Bookish Thoughts: Translating genius

Kit Whitfield‘s excellent series of deconstructions / analyses of the first sentences of famous and notable books has fostered in me the habit of thinking of “first sentences” as I reshelve my books. So, earlier today I noticed my copies of Eugénie Grandet as I filed some of my Austens away, and pulled them out to consider whether I should nominate the first sentence of that book for analysis. But which first sentence I wondered, the English or the French. The English first sentence didn’t completely evoke the French book that I remembered. So I sat down and read the first several pages in French and then in the English of more than one translation. All of which made me think about the problem of translations. We talk about reading The Iliad or The Aeneid or The Bible or Beowulf but few of us are actually reading the words originally written. We are experiencing these works of genius through the eyes and minds of translators. So we do not really have, as readers, an opinion about any of those works–we have an opinion of those works as mediated by those who translated them.

Look, for example, at the first several hundred words of Eugénie Grandet:

One of the challenges of the reader who wishes to read a book written in a language they themselves cannot read is to select the best translation. Readers may fall back on the advice of reviewers or use the literary reputation of a proxy, for example an editor or series such as “Penguin Classics.”Of course the choice challenge presupposes that the reader has access to more than one translation. It also suggests that there is a single “best” translation for all readers. In many cases neither is true.

Note #1: for those who don’t read French–just skim down to the English translations. The point I am making in this piece does not require knowledge of that language.

Note #2: in French there are several more sentences before the first paragraph ends. The different font colours indicate the places in the text translators added paragraph breaks.

This is how Honoré de Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet begins:

Il se trouve dans certaines provinces des maisons dont la vue inspire une mélancolie égale à celle que provoquent les cloîtres les plus sombres, les landes les plus ternes ou les ruines les plus tristes. Peut-être y a-t-il à la fois dans ces maisons et le silence du cloître et l’aridité des landes et les ossements des ruines. La vie et le mouvement y sont si tranquilles qu’un étranger les croirait inhabitées, s’il ne rencontrait tout à coup le regard pâle et froid d’une personne immobile dont la figure à demi monastique dépasse l’appui de la croisée, au bruit d’un pas inconnu. Ces principes de mélancolie existent dans la physionomie d’un logis situé à Saumur, au bout de la rue montueuse qui mène au château, par le haut de la ville. Cette rue, maintenant peu fréquentée, chaude en été, froide en hiver, obscure en quelques endroits, est remarquable par la sonorité de son petit pavé caillouteux, toujours propre et sec, par l’étroitesse de sa voie tortueuse, par la paix de ses maisons qui appartiennent à la vieille ville, et que dominent les remparts. Des habitations trois fois séculaires y sont encore solides quoique construites en bois, et leurs divers aspects contribuent à l’originalité qui recommande cette partie de Saumur à l’attention des antiquaires et des artistes. Il est difficile de passer devant ces maisons, sans admirer les énormes madriers dont les bouts sont taillés en figures bizarres et qui couronnent d’un bas-relief noir le rez-de-chaussée de la plupart d’entre elles. Ici, des pièces de bois transversales sont couvertes en ardoises et dessinent des lignes bleues sur les frêles murailles d’un logis terminé par un toit en colombage que les ans ont fait plier, dont les bardeaux pourris ont été tordus par l’action alternative de la pluie et du soleil. Là se présentent des appuis de fenêtre usés, noircis, dont les délicates sculptures se voient à peine, et qui semblent trop légers pour le pot d’argile brune d’où s’élancent les oeillets ou les rosiers d’une pauvre ouvrière. Plus loin, c’est des portes garnies de clous énormes où le génie de nos ancêtres a tracé des hiéroglyphes domestiques dont le sens ne se retrouvera jamais. Tantôt un protestant y a signé sa foi, tantôt un ligueur y a maudit Henri IV.[1]

Here are the first two paragraphs of Marion Ayton Crawford’s Penguin Classic translation[2] of the same book:

In some country towns there exist houses whose appearance weights as heavily upon the spirits as the gloomiest cloister, the most dismal ruin, or the dreariest stretch of barren land. These houses may combine the cloister’s silence with the arid desolation of the waste and the sepulchral melancholy of ruins. Life makes so little stir in them that a stranger believes them to be uninhabited until he suddenly meets the cold listless gaze of some motionless human being, who face, austere as a monk’s, peers from above the window-sill at the sound of a stranger’s footfall.

