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untranslatable novels
Posted: 27 May 2007 09:28 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I’d have said Finnegans Wake but apparently there have been two versions attempted in German alone according to a German scholar I once met. It sounds an unrealistic undertaking to me (if noble) and I doubt if either can be said to be definitive.
In An Beal Bocht (The Poor Mouth) by Flann O’Brien, I remember the acclaimed translator footnotes one chapter with (a resigned?) “This chapter is written in Ulster dialect”. I’d imagine dialect is the hardest to render along with wordplay and punning.
I also remember Gabriel Garcia Marquez saying he preferred the English translation (by Gregory Rabassa) of One Hundred Years of Solitude to his original which has always struck me as an extraordinary admission.
Your best bet has to be when the author translates his own stuff like Beckett did.
Do bilingual posters have any insights? It must work the other way round, too. Are we shortchanged by translations of Don Quixote or Dante’s Inferno? Or even less difficult works?

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Posted: 27 May 2007 10:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I don’t think your title is very useful.  There’s no such thing as an “untranslatable novel”; there are only greater and lesser degrees of translatability.  Finnegans Wake has been translated into a number of languages, apparently with considerable success.  Perec’s La Disparition, a novel written entirely without the letter e, has been translated into English (as A Void).  Translating such works is a challenge, but so is writing them in the first place, and so is translating poetry.

I also remember Gabriel Garcia Marquez saying he preferred the English translation (by Gregory Rabassa) of One Hundred Years of Solitude to his original which has always struck me as an extraordinary admission.

It sure is (though “polite fiction” might be nearer the mark than “admission”—I wouldn’t bet money he actually prefers the translation to his own words).  Frankly, I have little respect for Rabassa after having compared his version (Hopscotch) of Cortázar’s Rayuela to the original—entire sentences and paragraphs went missing, and he muffed some very simple idioms.

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Posted: 27 May 2007 11:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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It all depends on the translator. In the 60’s and 70’s the Dutch translations of Lord of the Rings by Max Schuchart were famous. Schuchart had taken quite some liberties as to how many of the made up words and names should be rendered in Dutch. E.g. ‘Baggings’ became ‘Ballings’, the ‘Brandywine’ became ‘Brandewijn’ (rather obvious, because the origin of English Brandy is Dutch brandewijn), ‘Strider’ ‘stapper’ etc. This was a very successful attempt to let the Dutch reader enjoy the atmosphere of the English original.

A well-known pitfall is (as you indicated) the translation of dialects. The least successful method is to replace the dialect of the original by a Dutch dialect. This usually has a negative effect.

Just as much as a good translation can let you enjoy a piece of literature, a bad translation can ruin it for you. Just recently I was reading a book in which one of the characters got injured and put his wounded hand in his mouth. According to the translator the character tasted ‘zweet’ (sweat). I want to bet a copy of Van Dale’s Dutch -English dictionary that in the English original it was ‘sweet’ which should have been translated as ‘zoet’. When something like that happens, much of my concentration during reading the rest of the book gets wasted on wondering if a certain sentence was translated correctly or not and what the original might have been.

A few years ago Erik Bindervoet and Robbert-Jan Herkes made a translation of Finnegans Wake, which I only know by reputation. One thing I remember from a review was that they claimed they translated it from non-English into non-Dutch. A job that took them seven years. The Dutch issue contains both the translation and the English original.

Edit: “60’s and...” added I only read them in the 70’s

[ Edited: 27 May 2007 11:25 AM by Dutchtoo ]
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Posted: 28 May 2007 06:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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True, I should have called this thread WORKS TRANSLATABLE ONLY WITH CONSIDERABLE LOSS.
Mind you, Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time seems untranslatable judging by the English version:
Das Nicht nichtet = The Nothing itself noths, for example.
Has the translator failed here or is it bollocks in German as well?

Beckett translated his Comment C’est as How It Is without even attempting the pun on Commencez.

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Posted: 28 May 2007 07:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Has anyone read At Swim-Two-Birds in translation? I’d love to know how close a translation can get
as it is my favourite novel. Could the working class Irish badinage work as, say, Dutch working class badinage?

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Posted: 28 May 2007 08:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I’ve just remembered another example related by Anthony Burgess. In his novel Honey for the Bears he has a character ejaculate “Howrashyouare” which represents the sound of a sneeze but in a translation of this book he said it was directly translated by someone who had completely missed the point.

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Posted: 28 May 2007 10:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Any translated work must lose and possibly gain in the translation. The Bible in English is a translation, after all, and in some cases a translation of a translation, I think. Nevertheless, the King James Version stands on its own as a literary work.

It is somewhat axiomatic that translators should be native speakers of the target language rather than of the language of the original work (though there must be exceptions). Very, very few people are equally proficient in two languages in an absolute sense, and of those few are highly adept at linguistic matters*, and of those few have the skill to be translators. It may well be something you’re born with and in any case is not easily acquired. In other words, good translators are hard to come by and most are primarily skilled in their native language.

