“A rose by any other name…”: a few thoughts on translation

Here’s a challenge:

Take a book written by Wodehouse, or by some other comic writer who appeals to your sense of humour; pick a passage that makes you laugh; and, neither adding nor subtracting anything in terms of content, rewrite that passage in your own words, and in your own sentences. Chances are, your re-write is not funny. Or, at least, nowhere near as funny as the original.

This is the problem with translation – especially translation of comic writing, or of poetry: the literal meaning of the words is so often the least of it.

Not that I don’t think that literal translations have their place: nowadays, when there are so many different translations of the acknowledged classics of Western literature, there is room for all sorts of approaches. And it is certainly interesting to know precisely what the original text says. But a translation that is slavishly literal is unlikely to be very readable, as Nabokov proved with his ultra-literal translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin: that translation tells us very accurately what Pushkin had written, but the result cannot be read as a poem in English.

Translators vary from the literalist to the interventionist, and, if one is sufficiently interested to follow such matters, one may find a great deal of heated controversy. Recently, Janet Malcolm created a bit of a storm with an article in New York Review of Books, laying into, amongst others, the very popular translations of classic Russian literature by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky. Malcolm rather destroys her own credibility, however, by admitting that she cannot read these works in Russian: if the critic cannot compare a translation with the original, then, I’d have thought, the critic is completely disqualified from passing judgement. At best, such a critic may say how the translation reads in English; but its fidelity, either to the letter or to the spirit, is beyond this critic’s scope.

There’s a very interesting response by Erik McDonald to Janet Malcolm’s piece in which he argues that Tolstoy is, effectively, “unruinable”. I know no Russian myself, but I can readily believe that: I have now read Anna Karenina in four different translations – by Rosemary Edmonds, by Louise and Aylmer Maude, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky, and, most recently, by Kyrill Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes, and, despite the translators’ very different approaches to their art (for art it surely is), they all made on me impacts of comparable magnitude. If I reacted differently to these translations, that is only because I read them in different times of my life. Perhaps we can make too much of these differences in translations. Pevear and Volkhonsy’s literalism is, I think, most certainly a valid approach, though not, of course, the only valid approach.

It’s when it comes to comic writing, and to poetry, that I am not certain that the literal approach is the best one to take. Certainly, the Pevear & Volkhonsky versions of Gogol’s short stories are the only ones I have encountered that did not make me laugh, and I would hazard a guess that this is due to their literalist approach: to convey the humour of a piece of comic writing by sticking literally to what is being said is a bit like trying to paraphrase Wodehouse: when the humour is not so much in the contents of what is said, but, rather, in the author’s choice of words, in the rhythms and cadences of the prose, and, indeed, in what I would call the authorial “tone of voice”, the literalist approach seems to me to miss out on much that is essential. And, it seems to me, the translator of such works is perfectly entitled to diverge from the literal meaning in order to capture some of these other things that can be at least as important, if not more. In John Rutherford’s translation of Don Quixote, for instance, he describes Don Quixote’s niece as being “on the right side of twenty” and his housekeeper “on the wrong side of forty”: the “right side” and the “wrong side” are both, I am told, Rutherford’s invention, but if this helps establish a certain tone of voice, a certain narrative rhythm, then I, for one, welcome it, and think it much to be preferred to a more literal reading in which the authorial voice remains relatively bland.

This is particularly the case with poetry. Of course, there are many who would say that poetry cannot be translated at all, and they may well be right: literal meaning often counts for very little in a poem, and much depends on the actual sound of the thing – that one thing that cannot be replicated in languages other than that in which the poem was originally written. But good translations of poetry do nonetheless exist: if the sounds of the original are not available in the target language, then the translator has to find sounds in the target language itself – different sounds, inevitably – that convey at least something of what the original conveys. But, of course, it’s not easy. Perhaps it’s best demonstrated with an example.