One particular house front in Saumur possesses all these gloomy characteristics. It stands at the end of the hilly street leading to the castle, in the upper part of the town. This street, which is little used nowadays, is hot in the summer, cold in winter, and in some places dark and overshadowed. One’s footsteps ring curiously loudly on its flinty cobble-stones, which are always clean and dry; and its narrowness and crookedness and the silence of its houses, which form part of the old town and are looked down upon by the ramparts, make an unusual impression on the mind. There are houses there which were built three hundred years ago, and built of wood, yet are still sound. Each has a character of its own, and their diversity contributes to the essential strangess of the place, which attracts antiquaries and artists to this quarter of Saumur.

Here is how Katharine Prescott Wormeley’s translation[3] begins:

There are houses in certain provincial towns whose aspect inspires melancholy, akin to that called forth by sombre cloisters, dreary moorlands, or the desolation of ruins. Within these houses there is, perhaps, the silence of the cloister, the barrenness of moors, the skeleton of ruins; life and movement are so stagnant there that a stranger might think them uninhabited, were it not that he encounters suddenly the pale, cold glance of a motionless person, whose half-monastic face peers beyond the window-casing at the sound of an unaccustomed step.

Such elements of sadness formed the physiognomy, as it were, of a dwelling-house in Saumur which stands at the end of the steep street leading to the chateau in the upper part of the town. This street—now little frequented, hot in summer, cold in winter, dark in certain sections—is remarkable for the resonance of its little pebbly pavement, always clean and dry, for the narrowness of its tortuous road-way, for the peaceful stillness of its houses, which belong to the Old town and are over-topped by the ramparts. Houses three centuries old are still solid, though built of wood, and their divers aspects add to the originality which commends this portion of Saumur to the attention of artists and antiquaries.

In each case the translator was faced with the same task. They needed not to translate Balzac’s original word for word but meaning for meaning and theme for theme. They needed to use words to paint the picture that Balzac wanted his readers to have of that town and that house. Balzac’s style was inextricable from his themes. Yet the translator is also faced with the task of translating the original book so that it is accessible and understandable to readers who come from a different literary tradition. Such a reader might respond quite differently to the paragraph and sentence structure of the original that would have someone from the original audience. The (French) opening of the book is an extended word picture of a time and place. The sound of the language carries part of the load of “setting the scene.” Reading the French out loud carries quite a different feeling than reading the English out loud.

Each translator chose to break up the original long, uninterrupted opening, into smaller paragraphs. I don’t know to what degree the existence of earlier translations affected the two quoted above, however both chose to insert paragraph breaks at the same points in the text. I have read other translations that inserted them at different points.

To get a sense of just how difficult it is to pick the “best” translation consider the following. I originally read Eugénie Grandet in French. I was looking for an English “version” more for annotations and footnotes than for a translation of the words since I was sure that I was missing some elements of the book that readers of Balzac’s time would have appreciated. I agree that for the modern reader, especially for the modern reader brought up within the styles dominant in the English reading world, stylistic changes may make the book more readable. However, in my opinion, none of the translators quite nails that opening sentence. None of them are able to translate Balzac’s opening into one that would repay the type of attention Kit Whitfield brings to the opening sentences she has analyzed.

