Category Archives: Translation

A very concise 23rd Psalm

The Lord my shepherd is, and I
Shall nothing want. He makes me lie
In pastures green. Along the shores
Of waters still he leads, restores
My soul. In righteous paths I go,
There led for his name’s sake. Although
I walk the vale of deathly shade,
Of evil I’ll not be afraid,
For thou art there. For comfort to
Thy rod and staff I look. In view
Of all my foes thou settest up
My board, anoint’st my head. My cup
Runs over. Surely, to the end
Thy good and mercy shall attend
Me all my days until I die.
Then in God’s house I’ll dwell for aye.

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Filed under Old Testament, Poetry, Translation

Seamless verse: terza rima and a close equivalent

Dante’s Comedy is written in terza rima — that is, a rhyme scheme of aba bcb cdc ded efe … yzy z. One very appealing feature of terza rima is that each tercet is linked by rhyme to both the tercet before and the one after, making it possible to write an entire canto — arbitrarily long — which is one seamless whole, impossible to break into smaller units which can stand alone in terms of rhyme.

Unfortunately, terza rima just isn’t workable in English, at least not for long poems. It requires that every line of the poem rhyme with two other lines, and in a rhyme-poor language like English that is just too stringent a requirement (though of course it works fine in Italian). Reading Dorothy L. Sayers’s terza rima translation of Dante has made me even more sure of this. Too many forced and awkward rhymes, too many near-rhyme compromises. Many of the “rhymes” (like rhyming — no joke — here, singular, and far!) don’t even register as rhymes at all unless the reader is actively paying attention to the rhyme scheme, and in the end the effect is simply not that of reading rhymed verse. I know Sayers is operating under the additional constraint of having to write English terza rima which is a translation of Italian terza rima, but I think even writing original verse using this rhyme scheme would be unworkable in English, unless it were very short.

Structurally, terza rima is like a chain, every link of which has the shape of a figure-eight. The easiest way of adapting it to a rhyme-poor language like English, then, is to simplify it to a chain with ordinary circular links, eliminating the need for triple rhymes. I experimented a bit with this scheme when I was a teenager, before I knew anything about Dante, and I called it “snake rhyme” because it could be used to produce an arbitrarily long, indivisible poem.

terza rima

As an experiment, I tried rendering the beginning of the Inferno in “snake rhyme.” The main disadvantage of snake rhyme, as opposed to terza rima, is that every line is separated from its rhyme by two intervening lines, making the rhymes less obvious. I tried to ameliorate this by shortening the lines to four feet each — that makes for 32 syllables per quatrain, very close to Dante’s 33 per tercet. I’m not sure how successful the result is.

I have no intention of finishing this “translation” (if one can even use that word for a version which takes so many liberties, and whose author is ignorant of Italian); it was just an experiment. But I thought I’d share it for what it’s worth.

*

My life’s long journey halfway through,
I found myself within a wood
So dark my path was lost to view.

How hard it is to speak of how
that forest was — so dark! — and should
I call it back to mind, I know
fresh fear would kindle even now.

Such bitter fear — like death it stings! —
Yet good I found there, too, and so,
That you may understand that good,
I’ll shy not from the darker things.

How came I to be lost so deep
Within that dense and savage wood?
When lost I the true path? Who knows?
I was so very full of sleep.

But, stumbling through that murky maze,
I came to where a mountain rose
Up from that valley thick with vines
and tangled brush. I dared to raise

My eyes and saw its slopes aglow,
Lit by that Planet bright which shines
On all men’s paths and with its light
Directs them in the way to go.

With this my heart began to take
Fresh courage — for throughout the night,
A squirming terror vile and black
Had lurked within my bosom’s lake.

But now, like one who, safe ashore,
Still gasping from the swim, looks back
To see the churning waves which he
Survived — against all odds — once more,

So I, though in my heart still fleeing,
Looked back. I was the first to see
The other side of that dread vale:
None else had lived to do the seeing.

Awhile I rested in that sun,
Then stirred again and moved to scale
The lonely slope, and as I went
My firm foot was the lower one.

