31 May 2010

TSR: Vinay and Darbelnet

Writing in 1958, Vinay and Darbelnet proposed certain methodological concepts for use by translators. Their work was apparently hugely influential, and on the surface is practical and untheoretical. For the sake of reference, I'll list here the seven procedures they outlined. They start from the viewpoint that translation is easy until you meet lacunae - gaps where there is no direct equivalent in the target language. How do you cope with these gaps?

1. Borrowing. If you can get away with it, use the foreign term. Sometimes the foreign term will be established in the target language already, making this a fait accompli. Otherwise you may need to stretch the target language a little.

2. Calque. A calque is where a foreign phrase is reassembled in the target language using simple translations of the elements of the original phrase. I suppose that's what German did with television to Fernsehen.

3. Literal translation. I don't really understand why this is listed here. It really belongs to the pre-lacuna stage. The comments here, though, do say that literal translation can go from the more specific to the more general or vice versa. Also by literal translation they include translation of common phrases. At the simplest level would be a phrase like "of course" where it would be folly to attempt a word by word rendering. At a move complex level, a phrase like "leave it on the back burner" probably has a well-used equivalent in other languages, which may be nothing to do with simmering. I guess the point is that literal translation operates at a level above individual words, which must be true, but begs several questions.

4. Transposition. Where a grammatical formation in the source language is altered. Many examples spring to mind. "Avant son arrivée", for example, might read better as "before s/he arrived".

5. Modulation. Not very different from transposition. Here there's a "change in the point of view", generally to make the translation more natural. An example would be the way the pronoun "on" is used much more in French than "one" in English. So if a character says "On y va?", it's much better if that's translated as "Shall we go?", even though both the tense and the pronoun are changed.

6. Equivalence. This seems to me more like the more complex version of literal translation. One example given is "too many cooks spoil the broth", translated into French as "deux patrons font chavirer la barque", where there are no cooks. It's literal translation at phrase level.

7. Adaptation. This is the remotest, and the most problematic technique. When an action does not fit into the translation language context, it may be changed. There's a weird example quoted of an interpreter recasting a comparison with cricket into terms based on the Tour de France. Personally, that seems like a highly dangerous approach, and it's in this area, I realise, that I tend to get riled most often. It's by way of adaptation that "cien metros" becomes "100 yards" and in the film Central Station the charge for writing a letter is "one buck".

In the introduction, Venuti mutters darkly about Vinay and Darbelnet's inherent conservatism. I think he may be meaning the apparent laxity they show towards the use of adaptation. (Incidentally, Venuti's section introductions are written in an entirely inappropriate present historic tense. Talking about Nabokov, he writes "few English-language translators at the time follow [his] uncompromising example". And he means "followed".  At "that" time. Twat.)

TSR: Nabokov

Nabokov's contribution is a note about his attempt to create a translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (though even the spelling of that is moot). Nabokov brings a poet's ear to the task initially, examining the different ways in which Russian and English use stress, consonants etc. And this contributes to his final view that it is impossible to translate Onegin into English verse. His concept of translation, then, is overwhelmingly concerned with meaning, and he's quite happy to separate meaning and form. So, he has to sacrifice the music of Pushkin's original, and settle for a series of footnotes which describe "the modulations and rhymes of the text as well as its associations and other special features". Which is contrary: explaining the effect of rhyme etc is like explaining a joke. In practice, it's the kind of translation I'd like, because I don't have a particularly high regard for the music of poetry; but a lot of people do.

As Venuti's introduction points out, Nabokov has in mind as a reader of his translation himself, or someone very much like him. To the extent that early in the piece, reflecting on the alternative versions and deleted stanzas, he says:
All this matter, as well as Pushkin's own commentaries, the variants, epigraphs, dedications, and so forth, must be of course translated too, in appendices and notes.
Of course.

30 May 2010

TSR: Benjamin, Pound, Borges

So I'm looking again at Walter Benjamin's essay on "The task of the translator" (see earlier comments). Here it's accompanied by notes on the translation, which make it clear that the translator, Harry Zohn, made some basic errors (omitting to translate a "nicht" is the grossest example), and doesn't seem to have understood Benjamin's argument. Well, I can forgive him for that, even if a second reading has made it clearer, if no more plausible. (Compared to Schleiermacher, it's lucid and limpid.) We are stuck with Zohn's translation for copyright reasons. And I noticed a tiny difference in this book. I earlier quoted this passage;

A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, [...]
Here the word block is replaced by black, which is probably just a misprint, but who knows?

Read in this context, following from Schleiermacher, it's easier to see how this piece fits into a developing theory of translation and its purposes. I think without getting hung up on the concept of "pure language", we can see that Benjamin is putting language at the centre of literary activity, including writing as well as translating. Every act of writing or translating serves to improve, extend or refine language (in general) and the translating language in particular.

By the way, one of the translation faults was the omission of a reference to "messianisch".

The piece by Pound is a typically feisty note on translating Cavalcanti.

The Borges article is on translations of the 1001 Nights. Borges values translations (like Burton's) that use the richness of the translating language and its literature. Apparently the language of the 1001 Nights is quite impoverished, and a straight translation would be dull, apart from the rudeness and the anecdotes themselves. He seems perfectly happy for translations to be improvements.

