Sunday, September 19, 2010

Untranslatability: Louise Labé

Both unable to find "Zur Frage der Übersetzungskunst" and unable to ignore Friedrich's missing analysis of "Sonnet IV" by Louise Labé, I went off in search of the original poem and meanwhile came across some interesting translations.

I had to refresh my memory on French poetry (days of counting and miscounting syllables in French sonnets still haunt me) and fortunately Labé's "Sonnet IV" is pretty straightforward.  It is a Petrarchan (Italian) sonnet, thus consisting of eight lines (two quatrains) of proposition followed by six lines (two tercets) of resolution, following the rhyme scheme 
abbaabbaccdeed.  Each line consists of ten syllables.*  Additionally, French Petrarchan sonnets contained césures mid-way through each line, 5-5 syllables, 4-6 or 6-4.

Louise Labé was a French poet of the 16th century, the daughter of a rope-maker, who also went by the name La Belle Cordière.  There is some scholarship that posits she – and her poetry – was a creation of various French poets in her native Lyon.

While reading these translations and with an air toward divining Friedrich's potential commentary, keep in mind these all-encompassing, philosophically-inspired questions pertaining to translation that he brought up early on:
• Is translation something that concerns the cultural interaction of an entire nation with another?   • Is translation just the reaction of one writer to another?  • Does translation resurrect and revitalize a forgotten work, or does it just keep a work alive to satisfy tradition?  • Does translation distort the foreign in an old work under the pressure of specific contemporary aesthetic views?  • Do translators pay close attention to the differences inherent in language or do they ignore them?  • Does the translation create levels of meaning that were not necessarily visible in the original text so that the translated text reaches a higher level of aesthetic existence?  • What is the relationship between translation and interpretation: when do the two meet and when does translation follow its own laws?

Depuis qu'Amour cruel empoisonna
Premièrement de son feu ma poitrine,
Toujours brûlai de sa fureur divine,
Qui un seul jour mon coeur n'abandonna.

Quelque travail, dont assez me donna,
Quelque menace et prochaine ruine,
Quelque penser de mort qui tout termine,
De rien mon coeur ardent ne s'étonna.

Tant plus qu'Amour nous vient fort assaillir,
Plus il nous fait nos forces recueillir,
Et toujours frais en ses combats fait être;

Mais ce n'est pas qu'en rien nous favorise,
Cil qui les Dieux et les hommes méprise, 
Mais pour plus fort contre les forts paraître.

If you look closely, you'll likely notice that this is actually a re-writing of the Old French version – e.g., méprise vs. mesprise. 

Translated by: Peter Low

Since first cruel Eros poisoned me with fire,
piercing my breast and kindling passion in it,
I’ve burnt with a god-sent frenzy of desire
that has not left me for a single minute.

No tortures - and I’ve felt enough of those! -
no threats that my whole world would fall apart,
not even thoughts of death’s eternal close,
nothing could cool the ardour of my heart.

The more that god assails us hard and long,
the more he makes us sturdier and braver -
we’re really at our freshest in these battles.

But this he does never as grace or favour
(he only knows contempt for gods and mortals):
it’s just to prove he’s stronger than the strong.

Perhaps in an effort to mimic some of the feminine rhymes of Labé's b lines, Low integrates feminine rhymes into his first quatrain: "in it" and "minute" is successful; "with fire" and "desire" not so much.  However – again – my knowledge of feminine rhymes is limited.  The first line, in fact, has only ten syllables, thus preventing it from being an accurate feminine rhyme at all.  In general, Low has chosen not to follow Labé's rhyme scheme, electing instead abab cdcd efg hie or possibly hge?  Style aside, in the first quatrain alone, Low replaces "Amour" with "Eros," reiterates the "fire" theme – Labé's "feu" becomes "fire" and inspires the gerund "kindling" –, and the frenzy or "fureur" that has not left her for a day – "un jour" –, now has not left her for even a "minute."  This certainly has to be one of the "new levels of meaning" Friedrich talks about.  The Labé I picture from the French is less active and more resigned.  She tells herself to buck up and carry on because daily she feels a lingering passion.  If she felt it every minute, I think this would be a very different poem.

