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Improvement makes straight roads; but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius.

— William Blake


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Wednesday, July 23rd, 2003

Translation

In regards to the LanguageHat post on translating Wittgenstein -- I posted in his comments a translation of a line of Rilke that I think is pretty good, and maybe better than the previous translations that have been made of that line -- it was not hard, I used what seems like a pretty obvious device that seems, however, not to have occurred to J.B. Leishman, A.J. Poulin, Steven Cohn, or William Gass. And also I had some interesting ideas about the line of Wittgenstein that is quoted. So this is where I get things out of order and say, "Hey, maybe I've finally found my calling! -- I will translate German literature!"

But wait... what I translated was a single line, or half a line, out of the rather large Duino Elegies -- a work which I have not yet been able to make my way through. Perhaps though, some future exists for me as a translator of epigrams.

I have had some fun over the years translating German stories and other stuff, with varying degrees of success. I would like to reproduce here my best effort thus far, coincidentally also a poem by Rilke:

Der Novembertag

Kalter Herbst vermag den Tag zu knebeln,
seine tausend Jubelstimmen schweigen;
hoch vom Domturm wimmern gar so eigen
Sterbeglocken in Novembernebeln.

Auf den nassen Daechern liegt verschlafen
weisses Dunstlicht; und mit kalten Haenden
greift der Sturm in des Kamines Waenden
eines Totenkarmens Schlussoktaven.

The November Day

Cold autumn can muzzle the day,
silence its thousand jubilating voices;
from the high cathedral tower whimper, so peculiar,
from the steeple whimper, so peculiar,
death bells in November's mist.

On the wet rooftops lies sleeping
a white fog; and with cold hands
the storm inside the chimney's walls strikes
a death-karma's closing octaves.

It loses meter and rhyme which are, yes, rather important in the original -- but I think it communicates Rilke's image and feeling quite well. And I'm happy about preserving much of the word order and separation by line of images. By the way: is anyone else reminded very strongly of the end of Prufrock? -- I refer to the catlike fog which curled around the roof and fell asleep, I think is how it goes.

Update: I changed "high cathedral tower" to "steeple" in response to an accurate observation by LanguageHat that the former was too long. The rhythm is a lot better now. Also I took out a "the" in the following line and replaced it with an "'s". LH does not like the inversion in "lies sleeping/ a white fog", but I do, it's staying in there.

Update 2:I realize a potential major problem with this translation is, I have no clear idea what "a death-karma's closing octaves" means. If you have any thoughts in this regard, please let me know.

posted evening of July 23rd, 2003: Respond
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Thursday, December 25th, 2003

Translation questions

Well actually here I am at home this morning, might as well write a post I've been thinking of for a few days. It concerns translation so I will ask LanguageHat to link to it.

First topic: I found a book on my shelf the other day while looking for train reading, called The Following Story (Het Volgende Verhaal) by Cees Nooteboom (what a wonderful name! I wonder how it is pronounced.) I have a vague memory of coming into possession of this book, and it is dog-eared at p. 76, so I must have started reading it -- I took another go at it Tuesday. And a couple of subtle grammatical errors got me wondering -- is the translator (Ina Rilke) not fluent in English? Or is Nooteboom playing some kind of linguistic game that Rilke is rendering faithfully?

For example: the first sentence of the second paragraph of the story begins, "I had waked up with the ridiculous feeling that I might be dead..." "Waked" can be baby talk in the usage "I waked up" but it does not sound like baby talk here, just like nonsense. I do not know any Dutch so I will put my question forth and hope someone reads this who is familiar with Nooteboom in the original. If you have answers, mail me.

