Posts Tagged ‘language’

“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.

On Cavaliers and Roundheads

When you set out to stick the boot into another author’s literary style, it’s best to ensure that your own style is … well, if not necessarily above criticism, then, at least, competent. For if your philippic contains sentences such as this:

I like Orwell’s writing as much as the next talented mediocrity.

…then you’re likely not to be taken very seriously. From the context, one may discern that the author, Will Self, means it is Orwell who is the “talented mediocrity”; yet, the unfortunate construction of his sentence seems to indicate that the “talented mediocrity” is Self himself. And one can’t help reflecting that Orwell would never have written a sentence as crap as this.

But let us not get sidetracked into having a go at Will Self, enjoyable though that may be. The issues raised in his attack on Orwell deserve, I think, greater attention.

Self declares near the start of his piece:

… overall, it’s those individuals who unite great expertise and very little originality – let alone personality – who arouse in us the most perfect devotion.

This attack on the lack of originality or of personality does seem an odd prelude to a piece attacking Orwell, who was original enough to go persistently against the flow in his politics, often alienating himself from both the mainstream Left and the mainstream Right, and whose writings are generally acknowledged to project a very powerful and individual authorial personality. But Self’s piece gets odder: he goes on to characterise Englishness as essentially bland and colourless – so bland and colourless, indeed, that it has extended its baleful tentacles even to subdue the Celtic exuberance of its neighbours:

In truth the grey hold sway in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and Dublin quite as much as they do in London. Is it any surprise? Whatever their own talents, the Scots, Welsh and Irish have all been colonised by English mediocrities.

If we are talking here about literary style – as I guess we are, since that is the thrust of the rest of the piece – then I personally wouldn’t have characterised as bland or as colourless, and certainly not as “mediocre”, the literary culture of a people who have produced such flamboyant stylists as John Donne, Charles Dickens, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, and, obviously, that chap Shakespeare. But I suppose if you don’t feel obliged to provide supporting evidence, you can assert just about anything you want. So let us not worry too much about that, and continue.

After this curious preamble, Self moves to his theme: the “Supreme Mediocrity – George Orwell.”

At this point, Self anticipates with relish, as all self-regarding iconoclasts do, the gasps of horror his iconoclasm will occasion:

I don’t doubt characterising Orwell as a talented mediocrity will put noses out of joint. Not Orwell, surely!

This is followed by an extended passage of heavy-handed sarcasm:

Orwell the tireless campaigner for social justice and economic equality; Orwell the prophetic voice, crying out in the wartime wilderness against the dangers of totalitarianism and the rise of the surveillance state; Orwell, who nobly took up arms in the cause of Spanish democracy, then, equally nobly, exposed the cause’s subversion by Soviet realpolitik; Orwell, who lived in saintly penury and preached the solid virtues of homespun Englishness; Orwell, who died prematurely, his last gift to the people he so admired being a list of suspected Soviet agents he sent to MI5.

That last bit is a reference to the revelation, made some years ago, that Orwell had compiled a list of prominent public figures who, to his mind, had Communist sympathies, and were, hence, unsuitable as writers for the Information Research Department, a propaganda department that had recently been set up by the Labour government. This revelation created at the time something of a rumpus, and remains a contentious issue; but I personally can’t help wondering whether there would have been such a rumpus had it been revealed that Orwell had compiled in the mid-30s a list of writers sympathetic to Nazism. In retrospect, as we all know, or should know, Soviet Communism was every bit as great an evil as Nazism; and in the late 40s, when Soviet Communism was indeed a great danger, and when many public figures were indeed sympathetic to it, the moral ambiguity of the situation seems to me to have been far too great to allow for any simplistic apportioning of blame. However, I do not insist on this point: no doubt there are many who, with good reason, are more censorious on this point than I can bring myself to be. But whatever we may think of Orwell’s action on this matter, it does seem to me a tad spiteful, and, indeed, malicious, to bring it up in a piece that is about Orwell’s writing style, not his politics.

And finally, after all that, we come to the heart of the matter: Self thinks Orwell a mediocrity because Orwell wrote plain English:

It’s this prose style that has made Orwell the Supreme Mediocrity.

And worse, in his essay “Politics and the English Language”, Orwell recommended writing plain English. In brief, it’s the old story of Cavaliers and Roundheads: Orwell was a Roundhead, and Self thinks it is better to be a Cavalier.

Self then goes on to declare war against the Standard English that Orwell stood for, declaring it to be “mediocre”, and preferring instead language of greater flamboyance – in short, preferring the Cavalier rather than the Roundhead aesthetic. Self claims, amongst other things – although, as ever, he offers no arguments in support – that African-American vernacular English “offers its speakers more ways of saying more things” than does Standard English. That may or may not be so, but I do know that whatever merits this particular vernacular may have, if ever I am ill and am admitted to hospital, I would much prefer my medical report to be written in the plain Standard variety of English that Self so looks down upon.

No doubt Self would think this is a trivial and mundane point, and that, as a literary artist concerned with richness of expression, he is far above such trivial and mundane matters. But it’s thanks to these trivial and mundane matters that our world works. Medical files, journalism, parliamentary reports, reportage, business references – all these things and more require writing that is, above all, lucid. And for this, it is Roundhead writing one must turn to, not Cavalier. Orwell himself was primarily a journalist and essayist, and much of his writing – including his two most famous books – is didactic in nature; so it is hardly surprising that he preferred the Roundheads to the Cavaliers when it came to writing style. Indeed, it is noticeable that Self himself, in making his didactic point, has adopted a style that is – the odd “fulguration” apart – more Roundhead than Cavalier.