Translated by: James Kirkup

Ever since Love first
darted poison in my breast,
his divine fury
- never cast out from my heart -
never ceases to burn me.

And however much
I tried, and however hard,
even menaced by
impending ruin, the thoughts
of death, that ends all, never

struck my ardent heart.
- The more Love comes to Plague us
the more we must build
powers of stiff resistance
to fight his battles always

with renewed vigour.
Yet we are not without aid -
He who despises
both God and his fellow men
appears stronger than the strong.

I got this from the same website that supplied me with Peter Low's translation.  Kirkup has elected to translate Labé's sonnet into a Japanese-English tanka (is it actually a Japanese tanka if it's in English?).  The tanka is an ancient Japanese poetry form consisting of five lines, with the syllabic patterns, 5-7-5-7-7.  What would have impressed me most about this, would have been if the development and prevalence of the tanka had occurred around the same time as the development of Petrarch's sonnet form.  Alas, it's anywhere from a couple hundred to six hundred years off.  What a tanka does bring to the English translation is the foreign element.  From Friedrich's remarks at the end of his chapter in Theories of Translation, I think it's possible to classify this translation as an over-elevated work.  It over exoticizes a French sonnet into a 7th century Japanese tanka, interpreted through English eyes.  However, much as the form startles me (you could say it "distort[s] the foreign in an old work under the pressure of specific contemporary aesthetic views"), I think Kirkup captures the meaning very well.  A line like "De rien mon coeur ardent ne s'étonna" doesn't have a good, word-for-word English translation and the verb "s'étonner" – literally, "to be surprised" or shocked – turns up in various completely different forms, as in: "cool" from "nothing could cool the ardour of my heart" (Low); "struck" from "death, that ends all, never/struck my ardent heart" (Kirkup); "make no move" from "And so I sigh although I make no move" (Park); and – Brownie point award goes to – "war niemals überrascht" from "mein Herz in Glut war niemals überrascht" (Rilke).  Many congratulations to Rilke for managing to use the verb "überraschen," which means, of course, "to surprise."

Translated by: Alice Park

When Love arrives, I hide myself away, 
Though filled by burning torments of desire,
That scorch and sear and scar my breast with fire,
And flames devour my heart both night and day.

O how I feel the harsh travails of Love!
The wounds and devastating dreams of death
Descend on me whenever I draw breath,
And so I sigh although I make no move.

The more Love comes, the more I am besieged.
I gather up my forces, yet I fear
The crack in my defenses may be fatal.

O archer Love, who scorns both gods and mortals,
You draw your bow and aim your shafts for all,
Then stab our hearts despite our fortress walls.

Park has obviously attempted to replicate Labé's rhyme scheme more so than Low or Kirkup.  The octave is comprised of an abba cddc pattern which, considering the comparative shortage of rhyming words in English, is an understandable deviation from Labé's abba abba.  After all, English doesn't have the luxury of all those matching verb endings.  However, what we are confronted with, again, is an alteration of, if not the "meaning," that which is explicitly stated in the original sonnet.  Labé makes no mentions of Love's continuous arrival.  Park's translation could easily be interpreted in such a way as to suggest that the narrator is often plagued by and singled out by Love.  "When Love comes, I hide myself away."  I would hide myself away, too, if I had a persistent divine guest poisoning my breast with his fire.  But Labé's poem doesn't talk about this at all.  In fact, if anything, the poem says that we must be steadfast against the labors Love sends our way, matching his challenges with fresh fight.  A good deal of Park's poem deviates from Labé's content.  It reminds me of the way Malherbe filled out Seneca's Lucilius letters, changing the short, unconnected style, to long, flowing prose with ample description.

Translated by: Rainer Maria Rilke

Seitdem der Gott zuerst das ungeheuer
glühende Gift** in meine Brust mir sandte,
verging kein Tag, da ich davon nicht brannte
und dastand, innen voll von seinem Feuer.