There is a very well-known poem by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore which, in its original Bengali, is very romantic – so much so that it has, through excessive repetition, become something of a cliché, like the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. But if one can look at the lyric with fresh eyes – or with fresh ears, sinceTagore had also set this poem to music – it really is very lovely. But to convey that loveliness in English seems to me well-nigh impossible. Let us focus on the first line. A completely literal translation would read as follows:

That day, the two of us had swung together in the forest

Well, that clearly won’t do. Let’s see if we can brush it up a little, so it makes more sense in English:

That day, the two of us had sat together upon a swing in the forest

The idea of two people sitting together upon a swing may strike the Western reader as a bit odd, but, at least, it makes a bit more sense than what we previously had. However, it is still a bit wordy. Perhaps “the two of us” and “together” may be removed, as they are implied by the context:

That day, we had sat upon a swing in the forest

The rhythm still isn’t right. Let’s jig it about a bit, and remove the “had”:

That day in the forest, we’d sat upon a swing

That’s certainly much better, but hardly ideal. The original sounds mellifluous: this doesn’t. The word “sat” especially is squat and ugly, and needs to go, although I can’t honestly think what to replace it with.

Also, there’s the matter of connotations. The forest has suggestions of the dark and mysterious – and that is the case in Western culture also (e.g. the forest in which Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in The Grimm brothers’ fairy tale). But the swing, in Indian iconography, often represents the amorous, or even the erotic. So, from this very opening line, a Bengali reader or listener would have no difficulty in recognising a meltingly romantic love song.

Sadly, in English, swinging in the forest suggests merely Tarzan. It is at this point that one has to concede defeat.

37 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by mudpuddle on July 27, 2016 at 10:06 pm

    i’ve read several essays on translation lately, but none of them mentioned “tone of voice”; and i believe, as you say, that to be the quintessential point. Wodehouse is so flavored in the early english 20th c., and in a cartoonish version thereof, that translating it into, say, Hindi, would be extremely difficult. maybe for a successful translation, the writer might have to rely on a certain cultural history as known to the reader in order to convey certain states of mind; in other words, a given aura or ambience must be assumed to be present in the reader for a successful translation…


    • For some reason, Wodehouse is immensely popular with Indian readers. In every Indian bookshop I went into in India, Wodehouse books were very prominently displayed, and if you go into any online Wodehouse fan site, the majority of names are Indian. I have never quite figured out the reason for this.

      But yes, using an Indian language to communicate the Wodehousian brand of humour would indeed be a challenge. I guess it’s just as well that English is so widely spoken amongst educated Indians! But quite apart from the linguistic aspects, the reader needs ideally to be familiar, up to a point at least, with the cultural ambience of the work. I do wonder how much I’d get out of something such as, say, Tale of Genji, without knowing anything at all of medieval Japanese court culture.


  2. Reblogged this on A Celebration of Reading and commented:
    There was a forum of comics on television years ago (PBS, Dick Cavett, ???) where some truly funny people sat in a group and kibitzed about “What is funny?” It went back and forth with the likes of (from memory) Rodney Dangerfield, Buddy Hackett, and Shecky Greene, telling jokes that they offered as good examples of what made them funny. At one point Buddy Hackett interrupted and suggested to the joke teller that he change one word in the joke, explaining that his word was funnier than the stock word—and he was right—the joke was then that much funnier. At this time I realized how comics were like scientists in the lab concocting funny with a beaker of this and a dash of that, stirred not shaken.

    If funny is almost an exacting science, then no wonder it seldom translates well. Then again, I personally never experience the promised “you’ll laugh out loud” praise promised on the back covers of highly touted humorous books.

    As far as poetry: the only way to read poetry that is written in a language other than your own is to learn the other language. Barring that, make sure you look for dual-text editions. Having the original and a translation in front of you is invaluable for understanding (and will help you learn that new language, pronto).


    • Visual gags aside, humour is all about language, about the right choice of words, and phrasing. For instance, there’s a wonderful sketch by Stephen Leacock in which he describes a student drama production, and tells us that no-one bothered checking tickets at the door. Now, that fact in itself isn’t funny. But Stephen leacock phraes it this:

      There are two methods of entry – with tickets for those who have tickets, and without tickets for those who don’t.

      And, thanks purely to teh phrasing, something that isn’t funny becomes funny.

