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Old 09-01-2008, 10:48 AM   #1
zelda_pinwheel
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language and ideas : i have a word for it, therefore it exists ?

an interesting question came up on the recommendation thread for City by Alessandro Baricco, and since sparrow has had some very throught-provoking reflexions on the subject, i thought i would give it its own thread in hope of generating some discussion.

here's the original post, in response to a question about whether i prefer to read in french or english :

i prefer to read in the original text if possible. if not possible, i prefer to read a translation into french of italian or spanish, generally, but a translation into english of german or dutch. but there could be exceptions, depending on the style / subject of the text. i think each language has its own "colour" or "texture" which adds as much to the meaning as the individual words chosen, because it adds to the ambiance of the text. this is partly created by the vocabularly, depending on the roots of the words, and partly on the syntaxe, the way sentences can be structured and such.

for example, french is very good for talking about beauty or tenderness or love or abstract philosophical ideas in a precise and eloquent way without sounding sentimental or juvenile, which is not so easy in english ; it's hard to avoid sounding either vulgar or childish (and even in describing this phenomenon i am demonstrating it, because what i REALLY would like to say is "mièvre" and "niais" but i can't think of a good english equivalent ! for "mièvre," the dictionary proposes "affected," "dainty" and "vapid", none of them is quite right).

but english can communicate really percussive ideas and create short, dynamic, brutal sentences, which require longer paraphrases in french because of the grammatical structure and so lose some of their impact. so, you *can* write a noir detective novel in french, but i think there is a reason the most famous ones are written in english (chandler, hammett...). and of course, in english you can easily make up super-hero names like "Vocabulary Girl" which really don't translate into french very well, and that is frustrating sometimes !!

a good translation can be *almost* as good as reading the original. a bad translation can ruin a brilliant book for you. so i prefer to keep all the chances on my side and read a version which has the best chance of conveying the tone as well as the litteral meaning of the original.

as an example of the difference between french and english in mysteries i was recently struck by this paragraph from the latest mystery by Fred Vargas (a french writer who really epitomises for me the french intellectual / philosophical mystery style, almost to the point of being a caricature of the concept but not quite, and one of my favorite authors) :

"Ici ressurgit à pleine puissance l'antagonisme qui divisait les members de la Brigade entre les positivistes matérialistes que les errances d'Adamsberg indisposaient gravement, parfois jusqu'à la révolte, et ceux plus conciliants qui ne voyaient pas le mal à pelleter des nuages de temps à autre."

--Fred Vargas, Un Lieu Incertain

my rather feeble attempt at a translation :

"Here burst forth at full strength the antagonism which divided the members of the Brigade, between the materialistic positivists whom the wanderings of Adamsberg gravely indisposed, sometimes to the point of revolt, and those more conciliatory who saw no harm in shovelling clouds from time to time."

i don't know how a professional translator would fare with that paragraph (hopefully better than me). but it seems to me really to capture the difference between the french polar and the english noir mystery, on every point : language, concept, style... in french it reads very well ; in english, no doubt at least partly due to my translation but also because english is the wrong colour for this, it seems stilted to me and rather ungainly.

as a counter example, i first read Dorothy Sayers and SS Van Dine both in french. i think the translations were fairly decent and i liked both authors very well. but when i finally was able to read the original books in english, i found them much more lively witty than the translations had been able to render.
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Old 09-01-2008, 12:51 PM   #2
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I think this is a fascinating subject; and a mysterious one for me as I only speak English. I'm constantly amazed by the skill of the multi-lingual posters on MR.

What intrigues me regarding Zelda's post are:
Why are there no English equivalents for "mièvre" and "niais"? The implication is that there are concepts that are alien to my culture (otherwise English would have an acceptable word to express them too).

Are there really any reasons why a translation can't be better than the original?
When we read a translated book; whose creative work are we experiencing the most? (Have I really read 'War and Peace' if I've only read it in translation?)

When I read a book, I have a voice in my head saying the words to me (inefficient I know ). So what language is that little voice using when a French reader is reading an English text?