None of this should be taken as a criticism of translators in general or these translators in particular. Perhaps Balzac’s opening sentence could only be translated into English by Balzac himself–if he was fluent in the language. Perhaps the particular quality of that sentence cannot be duplicated in the English language. I don’t know. I do know that the more I grapple with that single sentence the greater my admiration and respect for translators.

Note #3: One of the wonderful bonuses of Kindle/Amazon ebooks is that one is usually offered the option to download a sample of the book, generally the first chapter. This allows readers the opportunity to browse books much as one would in a book store or library. One doesn’t need to own a Kindle to do this. The “Kindle for your computers” software is available for free. The sample chapter is downloaded to your computer and you can peruse it at your leisure. I looked for an number of translations of Balzac’s books before I wrote this piece and ended up buying my third copy of the book.


[1] Eugénie Grandet is in the public domain. The French text in this article is from the version on the Gutenberg.org website. insert footnote

[2] Balzac, H. Eugénie Grandet. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1955.

[3] Also available on Project Gutenberg.

7 thoughts on “Bookish Thoughts: Translating genius

  1. As you say, translations are not always straightforward. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland contains parodies of famous English poems. When it was published in German in 1872, the translator, Antonie Zummermann, completely threw out Carroll’s parodies (with Carroll’s permission) and wrote several completely new verses himself, ones that parodied famous German poems. He also replaced some of Carroll’s untranslatable English puns with German ones. Fortunately Carroll himself, a perfectionist, supervised the early translations of Alice in Wonderland into German, French, Italian and other languages. I have two different German translations of Alice in Wonderland, and they differ noticeably in style and tone from each other.

    And consider what it must have been like translating Jabberwocky (the nonsense poem from the sequel to Alice in Wonderland, i.e. Through the Looking Glass) into other languages. The work is filled with invented words such as slithy toves and, borogoves. Good luck with that.

    The Kidd.

  2. The English French German Suite, in Douglas R Hofstadter's “Godel, Escher, Bach; An Eternal Golden Braid” contains a pair of remarkably good translations of Jabberwocky.

    Worth reading in the context of this post, and also Hofstadter's discussion of why the translators (neither him) might have made the decisions they did.

    That, even in this “pathologically difficult case” the translations are even possible is a key to the points he is making.

  3. Hofstadter’s point, that there must a kind of rough isomorphism (global and local) between the brains of the readers of his English, French and German versions of Jabberwocky for those versions to be not only possible but as good as they are is both encouraging and intriguing given the conceptual, symbolic and auditory complexities involved. It goes back to Balzac – it is not a simple task to accurately capture an author's nuances and connotations when translating that author's work into other languages.

    I imagine that it would be just as instructive to compare the eight different German translations I have as it would be to compare the English original with translations into Choctow, Esperanto, Japanese, Russian, Polish, Jersey etc. Unfortunately my knowledge of Choctow, Esperanto, Japanese etc. is a null set.

    The Kidd

  4. When I was doing Latin at school, we studied the Aeneid. We worked on sections of the Latin text, and we used the Jackson Knight translation to put the sections into context. Someone asked the teacher whether he was worried we would use the translation to avoid reading the sections we were supposed to translate; he pointed out that Jackson Knight had turned a work of art in Latin into a related work of art in English, whereas we were paying close attention to the Latin work. Our translations weren't expected to be elegant – they had to cram in as much as possible of the original structure, vocabulary and so forth.

  5. Jabberwocky is actually fascinating, because while it is nonsense, it is clearly English nonsense. All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe. Of course the small words are English, but so are the word elements: adjective -y, noun plural -s, combining prefix out-.

    Try Il brilgue: les tôves lubricilleux Se gyrent en vrillant dans le guave, from Le Jaseroque (Frank L. Warrin), or Brilumis, kaj la ŝlirtaj melfoj en la iejo ĝiris, ŝraŭis, from La Ĵargonbesto (Marjorie Boulton).

    And Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (a book I must read one day) has a discussion of the translations of Jabberwocky.

    TRiG.

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