Traduttore, Traditore

I’ve been surfing around on the net trying to find some translations of the works of Hafiz, Rumi, and maybe also Kabir.  My criteria are that such translations

1.  Be public domain if possible, so I can post them here either after I finish the Rubáiyát or can intersperse them here and there, and more importantly

2.  Be actual translsations.

It is in this regard that I’ve titled this post “Traduttore, Traditore”, which is a well-known Italian phrase meaning, “The translator is a traitor.”  In other words, no matter how skilled one is, and no matter how hard one tries, it is never possible to make a perfect translation from one language to another without either leaving out subtle nuances present in the original, or adding connotations not originally present in the text.  Anyone who has ever studied a foreign language knows this.  It is especially obvious to any who have tried to translate something beyond a sentence or two from one language to another; and if, God help you, you translate poetry–well, this aphorism is all too painfully true.  However, there is a difference between the treason committed against the original inadvertently and automatically just by the nature of different languages and the enterprise of translation itself, and the deliberate treachery committed by those who don’t even translate in the first place.  I have in mind Stephen Mitchell, Coleman Barks, and others like them.  Both of these have sold lots of books and become pretty well-known and even well-liked not for actually translating books, but for paraphrasing works based on multiple existing English translations and then selling the result under their own names. The latter is known as a “translator” of Rumi, and has sold plenty of books of such “translations”.

Now in Mitchell’s case, he has produced real translations, for example the ones he’s published of Rainer Maria Rilke (which translations are said to be quite good).  However, he has also put out “translations” of the Daode Jing, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Epic of Gilgamesh without knowing the Classical Chinese, Sanskrit, or Sumerian and Akkadian necessary for such undertakings.  In the preface to one of these–I think it was the Daode Jing–he even said that though he didn’t know the language, he’d practiced meditation for many years and this gave him increased insight into how to render it in English!  There have been times in my life that I have meditated rather intensively, and it would have been nice had I thereby obtained greater insight into languages I don’t actually know; but I haven’t noticed that to happen yet!

More recently, the great SF writer Urula K. LeGuin has published a version of the Daode Jing.  In the introduction, she somewhat pompously describes the  language of actual translations as “degraded” and states her intention to produce a version that will be accessible to a “present day unwise, unpowerful, and perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul.”  Which, I presume, she can provide.

Now before I rant and rave, I should introduce some nuance.  In some cases a translation is a true collaboration.  Two people will work on it, one of whom actually knows the source language, and another who may or may not have expertise in the source language but who is an effective writer in the target language.  The first provides the interpretation of the source to the target and the latter polishes it for literary style.  At every point there is communication back and forth to ensure that the result is both literary and readable, on the one hand, and as faithful to the original as possible, on the other.  This was the basic philosophy used in making the New English Bible, to give a well-known example.  I have no problems with this approach.

There is also the genre of “creative re-imaginings” or “retellings” of an original work.  I’m not talking about a mere paraphrase, but more a rendering of a well-known work in a manner more accessible to the target audience, or in a way that seeks to create a particular effect or to clarify what has too often been rendered in “translator-ese”.  Novels, poems, or story collections based on original sources (examples are as diverse as Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King) do not claim to be translations nor to be based on traditional scholarship.  Rather, they seek to make the old stories come alive to children, modern adults, people who might not otherwise read the classics, or those who might use the works as stepping stones to the originals.  I would also include in this category Ron Hogan’s interesting Tao and the excellent and fascinating no-nonsense renderings of Gnostic works by Jeremy Puma.

In my opinion, The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu, by Witter Bynner, belongs in this category.  Bynner spent several years working with a native Chinese speaker on translations of Chinese poetry, in the collaborative manner described above.  When he came to translate the Daode Jing (Tao Teh Ching), his collaborator was no longer available, having been jailed in China.  However, Bynner worked from existing translations in light of his experience, and his collaborator did get to see and validate the work before his death.  This was, in fact, the first “translation” of the Daode Jing that I read, and it made a profound impact on me.  I have since read several translations, including a re-read of Bynner’s.  For accuracy and scholarship, I tend towards the translations of the late D. C. Lau and Victor H. Mair (who come from vastly different perspectives); and I think parts of Bynner’s version are problematic.  Still, I think it is overall not bad, and parts of it are among the most effective renderings of Laozi that I’ve ever read.

Anyway, the thing about Mitchell and co. that irritates me so much is that their stuff gets marketed as translations, though they’re not; a lot of people who are interested in things like the Gita or the Daode Jing are reading these “translations” without realizing the lack of scholarship;  and these guys are being all popous about how, though they’re using others’ work, they are the ones who really, reeealy understand these texts.  Since I abide by rules of intellectual property, I will (when and if I can find appropriate translations of Rumi, Hafiz, et. al.) post only public-domain translations; but even if that wasn’t an issue, I’d never put up anything by Mitchell or Barks, just on principle.

What’s funny is that Mitchell could have made a career of really translating things from German and other languages that he actually knows.  It’s also odd that respected and established writers do the same thing.  I mean, Ursula LeGuin didn’t have to produce her own personal Daode Jing–she could have comissioned a translation and written a preface; and Robert Bly has published well-received translations from Germanic languages (to say nothing of his own original prose and poetry), and then had to go and “translate” Kabir from Hindi (which of course Bly doesn’t know).  Whatever the reason, it’s a phenomenon that really bugs me.  It also bugs me that their stuff tends to crowd out real translations, and it’s often hard to find a good, genuine translation of Rumi or Hafiz or Kabir.  There are several late 19th and early 20th Century translations of these worthies available, but many of them do reek of Victorian or Edwardian fake Medieval diction and drippy sentimentalism.  Still, I’d tend to take these over translations that aren’t really translations.

Now, astute readers might question if I’m being consistent here.  After all, I’m posting the quatrains translated by Edward Fitzgerald as The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.  Of course, it was famously said of this that it amounted to The Rubáiyát of FitzOmar, on the grounds of his alleged looseness, and there’s something to be said for that.  However, there are some important differences.  Fitzgerald did, in fact, know Persian, and knew it quite well.  From his letters, he took the scholarship very seriously and even correctly made textual emendations to existing manuscripts and rejected some of the quatrains as not by Omar, judgements which were later confirmed by scholarly consensus.  He also labored long and hard over his work, revising it through four editions over the last couple decades of his life, and a fifth published posthumously.  It is also important to keep in mind that Fitzgerald was a proponent of what we’d now call “dynamic equivalence translation” at a time when “formal equivalence” was considered the norm.  Most importantly, he was upfront about combining and paraphrasing some of the verses and arranging them into a “loose Eclogue”.  Certainly, he never claimed some deep and special insight denied other translators (though he did view Omar as a kindred spirit), nor did he make a career of churning out scads of “translations” to suit the popular taste.  He did do other translations (also in what we’d call a “dynamic equivalence” mode), but more as a gentlemanly hobby than a cottage industry.  For all these reasons, as well as the nostalgic soft spot I still have for his Rubáiyát, I’m much more inclined to give him a pass than I am Mitchell, Barks, LeGuin, or Bly.

So, to conclude, I think we need more translators, and fewer traitors!

Posted on 24/08/2012, in language and linguistics, literature, poetry and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

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