Berger on Translation and Lewis Translating.

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.)


  1. Anna Pollert says

    I think the point Berger is trying to make is much better made by Norman Denny in his Introduction to his 1976 translation of Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables’ (Penguin Edition, 1982, p. 11). And he does not resort to any pre-verbal, ‘wordless “thing”‘ which doesn’t make much sense to me either, let alone to controversial linguistic theory:

    ‘It is now generally recognized that the translator’s first concern must be with the author’s intention; not with the words he uses or with the way he uses them, if they have a different impact when they are rendered too faithfully into English, but with what he is seeking to convey to the reader. This, of course, embraces a great deal more than the literal meaning or the plain statement of fact: feeling, colour, poetry, humour, irony, all these are elements which the translator may on no account ignore; he must catch them as best he can.’

  2. Alan JP Bridgeruster says

    His ideas in Ways of Seeing were pretty great, though.

  3. Anna: Thanks, that’s much more sensible.

    A JP B: Very true.

  4. “It is now generally recognized that the translator’s first concern must be with the author’s intention”

    Yep, that’s pretty much been said (and assumed) since forever.

  5. Well actually Conrad , that isn’t totally a truism — I know I read some 17th century French writers, can’t remember exactly who, saying that the important thing was for a translation to achieve a beautiful style in French, and saying that the style of a certain translation was better than the original (as it ought to be, since the language in their day had, they opined, developed to an unmatched peak of elegance).

  6. —It is now generally recognized that the translator’s first concern must be with the author’s intention

    I disagree. The goal should be a good text which makes sense. If translator can improve author’s text, all the better.

    In fact, in most books 99% of text can be cut without any loss to the plot, so, my translator colleagues, let’s have fun and run wild with your imagination!

  7. It never ceases to amaze me how sure people (including translators!) can be that their opinion on translation is the correct one, all others betraying insufficient wisdom, intelligence, literariness, taste, etc. rather than just being different choices with their own merits and drawbacks.

  8. Simonov’s translation of Kipling’s “The lover’s Litany” is the best example.

    It’s a beatifully done thing which probably has about 1% in common with Kipling’s text.

    And that’s how everything should be translated (if it’s not a mortgage contract)

  9. “Well actually Conrad , that isn’t totally a truism”

    Having taught a course on the history and theory of translation, I’m aware of that. There has long been discussion of the point, and yet the idea that res > verba in translation has always been there, whether or not everybody has always accepted it. (The improvers, while sometimes vocal, have usually been in the minority.)

  10. Any translators who want to improve authors’ texts and run wild with their imaginations should write their own texts, not translate the texts of others.

  11. There are some texts where capturing the author’s intention is harder than others. Translating ancient Chinese philosophy, for instance, seems to me to be one area where taking “this quivering almost wordless ‘thing'” and placing it behind the language it needs to be translated into is almost the only way to translate. The vocabulary is simply too different.

  12. Having recently done some translating, I wish to remark that the best method is too smugly suggest that people learn the source language if they’re so interested it isn’t that hard really make a bit of an effort.

    (I hate translating. I am now retired from it.)

  13. But conversely, the further away in space and time you get, the less likely it is that you really are seeing the same quivering thing as the original authors, in my view — and let’s not forget that many ancient texts are so palimpsestic and mish-masshive that speaking of authorial intent starts to feel ridiculous. As far as I’m aware, there’s still not even full academic consensus on whether the Tao or the Te part of the Tao Te Ching originally came first, let alone the details of its authorship. That doesn’t mean of course that we can’t make reasonable guesses about what it all means, but we’re kidding ourselves if we imagine some mystical communion with an old Chinese guy in a funny hat as part of the process.

  14. If you have never heard of him, Hat, I would like one day to introduce you to Dov (Boris) Gaponov, one of the greatest writers in the Hebrew language in the modern era. Before his death at a young age, he translated Shota Rustaveli’s The Knight in the Tiger’s Skin from Georgian into Hebrew, both of which he’d taught himself. The translation, into the most beautiful and ornate Hebrew, preserves rhymes, meters and alliteration in a way that seems patently undoable, even when it is in front of your eyes.

  15. Having recently done some translating, I wish to remark that the best method is too smugly suggest that people learn the source language if they’re so interested it isn’t that hard really make a bit of an effort.

    Having recently done some translating, and having been paid for it, I do not support this attitude and the associated limited financial returns to translators! Also, some of the particular texts (patents) I was translating were horribly, unreadably written, so it was a pleasure to reduce the number of people who would have to read them in the original 🙂 .

  16. But presumably the author wanted them to be horribly, unreadably written, so what right had you as translator to make them readable in the target language? Surely it’s the duty of a translator to render unspeakable Portuguese into equally bureaucratic Yanomamö?

    Which reminds me. We certainly don’t want to translate Homer into proto-Germanic, because Homer didn’t sound archaic in his own day and he shouldn’t sound archaic in ours, though Tolkien had a word to say about that: skip down to “And then what?” in this lengthy comment. But how do we translate E. R. Eddison? He intentionally wrote Early Modern English in the 20C, and translating him into 20C or 21C Greek would lose something very important about him.

  17. David Marjanović says

    Homer didn’t sound archaic in his own day

    The Catalogue of Ships in the Iliad, with genitives in -osio and all, certainly did… but the Odyssee is another story.

    (LOL. Sorry. Pun not intended, it’s almost 3 am.)

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