Week 22: Books in Translation

Right.  A promise is a promise, and, while I am lousy at keeping New Year resolutions, I am, if you will only give me world enough, and time, very good at (eventually) fulfilling babelpromises.  And I said we’d talk about books in translation.

Let’s start with Dorothy L Sayers (and the L, if you’re wondering and can’t be bothered to Google it for yourself, stands for Leigh, and, no, I don’t know why she felt that it lifted her name from the mundane to the inscrutable, but she clearly did, because she insisted on it).  Miss Sayers (oh, alright: she wanted her surname to be pronounced as a more-or-less monosyllable, like stairs without the T.  But I do pronounce it like that anyway – I am also guilty of referring to the author of Blithe Spirit as a monosyllable to rhyme with bard – and I don’t find myself thinking, ‘well, thank heavens that L is there, otherwise I would have fallen into the terrible trap of calling her Say-ers, and social death would inexorably have followed.  But I digress) – where was I? – Miss Sayers shunned few opportunities to air her erudition: which is to say, show off.  So, in Clouds of Witness, much of the plot, and your chance of keeping up with it, faint but pursuing, depends upon your ability to translate the conversations and correspondence that appear in French.  Now, I accuse Miss Sayers of showing off more because the evidence stacks up against her, book by book (needing to know about painting in order to twig to Five Red Herrings; being braced and able to follow the decoding of the Playfair Cipher in Have His Carcase, and so on): but is her assumption that we understand French misplaced or not?  Well, her pretty-much-exact contemporary, Thomas Stearns Eliot (and while we’re on the parallel topic of names and middle initials, you can quite see why Tom went for TS given the hand the font had dealt him), freights The Waste Land with French, German, Latin and Greek – among others – precisely in order to make his point: which is that these languages and cultures are where we come from and we jolly well should be familiar with them.  Which is, of course, a bit of a moot point.  It depends rather on who we, and of course TS Eliot, mean by ‘we’.  He’s clearly no paid-up Romantic and has no truck with the idea that the English-speaking world might flaunt its Saxon, Celtic and Norse antecedents and might not, in truth, have an awful lot in common with the-glory-that-was-Greece and the-splendour-that-was-Rome.  He is also, of course, being deliberately – call it playfully if you will – difficult.  Don’t forget Eliot is the great champion of the metaphysical poets of the early seventeenth century: in many ways, his own poems demand the same depth of concentration and commitment as Donne and Herbert.  We are forced to use our brains to translate from difficult into understandable.

But when we translate from one language into another, what do we translate?  The exact words?  Dodgy enough in prose, but when you come to wrestling with the extra demands of rhyme and rhythm that poetry can impose, you might want to sit on the stairs and cry.  Usually, translators concentrate on letting us know what is going on in the unknown language.  That’s why we can find many different versions of the same text.  Take Homer’s Iliad, for example (trust me).  The collection-of-aural-transmission-known-as-Homer produced the thing in verse –in dactylic hexameters, no less.  The great George Chapman trojan_war– yes, that one, the one whose translation bowled over Keats a couple of hundred years after it first appeared – used a range of mostly iambic forms of differing line lengths.  Alexander Pope popped up a hundred years after Chapman and rendered the whole thing into very splendid rhyming couplets.  And then (I’m skipping and being picky: there are lots and lots of translations), there is Christopher Logue’s fabulous, free-wheeling War Music.  Is it a translation or a response?  Well, obviously, you know I’m going to say, read it and make your own decision.

But, supposing for one pleasing moment that you and Ancient Greek are old chums and you can read your Loeb edition unfalteringly over your breakfast egg, I still ask, what is it you are hearing in your mind?  If you are such a linguist that you think in Ancient Greek, I have to break it to you that you are nonetheless not one.  You have different experiences, a different cultural background, a different view of the world.  You know about antibiotics (all that fighting). You know about agnosticism and atheism (all those gods).  You react differently (I hope) to all that really rather casual female-prisoner swapping.  You may even take a dim view of the Trojan Horse (not very Geneva Convention, which also doesn’t cover the dragging of Hector round the walls of Troy, which certainly isn’t cricket).  In other words, you are not having the same reader-experience, even if you learned Ancient Greek as an academic discipline at school or university, as your Bronze Age predecessors (this is of course also true when approaching, say, Shakespeare, and we will undoubtedly discuss reading the past as a foreign country one of these days).

So is there any point in reading in translation?  Well, yes, of course there is, because some taste of Chekhov, Pushkin and Tolstoy is better than none, some sense of what fired Dante, Calvino and Eco enriches our English-speaking lives; some contact with Zola, Flaubert and Stendhal makes us long to know France better.  And the translated text can be glorious in its own right.  I am in no position to pronounce on the original Biblical testaments, Old or New, but I know that when I get the phone call from Kirsty for Desert Island Discs (it can only be a matter of time, surely), when she says, ‘we give you the Bible’, I will make it clear that I’m only playing if I can have the King James version.  And that, dear readers, was produced by a committee.

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