      I am tempted to agree with you on translations of poetry, were it not that I can think of several translations of poetry that really have affected me strongly. Perhaps it’s best to think of these translations as new poems based on poems originally written in another language. It is easy to forget, after all, that the Psalms in the King James Bible are actually translations of poetry from another language.


  3. I had this concept pounded into me when reading the classics. Take something simple like The Iliad. Now prowl around for the various translations. One is linguistically correct but dry as burnt toast, another doesn’t seem to follow Homer but totally involves the reader and his or her senses in the experience of the Trojan Wars, another leaves out great chunks of the narrative but covers the essentials without taxing the reader, another writes poetic stanzas, another writes long prose paragraphs, one is a brutal war story, another emphasizes the love story.

    Which edition is to be recommended? What is the criteria for the recommendation? Did you see the movie? How about that Brad Pitt?


    • I try to collect and read different translations of foreign language works that I particularly value. Each translation is an interpretation: no single translation could hope to capture everything.


  4. Nice essay. Perhaps a hammock would do for a swing? In Latin American literature, at least, the hammock serves the same purpose. Not sure about sat.


    • Hammock to me is something you rest in, or sleep in. It doesn’t really suggest the romantic to me. I think “swing” is fine, but, somehow – don’t ask me how! – the translator would need to infuse that with eroticism. Not an easy task, as I said! But the literal approach doesn’t, I think, take one very far.


  5. I think it was Robert Frost who, when asked to define poetry, said that poetry was what gets lost in the translation.


    • Yes, there’s much in that. The reason i wouldn’t go along with that completely is that I have indeed read translations of poetry that have affected me powerfully – so translating poetry can’t be so futile an activity as Frost implies. There’s a mystery there somewhere…


  6. I think you’re quite right about needing to read widely the different versions of books – though I personally try to avoid P/V. I feel their literal approach may work with someone like Tolstoy (though since the Maudes actually knew him I do like to stick with them!). However, anything poetic and humorous is going to get lost with their rather hack-like approach and I can’t see room for subtlety there. Personally I feel what’s needed is someone with a good knowledge of both laguages and some flair of their own – a big ask, I know, but there are some fabulous translators out there bringing books from other languages to us monolinguists! 🙂


    • It makes you realise just how incredibly difficult the task of a translator is.

      I am a rather nostalgic person, and frequently feel an attachment for the translation through which I first got to know the work. For the Russians, this meant Rosemary Edmonds’ translations of Tolstoy, and David Magarshack’s translations of Dostoyevsky (although I do also like the newer translations of Dostoyevsky by David McDuff). And for Madame Bovary, it’s still the old Penguin Classics translation of Madame Bovary by Alan Russell i love reading best.


  7. Posted by Di on July 28, 2016 at 11:53 am

    I’m 1 of those extreme people who think poetry can’t be translated at all and choose to limit myself to reading poems in the original, not in translation, even though I only speak well 2 languages, and if I try harder for another while, only 3 languages.


  8. But the French would get the swing allusion


  9. I’m a bit startled. I didn’t expect my comment to look like this. Should it bother you, please remove it.


    • Oh, no – that looks just lovely! (I must admit, though, that I always get Watteau and Fragonard mixed up…)

      I am not an expert on Indian art by any means, but teh wing does appear quite frequently in romantic paintings. Like this, for instance:

      There’s also this lovely scene from the film Charulata:


      • Same here. I mix them up as well.
        Thanks for the link.

      • Certainly the style of both painters is similar, but Watteau (a tubercular) was a great artist who painted exquisite visions of a life he knew to be fleeting and transient; Fragonard, however, I find it difficult to see other than as a bit o French fluff, and I wonder if it’s the superficial similarity to Watteau that gives him his reputation. The figures in Watteau’s paintings at the Wallace, for example, seem to depict people who don’t realise that they’re ghosts living in the present: they seem about as solid and temporary as clouds. But they are fixed by Watteau’s art.

        It’s very odd the way thinking gets into painting, but it’s unquestionably there, so that despite the similarity in style the figures in Watteau have a look that just doesn’t exist in Fragonard.

