accepts, is that he did not translate each word accurately. He argues that he translated sense for sense, not word for word. He quotes several examples from the Bible, where for example Jesus quotes the Old Testament somewhat inaccurately, to establish the validity of his method.

In researching this, I came across the septuagint, something I'd never heard of before, and it seems to me that here there are more theological questions involved than translational ones. The septuagint was a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, made around 300BC. The tradition is that 70 scholars worked independently on the translation, but all the translations were identical, proving that the scholars had been divinely inspired. This was why Augustine (and many others) thought than any "inaccuracies" were improvements. Jerome's later translation of the Old Testament (the Vulgate) was not bound by the septuagint, so he clearly disagreed.

Jerome's argument about his translation of the Pope's letter implicitly accepts that word for word translation doesn't work, and that concepts within one language may not have a direct equivalent in another, so some sort of paraphrase becomes necessary. Augustine's position would seem to accept that, but he sees divine inspiration as helping in the act of paraphrase. Jerome seems to be in a more modern position: the source words contain the meaning and are a sufficient indicator of the writer's intention - even when the writer is God. He basically doesn't see that the process of translating the Bible is structurally different from translating a Pope's letter.

The second selection, two pieces by Nicolas Perrot d'Ablancourt, gives a different view. They are prefaces to two translations from Latin and Greek: Tacitus and Lucian. He argues that it is legitimate to make changes to the original in order to make it clearer or to make it more fitting for contemporary tastes (he was writing in the mid-17th century - the time of Racine and Corneille). He tackles some of the things that bother me: should he translate currency terms, for example? His answer is no, but for a strange reason, which is that the figures would be silly. Arminius, at one stage, proposes a reward of a hundred sesterces. That's a plausible round figure, whereas the equivalent figure in contemporary currency would be seven livres and ten sous, which isn't. He also talks about translating names, and accepts the French practice of frenchifying names like Marc Antoine, while accepting that it's inconsistent. It seems to me this is very much in line with the Académie's attempt to mould classical drama into something suitable for 17th century France. French wikipedia shows that d'Ablancourt's translations were the first to be labelled "belle infidèle", so even at that time, his approach was questioned.

The second piece, on Lucian, is more interesting. He freely admits that he has changed the content of some pieces to remove Lucian's references to homosexuality, for example. And where one piece was wholly untranslatable, he's substituted a piece of his own invention.

D'Ablancourt's clear intention is to give the contemporary reader something like the same experience an original reader would have had. He accepts that he's on the border between translating and adapting, but asserts he stays the right side of the line. I think the position of that line moves, and currently, as evidenced by the use of Ted Hughes's "version" of Phedre, it's moving back towards him.

French wikipedia shows that d'Ablancourt's translations were the first to be labelled "belle infidèle", so even at that time, his approach was questioned.

Before I close this post, one point about Venuti's translation of d'Ablancourt. In his brief note of Lucian's life, d'Ablancourt says "his father, lacking the means to maintain him, resolved that he should learn a métier". Why "métier"? It's not in italics, and the word "trade" would be a simpler translation.

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