Archive for the ‘Translation’ Category

Truth from a Polish Jew

August 10, 2016

I have just read a book titled Leap for Life by Rut Wermuth Burak, published in 2010 and subtitled A Story of Survival and Reunion. It’s the first memoir by a Polish Jew who lived through World War II in Nazi-occupied Europe that has struck me as truthful.

Actually, the book that I read was the Polish original, published in 2002, titled Spotkałam Ludzi (“I met people”) and subtitled (in Polish) “A story about a tragic beginning aend an extraordinary ending.” The author is presented as Ruta Wermuth; not only is her married name absent from the title page but it’s referred to only by its initial in the book, for some reason unknown to me.

I have already written about the tendency of my fellow Polish Jews to overdramatize, if not fictionalize, their experiences during World War II; well-known examples include Jerzy Kosiński, Luba Tryszynska (“the Angel of Bergen-Belsen”), Solomon Perel (“Europa, Europa”) and Herman Rosenblat {“An Angel at the Fence”). I have also found this tendency in personal accounts by acquaintances. Perhaps they took their inspiration from the originator of the genre, Elie Wiesel, whose hugely successful Night trilogy was later admitted by him to be semi-fictional.

But Rut(a) Wermuth, unlike the people cited above, did not write her memoir for a Western audience; the English version seems to have been an afterthought encouraged by her brother’s non-Polish-speaking family in England. Instead, she wrote it for her fellow Poles. (I have long maintained that Polish Jew does not equal Pole, but she chose to become a Pole by marrying one, living in Poland and hiding her Jewishness until late in life.) And not only do Poles know a little more about the reality of World War II in Eastern Europe than Westerners do, but they are likely to judge any such account by a Jew critically if not suspiciously.

Not only is the book (in my view) truthful but it’s fascinating and deeply moving. I recommend it.

More on KJV

May 6, 2015

I wrote in a recent post that I have more critical things to say about the King James Version.

What most bothers me about it – and I am talking mainly about the Old Testament – is the clumsy stiffness and uniformity of its style, altogether foreign to the great variety of styles, ranging from the sublimely poetic to the colloquially prosaic, found in the original. This feature – acknowledged even by a KJV fan like Harold Bloom – is quite understandable from the translators’ point of view: they were churchmen, and what they saw themselves as translating was not literature but the Word of God.

My pet peeve has to do with the translators’ treatment of the present participle, and even more particularly a specific case of it. To explain what I mean I have to go through a little – or perhaps not so little – discussion of grammar.

Hebrew (like Arabic, as discussed here) has, technically, no present tense; it is what is known as a zero-copula language, so that the equivalent of “me Tarzan, you Jane” (or, more literally, “I Tarzan, you Jane”) would be grammatical in it. Instead of the present tense, then, it uses the present participle, so that “I go” is אני הולך  (ăni hōlēkh – I’m using a sort of scholarly transliteration, not that of modern Hebrew), literally “I am going”. Now the present participle, in virtually all languages that have it, functions as an adjective, but in those languages in which adjectives are inflected for number (and possibly for gender) – which include Hebrew and many European languages, but not English – an adjective can be used as a noun meaning a person or thing having the attribute indicated by the adjective. For example, English nouns such as belle and blonde are borrowings from French, in which they are originally the feminine singular adjectives meaning ‘beautiful’ and ‘fair-haired’, respectively, but can be automatically turned into nouns.

In English adjectives, because they are uninflected, can be nominalized only to a limited degree. Some adjectives describing people, when preceded by the, can be used in the plural only to the note the mass of people having the given attribute: the rich, the dead, the homeless… Occasionally, in specialized jargon, an adjective may become a noun if the noun following it is omitted, such temporary (filling, in dentistry) or attending (physician, in a hospital), but that’s about all.

It so happens that attending is a present participle, but generally turning a present participle into a noun, even in the limited way discussed above, is even more problematic, because the same –ing ending that forms the present participle also forms the gerund and the verbal noun. Consider the difference in meaning between the questions “What does an undertaker do for a living?” and “What does an undertaker do for the living?”