      • Hello Chris, I must admit I’ve never paid much attention till now to the French rococo. Fragonard has always seemed to me like fluff, and Boucher’s preoccupations with female bottoms has frankly seemed to me a bit risible. However, given your eloquent comments on Watteau, I shall certainly make a point of looking at his paintings more closely. Next time I’m in London, I’ll make a point of having a good look at the Watteau in the National Gallery.

        Thanks very much, and all the best,

  10. Americans get the swing allusion! We have swings that fit more than one person. We have John Anderson’s classic #1 country hit “Swingin'”.

    If you check the French and German readers of translated Wodehouse at amazon.fr or amazon.de, they seem pretty happy, like the jokes are coming through all right.

    Di, what do you think translators of poetry are doing if not translating poetry? Modern English poetry was invented by people translating Petrarch and Virgil.


    • Posted by Di on July 28, 2016 at 4:17 pm

      Oh translators do their best, and they’re great. The problem is me, partly because my 2 favourite Vietnamese poets, who are important in Vietnam but unknown to foreigners, are not translated and not translatable, at least not into English, because Vietnamese and English are too different and their poetry relies too much on sounds, rhythm and wordplay.


    • “Swinging”, in the UK at least, refers to what use dto be known as “wife-swapping” – i.e. couples exchanging partners. The connotations are a bit raunchy and, perhaps, a bit sordid, and far removed from the tender lyricism of the Tagore lyric. there’s also the Swinging Sixties, I suppose, but once again, I think that’s the wrong thing to allude to in this context.

      I’ll look up the John Anderson song.


    • I certainly did not mean to imply, by the way, that comic writing, or poetry, should not be translated: quite the contrary! But there’s so much more to such writing than purely the literal meaning, that a literal approach is not necessarily, I think, the best approach in these cases.


    • Yes, look up the lyrics to the John Anderson song – there is a link at the bottom of the Wiki. Forget all of the wife-swapping nonsense. Totally irrelevant. The erotic connotation of the two-person swing is not an especially Indian idea. There are many American pop songs connecting romance and swings.

      You did not imply that comedy shouldn’t be translated, no, but you said the re-write would likely not be funny. My observation is that French and German readers think the re-write is, in fact, funny. You say “[t]his is the problem with translation.” I say there is no problem with translation.


      • But that’s the problem – one can’t forget: if one is accustomed to certain connotations of certain words, then one can’t simply shut them out. F the word “swinging” automatically brings to mind Tarzan, or wife-swapping, then that’s not irrelevant at all. To take another example, some Tagore poems refer to friends we payed with as children, but if the word “playmate” brings to mind Playboy centrefolds, then the translator shouldn’t use that word.

        I’m happy to accept that “swing” has amorous and romantic connotations in US, but less so, I think, on this side of the Pond.

        I honestlyhave no idea how popular Wodehouse is in France or in Germany. I’m sure the translators have done a fine job, but given how much of the humour is contained in the phrasing, the translations, if they’re good, must have found some equivalent of Wodehouse’s phrasing in French or in German, and not relied principally on transcribing the content. For, once stripped of Wodehouse’s phasing and specific choice of words, wat remains isn’t frankly that funny. The exercise I suggested at the start of my post is quite an interesting one to do.

      • One “simply shut[s] them out” all the time! That is a fundamental part of the way language works. When you wrote “phrasing in French or in German” you did not suggest in any way French kissing. The most basic context restricts the meaning. No one thinks of every connotation every time. When you read the first word of this comment, did you think of the first positive integer?

        Have you read those lyrics yet? Wife-swapping! The connotation is irrelevant to that song. The great country music wife-swapping song is of course “Let’s Invite Them Over” by George Jones and Melba Montgomery.

  11. One nice effect of this post is that it inspired me to pick up David Bellos’s Is That a Fish in Your Ear: Translation and the Meaning of Everything, where I see in Ch. 13, p. 149, on the “poetry is what is lost in translation” idea:

    “But nobody has ever been able to find Frost saying anything like it in his works, letters, interviews, or reported sayings. Like so many other received ideas about translation, this one turns out to have no foundation in fact.”

    A footnote (p. 346) points to Thomas Satterlee, “Robert Frost’s Views on Translation,” Delos, 1996. The closest Satterlee can find is an Ezra Pound quotation which says the opposite: “I would know what was accounted poetry everywhere, what part of poetry was ‘indestructible,’ what part could not be lost in translation.”