There on the lower slopes I spied,
Not far from where the hill’s ascent
Began — a leopard! — lithe of limb
And covered with a spotted hide.

Wherever then I turned my face
Or made to move, I spotted him.
All ways he blocked, till back I turned,
Retreating to my starting place.

But it was spring, and early morn,
And in its native Aries burned
The Sun, with those same stars attendant
It rose with when the world was born,

On that first morning when the Love
Divine first moved those things resplendent,
So that the season and the hour —
And, too, that dappled beast above

Me on the path — seemed cause for hope
but hope, alas, had not the power
To steel me for what happened next:
I saw a lion on the slope!

. . .

(If you want to know what happens next, read Dante.)

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Two Clouds of Unknowing

Several months ago I picked up a Modern English translation of The Cloud of Unknowing (an anonymous Middle English work of Christian mysticism) at a used bookstore in Taichung. It sat on my shelf for some time unread, and then suddenly I felt moved to read it. I finished in on April 19.

On May 4 — just fifteen days later — I went to the same used bookstore, and near the checkout counter there was a stack of fliers advertising an upcoming exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum called — Cloud of Unknowing. (This latter Cloud is being promoted on the museum website as “a themed exhibition on the subject of urban spatiality and issues pertaining to space” in commemoration of the 130th anniversary of the founding of Taipei, so the choice of the that particular name would be a bit of a mystery if we didn’t know the synchronicity fairies were behind it.)

DSCN0187

*

Incidentally, much is lost in Clifton Wolters’s translation of The Cloud of Unknowing. I’ve never read the original, but I was tipped off to its poetic superiority by a page header in the translation.

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Where the original had “a beam of ghostly light” (or, rather, “a beme of goostly liʒt”), Wolters replaces the gentle moonlight of “beam” with the more martial connotations of “shaft” — and then nixes the eerie, numinous “ghostly” in favor of the namby-pamby New-Agey “spiritual.”

The perfection of that one phrase, “a beam of ghostly light,” led me to look up the original text online. It opens with:

Ghostly friend in God, thou shalt well understand that I find, in my boisterous beholding,…

versus Wolters’s

My friend in God, it seems to me, in my rough and ready way,…

Really? “In my rough and ready way”? (“Boisterous beholding,” on the other hand, is so perfect that I decided to appropriate it as a new name for this blog.) And what happened to “ghostly” and “thou shalt well understand”? This is a pretty Zeppo-Marx approach to translation! (“Now, eh, you said a lot of things here that I didn’t think were important, so I just omitted them.”)

While the first word of the book is “just omitted,” elsewhere Wolters generally replaces every instance of ghostly with spiritual. While this is probably a perfectly defensible choice, given the way the meaning of ghostly has changed over time, I find that it annoys me to no end and seriously detracts from the quality of the book.

The truth is that neither ghostly nor spiritual is really an adequate rendition of the Middle English goostly. The Modern English ghostly has acquired unwanted connotations, having become too exclusively associated with apparitions of the dead, as opposed to spirits more generally. But spiritual, too, has suffered; it most often means simply “figurative” these days, or else “half-assedly non-religious.” Spiritual light sounds pedestrian, not at all supernatural, and leaves the reader blasé. Ghostly light has more the ring of authentic revelation, the sort of thing that “often times maketh my bones to quake while it maketh manifest.” It carries the connotation that every angel is terrible (and yet, alas, I invoke you, almost-deadly birds of the soul).* Neither is perfect; each adds or detracts something from the original; but I think ghostly is much to be preferred and comes closer to the spirit in which the Cloud was written. The 21st century is awash in spirituality (I, alas, am no exception), and a strong injection of medieval ghostliness is much wanted.