Orwell’s advice on writing is actually excellent advice for anyone who sets out to write lucidly: to judge from his article, Self could, I’m sure, learn much from it. But Orwell was addressing a particular kind of writing: the title of this essay is a bit of a give-away – “Politics and the English Language”. Orwell was specifically talking about political writing, where lucidity is vital; in other kinds of writing, he most certainly did not insist that the Roundhead way is the only way to write well: his obvious admiration, as evidenced in his literary criticism, for Dickens, Joyce and Lawrence, should leave no-one in any doubt at all that on that point. What he was insisting was that in certain kinds of writing, lucidity is of primary importance; and to achieve lucidity, one must eschew flamboyance. “The simpler the better” is not a dictum that always holds true; but in certain kinds of writing, it does.

And even for other kinds of writing, there is, pace Self, much to be said for simple English. If “the simpler the better” is a foolish maxim in the context of creative writing, “the more flamboyant the better” does not seem to me any better. My own personal preference in these matters is actually for the Cavaliers rather than the Roundheads: I much prefer Faulkner, say, to Hemingway; but given the choice between the harmonious simplicity of Bunyan’s prose, say, or the flamboyant prose of some writer with a tin ear for the rhythms of English prose (let’s not name names), I certainly know which I prefer!

The rhythms of prose

What kind of lunatic would read a book on grammar for fun? Well, me, I guess. And I can’t be the only one. But this is no ordinary book on grammar: it’s Fowler’s once venerated Modern English Usage.

Since I am acquainted only with the second edition of this book, I don’t know how much of what I enjoy I owe to the brothers Fowler, who published the first edition back in 1906, or to Sir Ernest Gowers, whose revised version appeared in 1965. That the first edition lasted so many decades without any change thought to be required is testament enough for the Fowlers’ achievement. There is, I believe, a third edition now on the market, but this, from what I gather, is a completely re-written version rather than a revised edition. I haven’t, I admit, investigated it: in the first place, the version I have serves my needs admirably; and in the second place, I like so much the charm and the elegance of the second that I would not wish to see it replaced.

Yes, charm and elegance: not qualities one normally associates with grammarians, who seem widely regarded as dry-as-dust pedants – oh, how the Fowlers would warn me against using so trite a simile as “dry as dust”! – and as people whose declared aim it is to fetter us to inflexible rules, smothering any spark of creativity we may have. Don’t these grammarians know that language is changing, and that this simple fact, for fact it is, gives us licence to put together any words we choose in any manner we see fit?

But no, charm and elegance are what I meant. Throughout this textbook, one finds these most un-textbook-like qualities in abundance. Added to this is a deep knowledge and a love of the English language itself. And what better companions could one possibly wish for than those who display wit, charm, erudition, and passion?

The Fowlers – or Sir Ernest Gowers, I cannot tell – effectively write miniature, and sometimes not-so-miniature, essays on various aspects of written English, and, far from being pedantic, they advise us to break the rules when breaking the rules aids clarity, or elegance, or both. Typical is their opening paragraph on the entry on “split infinitives”:

The English-speaking world may be divided into (1)those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish.

Each of these five positions is then analysed, with copious illustrative examples showing how injudiciously split infinitives may lead to lack of clarity, and how pedantically undivided infinitives may lead to clumsiness.

This is their approach throughout: the rules are to be applied not slavishly, but judiciously. The purpose of grammar is not to enforce conformity, but to aid both intelligibility and elegance, especially when we are trying to express matters of complexity or of subtlety. And when the rules of grammar evidently do not serve this purpose, they are to be discarded in favour of whatever does. But iconoclasm for its own sake is no more admirable than dogged pedantry.

The advice in this book is not merely on matters of grammar, but also of style: throughout, the authors insist on the qualities of clarity and of elegance. The latter is not something I find too readily in modern prose. I refer here not merely to the Jeffrey Archers and the Dan Browns of this world: such people are all too easy targets to stick the boot into. I refer also to many writers who are highly acclaimed by contemporary literati, and who may even win literary awards, but a mere few paragraphs of whose writing sampled in bookshops make me wonder how people with such tin ears for the rhythms of English prose could even have thought of choosing writing as their careers. But let us stop there before I get on to mentioning names.

The essay in Modern English Usage on the rhythm of English prose is, indeed, among the finest in the volume. Firstly, they explain with the sort of prose I don’t think I’d find in any other textbook, what they mean by “rhythm”:

Rhythmless speech or writing is like a flow of liquid from a pipe or tap; it runs with smooth monotony from when it is turned on to when it is turned off, provided it is clear stuff; if it is turbid, the smooth flow is queerly and abruptly checked from time to time, and then resumed. Rhythmic speech or writing is like the waves of the sea, moving onward with alternating rise and fall, connected yet separate, like but different, suggestive of some law, too complex for analysis or statement, controlling the relations between wave and wave, waves and sea, phrase and phrase, phrases and speech. In other words, live speech, said or written, is rhythmic, and rhythmless speech is at best dead.

There follows a number of hilarious examples of “rhythmless” writing, and for each, there is a lucid explanation of what had gone wrong with the sentence, and what steps may be taken to improve it. But before we go through these examples, we are promised that there will appear, at the end of the article, “a single masterpiece of rhythm”. One wonders why they chose to end this article with this “single masterpiece”: the example chosen was certainly not intended to be exemplary, since even in 1906 no-one would have been expected to write in such a style. I think they chose this “single masterpiece of rhythm” simply because they loved it, and wished to share it with their readers. And it is worth sharing:

And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept: and as he went, thus he said: O my son, Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!