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  #1  
Unread 07-17-2020, 03:38 PM
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
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Default Translation discussions in Bonjour Paris

Bonjour Paris has been running a series in which a translator discusses her translation of a poem, with some connection (however tenuous) to being on lockdown while translating it.

In the latest installment (the sixth), the translator justifies leaving the two-line refrain of a famous poem untranslated, by saying that it's hard, and others have done it badly, and anyway, it contains English cognates that non-French-speakers should be able to figure out for themselves.

Hmmm. How do others feel about that? I think that sometimes leaving things untranslated works, but here, it feels like a faux-fuyant.

(Also feel free to discuss anything else about this essay/translation series in this thread. The others are accessible via the above link, too.)

Last edited by Julie Steiner; 08-04-2020 at 11:02 AM. Reason: Correction
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Unread 08-09-2020, 06:20 PM
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Instead, I practice what scholars of translation have called “mimesis.” Mimesis is an effort to get inside the poet’s head and heart, to come to understand his ideas, his intentions and the way he uses language. Then, having done that, a mimetic translator becomes the poet (metaphorically) and rewrites the poem in his own language. Done well, the poem will retain its rhythm, its poetic imagery and its meaning.
This seems to amount to an innoculation against accusations of "inaccuracy". She tried to freely recast the poem in a way that seemed true to Baudelaire and to her own sense of the poetic. Ok, you do you.

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I could find no English words that could reproduce Baudelaire’s economy of expression and his absolutely magical way of describing paradise.
Am I to understand by this that she feels the rest of her translation does equal Baudelaire's French in such respects? Or rather (what seems more likely) that which made the original two lines worth reading (to her) defied attempts to instantiate it in English. I get that. But if you're going to fail, then fail with some grace. No translator is perfect. If one can't do what one wishes one could with a line or passage, then it seems to me that we still owe it to our readers to do SOMETHING worth their attention.

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The French words are close enough to English to give you a sense of their meaning and so I left them as written.
The absolutely kindest thing I can say about this is that, if by "a sense of their meaning" she means "some idea of what three or four of the content words mean without knowing their relationship to each other, or what is being said about them" she is correct.

Most of the words, in fact, are not at all close enough to English to be understood. The words lÓ, tout, ne, est, que, et are impenetrable to an Anglophone who does not know French. She seems, in this assesment, to have forgotten that these words even exist or are important to understanding what's going on. It is also by no means a sure thing luxe will be properly processed by someone who does not know French at all. VoluptÚ stands a greater chance of being misunderstood than anything else. "Volupty" is a rare word now, and even "voluptuousness" has come to mean something quite different than it used to.

This to me is rather bankrupt. Translation is the art of failure. This treatment of the refrain, though, is neither translation nor art, but failure plain and simple.

I think she gives the game away here:

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nor to do I attempt to rhyme. In my view, translators who do that often sacrifice meaning, rhythm and poetry in their effort to reproduce the words exactly.
It seems clear to me that she thinks that rhyme and other such "formal" properties aren't an essential part of what makes a form-conscious poem (or, at least, this form-conscious poem) worth reading as a poem, or she would not find them so easy to disregard in an English version. Okay. As in religion so in literature: your beliefs are your business.

But I'm not quite sure I understand what she is even saying here, though I will try and assume she, at least, does. Either the sentence is badly phrased, or I am obtuse, or (a distinct possibility) both. What does "reproduce the words exactly" mean here? Clearly it does not mean translating things word-for-word, or even translating them as if they were prose. Otherwise she would not oppose the former, nor suggest in any way that that is what translators who use rhyme are atttempting to. Does she think they are are less concerned with rhythm than she is (for which I see no evidencein her translation)? Or is this an awkward way of saying she thinks "reproducing the words exactly" is most important, but that attempts to use rhyme get in the way of that?

Regardless, her treatment of the refrain is ironic in light of this sentence, because what she does with the refrain seems to me to be "reproducing the words exactly" taken to an extreme. Way past word-for-word and more same-word-for-same-word. The result being not so much translation as simple quotation.

Last edited by AZ Foreman; 08-09-2020 at 10:28 PM.
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Unread 08-09-2020, 06:41 PM
Roger Slater Roger Slater is online now
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To use rhyme is to sacrifice poetry? I generally understand that sort of comment to mean that the translator is not skilled in writing rhyme in English so has rationalized away her own deficiency by asking us to believe that the original poet just threw in some rhyme for the hell of it and didn't think it was an important element of the poem that anyone should notice or care about. It's an attitude that seems to be based on the notion that a poem is entirely made up of content and only incidentally packaged in form, and that all the fun is not in how you say a thing but only in saying the thing.