*

*Joseph Smith and Rilke, respectively

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Filed under Anecdotes, Coincidence / Synchronicity, Language, Translation

Name suggestions for Bake Shape Ape

There’s a restaurant in the town where I live called Bake Shape Ape. That’s right, Bake Shape Ape.

bsa

It’s not even a bakery, but a Japanese-style barbecue place. The English name is a character-for-character literal translation of the Chinese 烤狀猿. The first character, 烤, means “bake, roast, grill, etc.” — basically any kind of cooking that doesn’t involve a lot of water or oil. The rest of it, 狀猿, is a pun on 狀元, which is pronounced the same way. The latter is a title used in old China for the person who got the highest score on the imperial civil service exam. The final character, 元, has been replaced with the homophonous 猿, which means “ape.”

So what would have been a better translation? Any good English translation should include a punning reference to apes or monkeys, and ideally should refer both to barbecuing and to the idea of a champion or an excellent scholar. Here are my proposals:

  • Barbecue Chimpion
  • Ape-Plus Barbecue (sounds like “A-plus”)
  • ApeX Grill
  • The Prime-Ate (as in “prime rib” — really scraping the bottom of the barrel here)
  • The Frying Pan (as in Pan troglodytes — even worse)
  • Monkey Bar and Grill (pun on “monkey bars” — fail)
  • G’rilla (gorilla / griller — my personal favorite)

Any other ideas? (Of course this is purely an academic exercise, since I would never dream of suggesting that a name as perfect as Bake Shape Ape actually be changed! The food is nothing special, but I still eat there from time to time just for the name.)

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Filed under Language, Oddities, Translation

McDermott’s Aquinas

I’ve been reading Timothy McDermott’s Aquinas anthology (Aquinas: Selected Philosophical Writings. Oxford University Press, 1993). Overall I recommend it, though with reservations.

Aquinas will often begin a discussion with a numbered list of questions and then, many pages later, refer back to these by their numbers alone, requiring the reader to flip back through the book trying to find where exactly Aquinas said what “the fourth question” was. (This annoying feature of St. Thomas’s style makes any attempt to read his work on an e-reader an exercise in futility, as I know from experience. Actual pages to flip are a must.) McDermott ameliorates this considerably with bracketed additions to the text. For example:

[Article 7] The seventh question [Does the goal determine the kind more specifically than the object, or vice versa?] we approach as follows: . . . (p. 352, brackets and boldface in the original).

It’s hard to overstate how much more enjoyable such little touches make the reading experience.

Another plus of McDermott’s translation is that he is not a slave to etymology, as so many Aquinas translators apparently are. Just because the original Latin uses the word accidens, for example, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the best English translation is accident — a word which no longer means in modern English what it meant to Aquinas — so McDermott opts for incidental properties instead. This often makes Aquinas’s meaning much more transparent. One downside, though, is that most other Aquinas translators are slaves to etymology, so someone who reads only this translation will not learn the etymologically correct technical terms (such as accident) which most English-speakers use when discussing Aquinas. A translator’s note at the beginning of one of the passages highlights the sort of confusion that may arise:

Deliberately, ‘condition’ translates dispositio, ‘disposition’ habitus, and ‘habit’ and ‘custom’ consuetudo. ‘Moderation’ and ‘courage’ translate temperantia and fortitudo; ‘deiform virtue’ translates virtus theologica.

This is obviously bound to lead to misunderstanding when the reader attempts to discuss this passage with someone who has learned the more etymologically conventional technical meanings of disposition and habit. And, while many people have heard of the “theological virtues” — faith, hope, and charity — no one who hasn’t read McDermott is going to know what you’re talking about if you start throwing around the word deiform.

McDermott, however, is evidently sensitive to these possible sources of confusion, which is why he includes several helpful “notes on the translation” like the one quoted above. The index also includes the original Latin in parentheses for certain key terms. All in all, his approach is perhaps an acceptable compromise between clarity and “backward compatibility” with other translations.

One slightly annoying feature of the translation is McDermott’s insistence of referring to Muslim scholars by their original Arabic names, using Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sīnā in place of the more familiar Averroës and Avicenna. — the equivalent of insisting on calling Confucius Kǒngzǐ. Since the Latinized names are of course the ones Aquinas used, and are also the ones that modern English-speakers will be familiar with, it’s hard to justify translating them back into Arabic, and I have to assume he did so for political (not to say politically correct) reasons.