I’m not particularly tolerant of bad work (unless its my own and I have the paycheck in hand; as we say, the job looks fine from the vantage point of my own living room) and the ‘groaners’ as you have indicated simply shouldn’t occur. It’s understandable that they do occur, however. Translators are often poorly paid, work under time constraints, and work for publishers who of necessity are concerned with the bottom line. But a good translator should have failsafe systems in place. Sadly, as I am informed, many professional translators use computer programs to do most of their legwork, so it’s likely that even more grotesque examples will crop up. Languagehat had an example of a Japanese translation of an English language piece a while back.

*edit: That doesn’t quite make sense. What I mean is few people who happen to be raised bilingual are proficient at a high level of linguistic skills, any more than the population at large. Whereas the other group of linguists, obviously, are bilingual because they are highly proficient, having studied language on their own initiative.

[ Edited: 28 May 2007 08:01 PM by foolscap ]
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Posted: 28 May 2007 11:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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I am very interested in this topic, foolscap. What kind of stuff do you translate and from/into what languages? This is what prompted me to start this though, as I conceded, “untranslatable novels” was a lousy name for my thread.
You say some of the King James Bible is literature and I would agree but how much of this is down to the translators James enlisted and how much to earlier English translations, and how much to the Greek and Hebrew original? Some Shakespearean locutions sound poetical to us but in his time they were normal speech. “The race is not to the swift” in the Bible is wonderfully evocative to us but it is probably just how the Jacobeans said it in everyday speech. The problem has to be that ancient Greek and ancient Hebrew are dead languages and we cannot really know the spirit or the nuances of meaning in which they were originally stating their messages. I believe The Good News Bible and the Reader’s Digest one, neither of which I have read, have excised all the poetry and concentrated solely on the basic Jesus as Our Only Saviour stuff in simple English - anything to win converts!
I’ve seen pidgin versions of the NT which are bare-bones translations as you’d expect.
It must be a daunting and challenging task being a translator but very rewarding at times to, I’d imagine.
Literature must be the hardest to do. Most poetry is intelligible but Finnegans Wake is not which was my original point. Joyce wrote it partly to confound “American professors of literature”.

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Posted: 28 May 2007 11:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Frankly, I’m an example of someone who shouldn’t waste time attempting it; I’m constantly searching for ordinary words even in English and seem unable to translate anything but the most concrete words easily (Hund = dog, or is it hound?). But I do know a professional translator pretty well who does literature and technical pieces. I was going to say that even a synopsis is a form of a translation, which is probably the same point you’re making with the reduced NT versions.

It’s a difficult subject to put into a verbal framework despite the fact that it involves words. Much of language takes place on a subconscious level and people have different cognitive methods of understanding language. Some people are more visual, some more auditory, for example. Some literature is largely concerned with resonance, nuance, connotation, etc. while some is more nuts and bolts.

I’m reading SI Hayakawa’s Language in Thought and Action and at the very least it gives a vocabulary for categorizing the different functions of words and language. It’s easy enough to read and I find it tying up a lot of loose ends that I’ve had about language. It’s also a first step to a radically different approach, one that informed the writing of Heinlein, for example. Hayakawa doesn’t address translations directly, at least so far, but the approach makes it clear why translations will always be a compromise. I suspect that semanticists like Lakoff or Wittgenstein (haven’t exactly read them) are somewhat unaware of their own assumptions in dealing with the language they use to talk about language itself. SIH is more comprehensible.

So that says just about nothing…

[ Edited: 28 May 2007 11:57 AM by foolscap ]
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Posted: 28 May 2007 01:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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My understanding is that translations of classic works are typically done by university professors and are rather painstakingly done. The machine translations with editing by rushed and poorly paid translators is more likely to be found with current bestsellers and nonfiction.

I have been told that the standard German translations of Shakespeare are excellent, using similar wordplay and allusions. They are also more accessible as they are written in a modern dialect.

As for translators of necessity working in their native language, only one of the languages can, obviously, be their native tongue. To do a really good translation, one must know both languages intimately. And I wouldn’t trust an author to necessarily be able to do their own translation. One would probably be better off to engage a professional translator--in most cases, a professional will more likely do a better job than the original author. (And once in a while you get that great writer whose greatest work is not in their native tongue, like Nabokov or Conrad.)

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Posted: 28 May 2007 07:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Yes, the university professor would be the exception and would owe fidelity not only to the work (and the potential readers) but also to previous scholarship, criticism, historical research, etc.

I should clarify, in case there is any confusion, that the translator I know doesn’t use a computer program.  That may be why when the work is turned in the publisher has had another book literally in hand as a new assignment.

