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A CurtainUp Feature
The Translator's Craft

By Estelle Gilson

The Translator Defined
The Traitor Translator
The Translator's Tool Kit of Skills
Contemporary Works Have Their Traitors Too
The Twenty-Year Life Span Thing
The Theatrical Translator's Special Challenges
Why Translations Miss Their Mark
How Likely Are You to See a Faithful Translation of a Play?
And Then There's Opera . .
Have Some Fun -- Have a Translation Party

The Translator Defined

Curtain Up's interview with James Magruder, translator of Marivaux's The Triumph of Love, (the interview) in which he speaks of the "twenty-three or so drafts" and "the cutting and pasting" involved in bringing Marivaux's 18th century "invented language of love" to the stage, put me in mind of one of the several definitions of translator in the Oxford English Dictionary. "One who transforms, changes or alters. Spec. a cobbler who renovates old shoes."

;Before we go any further, let me say that I too am such a cobbler; that is, a literary translator, who has dealt with works from the past. I couldn't translate a peace treaty, a document of lading, or instructions on how to put together your baby's new crib. There are translators in every language under the sun, who specialize in such work. Speed is their by-word. I was on the third draft of a translation of a novel when I came across a technical translators' internet discussion of fees. ";If it's a very technical translation," read one message, " I would charge much higher than for a . . . translation of a novel. . .. where the precision level and therefore the time for the translation doesn't necessarily need to be as high." It set me screaming at my monitor.

The Traitor Translator

The Traitor Translator

Yet there is a serious issue here for readers and theater goers, as well as for translators. For all the time we take, for all the drafts and revisions we literary translators go through before we claim to be have produced a satisfactory translation, we are most often associated with betrayal of the original author. Traduttore, traditore - "translator, traitor", says the well known Italian phrase.

How come we work so hard and are judged so often to miss? Before we can answer that, it's important to know something about the act of translation.

The Translator's Tool Kit of Skills

Ideally, the literary translator will enable the reader to comprehend the foreign world of word, place and time in which a work is set, or a story unfolds.

To do this a literary translator should know the language of the original work and something about the background and setting of the original work. Certainly he or she should have complete command of the target language. Every translated work should reflect the original writer's unique style. Proust's sentences in English cannot be chopped into bite-size Hemingway, just as Hemingway's sentences in French cannot be encumbered with commas and colons. The translator has to find language which reflects the time and place of the original manuscript, and must transmit as well the unique voice, including vocabulary, style of speech and/or dialect of each character. The translator's choices for the simplest of terms, such as names, place names and forms of address must be consistent and coherent lest they jar the reader and break the spell of the work.

Translators have to have a sense of humor (not merely because they have chosen to do painstaking, poorly remunerated work) but because, difficult as it is, translators have to find ways to transmit someone else's sense of humor in a different language, at the same place in a text, and in a way that will reflect the humor of the original. No pulling chairs from under people when the joke is a play on words. In what foreign language is there a pun for the "lawyer/liar" line as in the movie Liar, Liar? A literal translation is not enough. Nuances are easily missed. There are apples of the eye, apples in the Garden of Eden, and apples that are computers. And sometimes apple is just apple. Translators are obligated to go beyond the surface of the words the author uses and the actions he or she describes, to reflect every level of meaning a work has, and to transmit that meaning and significance to the reader.


Why Translations Miss Their Mark

So what goes wrong? Why do so many translations miss? Is it that translators fail to keep to these goals?

In the case of the greatest literary works ever translated into English; the Bible, Greek and Latin dramatists and poets, and Dante, there is no question that it is asking too much of any translator to produce a version completely faithful to the original. Such works with their power, poetry, with their unique structures and vocabularies, and their contemporary references and allusions are beyond being captured in another tongue.