More grating is McDermott’s decision to “translate” Dionysius as Pseudo-Dionysius — ridiculous, since, whatever modern scholarship may have to say about it, Aquinas believed he was quoting the actual Dionysius the Areopagite, the disciple of Paul, and he referred to him as such. McDermott’s anachronistic rendition is the equivalent of translating Romans 10:16 as “For Deutero-Isaiah saith, Lord, who hath believed our report?”

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Three versions of a choral lyric by Euripides

I’ve just read David Grene’s startlingly beautiful English rendition of Euripides’s Hippolytus — a play which didn’t make nearly as deep an impression on me when I read Paul Roche’s version. Here, side by side, are the Grene and Roche translations of one of the choral lyrics from Hippolytus, with Gilbert Murray’s version (courtesy of Gutenberg.org) thrown in for good measure.

Gilbert Murray (1902) David Grene (1942) Paul Roche (1998)
 

STROPHE

STROPHE I

Erôs, Erôs, who blindest, tear by tear, / Men’s eyes with hunger; Love distills desire upon the eyes, / Eros, Eros, clouding our eyes / With a mist of yearning
thou swift Foe that pliest / Deep in our hearts joy like an edgèd spear; / love brings bewitching grace into the heart / of those he would destroy. / when you sweeten the hearts / Of those against whom you plan your attack. /
Come not to me with Evil haunting near, / I pray that love may never come to me / with murderous intent, / Please never show yourself to wound me. /
Wrath on the wind, nor jarring of the clear / Wing’s music as thou fliest! / in rhythms measureless and wild. / Please never turn everything upside down. /
There is no shaft that burneth, not in fire, / Not in wild stars, far off and flinging fear, / Not fire nor stars have stronger bolts / Neither lightning nor the fall of a star / Wreaks more havoc
As in thine hands the shaft of All Desire, / Erôs, Child of the Highest! than those of Aphrodite sent / by the hand of Eros, Zeus’s child. than Aphrodite’s / Lance when loosed from the hand of Eros, / Zeus’s boy.
 

ANTISTROPHE

ANTISTROPHE I
In vain, in vain, by old Alpheüs’ shore / The blood of many bulls doth stain the river / And all Greece bows on Phoebus’ Pythian floor; / In vain by Alpheus’ stream, / In vain in the halls of Phoebus’ Pythian shrine / the land of Greece increases sacrifice. / Useless, useless, the pouring of blood / That Greece has shed of slaughtered kine / On the banks of Alpheus or Apollo’s shrine: /
Yet bring we to the Master of Man no store / But Love the King of Men they honor not, / Useless, if Eros isn’t adored. / Dictator of men,
The Keybearer, who standeth at the door / Close-barred, where hideth ever / The heart of the shrine. although he keeps the keys / of the temple of desire, / the keeper of the keys / To Aphrodite’s beds of love–
Yea, though he sack man’s life / Like a sacked city, and moveth evermore / although he goes destroying through the world, / He is the prime wrecker of mortals, /
Girt with calamity and strange ways of strife, / author of dread calamities / and ruin when he enters human hearts. The bringer of catastrophe / When he attacks.
Him have we worshipped never! /    
* * * * *

STROPHE

STROPHE II
There roamed a Steed in Oechalia’s wild, / The Oechalian maiden There was a girl in Oechalia /
A Maid without yoke, without Master, / And Love she knew not, that far King’s child; / who had never known / the bed of love, known neither man nor marriage, / A filly unbroken by man: / Unbedded, unbridled, unfettered, /
But he came, he came, with a song in the night. / With fire, with blood; and she strove in flight, / A Torrent Spirit, a Maenad white, / Faster and vainly faster, / Sealed unto Heracles by the Cyprian’s Might. / the Goddess Cyrpis gave to Heracles. / She took her from the home of Eurytus, / maiden unhappy in her marriage song, / wild as a Naiad or a Bacchanal, / with blood and fire, Who was driven by Love, Aphrodite, / And fled like a flame or a Bacchant / Far from her home; and was given / As a bride to Alcmena’s son /
Alas, thou Bride of Disaster! a murderous hymenaeal! In a wedding most gory.
 