27 May 2010

TSR: Goethe, Nietzsche

The first section of TSR, "Foundational Statements" ends with two short pieces, by Goethe and Nietzsche.

Goethe says there are three kinds of translation. The goal of the ideal translation is "to achieve perfect identity with the original, so that the one does not exist instead of the other but in the other's place." I wonder what the German is here; what's the actual difference between "instead of" and "in the place of"?

The very short Nietzsche extract from The Gay Science is fairly unremarkable except in its identification of translation with imperialism. For examples, ancient Romans translated extensively:
They did not know the delights of the historical sense; what was past and alien was an embarrassment for them; and being Romans, they saw it as an incentive for a Roman conquest. Indeed translation was a form of conquest.

So this section has covered over 1500 years, when people had theories about translation, but generally seem to have rubbed along. We now move to the 20th century, when things change.

TSR: Dryden, Schleiermacher

I looked at Friedrich Schleiermacher while reading The Translator's Invisibility, and wasn't convinced. TSR contains the essay "On the different methods of translating" so I can now see exactly the point Schleiermacher was making. Or can I? It's a ponderous piece of writing, with at least two paragraphs that are three pages long. The paragraph that begins on page 46 of this volume, for example, works up to a claim that there are two alternatives: paraphrase and imitation, and then discusses each of these within the same paragraph. Oh, I'd be inclined to forgive the translator who broke this text up.

But it then moves on the main point: there is a choice between two strategies:

either the translator leaves the author in peace as much as possible and moves the reader towards him; or he leaves the reader in peace as much as possible and moves the writer towards him.

But then, I think, Schleiermacher is misled by his own metaphor. Only one of these "paths" can be followed because:

any attempt to combine them being certain to produce a highly unreliable result and to carry with it the danger that writer and reader might miss each other completely.

He, as we saw earlier, goes for the first choice for reasons of improvement; of the reader and of the culture that refreshes itself on the new concepts that initially seem so alien.

Reading this now, after my canter through modern literary theory, I'm struck by how much he refers to the writer, rather than the text.

Earlier, John Dryden's introduction to translations of Ovid was a much livelier read. It's a contrast with d'Ablancourt, in that it pretty much says that translations should be warts'n'all although "the sence of an Authour, generally speaking, is to be Sacred and inviolable"

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.

26 May 2010

New fuel

I've neglected this blog and the work behind it recently, but today brought me two new books that ought to get me going. On the right, and following up on my last post is the collection of essays by ARG on the new novel. The immediate impression is of the lovely design. The covers are simple card with, as you can see, simple and authoritative typography. Inside, the text has what I guess is the original setting, with an unpretentious and so far timeless serif font. Also, ARG's prose is beautifully straightforward. I'm looking forward to reading this.

The second book in the Amazon package was The Translation Studies Reader, a collection of pieces dating from St Jerome onwards. Again, it's a beautifully produced book. A large format, and cleverly using serif for the essays, and sans for the commentaries. So far I've read the piece by St Jerome, which is surprisingly alive. He wrote in defence of his own translation practice in response to an attack. He went on to produce the standard Latin version of the Bible, so he's an important figure. The introduction to this section of the book says that St Augustine had an interesting view of translation. The septuagint, which was the Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures prepared in the third century BC, was, to him, more accurate than the Hebrew original, because it was divinely (re-)inspired. (As if God needed the opportunity to make some revisions.)

More comments on both these books will follow, you can be sure of that.

13 May 2010


A short post, this, just to anchor this link to a comment on Alain Robbe-Grillet's essays on the novel. It's coincidental that he's quoted as saying:
the genuine writer has nothing to say. He has only a way of speaking
which is similar to what Susan Sontag said. She'd also echo his view that most novels written today are no advance on Flaubert, technically. She was talking about the twentieth century American novel, and I'd rather read this

than any exquisite examination of the human condition. (It's Alasdair Gray's 1982 Janine.)

05 May 2010

Against Interpretation

I've got this out of the library, and before talking about it, I want to slag off Penguin books once again.

This collection of essays dates from 1966, so once again there's no new material in it to justify the cover price of £12. In fact, Penguin haven't even reset the text. My picture shows the start of one essay, with what's a really dated (and American) use of sansserif chapter heading and a really ugly Bodoni-ish initial capital.

So the only new content is the cover, which is admittedly very stylish. No-one should have to pay £12 for this, and presumably no-one does. Which means that small independent bookshops don't have a chance of making profit on backlist like this.

The book begins with two essays that have related themes. The first, "Against Interpretation" attacks the idea that the purpose of criticism is to interpret works; the point is to show how the works achieve their effect. The second, "On Style", initially sets out to examine the theoretically professed view that you can't separate style and content, compared with the pretty universal critical practice of doing so. It wanders a bit, but the essential argument is that works of art aren't statements; they don't exist to provide information, or to improve public morals, but to provoke reflections, comtemplation.

Interesting stuff, which I largely like. But I still wouldn't have paid twelve quid for it.

PS After publishing this post, it occurred to me that in talking about the typography I might indeed be looking at style or form as opposed to content. Irony, there.