I don't know anyone who has read any of these works in the original language — even if they have had to struggle with commentaries and dictionaries by their side - who finds that reading any translation of them returns the intense pleasure of reading the original. For scholars, writers and translators this dissatisfaction with available translations often provides the impetus for a new version of a work.&

The Twenty-Year Life Span Thing

But no matter the genius of the translator, his or her "new" version will not answer for the ages, as does the original work. One reason is that language does not remain constant. Every twenty years or so there seems to be a need to redo classic works to make them accessible to a public, which (it is assumed) will not understand or is not inclined to read the same version their parents read. My first edition (1867) of Longfellow's translation of Dante is a discard of the Sterling, Massachusetts Public Library. Dante translations appear with almost metronomic regularity.

Genius is sometimes the very reason a translation, particularly of poetry may seem to some readers to be a betrayal. Whereas most translators of a poem adhere as closely as possible to the pattern of words and the literal meaning of the original work, Robert Lowell, a great poet in his own right, translated the first two lines of Baudelaire's "La Cloche Fêlée" in his own idiom. Baudelaire's lines are; "It is bitter and sweet during winter nights/ to hear, close to the throbbing smoking fire" Here are Lowell's: "Propped on my footstool by the popping log/and sitting out the winter night, I hear." Did Lowell betray Baudelaire's meaning? Readers of French can make up their own minds. Non-readers of French who come across the Lowell translation would never know the difference. Even superb and long-lived translations, for example, the exalted St. James Bible, which for so long has transcended changes in speech and literary styles, is now ceding place to more colloquial versions of the Bible that reflect present social, political and religious thought.

Contemporary Works Have Their Traitors Too

Translations of popular contemporary works sometimes read like "betrayals" as well. This is true no matter whether the author is dead or alive, though without an author looking over their shoulders, translators are by necessity or desire, freer to impose their own ideas on a text. I don't know a translator who hasn't at one time or another had to battle the urge to improve a spot here and there in the original text. There are times when this may be justified, but for the most part I've found that when I have a problem with a word, a connection, or a thought, it is because I have misread the text. Succumbing to this well meaning urge to "improve" an author's words, can be devastating to style and meaning. Writer Linda Britt so enjoyed the Spanish novel, Como aqua para chocolate, that as soon as the English translation appeared, she sent copies to her non-Spanish reading friends. When her friends proved far less than enthusiastic than she, Britt read the translation herself. The basic fault Britt found with it is fairly typical of many failed literary translations. It is essentially an attempt to smooth the translator's and the reader's way. "If a concept reaches beyond the grasp of a limited imagination,"" wrote Britt, "they change it. If the author makes a leap without explanation, they 'fix' it. If the prose is dense and complex, they 'simplify' it." The translators' (there were two) attempt "to make the strange. . .familiar, comfortable, unthreatening," said Britt, resulted "in a neutered text." SO HERE'S A PIECE OF ADVICE. If the translation of a well known, well thought of work appears dull to you, don't assume the accolades were misplaced, try another translation.

The Theatrical Translator's Special Challenges

Dealing with theatrical works introduces new problems for the translator. When the translation of a classic play, such as the Oedipus or Medea that we read in school, is made for study purposes, the translator will generally have the opportunity to accompany the text with notes which contain sufficient background material; historical, linguistic, and interpretative, for the reader to understand the play. These scholarly editions, especially for students, have the disadvantage of being subject to expurgation, and can be as dull as they dare. Like other great literary works, however, they are brought up to date on an almost a regular basis as language and social mores change. Censorship, of course, is not limited to study editions of Oedipus or any other dramatic work. Before 1912, British censors would not permit performances of the Oedipus Rex in England because of its incestuous theme. This underscores the power of theater, in which everything about the world in which a play is set must unfold before the audience's eyes. The translator of a play for performance has not only to make strange worlds understandable without notes or appendices, but must write speakable lines, which differentiate characters, allow for action and gestures, and read as freshly and smoothly as though they were original.