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Posted: 28 May 2007 09:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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I was going to say that even a synopsis is a form of a translation,

I am reminded of a SF story i once read, where the protagonist’s job was to abbreviate great works of English literature, for some sort of archive (perhaps for senior company executives ;-). His masterpiece, he claimed, was the rendering of “Moby Dick” down to seven words: “Nineteenth-century knowledge of cetaceans was inadequate”.

A technical translation calls for little more than an adequate vocabulary, knowledge of the subject material, and grammatical and syntactical competence in the two languages involved. Given those, anybody can translate technical material. I do it myself. Fiction, poetry, belles-lettres --"literature", in a word—strike me as a different thing entirely. I think that the translation of a work of literature calls for a touch of the “divine afflatus”, just as much as does the composition of the work itself. Linguistic ability is not enough --- nor is scholarship. Being learned doesn’t make you a good writer, and the greatest professor in the world may do a careful, accurate, profoundly researched, and thoroughly pedestrian job of translation. To translate creative writing, you must have creative ability of your own; to translate poetry, you must yourself be a poet. I don’t know what it takes to translate “Finnegan’s Wake”. I read two pages of it, many years ago, and gave up. I guess my mind’s the wrong shape.

The question then arises, to what extent does, or should, the translator’s muse intrude on the original?  Since childhood, I have delighted in Fitzgerald’s translations of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. A Muslim friend, who has read the work in Persian, says that Fitzgerald’s versions haven’t all that much to do with the original, which my friend maintains is a work of great religious piety. My favourite translations of classical works (Suetonius, Apuleius) are by Robert Graves, because I know him as a superlative writer, and a great poet, in English. I don’t care all that much how punctiliously “accurate” they are (though I doubt if there’s much to fear on that score). And I don’t know if I’d enjoy the same works translated by Henry James --- or by a staff writer for “Time”, even if he/she had a whole basketful of Ph. D’s in classical languages.

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Posted: 28 May 2007 10:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Yes, Lionello, my first introduction to Suetonius and Lucan’s Pharsalia was through the medium of Robert Graves’ translations, and although he took many ‘freedoms’ which later Penguin editors gently chastised him for and emended, they were marvellous works. In any case, if one wants a ‘crib’ one can turn to the Loeb translators.

I owe an enormous debt to the English translators of the classics: to John Dryden for the works of Virgil, to Pope for his Iliad and Odyssey ("Very pretty, Mr Pope, but is it Homer?"), to Arthur Golding for Ovid’s Metamorphoses, to Harington for Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, to Fairfax for Tasso’s Gierusalemme Liberata, to Urquhart and Motteux for Rabelais, to John Florio for Montaigne - the list is endless and these works are among the most read and returned to of the books on my shelves.

Thank heaven for translators!

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Posted: 29 May 2007 05:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Most poetry is intelligible but Finnegans Wake is not

I don’t know what you mean by this.  Above the level of the most basic tum-ti-tum versifying, “most poetry” takes work to understand, just as does the Wake.  (I presume you’re not claiming that Joyce’s novel is inherently unintelligible, that he threw away the last years of his life just to play an elaborate prank; such an opinion is on the same level as the philistine looking at Picasso and claiming his five-year-old daughter could do better.)

Oh, and a bad translation is a bad translation, no matter how charmingly it’s written or how famous the author is.  And The White Goddess is an idiotic work however good Graves’ poetry was.

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Posted: 29 May 2007 11:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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I’d be the first to admit I am not a multilingual polymath, more a finger-painting/potato-print kind of guy who likes Picasso and Jimmy Joyce up to and including Ulysses.

My five-year-old daughter, however, said she found the parts of Finnegans Wake she could understand “wilfully obscure” and “a bit of an intellectual wankfest”. She loves it when she identifies an obscure allusion or some foreign phrase, though, but she says the game is not really worth the candle.

Joking aside, a translator of FW has to translate word by word - are there English versions that annotate like this? It’d be big help for lesser minds!

Are there any unintelligible (rather than ‘hard’) poets? Ezra Pound, sometimes? I once heard George Melly belch a Dada sound poem on the telly which would qualify. Other than those I’d say not.

So it seems (re my original inquiry, re Joyce), Finnegans Wake is worth decoding and is translatable in six years which isn’t bad considering the 27 years it took Joyce to write it.

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Posted: 29 May 2007 02:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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I think Annotations to Finnegans Wake by Roland McHugh may be what you have in mind; it’s a page-by-page set of annotations, with each one placed approximately where the corresponding word is on the page of the novel.  But there are scads of books elucidating the Wake and various aspects thereof; it’s right up there with Pound’s Cantos (another difficult modernist classic) as a supporter of scholarly careers!

I always tell people interested in attempting the Wake to read it out loud before attempting to understand the written page—many things become clearer that way, and you get the all-important music of the prose.  (I also tell them not to worry about catching all the puns and allusions, because nobody can do that!)

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