Ob er mit Drohungen nach mir gehascht,
mir Mühsal auflud, mehr als nötig, oder
mir zeigte, wie es endet: Tod und Moder –,
mein Herz in Glut war niemals überrascht.

Je mehr der Gott uns zusetzt, desto mehr
sind unsre Kräfte unser. Wir verdingen
nach jedem Kampf uns besser als vorher.

Der uns und Göttern übermag, ist denen
Geprüften nicht ganz schlecht: er will sie zwingen,
sich an den Starken stärker aufzulehnen.

I don't speak, read, or write German.  I recognize words like seitdemGottTagichFeuer, etc. so I obviously can't provide any substantial commentary on Rilke's translation.  I can, though, deduce that the rhyme scheme is significantly closer than any of the other translations I found – abba cddc efe gfg –, that words like überrascht are better choices than "I make no move" (the complete opposite of transitivity!), and that – most importantly of all – this is a translation of Labé's Sonnet IV.  Skillful.  However, I suppose that this actually puts me back at square one with Friedrich's speech.  Just what would he say about this?

*(In theory.  If someone with better French poetry skills than mine could point out to me how these lines contain ten syllables, I would be much obliged: "Plus il nous fait nos forces recueillir" and "Cil que les dieux et les hommes méprise."  Fortunately, these two lines occur [intentionally?] in analogous places, but by my calculation they only contain nine syllables.  Can one say "homm-es" and "forc-es"?)

** Doubtless "Gift" is my favorite faux ami of all time.  It means "poison."

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Hugo Friedrich: On the Art of Translation

The first text included in Theories of Translation, "On the Art of Translation," is a speech given on July 24, 1965 in Heidelberg by Hugo Friedrich, a professor of Romance Languages at the University of Freiburg from 1937 to 1970.  Friedrich is probably most famous for his in-depth study of poetry, Die Struktur der modernen Lyrik, in which he discusses the interpretation of modern poetry.

"On the Art of Translation," a seemingly short speech, was translated for inclusion in Theories of Translation by Schulte and Biguenet, and is unfortunately cut off toward the end, just before Friedrich embarks on an analysis of Rainer Maria Rilke's translation of a Sonnet IV by French poetess Louise Labé.  Eager to read Friedrich's analysis and to avoid ending the chapter with: "Can we afford to ignore these theories? . . ." I scoured the internet for "Zur Frage der Übersetzungskunst," hoping, at the very least, to find the speech in German so that I could someday slog through it.  I came up completely empty-handed.  As a consolation prize, I stumbled across this gem of a site offering translations of Labé's Sonnet XVIII in many languages, including Vietnamese!

The included portion of Friedrich's speech, like the Introduction, offers a brief chronological overview of translation theory, covering the Roman "conqueror" mentality, the enrichesse of the Renaissance, and culminating with Diderot/D'Alembert and Schleiermacher/Humboldt in the 18th and late-18th/early-19th centuries, respectively.  Beginning with the Roman appropriation of Greek texts – let's not call it translation – Friedrich makes note of Cicero's now-shameful extrapolation of Greek "ideas" and "forms" which he tuned to Latin "conventions of usage" and Saint Jerome's imitation of the same theories for his translation of the Greek Septuagint.  In his treatise De optimo genere interpretandi Saint Jerome writes, "The translator considers thought content a prisoner which he transplants into his own language with the prerogative of a conqueror."  A later Roman translation concept bridges the gap between Roman and Renaissance translation practice.  In addition to conquering the source text, the source text serves as a type of muse, inspiring the creation of a better "original text."  In short, the works were in competition.  It's important to note as well that, in Roman translations, no real effort was made to adhere to the stylistic properties of the source text.  Part of creating a better text – if not "better" simply because it was now in Latin – was removing that which may have been awkward, different, or outside of the Latin "conventions of usage" and deposing the original author.

European Renaissance translators, instead of deriving inspiration solely from the "ideas" and "forms" of the source text, used the stylistic elements of the source text as a springboard for bringing new artistic and stylistic elements to their target language.  The approach strove to "enrich" the target language.  As an example Friedrich discusses Malherbe's translation of Seneca's Lucilius letters.  Rather than attempting to emulate Seneca's short, dry, incongruous sentences, Malherbe chose this opportunity to create a wholly new French style.  He added connective material, additional narrative, and explanations. From this "translation," classical French writing is said to have emerged.