And the script cannot be dull. The audience has to be continuously enthralled "Nobody comes (to the theater) for self improvement or for anything but emotion," said the Irish poet and playwright, William Yeats. Yeats wrote a version of Oedipus Rex specifically tailored for Ireland's Dublin theater after having seen the first Oedipus Rex performed in London when censorship was lifted. The latter was the famous, rhymed version written by classical scholar, Gilbert Murray, and extravagantly produced by Max Reinhardt, which introduced Sophocles to the British public. Despite the production's popularity, there were critics who denounced it as neither sober, nor Greek enough. Reinhardt also staged the Oedipus Rex in Munich, Vienna and Berlin in a German translation by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and brought versions of it to Hungary, Russia and Sweden.

Almost any writer interested in translating Sophocles' Oedipus Rex for performance today is not likely to read ancient Greek, far less to be a classic scholar as was Murray. Contemporary translators of Oedipus or any classic, therefore generally create versions based on the vocabulary, dialogue and interpretations of the study and performance editions that already exist, sometimes perpetuating their errors. There are translators too, who are likely to approach Sophocles, or any other playwright they are translating, in the same spirit of self confidence, merited or not, with which Robert Lowell approached Baudelaire. And in fact, Stages of Translation, a collection of interviews and essays on theatrical translation, edited by David Johnston, is replete with examples of translators, some of whom don't know even the modern languages; French, German, Norwegian, Spanish, they are translating from, and who couldn't care less. They pride themselves instead, as one says, on enabling people "to see these old plays and (have) a good time in the theater."


How Likely Are You to See a Faithful Translation of a Play?

How likely is an audience to see a faithful translation of any play?

Not very.


And Then There's Opera . .

The only audiences less likely to hear a faithful translation of an original work, are those at the opera. Word and music, which should be married in opera, are often at war in translations.

In addition to the obligations translators have to any theatrical performance text, translators of opera have to deal with a set of musical problems such as rhythm, repetitions, instrumentation, range of voices, sometimes rhyme (far easier in Italian and French than in English) and sometimes recitative or spoken passages. Librettists try to produce "singable" lines; words that flow off the tongue easily and are filled with the vowels singers prefer for the production of their best sounds. This is such a powerful need that even the original language is sometimes "tortured" and twisted to allow the "right" sound for a high note or a rapid passage. But unlike other dramatic literature in translation, part of the problem in regard to opera can be assigned to performers. Should a libretto fail to offer singers appropriate sounds, they have been known to ignore the written word and sing what they please. Joan Sutherland was particularly given to mushy enunciation. At master classes that mezzo-sopranos Christa Ludwig and Marilyn Horne held last year, by far the most often repeated advice they gave to the young artists, was to sing every word clearly even if they had to spit their consonants. Unfortunately, not many singers have been trained to enunciate clearly. So despite the fact that composers are known to have contended with librettists for just the right words to set to music, audiences generally understand very little of what is sung in any language.

There are those who believe that the most one can expect of words in opera is that they stay out of the way of the music, and not distract the listener. The fact that an English libretto which is only partly understandable, is likely to be far more annoying to an English speaking audience than a libretto than any other language, is one reason that opera translations into English has never been popular with the public. A second reason is that many English translations of operas are dull, inaccurate and/or silly. 

Have Some Fun -- Have a Translation Party

Grossly inaccurate or patently individualistic translations aside, literary translations are explorations and interpretations. Each of the various translations of a masterwork can bring the reader unable to read the original work, new and valid insights.

 Want to test this hypothesis? Have a translation party. If you and your guests don't know a specific foreign language, get a literal translation of a poem or short story. Then without exchanging ideas among yourselves, write the work out (speaking doesn't count) in English so that it flows coherently in the style or meter of the original. You may be surprised by the difficulty of choosing from among the many combinations that will suggest themselves, and by the results that others come up with. Oh yes, I suggest you have a good thesaurus handy, and that you give yourselves plenty of time. Remember James Magruder's "twenty-three or so" drafts.

©Copyright 1998, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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