By the way, here is a very nice couple of sentences:

I'm ashamed to say that after all those years on earth I still do not know the exact makeup of the human eye. Cornea, retina, iris and pupil, which double as flowers and students in crossword puzzles, that much I knew, but the actual substance, that vitreous mass of coagulated jelly or gelatine, has always struck fear into me. Whenever I use the word "jelly," everyone invariably laughs, but all the same Cornwall in King Lear had cried: "Out, vile jelly!" as he put out Gloucester's eyes, and that is precisely what I had in mind when I squeezed those sightless spheres which either were or were not my eyes.
A lovely passage -- but note "those" in the first sentence. Seems to me like it should be "these". Again -- is this from the original or from the translator? (Note -- very cool that the crossword puzzle joke works in both Dutch and English. I am assuming it worked without too much fiddling about on Rilke's part; if I am wrong and she did have to take liberties to get it to work, well, she did a very good job of it.)

We visited Ellen's friend Alice the other day and gave her son Steven Demian as a Hanukkah present. Ellen had asked what I thought would be a good book for him -- he is studying German and is reading Camus -- so I thought Demian was a good idea. It is the first book I ever read in German, anyway the first one I was ever able to actually finish. We gave him my copy, plus a translation. I had a look at the beginning of it and found it fascinating as ever, and indeed highly legible. But here's what's interesting -- the German sounds great and a bit profound to my ears -- but when I try rendering it in English it seems a lot less profound, nearly banal. I don't think this is because I am a lousy translator, though I am; when I looked at the translation which we bought for Steven, its phrasing was pretty close to my own. So could the profundity which I am seeing in the original be something I am reading into it, inspired by the rush of being able to understand a foreign language? -- this is a pretty unusual experience for me. A number of people whom I respect have dismissed Hesse as not worthwhile for someone who is not a teenager. (Which either way, Steven is, so I'm covered there.) Any thoughts?

Update: LanguageHat advises me that I am mistaken here: "waked" is a standard past participle of "wake", used more commonly in Britain than in the U.S. And he thinks "those" is acceptable in the longer exerpt. I'd still be interested to know more about the original text that was translated as "after all those years".

posted morning of December 25th, 2003: Respond
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Friday, April 30th, 2004

Poem in your pocket day

Lilith has suggested that everyone post a favorite poem today. Here is my contribution to the effort, an early poem by Rilke with my own translation.

    Der Novembertag

Kalter Herbst vermag den Tag zu knebeln,
seine tausend Jubelstimmen schweigen;
hoch vom Domturm wimmern gar so eigen
Sterbeglocken in Novembernebeln.

Auf den nassen Daechern liegt verschlafen
weisses Dunstlicht; und mit kalten Haenden
greift der Sturm in des Kamines Waenden
eines Totenkarmens Schlussoktaven.

The November Day

Cold autumn can muzzle the day,
silence its thousand jubilating voices;
from the steeple whimper, so peculiar,
death bells in November's mist.

On the wet rooftops lies sleeping
a white fog; and with cold hands
the storm inside the chimney's walls strikes
a death-karma's closing octaves.

posted morning of April 30th, 2004: Respond
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Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

Inversion

So this:

Abwärts wend ich mich zu der heiligen, unaussprechlichen, geheimnisvollen Nacht. Fernab liegt die Welt - in eine tiefe Gruft versenkt - wüst und einsam ist ihre Stelle.

doesn't sound nearly as odd to me as this:

Aside I turn to the holy, unspeakable, mysterious Night. Afar lies the world, sunk in a deep grave; waste and lonely is its place.

Possible reasons:

  • It is normal to invert elements of a sentence like that in German, where in English it sounds archaic -- I cannot vouch for the truth of the first clause here but that's what they told me in high school German. It may be that the construction would sound archaic to a native speaker of German.
  • The German sounds foreign to begin with, and my ears do not pick up enough nuance to tell anything more than that; whereas the English is my own language, and I can tell straight off that it is not the kind of thing you would say, if you were speaking about turning to the holy, mysterious Night.

I am trying to figure out here, whether a more colloquial translation would be a good thing -- if the German sounds stilted in the original, then a comfortable translation would not be true to the source material.

posted evening of October 17th, 2007: 2 responses
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Thursday, October 18th, 2007

Collaborative translation

Want to help me come up with a new translation of Hymns to the Night? I've set up a page for translating.