Parallel to an emerging linguistic and historical tolerance that came about in the second half of the 18th century, new theories on translation practice developed which – bittersweetly – sought to recognize and do justice to the uniqueness of different languages.  This brought philosophers like Diderot and D'Alembert face-to-face with the "untranslatability" of texts and resulted in a general resignation to translation's impossibilities.  However, from this brief resignation came the recognition of certain linguistic affinities between language and its rhetoric, such as the "total art of language," elocutio, and the "heights and depths of language," genera.  Translators within this new style, admirers rather than conquerors of the foreign, moved toward the source text, occasionally further altering the translation simply "for the sake of its foreignness."  Humboldt and Schleiermacher, the German translator counterparts to Diderot and D'Alembert, were the first to truly embrace this new approach to translation. Of translators, Schleiermacher says that they ought "not to leave the reader in peace and to move the writer toward him, but to leave the writer in peace (i.e., untouched) and move the reader toward the writer."  He further distinguishes between "language as reality," Gegebenheit, and "language as act," Tat, which, to me, attempts to clarify the difference between language as an existent tool and language as a medium for artistic expression.  Within Tat, language becomes a vessel of motive and emerges in the author's style.  Within Gegebenheit, language serves a purely descriptive function and corresponds to a generic word-for-word rendering and passing on of information.  As a result, it is a translator's duty to pay attention not only to the Gegebenheit but more importantly to the Tat of the author's language.

On more contemporary practices (Friedrich died in 1978), Friedrich draws our attention to the common accidental elevation of the translation.  A common problem, he states, among writer-translators, is to ignore the true style and register of the source text, elevating the text in the target language.  This is a phenomenon against which Humboldt warned: "Ambiguities of the original that are part of the essential character of a work have to be maintained...  One can't afford to change something that is elevated, exaggerated and unusual in the original to something light and easily accessible in the translation."

Saturday, August 14, 2010


Guest blogged Victoire's Monday-night Millennium Park concert for boyfriend Will Robin's impeccably well-maintained, exciting, and insightful blog, Seated Ovation!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Theories of Translation

The introduction by Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet to their essay collection Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida (1992) ably prefaces the compilation, covering a variety of ideas in the history of translation theory and introducing prevailing historical thinkers, who are limited not only to included essayists but also to essential translators and theorists like Matthew Arnold, famous for his work on Homer.  Overall, the editors strive to create a cohesive and well-rounded presentation of their included essayists and the larger streams of translation thought.

What initially caught my eye amongst the various translation concepts was the idea that multiple translations are in fact welcome and possibly necessary to the understanding of any particular translated text.  Schulte and Biguenet present Wilhelm von Humboldt's admission that, "[R]eaders of a national language who cannot read the classics in the original will get to know them better through multiple translations rather than just one translation," by way of Arthur Schopenhauer's theories on translation equivalencies, namely that words do not always possess exact equivalents in other languages, due in part to different connotations and different patterns of usage.  Schopenhauer argues that because of this absence of true equivalents, translation of poetry is impossible: "Poems cannot be translated, they can only be rewritten."  This is later taken up again by Mexican poet Octavio Paz, when he discusses the differences between translating prose and poetry.  In prose, words are "univocal," meaning that they carry a specific meaning based on context, but in poetry, more often words intentionally retain multiple meanings.  Schulte and Biguenet paraphrase, "Words... create connotations that reflect multiple ways of looking at and interpreting the world," which seems to suggest that in addition to words retaining multiple meanings, that authors also create additional meanings for words based on their contextualization of them.  It is therefore no wonder that multiple translations are necessary for adequate understanding of a foreign text.

