BITS OF TRANSLATION
Thomas Russell Wingate
April, May 2010
An Italian adage—traduttori traditori—tells us that translators are traitors.
To a greater extent than we imagine, we are all dependent on translators.
It should not surprise us that disputes, even feuds, arise over translators and their disciples. The only way the layman can get to the bottom of this is to read in a single year several translations of the same work—but you aren’t going to do that very often, are you?
We usually rely on whichever translation came our way first.
The classics are being retranslated all the time. Naturally, each new version claims to improve upon, yea to render obsolete, its predecessors.
So who can claim to have really read a classic not in his own language?
Nearly all European languages are in the family called Indo-European. These languages have dominated civilized discourse in Europe and all places settled by Europeans.
You should pause to reflect upon the fact that most of the foreign classics you have read or intend to read were written in another Indo-European language.
Semitic languages are related to each other but not to Indo-European languages.
This causes unusual problems of translation to arise and to endure.
The most famous Christian scriptures—the New Testament—are in Greek. The entire Mediterranean world was dominated by Indo-European languages. By decoupling itself from its obviously Hebraic origins, Christianity was able to spread.
The earlier scriptures—redesignated the Old Testament and affixed to, and revalidated by, the New Testament—are in Semitic languages. Translation was needed; corrections followed.
Those able to judge such matters agree that the Old Testament’s level of majesty in Hebrew is higher than the New Testament’s level in Greek.
Whoever could read Plato and Plutarch would consider the demotic Greek of the New Testament to be embarrassing, to say the most for it.
The King James Version placed the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, and the New Testament into the finest words the age of “that bright Occidental Star, Queen Elizabeth of most happy memory” could produce. It has remained the gold standard for literary excellence in English for four hundred years.¹
To be shown how a language can decline in stature, perform a simple experiment. Read the Constitution of the United States as literature. Immediately afterward, read the Charter of the United Nations as literature. You will see what I mean.
No one will accuse me of unfairness when I state that English is an imperial language.
Over millennia, all over the planet, there have been linguae francae. Many have lost that position. Think in terms of a market for languages. If it pays you to know a language you weren’t born into, you will learn it. If some other language is more to their advantage, your descendants will learn it even though you didn’t.
The United Nations started in 1945 with five “official languages”: Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. Arabic was added in 1974. Of these six, two are the body’s “working languages.” You have already guessed which two. You already knew that prestige and cachet are French words English borrowed in envy.
An imperial language becomes one, and stays one for as long as it can, because generations of thinkers will it. Excellence in writing—nowadays, that includes cinema—is indispensable. Neglect of intellectual development, and faint respect for it, corrode ascendancy, diminish harmony, and forfeit prosperity.
Three European languages—German is the second—have secured, elevated, and advanced themselves by an overarching translation of the Bible.
Among the educated minority, Latin remained an imperial language long after the world called it “dead.” (Hungary’s parliament used it in the nineteenth century.) The Roman Catholic Church has made it hers.
Translations of the Koran² into English differ in their styles.
Most translators, being mindful of their careers, have sought “accuracy” and “perspective.” Blandness has been the result of their diligence.
The Koran is the supreme exhibit of the Arabic language. Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, an English convert to Islam, best captured The Meaning of the Glorious Koran (1930).
To see what majestic language looks like, sounds like, tastes like, you should read Pickthall’s book³ aloud to yourself (or an audience). Let “The Merciful” (Surah 55) grow upon you.
Current events require something fresher. A striking originality and felicity of expression distinguishes The Holy Koran: An Interpretive Translation from Classical Arabic into Contemporary English (2008) by the late Mohamed K. Jasser, an eminent physician who calls his work “a labor of love, a labor of faith, and a labor of conviction.” His work omits academic impedimenta, save that his introduction rebukes the encrustations of tradition. In antiquity, collections were arranged longest first, shortest last. The contents are listed at the back. Jasser has given us the Koran we all need to know. Let us end willful misunderstanding.
Persia is blessed by a superior literature in an Indo-European language. Islam, Semitic to the marrow, cast down all that had been before it. In Iran and Persian Mesopotamia, the triumphant faith straightaway fissioned. Animosities continue to be cultivated.
Persian is no longer an imperial language. Neither is Arabic, despite the momentum of Islam. In 2003 the United Nations issued its Arab Human Development Report, which stated: “No more than 10,000 books were translated into Arabic over the entire past millennium, equivalent to the number [now being] translated into Spanish each year.”
Imperial languages make themselves widely dispersed. Dialects are nurtured. These can lead to new languages. The five daughters of Latin—Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Rumanian—are the most famous example. Afrikaans, daughter of Dutch, is another.
Spanish and Arabic may be breeding daughter languages.
Portugal’s national epic is about farflung maritime conquest. Camoëns put The Lusiad (1572) into rhyme. In 1776 Mickle published a rhyming translation which strives for its elevated tone. (This is harder than you may suppose, for English is poor in rhyme.) He supplied his readers with plethoric footnotes; in 1877 Hodges amplified the footnotes when Mickle’s book was republished. More recent translations in prose amount to clumsy murder. (I read those first. Take my warning to heart.)
The greatest work in Portuguese literature does not mention Brazil, where the language came to have its largest homeland. How long will it be before Brazilians decide they are speaking Brazilian?
Written Chinese—there has never been a single spoken Chinese—has been redesigned by several governments of China. Since 1979 our library catalogs have been using Pinyin transliterations, which mostly omit diacritical markings used in the Wade-Giles system.
The literature of China is oceanic in scale. Many Chinese governments have set out to destroy it.
In any event, non-Chinese pay it little mind. A Westerner is more likely to read FitzGerald’s The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám than anything from China.
Despite my professional fascination with China, Waley’s highly praised translations of her finest poems could not touch me. I retained not a smidgin. There is something in the Sinic mode of thinking that thwarts me. No doubt this works both ways.
Chinese-thinking readers of poetry in English are apt to be partial to Burns.
We might apply the German word poltergeist (“noisy ghost”) to many languages once splendid but now of diminished and diminishing significance.
Yiddish has provided English with plenty of bounce.
Exegesis (four syllables; jee stressed): reading a meaning out of a text; extraction.
Eisegesis: reading a meaning into a text; insertion; falsification (not necessarily conscious or deliberate).
RES IPSA LOQUITUR, SED QUID IN INFERNOS DICIT? The thing speaks for itself, but what in hell does it say?
OMNIA DICTA FORTIORA SI DICTA LATINA. Everything sounds more impressive when said in Latin.
Chaucer complained in terms of alchemy: “If gold rust, what shall iron do?”
In centuries before the twentieth, it was thought laudable for men of letters to change copper to gold. In my lifetime, I have seen translators pride themselves on changing gold to copper “to make comprehension easier.”
1 The title page of the Book of Mormon declares its faults to be
the mistakes of men. Americans in the nineteenth century were
persuaded in advance of reflection that only a regal English
two centuries old could be appropriate for additional Good News.
Anything suggestive of newspapers would have been rejected
by the curious.
2 This is the simplest and oldest spelling in English. Let us avoid
the scholarly Qur’ân (“Recitation”); the central apostrophe and the
circumflex irritate eyes partial to English. It is important to remember that
the Recitation does not consider itself a book, quotes no book, and forbids
its own translation from Arabic.
3 On several Internet sites.
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