In those languages in which adjectives readily become nouns, present participles are often used as one way of creating actor nouns, that is, nouns meaning persons or things performing the action indicated by the verb. English is full of such nouns borrowed from those languages, especially from Latin: president (praesidens ‘presiding’), regent (regens ‘ruling’), secant (secans ‘cutting’), tangent (tangens ‘touching’) and hundreds of others. There is also commandant from French (‘commanding’), phenomenon from Greek (φαινόμενον ‘appearing’). While these languages have other ways of forming actor nouns, the present-participle form sometimes is used to distinguish meanings: in French imprimeur is a printer (person) while imprimante is a printer (machine); in Spanish viajero means traveler in general while viajante means specifically a traveling salesman.

Hebrew, too, has various ways of forming actor nouns. For example, melekh ‘king’ comes from mālakh (‘to reign’), and gannābh ‘thief’ (leading via Yiddish to the English ganef or gonif) from gānabh (‘to steal’). But the present-participle way is by far the most common one, in both classical and modern Hebrew, in the same way that the suffix –er is the most common one English. For example, the usual word for ‘enemy’ is sōnē, which is the present participle of sānē ‘to hate’. In Exodus 23:5, for example, the Septuagint (compiled at a time when Hebrew was still a living language) renders sōnē as the noun ἐχθρός ‘enemy’. On the other hand the Vulgate (written long after Hebrew had died out) chooses to interpret it as the present participle odiens ‘hating’. But it is still used as a noun, and a reasonable translation into English would be hater. (A similar thing happens in Deuteronomy 7:10, though there the Septuagint has something more like ‘hater’.) This is not, however, what English translators, from Wycliffe on, choose to do. Since they cannot use hating directly, they write him that hateth.

There a great many cases like this: him that remaineth for ‘survivor’; him that smiteth (or smote) for ‘smiter’ or ‘killer’. But my favorite is the translation of maštīn baqqīr (‘pissing on the wall’) as (him, one or any) that pisseth against the wall.

Modern translations usually render this phrase as male, and that is in fact the meaning. It occurs six times, always in narratives from the time of the kingdoms and in the context of actual or threatened extermination. In my opinion it was, in all likelihood, soldier slang. It cries for a pithy, slangy translation rather than a churchy one. Shakespeare would probably have written it as wall-pisser, on a par with ratcatcher (Romeo and Juliet) or idiot-worshipper (Troilus and Cressida). Can you imagine Mercutio saying “Tybalt, thou that catchest rats”? Or Thersites “idol of them that worship idiots”? Not me.

More calf to the board

April 5, 2015

I wrote a post the other day about word-for-word mistranslations of the titles of some novels by Mario Vargas Llosa. I didn’t mean to limit myself to MVL, but I ran out of time. So I would like to add a few more.

Let me start with a very famous one: Gabriel García Márquez’ Cien años de soledad, known in English as One Hundred Years of Solitude.

OK, cien does mean ‘one hundred’ or ‘a hundred’. But Latin cultures don’t treat numbers as precisely as Germanic ones. The Spanish Golden Age is known in Spanish as el Siglo de Oro, which, as the Wikipedia article makes clear, “does not imply precise dates and is usually considered to have lasted longer than an actual century.” In a famous bolero titled Cien años, the singer declares “y si vivo cien años, cien años pienso en ti” (‘if I live a hundred years, for a hundred years I will think of you’) without ever implying that exactly 100 years are meant, only a long time. On the other hand, in English ‘one hundred’ sounds even more precise than ‘a hundred’, which allows a little slack in popular usage.

And soledad does mean ‘solitude’; it also means ‘loneliness’. In English these are very different states, the former being one of dejection and the latter one of freedom. It would seem clear from reading the book that GGM’s soledad as a characteristic of the Buendía family is loneliness, accompanied by sadness.

And so, what would be a good translation of the title? In the 1955 song Unchained Melody there appears the line “A long, lonely time”. I think this would convey the intended meaning perfectly.