ANTISTROPHE

ANTISTROPHE II
O Mouth of Dirce, O god-built wall, / That Dirce’s wells run under, / O holy walls of Thebes and Dirce’s fountain / You hallowed Theban ramparts / And mouth of Dirce’s stream, /
Ye know the Cyprian’s fleet footfall! / bear witness you, to Love’s grim journeying: / You can tell how gently / Aphrodite comes.
Ye saw the heavens around her flare, / When she lulled to her sleep that Mother fair / Of twy-born Bacchus, and decked her there / The Bride of the bladed Thunder. / once you saw Love bring Semele to bed, / lull her to sleep, clasped in the arms of Death, pregnant with Dionysus by the thunder king. But the mother of Bacchus she flared / To bed with bloody Death.
For her breath is on all that hath life, and she floats in the air, / Bee-like, death-like, a wonder. Love is like a flitting bee in the world’s garden / and for its flowers, destruction is in his breath. Over the earth she breathes: / A bee, she hovers.

These three translations are too different from one another to allow for the kind of close line-by-line comparison I used in evaluating 15 versions of Dante. Nor can I recognize enough Greek words to be able to compare each translation directly to the original and make an educated guess as to how faithful each is, as I was able to do to some extent with the Dante translations. Nevertheless, here are some general comments and impressions on the three versions.

(I tell myself that I have no business learning Greek until after I’ve at least mastered the language of the country I live in — but I can’t say I’m not tempted. In the meantime, I’m trying to learn the useful skill of evaluating translations without being able to read the original.)

Strophe I

As English poetry, Grene’s version is by far the best of the three — though drawing from that fact any conclusions about its quality as a translation is obviously risky. In general, a translation which reads superficially like poetry (like Murray’s, which rhymes and scans) is suspect. On the other hand, it may actually be a sign of fidelity when a translation is poetic in a deeper sense. I base this judgment on the assumption that the writer being translated — generally considered to be one of the greatest in the whole history of Western literature — was a far better poet than any of his translators could ever dream of being, and that therefore wherever the translations touch greatness it is likely that their pale fire was snatched from the sun.

Grene slips in a few rhymes in the first strophe (intent and sent, wild and child), but these are apparently serendipities; the rest of the poem is evidence that he followed no policy of forcing the lines to rhyme. What seems more significant to me is that he knows where to put his line breaks and how to preserve ambiguity long enough to give added force to the line which resolves it. “Love distills desire upon the eyes, / love brings bewitching grace into the heart / of those he would destroy” — in that order, with those line breaks — is perfect. Murray tips his hand too early by starting right off with tears and hunger, and by calling Eros a “swift foe” first and making an afterthought of the joy he brings to human hearts. Roche does a passable job in this regard — certainly better than Murray — but his lines don’t pack the same punch as Grene’s.

Grene’s is the only version which talks about Eros rather than addressing him directly. Since he’s the odd man out here, he’s likely to be the one who is straying from the original Greek.

Murray’s “All Desire” instead of “Aphrodite” is unforgivable, a clear sacrifice of reason to rhyme.

Antistrophe I

It’s hard to judge which version is most accurate here. The disagreement over what exactly Eros bears the keys to is surprising: “the heart of the shrine,” “the temple of desire, ” and “Aphrodite’s beds of love” are all quite different things.

Strophe II

Grene lacks the horse metaphor of the other two and is probably in the wrong. Roche makes no mention of the Naiads which appear in the other two versions (I’m assuming that’s what Murray’s “Torrent Spirit” is meant to be), and his version also lacks the “blood and fire” pairing found in the other two.

As usual, Murray throws in a lot of rhyming crap that doesn’t belong in the poem.

Antistrophe II

Here Grene is talking about “Love” (i.e., the masculine god Eros), while the other two versions are about Aphrodite. Grene is clearly in the wrong here, as it interferes with the meaning of the poem. When he has the masculine Love bring Semele (not mentioned by name in the other two) to bed, it’s easy to misinterpret what’s going on — a problem which does not arise when it is Aphrodite. Also, Grene’s otherwise perfect ending is marred by its confusing image of a male bee flitting through the garden of life.

