I love John Berger’s writing but am often suspicious of his ideas, and so it is with his new essay on translation. He says “true translation is not a binary affair between two languages but a triangular affair”:
The third point of the triangle being what lay behind the words of the original text before it was written. True translation demands a return to the pre-verbal. One reads and rereads the words of the original text in order to penetrate through them to reach, to touch, the vision or experience that prompted them. One then gathers up what one has found there and takes this quivering almost wordless “thing” and places it behind the language it needs to be translated into. And now the principal task is to persuade the host language to take in and welcome the “thing” that is waiting to be articulated.
Which sounds great except that I don’t think it makes much sense, certainly not as contrasted with the “worthy, but second-rate” procedure of doing what translators normally do, which is “study the words on one page in one language and then render them into another language on another page.” And he goes on to claim Chomsky as backup for his idea that “a mother tongue is related to (rhymes with?) non-verbal languages – such as the languages of signs, of behaviour, of spatial accommodation.” But never mind, he’s always a good read. (Thanks, Trevor!)
As for actual translation, here‘s a good one, Gwyneth Lewis rendering Dafydd ap Gwilym’s “The Wind” into English:
Skywind, skillful disorder,
Strong tumult walking over there,
Wondrous man, rowdy-sounding,
World hero, with neither foot nor wing.
Yeast in cloud loaves, you were thrown out
Of sky’s pantry, with not one foot,
How swiftly you run, and so well
This moment above the high hill.
That’s the first of six stanzas, and the whole thing is brilliantly done. I don’t know how accurately it renders the Welsh (or “the vision or experience that prompted” it), but it’s good enough poetry in English that I don’t really care. (Via wood s lot.)