James Campbell has a piece in last Sunday’s NY Times Book Review on his experiences with French novels, first (as an adolescent) in English translation and more recently in the original, and his surprise at the differences he discovers: “[Stuart] Gilbert, a friend of James Joyce in Paris in the 1920s, adds phrases and changes the meaning of others…. How Gilbert knew that Meursault smoked in bed is a mystery, since Camus doesn’t say so.” His final paragraph makes me want to read Le Grand Meaulnes, one of the many famous books that I’ve somehow missed out on.

Christopher Ricks has a review (subscribers only, I’m afraid) in the June 9 NYRB of what sounds like a good book, The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation, edited by Greg Delanty and Michael Matto; it has the Old English originals on facing pages and what seem to be on the whole lively modern translations:

Alive I was—I didn’t speak a bit; even so, I die.
Once I was, I came again: everyone ravages me,
holds me tight and shears my head,
tears into my bare body, breaks my neck.
I wouldn’t bite a man unless he bit me;
so many of them bite me.

(Phillis Levin, translating a riddle whose answer is “onion.”) I like Ricks’s suggestion of a companion volume that would set old and new translations of the same poems together for comparison: “The revelation would be reciprocal were Pound’s ‘The Seafarer’ to enjoy comparison with Mary Jo Salter’s… Or Tennyson’s ‘Battle of Brunanburh’ (1880) confronting Robert Hass’s.”

And Old English brings me to the new Translation Issue of Poetry, which I picked up on Jamie Olson’s recommendation and which I’m greatly enjoying (not least the little essays each translator provides). I was set back on my heels by Ange Mlinko‘s versions of classical Arabic poetry, Abid ibn al-Abras’s “Last Simile” and Labid’s “Lament.” They’re both in a similar style; here’s the start of the latter:

We wither, unlike stars;   die, unlike hills and cisterns.
Ana shadowed my protector,   esteemed Arbad, who’s left us.
But ana do not grieve;   all sparrows exit the feast hall.
Novelties don’t excite me,   nor wyrdstaef affright me.

Now, there are certainly similarities between Old English poetry and that of the early Arabs (if you’re not familiar with the latter, I recommend Desert Tracings: Six Classic Arabian Odes by ‘Alqama, Shanfara, Labid, ‘Antara, Al-A’sha, and Dhu al-Rumma by Michael A. Sells), but sticking Old English words into the text seems to me bizarre and unhelpful. She writes:

By incorporating some obsolete Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, I was able to enhance the alliterative and assonantal qualities—and the sheer strangeness—of the translation. My favorite discovery is that ana, the Arabic for “I,” resembles the Anglo-Saxon word for “alone” (the difference is that its first a is long, while the Arabic pronunciation has two short a’s). Thus I translate “ana” for “I” or “I alone” and get two languages for the price of one morpheme. In my other favorite discovery, the word for earth, eorðe, is almost homonymous with aorta. (Grammar dictated I use the dative, eorðan.) I admit I liked these foreign words as semantic indigestibles. Like poems in dialect, they heighten the music, and delay the meaning. But only until you get to the crib.

I dunno—that seems like the sort of idea that seems great when it pops into your head in a bar, or when you find yourself awake at three in the morning, but that when you actually start trying to make it work… doesn’t. I mean, Classical Arabic has (I imagine) its pitfalls for modern readers, but they are surely not at all like those of encountering these “semantic indigestibles” in the midst of modern English. But far be it from me to tell anyone how to translate; experimentation is a good thing, and I don’t want to give in prematurely to cranky get-off-my-lawn responses to the New. Uncle Ez would never forgive me.


  1. Bathrobe says

    I agree with Hat on the Anglo-Saxon. The translator’s comments end with a short glossary:
    “Lament”: ana (I [Arabic], alone [Anglo-Saxon]); wyrdstaef (things decreed by fate); gehrorene (decay); wifcynn (womenfolk); flet ofgeaāfon (die, fly away); burston (broken); aelmihtig (Almighty, God); hwœr cōm? (where gone?).
    Without that I would have been truly lost.

  2. I’m referring to my own site, but I would think it will be of interest to some of you.
    I really disliked Andrew Hurley’s translation of Borges and I, so I analysed where I thought Hurley went wrong in his translation and attempted my own version of the classic Borges original.
    Anyway, it’s here:

  3. AJP, there is a poem about goats by Eugénio de Andrade. Not sure if it shares much in common with yours, though.

  4. A bonus in “first time” by Reina María Rodríguez:
    imagining i walked with those who have never eaten meat or tasted cow’s milk, who have never nursed except from the teat of a goat.

  5. Kári Tulinius says

    I appreciate experiments in translation like that of Ange Mlinko’s renderings of Arab poetry. Even if it’s a dead end, dead ends should be mapped.

  6. Hat: His final paragraph makes me want to read Le Grand Meaulnes, one of the many famous books that I’ve somehow missed out on.
    I finally read it myself only two years ago. I know that from my habit of noting on the title page the date I finish a book.
    I can still recall certain scenes and atmospheres. That may be because I read it in French, and had to pay closer attention than when I am reading German or English. There can be advantages in imperfection.

  7. The reading in english first and french later caught me in a comparable situation. I’m reading Balzac for the first time in my life, Lost Illusions, translated by a Kathleen Raine, 1997 Modern Lib. ed. and I’m enjoying the reading so damn much I got to wondering, how much of this is Balzac and how much is Kathleen Raine’s translation?–I mean, dig this: “If poetry is to be spoken aloud in such a way as to be understood, absolute concentration is necessary. There must be complete sympathy between the reader and the audience, in the absence of which no electrical communication of emotion can take place. If this sympathetic atmosphere is lacking, the poet finds himself rather in the position of an angel attempting to sing heavenly music against a background of the mocking laughter of hell.” I mean that’s good in any language and I suppose it’s easily translated from Balzac’s French to English–at least that’s how I’m rationalizing it in my mind –and as a poet I know the statement is so very true, too, though in terms of my seeing my own poetic attempts in translation, I’d probable want the reverse said, “My poetry is the mocking laughter from Hell fighting against a background of some damn angel singing heavenly music.
    Huzzahs to you translators, though can I trust your imaginations to be as brilliant in novel perspective as Balzac’s?
    As a music translator, I have a much easier job than you language translators. Music could be the reason for language–have you ever heard that one?

  8. oh, I think the translator is always a co-author, in literature as well as in music.
    It may be apparent if you think of the role of the critic?

  9. Robe, thanks for the recommendation. Our goats often smell my hands, and I think it’s to find out what I’ve been doing lately. I’ve noticed that they seem to strongly dislike the smell, let alone the taste, of cows’ milk.

Speak Your Mind