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Sevenfold vengeance

I’m not a fan of colloquial, paraphrastic translations of the Bible (or of anything else for that matter); I generally stick with the Authorized Version, and when I use other translations as a supplement I choose the most strictly literal ones I can find. However, my wife having recently become interested in the Bible, but finding the archaic language of the Chinese Union Version and the King James to be rough going, I now have in my home something called the Good News Bible.

I’ve perused a few parts of it, and the very colloquial language (“Prophesy, who is it that smote thee?” becomes “Who hit you? Guess!”) turns out to be surprisingly useful at times, casting familiar passages in a very unfamiliar way and forcing me to notice what they actually mean. In an essay my brother Luther wrote a few years back (a good essay, by the way; read it), he mentions that

the grave danger of the scriptures is that they are church-talk, and we are so used to church-talk we can hear, understand, and discuss it without ever letting it penetrate beyond the churchy part of ourselves.

Luther goes on to say that we are so used to the word “eternity” that it means nothing to us, and that it can be helpful to mentally replace it with “85,000 years” (“for some reason, eighty-five thousand years seems a lot longer than eternity to me”). He’s right; it is helpful — and the same applies to any number of other overfamiliar “churchy” expressions. The Good News Bible (and other simplified translations) may avoid such expressions because they are unfamiliar to its intended readers, but in so doing it also provides a valuable service for readers with the opposite problem — those for whom such expressions are so familiar as to have lost all meaning.

Here’s how the Good News Bible renders Genesis 4:13-15.

And Cain said to the LORD, “This punishment is too hard for me to bear. You are driving me off the land and away from your presence. I will be a homeless wanderer on the earth, and anyone who finds me will kill me”

But the LORD answered, “No. If anyone kills you, seven lives will be taken in revenge.” So the LORD put a mark on Cain to warn anyone who met him not to kill him.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read the KJV rendition of this — “Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold” — without the meaning of those words ever really sinking in. The GNB spells it out in a way which comes as a shock but which is surely correct. To avenge a murder is to kill the murderer, and you can’t kill the same person seven times, so to avenge a murder sevenfold can only mean to kill seven people — including, presumably, six who are not guilty of the murder of the person supposedly being avenged.

It’s hard to see any justice in this, especially given that Abel, despite his blood crying from the ground, is not avenged at all. In fact, the whole point of the promise to avenge Cain seems to be to deter anyone from trying to avenge Abel! Why would Cain’s murderer be punished so much more severely than Abel’s? Perhaps it could be argued that Cain was not truly guilty of murder; since no one had ever died before, he could not have known the full meaning of his act — whereas anyone who might try to kill Cain in order to avenge Abel’s murder must eo ipso understand what it means to kill a man. But could Cain really have been ignorant of what killing meant? After all, he had seen Abel slaughter sacrificial animals before. And even if we assume that Cain’s murderer would deserve death in a way that Cain himself did not, what about the other six victims of the sevenfold vengeance? Why would they deserve any punishment? (And who would they be? As far as we know, the world population hasn’t even reached seven yet at this point.)

Another possible interpretation hinges on a different reading of “shall.” When the Lord says “shall,” we are used to understanding it as a commandment — but perhaps here the Lord is only making a prediction and giving a warning. Rather than ordering that Cain be avenged, or saying that he ought to be avenged, perhaps he is just warning that he will in fact be avenged if anyone kills him. If you kill Cain for killing Abel, someone will kill you for killing Cain, and then someone will kill that guy for killing you, and so on without end. “Sevenfold” could just mean “many times over.” Maybe Yahweh, still a young idealistic God at this point, is warning humanity that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. He may later have regretted this policy of allowing murder to go essentially unpunished, since before long “the earth was filled with violence” and he had to wipe everyone out and start over again. And one of the first things he did after the Flood was to introduce a new rule: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”

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