The Rhythm of Translation.

Translator Burton Pike describes what to me is probably the most essential factor in translation:

A witty translator wrote that a translation is your book with someone else’s name on it. When I was teaching translation, I would tell my students that in translating prose fiction the words were the least of their problems. First, I told them, you need to identify the book’s or the story’s rhythm, how the words flow; you do that by reading the text aloud and listening. Then you fit the English words and sentences to the underlying pacing of the German, and you would be in business. For example, in translating Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther I determined that the underlying rhythm was a waterfall of words, and I based my translation on that. The result, I think, sounds like Goethe, but in English. One result of this approach through rhythm is that all my translations of prose fiction differ from each other, because each one is based on a different rhythmic model.

He talks about translating Musil and Rilke, so if those authors interest you go ahead and click the link. Me, I want to know who that witty translator was. (Thanks, Trevor!)


  1. I bet his name was Burton Pike.

  2. I heard an anecdote this evening about the Hebrew-language poet Yehuda Amichai. It is said that he read some of his poems in Hebrew, then delivered them in English translation; someone asked him “Your poems in translation… are they your poems?” He is said to have answered: “No, but they are the lovers of my poems. They know my poems very intimately”.

  3. Trond Engen says

    I’ll buy that. My only real attempts on translation have been in poetry, and even those only for fun, but I’ve observed that identifying rhythm and sound patterns is just as important (if not more) in free verse. But one rhythm throughout the novel? i accept the idea of an overarching theme, or mood, but surely the author will change the pace, subtly or suddenly, like a film score, and the translator must keep up..

  4. I agree. Some poems just don’t lend themselves to accurate rhythmical translation, though. Translation has to be a sensitive and careful balancing act between preserving the mood, the meaning and the flow of the original so I take my hat off (sorry, lh, no pun intended) to anyone who can manage all of that and preserve the integrity of the original.

  5. In case you haven’t mentioned it already, I’ve loved reading the first two articles of Tim Parks’s 3-parter in the NY Review of Books, on translating Primo Levi.

  6. I bet his name was Burton Pike.

    That had occurred to me as well.

  7. I inquired in the article, but to no avail. Some comment sections aren’t dialogues at all: they are the students talking among themselves after the professor has left the room. Sometimes you can actually watch the transition, as here, where one Bernard Porter (of whom I know nothing except that he claims to post under his real name) decides never to post a blog comment again (or, by implication, read comments on his own posts), after having been very mildly criticized by (inter alia) our own AJP. He sounds very glum at that point: I wish I’d seen the article in real time, so I could have tried to cheer him up.

  8. I’d forgotten old Bernard ‘I’m-beginning-to-get-cross’ Porter. You can read who he is here.

  9. I knew I could find out about him easily enough, but I didn’t want to sacrifice my snarky rhetoric to a mean admission of the truth, so I made sure not to look. He certainly is and looks glum: from Hell, Hull, and (presumably, though not actually mentioned) Halifax, good Lord deliver him. But a guy who lists Shakespeare and Le Guin as his favorite authors can’t be all bad, although I shudder to think what he makes of either of them. Obvious proof that owning three houses (and being able to pay the property taxes on them) doesn’t make you happy.

  10. Here’s Porter’s present view on comments. I have posted a comment, which is in moderation; I suspect it will remain there forever, though he does seem to have approved at least one comment (short, eulogistic, and fairly content-free). If it doesn’t appear in a day or two, I will take shameless advantage of the Hat and post it here.

  11. I posted one of my own, explaining that I was more worried about the good name of languagehat, which meant something to a fair number of people, than about my “real name,” which meant nothing except to a few friends and family members, but it vanished without even an assurance that it was in moderation, though I suppose it is.

  12. Back to translation for a moment: The NYRB site led me, thanks to the miracle of “you might also like”, to these translations by Nabokov of the classic French rhyme Cet animal est très méchant: / Quand on l’attaque, il se défend.” He writes:

    For the benefit of my learned friends, I have devised 1. a paraphrase in English, 2. a fairly close English version, and 3. a very close Russian translation:


    This animal is very wicked:
    Just see what happens if you kick it.


    This beast is very mean: in fact
    It will fight back, when it’s attacked.


    Zhivótnoe sié=prezlòe suschestvo:
    Oboronyáetsy, kol’ trógayutevo.

    I don’t know what the equals sign is doing there, but I left it alone.

  13. I suspect it was meant to be a dash. Several things have gone wrong with the letter as printed (or OCR’d): “Oboronyáetsy” should be “Oboronyáetsya,” and “trógayutevo” s/b two words: “trógayut evo.” (And of course “evo” is a phonetic representation of what is written “ego.”) I might as well put it into Cyrillic:

    Животное сие — презлое существо:
    Обороняется, коль трогают его.

  14. Well, both our comments have showed up.

  15. In some faux-antique fonts, dashes actually have two lines, one above the other. (Not that I think that’s what was going in in this case.)

  16. both our comments have showed up

    Indeed, which shows some degree of fortitude, though it might be too much to ask him to actually speak up, never mind change his mind.

    What is this презлое? GT not helpful, nor Wiktionary neither.

  17. It’s пре- ‘very’ plus the neuter form of злой.

  18. After all this time, I learn a completely unexpected explanation of “languagehat”:

    When I began my blog Languagehat in 2002, I was employed by a corporation which might well have looked askance on my publishing material, however well written and however removed from the dangerous topics of politics, religion, and commerce, that did not reflect its corporate identity, so I kept my real name hidden and posted there and elsewhere as “languagehat.”

  19. Yup, I went to bed trying to figure out what pseudonym to use and sat up with a start thinking “Languagehat!” I did a search, got zero hits, and Bob was my uncle.

  20. For a minute there I thought Stu was posting things as Languagehat.

  21. I wrote my first serious (read: non–student-assignment) translation for a contest last year. We were to produce a Portuguese translation of Ikuko Onodera’s Tōmin no Kyaku (“The Hibernating Guest”, lit. “The Winter-Sleeping Guest”), a short story (probably autobiographical) about a housewife who finds a frog hibernating in her backyard and shows it to her husband. The problem is, I could not accept a literal translation of the title. The portuguese hibernante just sounded awful to me, as did all morphological variants: hibernoso, em hibernação, etc. I thought the original title sounded like a literary title, brisk and melodic (LA-A LA la LA la); but mine sounded stilted, rhythmless, forced (O Hóspede em Hibernação… argh). I ended up with a non-literal adaptation: O Sono Profundo de Nosso Visitante (“Our Visitor’s Deep Sleep”), which to my ears had a catchy amphibrachian rhythm: da-DA-da da-DA-da da-DA-da da-da-DA-da. I wanted to translate not to the letter, but the role of the utterance: something that sounded like a title (but still remained true to the story).

    I submitted my attempt with anxiety: what if they judge this to be a mistranslation? Sure enough, I immediately got a warning to reconsider the title. At least I won the contest, so I guess that counts for something (#falsemodesty #actuallybragging). Still, when I explained my rationale to my adviser, she remained visibly unimpressed.

  22. I always assued you meant you had many interests, but when writing for this blog you had your language hat on, or something like that.

  23. Sure enough, I immediately got a warning to reconsider the title.

    For what it’s worth, I think your title is excellent, and superior to the literal versions for the reasons you mention.

    I always assued you meant you had many interests, but when writing for this blog you had your language hat on, or something like that.

    That’s a perfectly valid interpretation, but I didn’t think about it analytically, it was just a flash: “I like languages, I like hats… languagehat!”


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