Pulling from Hugo Friedrich's 1965 speech, later included in the anthology, Schulte and Biguenet draw attention to the Roman practice of translating Greek texts.  Cicero claimed to translate ideas and forms while in reality doing little justice to the source work.  The goal was never to recreate the source work in a new language – Latin – but to use the material of the source work to create a wholly new text in which the interesting bits had been expropriated from the Greek.  Schulte and Biguenet point out that Saint Jerome, famous translator of the Greek bible, held a similar position to that of Cicero and other Roman translators.  In fact, "Saint Jerome saw himself in competition with the original text, and the goal was to supersede the foreign text."  While Saint Jerome may be at one end of the spectrum, Walter Benjamin falls in the center, and Vladimir Nabokov at the opposite end.  In the case of Benjamin, who believed that translations enriched the target language, the necessary twist of using words in alien ways, filling them with new meanings so they can adequately convey the source text, resulted in a richer target language.   Nabokov, on the other hand, held that the only valid way to translate was word for word.

Unable to include Matthew Arnold in the anthology due to the length of his essay, Schulte and Biguenet attempt to include his major points in the introduction, especially those regarding scholarship, audience, and faithfulness in translation. According to Arnold, the translator's target audience should consist solely of scholars in the particular language and area of study because it was only they who could correctly judge the accuracy of the translation.  Not only should the translation take into account the source language, but also the historical context of the text and the author.  Those people who were best able to relate to and understand the true nature of the source text were the scholars of that period.  "No one can tell him [the translator] how Homer affected the Greeks; but there are those who can tell him how Homer affects them.  Those are scholars, who possess, at the same time with knowledge of the Greek, adequate poetical taste and feeling...  Let him ask how his work affects those who both know Greek and can appreciate poetry."  He cautions against the translator trusting his own judgement, that of readers of his target language, or even his own scholarship.

Also mentioned in the introduction are Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Roman Jakobson, who each separated translation into three different types.
Goethe defines them thus:
1.  Simple prosaic: not defined (I imagine this is some generic regurgitation of the source text in the target language)
2.  Parodistic: the translator attempts only to appropriate the foreign content
3.  Identical: the translator attempts to make the translation identical to the original
1.  Intralingual translation or rewording
2.  Interlingual translation or translation proper
3.  Intersemiotic translation or transmutation – such as translating a poem into a film score
While Goethe's list is clearly hierarchical, moving from generic, possibly word-for-word translation to  identical translation as the highest and most desired form of translation, in only one of Jakobson's categories does anything resembling the standard definition of translation come up, for "intralingual" translation seems to suggest merely the process of shifting words around in a single language and intersemiotic translation, while an interesting addition, is not a typical area of focus for translation studies, especially in this particular anthology.

Towards the end of the introduction, we encounter the philosophers, or those people who, in my opinion, so deeply question what it is to translate that we are left wondering if there really is such thing as a translatable source text and if there's any chance we're actually able to discern what the author was trying to convey.  Beginning with Octavio Paz, Schulte and Biguenet include the following from Paz's essay "Translation: Literature and Letters": "When we learn to speak, we are learning to translate; the child who asks his mother the meaning of a word is really asking her to translate the unfamiliar term into the simple words he already knows."  Thus, the translation begins in the mind.  Language is merely the translation of thought, which is comprised of visual cues, emotions, and other sensory experiences.  To Hans Erich Nossack, "writing itself is already translating."  And if writing is translation, German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer reminds us that, "Reading is already translation, and translation is translation for the second time" or fourth time if you go so far back as to include Paz's idea that language itself is translation.

Included in the introduction are more translators, theorists, and philosophers than I can begin to summarily give credit to, but I will include one last quote from Rudolf Pannwitz's Die Krise der europäischen Kultur.
Our translations, even the best, proceed from a false premise.  They want to germanize Hindi, Greek, English, instead of hindi-izing, grecizing, anglicizing German.  They have a much greater respect for the little ways of their own language than for the spirit of the foreign work.  The fundamental error of the translator is that he maintains the accidental state of his own language, instead of letting it suffer the shock of the foreign language.  He must, particularly if he translates a language very remote from his own, penetrate to the ultimate elements of language itself, where word, image, tone become one; he must widen and deepen his language through the foreign one.