Update (Friday evening): Hm, haven't seen anybody else over there yet. But I have a working copy of the first chapter, and I think it sounds pretty good. I have copied MacDonald's translation quite closely in places, and introduced changes in other places. See what you think.

posted afternoon of October 18th, 2007: Respond
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Experiencing poetry through translation

Trying to translate a poem I don't really understand out of a language I don't really speak fluently might seem, well, a little Quixotic. But listen -- I think it is worthwhile. It is I guess at root a way of making myself spend some time trying to get the sounds and meanings of the poetry. I have traditionally had a hard time with poetry because I pass over it too quickly and miss nuances. An exercise like this, assuming I can stick with it, will work to correct that tendency.

posted evening of October 18th, 2007: Respond
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Saturday, October 20th, 2007

Progress

I am a little surprised at the progress I am making with Hymns to the Night -- I was mentioning to a friend today that when I pick up projects like this, I usually map them out in detail, then translate a sentence or two and lose interest. Today I've got working translations of the first and second hymns, and I think they read reasonably well. I have borrowed heavily from MacDonald's translation but I think mine is more pleasant of a read -- you have to spend less time and effort on diagramming the sentences in your head to make them make sense.I think a combination of telling everybody I'm working on this and the effort I put into programming the translation page is making this feel like a higher priority to actually put in the time and do it. We'll see about the verse sections of hymns 4, 5, and 6 -- I think it is going to be really difficult to come up with anything.

Update: I'm no longer a one-man band! The first outside contribution to the project comes from Greg Woodruff, and it's a good 'un.

Update: Another translation, from Gary.

posted evening of October 20th, 2007: 6 responses
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Sunday, October 21st, 2007

Debate on how to translate the opening line of Hymns to Night is making me wonder if a bit of English grammar was lost (in my idiolect I mean) before I learned the language -- is "wake"/"awake" intransitive and "waken"/"awaken" transitive? That would make sense; but the four verbs seem totally synonymous to my ear -- I can't distinguish between when to use one or another. (Except I guess I would hardly ever use "awake" as a verb -- sounds very archaic -- except in the past tense.)

posted evening of October 21st, 2007: Respond

Friday, October 26th, 2007

Translation

I've been thinking a lot lately about translation of poetry and how difficult it is, and whether it is worth doing. I'm glad to say that tonight I read an utterly sublime specimen of the genre. It is Tove Jansson's Book About Moomin, Mymble, and Little My, translated by Sophie Hannah and Silvester Mazzarella -- it might be better to say something like "translated by Mazzarella and composed by Hannah" -- in any case they have done a phenomenal job.

The book was written in 1952 and not translated until 2001. (In any case this version came out in 2001, and no reference is made to any earlier translation.) The text is integrated flawlessly with the illustrations -- whoever did the lettering ought to have been credited -- the result looks sort of like Dr. Seuss, sort of like Walt Kelly, sort of like Edward Gorey, but mostly like Jansson.

Many thanks to Redfox for recommending that I check out Jansson's picture books. I had known of their existence for a couple of years but never sought them out.

posted evening of October 26th, 2007: 3 responses
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Thursday, January 17th, 2008

Mistranslation

This is the epigraph in front of Orhan Pamuk's The White Castle:

To imagine that a person who intrigues us has access to a way of life unknown and all the more attractive for its mystery, to believe that we will begin to live only through the love of that person -- what else is this but the birth of great passion?

Marcel Proust, from the mistranslation of Y.K. Karaosmanoğlu

This seems really intriguing to me: Pamuk is quoting a mistranslation into Turkish of a French text (and presumably a real, historical mistranslation), which has subsequently been (who knows, possibly mis-?)translated into English! (This book is translated by Victoria Holbrook, a new name to me -- it will be interesting to see how her rendering of Pamuk's work compares with that of Maureen Freely and of Erdağ Göknar.)

I'm not familiar with Proust and have no way of knowing what the correct translation of the quoted bit is -- not really something I can look up via Google. I wonder...

posted afternoon of January 17th, 2008: 1 response
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