Friday, April 23, 2010

My Translation Bias

I am totally biased when it comes to translating.
  • My translations are not private but they are personal. They are based on my personal experience. I would have no basis for choice in any of the choices that are presented to a translator unless I took this biased stance. 
  • My choices are also biased by the English that I love. It is a creative language. Poets like Auden, Blake, Carroll, Donne, Eliot, Herbert, Smart, these in no particular order, have taught me by inference about my own language. 
  • Another bias is recognizing word repetition and figure of speech and word play - or what looks like it to me. What I would like here is to be open to surprise. I am always looking for words that provide a frame or indicate a theme in the work. Like Leviathan as frame in Job and righteousness as theme in Psalm 51.
  • I have also a particular taste. I can't define it - but if someone says - this means 'x' I am likely to think otherwise. It has something to do with both my will to control and theirs. Like the wind, I can be contrary.
  • Finally, I do not think that meaning should be obvious or plain or natural. There is work for the reader and there is delight in that work. There was I believe cost for the original writer so nothing should be cheap to the reader or the translator. If I force or spoonfeed 'the meaning', then I damage the work and another must clean up after me.

Now about those traps that Joel listed. I think we need examples and could go further. His traps are
  • missing the point - a very cute post on Dr. Seuss. I have not noticed the ancient poet doing quite this sort of alliterative rhyme, though Psalm 90 comes close with its framing palindrome and psalm 68 with its riding horses.
  • myopic translations - too much word for word - we have to start somewhere - but see below
  • depending for meaning on etymology - he has two posts related to this (and here I disagree with caution)
  • forgetting your own grammar - this is really easy to do especially on a first draft
  • worrying about too many words in the target language - this is more a problem when translating from Hebrew since it is so compact. But wherever there is ellipsis in Hebrew I think the target language should use it also. Ellipsis - leaving out an implied word - lets the reader respond.
  • slavery to parts of speech (ah me) - I often do this and sometimes when I do I hit my awkward grammar trap
  • seduction - language that fits your spiritual bias (I don't know if I do this or not)
  • short-circuits - a translation that jumps to the 'meaning' rather than reflecting the image used by the author
Another I would add is using a word or phrase in the target language that sets up an unintended double entendre.

How could we go further? To use a musical analogy, Debussy quipped: music is the space between the notes. Music is phrase and movement as well as note and harmony. Music is pulse. A translation should be able to be performed. It needs rhythm. Here is where the common appeal to 'natural' fails miserably. Meaning is conveyed in the passion of the performance, not just in its propositions, as the Dr. Seuss example shows - so maybe Joel has gone this far.

The adjective 'better' is bothersome. God saw the light that it was good. We have lost the meaning of satisfactory. Its meaning is what Job experienced at his end and what the magi knew from their encounter. It is the full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. Some words need to be reclaimed for the sake of the English mind.

The better is the enemy of the good. Le meilleur, c'est l'enemie du bon. Do not be better. The good is sufficient. It was, we may say, satisfactory.