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Alphabetic Overplacings Considered Harmful
2005-05-23 20:08
by Score Bard

TFD sent me this New York Times article about a controversy regarding W.H. Auden's translation of Dag Hammarskjöld's "Vägmärken". We had an interesting back and forth about it, which I'll share:

Score Bard: Anyone who wants to translate "Vägmärken" as "Waymarks" doesn't deserve to complain about the quality of a translation. Just because a word is a direct cognate doesn't mean it's the right choice. I've never even heard of the word "waymark". To me, that's not even English.

"Road signs" or "Milestones" are what popped into my head.

I've read bits and pieces of it before in Swedish. Now I suppose I'm going to have to read the whole thing, and both versions...

TFD: The case against Auden, though, seemed pretty good--that he was putting his own "map" onto Hammarskjöld. (Not that i'd have any idea, really.)

Score Bard: Without reading both, I'd have no idea, either. That's part of the problem with translating poetry, though. Do you translate the words or the artistry? It's a delicate balance, and I suppose it's possible Auden could have exploited his artistic license a bit too much.

TFD: You try to get to (as close as possible) the complete meaning of the originator. That includes everything (artistry)...imho, of course.

Score Bard: Sure, but some things just don't translate directly. Sometimes you really do have to make a choice between preserving the original beauty and preserving the original semantics. If you translated one of my serious baseball poems into Swedish (not that anyone would want to, but bear with me), it would be meaningless to 99.9% of Swedes, who don't even know what a baseball looks like. You'd have to find something else--soccer or hockey maybe, or even something outside of sports--to convey the underlying message. If you stuck too close to baseball, you wouldn't have communicated anything at all. It's tricky.

TFD: Hmm. Well in your example i guess it depends upon whether or not you were saying something universal that could be communicated through baseball. If not, and most Swedes didn't know baseball, then why even translate? You can't change it to soccer and make it even remotely the same poetry (again unless there are some larger universal things that could be drawn.) but even in that case I'd be pretty hesitant.

That would be like translating Sagan's work into Mandarin by using meterology or Christianity as a metaphor. Yikes, bad example, but i think you get my drift.

Score Bard: Well, that's why I was saying "serious" baseball poetry, because there's usually some universal message involved if it's "serious". The key is to convey the same message.

The problem with translating poetry is that there's so much more to translate than just pure semantics. It's not like translating newspapers, which I used to do for a living. There's the harshness or softness of the sounds, the smoothness or roughness of the rhythm, there's the way one word will relate to another just by having similar sounds or meanings or connotations. All of those things are present in a great poem, and most of those things will be lost if you just do the most accurate literal translation of the meanings of each word or each metaphor.

I always found the hardest part about translating is when there was a word in one language with several equivalent words in the other, but none with quite the same connotation. "Vägmärken" is a perfect example. "Road signs", "Milestones", "Landmarks"--those words just don't convey the same image. Those three translations feel to me like they all have somewhat positive connotations in English, but in Swedish, the word to me has a certain inevitable loneliness and sadness to it--you imagine traveling a small winding road through the Swedish forest, and coming across a milestone left behind centuries before you, by people long since dead.

So if you want to convey that inevitability, that loneliness, that sadness, that sense of historical context which is built into the Swedish word, you can't just translate the word directly into English and leave it at that. You have to find some other way to convey those emotions.

TFD: I agree with you completely that you can't just translate literal words. I was just saying you have to say within what you, the translator, deem to be the "meaning" of the original poem/writing. you have to stay as close as possible, while giving up as much as possible your own prejudices, etc. So in many ways you need to be reporter, historian, wordsmith, and world semantic expert.

I think, again based on my limited view of the article, that the claim being made was that Auden was going outside 'generally accepted guidelines' if such a thing existed. I'd like more verification from an Auden scholar to review the translation who is familiar with Swedish...he/she could ascertain whether or not the lens that Auden was using was too cloudy.

Score Bard: Yes, Baseball has its unwritten rules, as does poetry translation, I suppose. I have a pretty simple to-do list now:

  • Write down all those unwritten rules once and for all
  • Get out the Yellow Pages, and call one of the numerous Swedish-speaking Auden scholars listed therein.
  • Go down to my corner bookstore and buy a copy of "Vägmärken" in both English and Swedish.
I'm rather busy tonight, but I should have time to get those things done before lunch tomorrow. It's only three things, after all.

2005-05-24 07:39:46
1.   Tom
Majoring in English, there were a lot of interesting phrases used to described translations.

My favorite, although it was derided by the translator who quoted it as being sexist, "Translations are like mistresses, the beautiful ones tend to be unfaithful." Maybe the quote said women instead of mistresses. Now I see why he said it was sexist.

But, your baseball poem brings up a good example-- If the Swedes want to read Scorebard's poem, I don't see the value in making it about a game they understand instead of baseball. That's not really reading the poem so much as having it explained lined by line, no?

I, personally, would rather read something that was accurate and look up what I didn't understand, rather than read something I understood that wasn't very true to the source.

2005-05-24 09:13:43
2.   TFD
Ah, yes. But are you an Auden scholar? ;-)
2005-05-24 15:34:08
3.   Score Bard
I agree that if you're looking for a translation, you want to be fairly accurate. But if you end up with a better work of art in the new language by not being so accurate, maybe that's good, too--but you don't mislead people by calling it a translation, you call it something else. Is there a word for that? An "inspired-by"?
2005-05-24 19:53:42
4.   Tom
If the work is short enough (by which I mean a couple of pages), I think they should different translations together. I think that'd be a good idea.
2005-05-25 08:57:36
5.   Cabbage
One of these years, I'm going to become fluent in Russian so I can read Pushkin and Gogol as they're meant to be.

Pushkin is a good example of poets that are especially difficult to translate. My grandparents tell me how so much of his talent was in using rhyme and tempo. I think in situations like that it would be better to focus on translating the words, and forgetting about the meter and tempo.

2005-05-27 23:06:35
6.   adg
What about waypoints? That's English, and a pretty good translation of waymarks.

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