Last edited by Roger Slater; 08-09-2020 at 06:44 PM.
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Unread 08-09-2020, 10:16 PM
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Originally Posted by Roger Slater View Post
To use rhyme is to sacrifice poetry? I generally understand that sort of comment to mean that the translator is not skilled in writing rhyme in English so has rationalized away her own deficiency by asking us to believe that the original poet just threw in some rhyme for the hell of it and didn't think it was an important element of the poem that anyone should notice or care about. It's an attitude that seems to be based on the notion that a poem is entirely made up of content and only incidentally packaged in form, and that all the fun is not in how you say a thing but only in saying the thing.
I think that most people who say this kind of thing would agree that the "how" of saying a thing does matter. It's just that they are averse to the idea that this kind of "how" should matter in any substantive way. Or at least, not so much so as to make it worth bothering over in translation. People who aren't accustomed to writing rhymed verse themselves often have a harder time of it, and so may be more susceptible to arguments about its inconsequentiality, though there's a bit of a Chicken vs. Egg thing going on there.

The real issue I think is that English-speaking readers of poetry have been effectively trained not to care about formal features like rhyme, and to aestheticize other things. To a degree this is true in many other languages spoken by the mandarinate of Western Europe, but it is I think less true of Spanish or Dutch, and it is not at all true in Russian, Welsh, Yiddish or Arabic.

I wrote a thing (forgive me for quoting myself) about this problem re: the translation of Classical Chinese verse. One basic point of mine is that these kinds of belief about rhyme etc. are part of an ideology about what matters in poetry. A reason why I think of, and treat, it as an ideology is that it is so readily read into nature. People will say "oh rhyme just doesn't work in English, English is hard to rhyme in" which would be news to Bob Dylan, Don McLean and Eminem (which connects with another point: that disdain for rhyme, and/or disdain for those popular verse forms that retain rhyme, is also class-inflected to a degree among modern Anglo literary elites).

The reason I translate in form-conscious ways is because the form is often a component of what made the thing worth reading. I'm very aural, and I appreciate things aurally. I think distaste for formally-conscious translation is the flipside of that, one way or another. To translate in a way that connects with formal artistry is to tell the reader — one way or another — that form is worth being aware of, thinking about, thinking with, and thinking through. The problem is that some people don't really like being told that, which I am convinced is part of what fuels complaints about rhyme being a "distraction" that "calls attention to itself". Form that doesn't call too much attention to itself goes down a lot better, often. People don't seem to mind blank verse so much.

Last edited by AZ Foreman; 08-09-2020 at 11:35 PM.
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Unread 08-10-2020, 08:01 PM
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In the latest installment (the sixth), the translator justifies leaving the two-line refrain of a famous poem untranslated, by saying that it's hard, and others have done it badly, and anyway, it contains English cognates that non-French-speakers should be able to figure out for themselves.

Hmmm. How do others feel about that?
I think it is justified and kept within reasonable bounds of "poetic license".

It doesn't sound like she is being reckless or arrogant, rather than admitting a weakness: "I tried my best...but, in one instance, I gave up", "the famous refrain...defeated me." , "I could find no English words...", "please forgive me..."

It is not uncommon to use foreign tongues (especially Latin and French) in English artistic writing, as titles, epigraphs, stylistic flourishes etc. Even though this is a translation, the artistic effect is along the same lines.

If you don't know what something means, thousands of dictionaries and grammars are only a click away to help. Unless one confines oneself to the most understood words, now and then (s)he is likely to make people look up English words in the dictionary too. Introducing people to different words/expressions - including foreign ones - is usually not a bad thing.

.

Last edited by Kevin Rainbow; 08-10-2020 at 08:50 PM.
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Unread 08-10-2020, 08:58 PM
Roger Slater Roger Slater is online now
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I think those who are hostile to form often can't really hear meter. If they "don't mind" blank verse it's only because they don't hear it and to them it's pretty much the same as free verse. But ultimately, even if you are an educated reader/writer with a good ear but you simply don't care for meter and rhyme, I would argue that your duty as a translator is to put aside your own view on the subject and recognize that the meter and rhyme of the original were important enough for the original poet to incorporate into his poem. Your own views and preferences are secondary to those of the poet you are translating, after all, and it's a cop-out to claim that the original poet went to all the trouble of writing in metrical rhyming verses for reasons that were trivial or ultimately not contributing to the poem in any way worth preserving. No one would translate a song without keeping the melody, and it would be no excuse to do so while claiming that the melody gets in the way of the lyrics.
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