  12. And then there’s the problem of singing translations for opera. The best I have come across is Andrew Porter’s superb translation of the Ring into English for ENO in the 70s. He managed the seemingly impossible in that he retained the meaning of the libretto, imitated the alliteration of Wagner’s original, and still used absolutely idiomatic English. It was a tour de force. German of course does share many characteristics with English; Italian less so. “Andiamo” rolls off the tongue and sounds very romantic, while the nearest English translation that matches the syllables and stress is the mundane-sounding “We must go now” which often raises a titter in the opera house.

    It’s not really a problem for printed libretti and titles as these are merely an aid to understanding. I do remember a performance of Siegfried at Covent Garden though, not long after titles had been introduced. In Act 3, after Siegfried has awoken Brunnhilde from long sleep, she comments on the shabby state of her armour. The title that came up was something like “And my helmet has not been polished” and I spent the rest of the act trying to stifle paroxysms of laughter!


    • I remember years ago Kiri the Kanawa saying in an interview that, early in here career, she was singing Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” in an English language version, and she had a line that was something like “Balls in the country are delightful”, and she couldn’t stop giggling every time she got to it. Eventually, they had to change the line.

      I don’t really see the point of translating libretti. Even with open as originally written in English (Britten, say) you can’t always make out what they’re singing anyway – especially in ensembles. When I went to see “Peter Grimes” at the ENO some time back, they actually had surtitles, even though they were singing in English. All you really need to know is the outline of the plot (opera is not about “what happens next?” and can take spoilers) and then allow the music to communicate the drama.

      It could be argued in response that if the singers were simply to sing “la la la” to all the music, that wouldn’t be satisfactory either, and that this implies that the words are not entirely unimportant. To which I can only say “And that’s true too”. But generally, I prefer the opera sung in its original language, though I don’t insist on it. I share your admiration of Andrew Prter’s translation of the Ring.

      All the best for now, Himadri


  13. Discussion of the relative merits of translated libretti deserves an entire essay – perhaps you may be persuaded to write one? In the crudest terms, I’d say that the need for translation depends primarily on the “tunefulness” of the opera (by which I mean that opera can be enjoyed as music without really understanding what is being sung). In operas where most of us are there for the music (Puccini, Verdi, and dare I say Wagner) translation is unnecessary and seldom works as well as the original. (The aforementioned Porter Ring is a notable exception, and does enhance enjoyment in the “funny” bits.) On the other hand, operas which rely almost entirely on Sprechgesang (Shostakovich’s The Nose, and some of Strauss’s wordier efforts like Intermezzo) do benefit from the audience understanding as many of the words as possible).

    Interesting that you mention the “la la la” substitution as it’s a point I’ve often made when discussing this topic. As you say, that wouldn’t work for a number of reasons, not least that la la la usually sounds damn silly in opera even when it’s actually meant to be there. I try to imagine hearing an opera I love – Parsifal, perhaps, or Le Nozze di Figaro – translated into a language like Finnish, which I don’t know at all. I’d probably get still enjoy it, even if, unbeknown to me, the “translation” was actually the Finnish version of some daft Health and Safety diktat!

    One other point is that even vocal music that’s written in English, let alone translations, can sound silly to native English speakers. (I don’t know if Italians feel the same about Verdi’s libretti or Germans about Wagner’s, and I can’t find any serious discussion about this.) Britten is the exception – he set the English language in a way that sounds natural and unaffected. Unlike Tippett, Vaughan Williams and Elgar (if only Dream of Gerontius was all in Latin). Indeed the sound of sung English is the one and only are where I’ll concede that pop has the upper hand!