Tricky stuff language; I'd really like to know more about the experiences of multi-lingual readers - and this seems a good place to ask .
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Old 09-01-2008, 12:57 PM   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Sparrow View Post
Are there really any reasons why a translation can't be better than the original?
When we read a translated book; whose creative work are we experiencing the most? (Have I really read 'War and Peace' if I've only read it in translation?)
I'm probably prejudiced, but I don't thing a translation can be as good as the original. It isn't just the translating, but also the reading. I've read plenty of early/mid medieval texts from the original parchments, but I have no doubt that a contemporary listener from the time would have a completely different context from which to understand meaning. I have not yet figured out how to get into that mindset. Honestly not sure that I want to!
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Old 09-01-2008, 01:38 PM   #4
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I remember reading somewhere once that Umberto Eco thinks the translations of his books into English are better than the originals. He always uses the same translator, who he thinks is better at expressing what he means than he himself is.

I think its interesting the way some languages have words for concepts which don't really exist simply in others. For instance there's a word in Welsh, "haeraeth", which more or less means as "a feeling of nostalgia for something which hasn't actually gone yet." As in "Oh woe! Never will I stand upon this balcony and watch this sunset ever again!"

I've never been a translator, but I used to be copy-editor who had to tidy up academic papers which had been written in English by none-native speakers. It was often illuminating to see from sentence structure how their native language must be constructed. And sometimes they used to make me laugh. I remember one academic was talking about how lightly-built houses had been constructed in a certain part of a city, and came up with a wonderful image of "an estate of single-storey lighthouses."
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Old 09-01-2008, 02:01 PM   #5
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I have a friend from Uzbekistan and she says that the Russian version of the following poem by Pushkin is much more beautiful then the English translation. I do not read Russian so I have to take her word for it.

TO...

O wondrous moment! There before me,
A radiant, fleeting dream, you stood,
A vision fancy fashioned for me,
A glimpse of perfect womanhood.

Through all life's sadness, all its wonted
And hopeless flurry and unrest
Your lovely face my spirit haunted,
Your tender voice my ear caressed.

Swift storms struck; o'er me wrathful breaking,
They fast dispelled the dreams of yore.
Your image blurred, my heart forsaking,
Your voice caressed my ear no more.

In cold and gloomy isolation
The years sped by, the lonely years,
'Thout deity, 'thout inspiration,
Bereft of life and love and tears.

And then - O bliss!- time's flight defeating,
You came again and 'fore me stood,
A vision radiant and fleeting,
A glimpse of perfect womanhood.

My heart is filled with sweet elation,
Anew it craves, anew reveres,
And is awake to inspiration,
Awake to life and love and tears.

К***

Я помню чудное мгновенье:
Передо мной явилась ты,
Как мимолетное виденье,
Как гений чистой красоты.

В томленьях грусти безнадежной,
В тревогах шумной суеты,
Звучал мне долго голос нежный
И снились милые черты.

Шли годы. Бурь порыв мятежный
Рассеял прежние мечты,
И я забыл твой голос нежный,
Твои небесные черты.

В глуши, во мраке заточенья
Тянулись тихо дни мои
Без божества, без вдохновенья,
Без слез, без жизни, без любви.

Душе настало пробужденье:
И вот опять явилась ты,
Как мимолетное виденье,
Как гений чистой красоты.

И сердце бьется в упоенье,
И для него воскресли вновь
И божество, и вдохновенье,
И жизнь, и слезы, и любовь.
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Old 09-01-2008, 03:13 PM   #6
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There's an interesting article by Umberto Eco (in translation ) where he discusses translation from an author's perspective.

He makes a lot of interesting points, including this section about the beneficial aspect of working with a translator:

"As an author, I have learned a great deal from sharing the work of my translators. I am talking about my "academic" works as well as my novels. In the case of philosophical and linguistic works, when the translator cannot understand (and clearly translate) a certain page, it means that my thinking was murky. Many times, after having faced the job of translation, I have revised the second Italian edition of my book; not only from the point of view of its style but also from the point of view of ideas."
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Old 09-01-2008, 06:59 PM   #7
zelda_pinwheel
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thanks for all these very thoughtful and thought provoking reflexions. i find this subject fascinating and i'm really thrilled to see all of these different perspectives on it. nothing to add tonight since i had some drinks with friends and am not feeling completely coherent now but probably tomorrow i will have more to say...
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