Lost and Found in Translation

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I have read many novels, short stories and poems translated into English from other languages, but I wonder how much of what I read is true to the original intentions of the authors?

The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote many short stories and poems, all of them in his native Spanish. Although I did buy one collection in Spanish, my own knowledge of that language has always been too poor for me to do anything other than read it slowly and laboriously and, undoubtedly, to miss many of the nuances in the writing. So for that reason, I’ve had to read them in translation.

And in any case, even if I spoke Spanish well I could do little more than read it as translation in my head. Unless I spoke it like a native speaker, I would still likely miss much that the author intended to convey.

And so I buy translations.

Zima Junction by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko is a long poem that tells of the poet’s visit to his home town in Siberia, having left some years before to go to live and work in a city. It is a beautiful depiction of rural life in Russia at the time, seen afresh after a gap of several years away, and describes the poets now ambiguous relationship with it.

Long poems can be good vehicles for describing journeys; my own poem The Night Bus does just that, and was written because in that instance I could not find any other medium that worked as well to convey what I wanted to say.

Another favourite of mine is Dart by Alice Oswald, which describes a journey from the source to the sea along the River Dart in Devon, England. She gives voices to the various people encountered along this journey, and to the animals living there…Since it is written in English, I am not left with any worry I am missing things the poet wanted to say, other than perhaps my own occasional inability to understand her.

I have a book of poems from North East India. It is an anthology that I bought in India, with contributions from a huge number of poets. A few of them wrote in English, but the majority of them wrote in other languages – some in Bengali, but the majority in one or other of the plethora of languages to be found in the North East States. And, sadly, most of the translations appear to have been done as a straightforward translation word for word, with no thought given to the feeling of the poem. Any rhythm the poems may originally have had seems to have been lost. The sentences are often clunky and uncomfortable to read. Their meanings have become lost in translation.

But Zima Junction has a natural and comfortable rhythm

The translator of a poem has, to my mind, a task that is more difficult than the translator of prose. Yet, paradoxically, they also have more freedom. More difficult, because they have to get across to the reader ideas or meanings that may be partly concealed in idiomatic language used by the author that perhaps we have no parallel for in English, and hence they may have to completely alter the structure of that part. This will affect a line of poetry far more than it would a line of prose. Immediately, the rhythm of the poem is disrupted, the word count of the line changed.

Yet the reader of a poem has a right to expect a poem. And so, strangely, the translator has the freedom to re-write the poem. In the need for the end result of their translation to be a poem, they may have to completely alter much of the structure to enable the translated words to reassemble themselves as a poem. And so the translators of poems must, by essence, be poets themselves.

So to return to Borges and Yevtushenko, when I read the poems I do wonder whether I am actually reading their poems, or someone else’s?

Review – The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

 

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Late in the year 1327 Brother William of Baskerville, a Franciscan monk, and Adso, a Benedictine novice, arrive at a monastery in Northern Italy. Winter is rapidly approaching, and so is both a legation led by a notorious inquisitor and another that contains that inquisitor’s implacable enemies. William is to speak in intercession between them.

But once they arrive at the monastery, a series of brutal murders begins, and, at the request of the Abbot, William and Adso are drawn into the investigation.

Every detective story needs a detective, and in The Name of the Rose it is William of Baskerville, who indeed uses logic and observation to make deductions, much like a medieval Sherlock Holmes.

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As the plot develops, there are long theological debates centred around both the poverty of Christ and the question of whether Christ laughed. Questions I have little knowledge of, but which read as authentic to me. But these debates are central to the plot. On the interpretation of Christ’s poverty alone, men and women are accused of heresy and burnt at the stake.

But everything is centred upon the monastery’s library. This library is the greatest library of its time in Europe, containing innumerable rare, important and beautiful volumes. At the centre of the story lies a mysterious and forbidden book, and this book lies at the centre of the labyrinthine library where only the Librarian and his assistant are permitted. But are the murders being committed to get hold of this book or is there another reason? Could they, in fact, be connected with the predictions in the Book of Revelations?

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This is such a well-known book that I found I forgot it was a translation from the original I was reading. Much like the Bible, of course, which point is salient to the monks, and certainly in medieval times this interpretation was a matter of life or death to thousands.

But the translation of  prose does not pose the same problems as the translation of verse, and I don’t suppose the English translation is any different from the Italian original. But the potentials made me smile

As a long book, it provides a canvas for long descriptions, both of the abbey and the associated buildings – essentially a castle – and of the long debates between the monks and the other players. At times there is undoubtedly a temptation to skip some of these, but the reader is adequately rewarded for persevering in that the descriptions paint a powerful picture of the place and time, while the debates tell much about the importance of religion and the ridiculous interpretations of every word of the Bible that quite literally governed the lives and deaths of everyone at that time.

A word about the pace of the book, though. Some readers may find it a little slow (although if those readers skip the debates and longer descriptions it is as fast-paced as any other), but remember it is not just a detective story, it is also a historical novel and moves at the pace one would expect of a book of that genre.

I read this a very long time ago, and although I remember it as having been a very good book, I had forgotten just how good. I will unhesitatingly give it five stars.

And the meaning behind the title? Well, you need to wait until the end to find out, and then you need to understand Latin…