    Apologies – I did set out to be brief, honest…


    • Hello Neil, sorry for the late reply: I was away for a few days.
      There is indeed a entire essay – and a fairly long one, I suspect – to be written about translations of libretti, but so little is my experience of opera in English that I am certainly not the one to write it. However, reflecting on what you are saying, it now does seem to me true that certain operas could indeed benefit from being heard in a familiar language. And, curiously, the operas I can think of that would benefit from this are all twentieth century works – various operas of Strauss (especially the first act of Ariadne auf Naxos), Wozzeck”, The Makropoulos Thingummyjig, and so on. Is it the case, do you think, that the words have become more important in the last hundred years or so?
      It is interesting also what you say about settings of English. I agree that the settings of Elgar or of Tippett do seem rather awkward at times, but there have been successful, settings by Handel (and Englsh wasn’t even his first language!), Henry Purcell, John Dowland, etc. Not to mention the great American songwriters – Kern & Hammerstein, Gershwin, Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter, etc. And, as you say, English is very much the language of choice when it comes to popular music in the western world in the last half century and more: Leiber & Stoller, Lennon & McCartney, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and so on. So it does seem a bit odd why certain settings of English do seem a bit unidiomatic with certain composers – for whom, after all, English was the first language.
      I shall now seek out an English language recording of Der Rosenkavalier and see if the longueurs between the good bits now disappear! 


      • Absolutely no need to apologise! I think that words have got more important in the last 100 years in the sense that most “modern” operas aren’t carried along by the kind of lyricism that characterised Italian and German opera in the 19th century. The examples you give are good ones: they CAN be enjoyed simply as music if you persevere with them, but the listener is much less likely to get lost if he/she understands what is being sung.

        Interestingly Mozart belongs to both categories; we can enjoy the arias and ensembles for the wonderful music they are, but the recitatives can drag without understanding at least some of the words of Da Ponte’s fine libretti.

        Sad to say I don’t think an English version will do much to remove the longueurs from Rosenkavalier. I’m not sure anything can do that!

  14. Fascinating post and topic. The recent Lisa Dillman translation of Yuri Herrera’s The Transmigration of Bodies contains an interesting translator’s note where Dillman discusses the issues of translating slang that Herrera had created for his novel (which therefore requires creating new usages in English as he did in Spanish). The book is a triumph, but the essay at the back on the translation is itself very worthwhile.

    With Lispector, historically, translations had tended to smooth the text and correct the grammar. The difficulty was that the grammar was intentionally spiky and “wrong”, it was a stylistic choice. I don’t speak Portuguese but I have enough Italian that I was able to compare an original with several translations and the Ben Moser was easily both truest both to form and tone, whereas others seemed to have tidied it and lost something in the doing. The same issue arises with some Russian writers (Platonov I think) where a translator who better captures the original’s tone risks criticism for stylistic oddities which are intentional in the original.

    I wrote a post at mine on translations of Cavafy in which I compare three or four (maybe even five) translations of the same poem and discuss word choices. The edition of Cavafy I finally bought is a translation from the ’70s, perhaps less precise and faithful to the letter but so well capturing the spirit. Perhaps I’ve not read Cavafy, since I’m not reading him in the original Greek, but if so it’s been rewarding not reading him.

    Well, I set out to be brief too, and I’ve failed as well. Marvellous topic.


    • Hello Max, I just read through your post on the Cavafy poems. Fascinating! – He is a poet I know only by reputation, and I will seek out a few translations. I often find it a good idea to get oneself a range of different translations – and not just of poetry: each translation is, after all, an interpretation, and immersing oneself in a few different interpretations give one a better overall picture. It’s a bit like recordings of classical music: Claudio Abbado’s recordings of Mahler’s symphonies, say, are very different to Leonard Bernstein’s, and Bernstein’s are very different to Klaus Tennstendt’s, and so on; and so, if a Mahler symphony happens to mean a lotto you, it is a good idea to seek out a few different ways of looking at them.

      I agree with you that if there are oddities in the original, these oddities should be reproduced in the translation. Each author has a different tone of voice, a different authorial personality, and the translator, whether of prose or of verse, must attempt to capture it.

      I have had a few further thoughts on translation since writing the above post, and have written a new one specifically o the subject of translating poetry, and I very much agree with you that poetry, even when read in translation, can be hugely rewarding. Not all of it, though: I have come across a few clunkers: but there have also been a great many that are good English poems in their own right, and it would be a shame if we were to screen them out due to whatever prejudice we may happen to harbour on the matter.


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