Of course, the mother of “calf to the board” translations is the title under which François Truffaut’s film Les Quatre Cents Coups released in English: The 400 Blows. This word-for-word mistranslation has been discussed for a long time (as in Wikipedia), but I would like to add that one possible clue to the origin of the idiom “faire les quatre cents coups” is precisely the fact that the word coup has a great many meanings besides ‘blow’, especially in the form coup de followed by another noun, and that quatre (like Spanish cuatro or Italian quattro) doesn’t always mean ‘four’ but can mean ‘a few’, and so quatre cents means ‘a few hundred’, that is, a lot; and so faire les quatre cents coups means doing a lot of the things that can be called coup.

And as long as we’re at the movies, let me bring up a retitling that is a non-translation: Carlos Saura’s Cría cuervos was released in the US as Cria! Now, this word means absolutely nothing in English, and it can’t possibly be a Spanish word, because in Spanish an exclamation mark after a word or phrase requires an upside-down one before it. The Spanish word cría, with an acute accent on the i, as a noun means ‘litter’ or ‘baby animal’; but in the title it’s the singular imperative of the verb criar meaning ‘raise’, ‘rear’, ‘bring up’ or the like. Cría cuervos means ‘Raise ravens’ (the title under which the film was released in the UK), and just as to someone who knows French “les quatre cents coups” brings to mind the full phrase “faire les quatre cents coups“, so to someone who knows Spanish (as explained here) it is an anapodoton for the saying Cría cuervos y te sacarán los ojos.

Calf to the board

April 2, 2015

Not quite by coincidence, I recently read Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel, El héroe discreto, just as the English version was coming out amid critical hoopla. The title of the translation is, unsurprisingly, The Discreet Hero. A literal translation, to be sure. Nothing wrong with that, is there?

Well, yes and no. I have done some translating in my life, and I have always believed that the title should bear, more or less, the same relationship to the content in translation that it does in the original. Does it, in this case?

I would guess that the English-speaking reader, on seeing a novel titled The Discreet Hero, would assume that it’s about a character who in some way — perhaps ironically — embodies the two qualities named in the title. But in fact this novel is about three such characters. The reader would then wonder: which one of them is the discreet hero? Don Felícito, Don Rigoberto, or Don Ismael?

What about the reader of the original? Well, someone familiar with Spanish literature would know that the title is a conflation of two classic titles from the Spanish Baroque, El Héroe and El Discreto by Baltazar Gracián. The former (1637, The Hero) is “a criticism of Machiavelli, drawing a portrait of the ideal Christian leader”, while the latter (1646, The Complete Gentleman) “described the qualities which make the sophisticated man of the world” (descriptions from Wikipedia). Neither embodies what we nowadays think of a heroism or discretion, but then Gracián was known for his highly idiosyncratic way with words, and in any case what matters is the titles, not the content. Probably not that many people nowadays have read the books, but it’s generally known that they are didactic treatises of a “how-to” variety.

By basing the title of his novel on these classic titles, Vargas Llosa lets us know that he has written a didactic novel, showing us by means of three entertaining examples that one can be brave without being reckless and discrete without being timid. If I had been the translator I would have tried to make the title reflect this. Perhaps How to Be [or Being or On Being] a Discreet Hero, or Discreet Heroes, or maybe, à la Jane Austen, Heroism and Discretion.

Word-for-word translations that don’t convey the intended meaning are famous from the world of menus (for example here). My favorite, which I encountered in Spain in the 1980s, is “Calf to the board” as a translation of ternera a la plancha (which means grilled veal or beef). But they are not what one would expect in the world of literature.

Let’s look at another Vargas Llosa novel, La Fiesta del Chivo, tiled The Feast of the Goat in English. If you scan the title word by word, la does indeed mean ‘the’; fiesta may be translated as ‘feast’ (though in a very limited sense); del means ‘of the’; and chivo means ‘goat’, though also in a limited sense. ‘Goat’ as the name of a species, with no reference to gender, is cabra, and chivo means very specifically a billy-goat. Note that the word is capitalized in the title, implying that it’s used as though it were a proper noun, and El Chivo was in fact one of the nicknames given to Rafael Trujillo (around whom the novel revolves) on account of his notorious randiness. ‘The Billy-goat’ would have been an adequate translation, since “as horny as a billy-goat” is a common English expression. But just plain ‘goat’? No way.

How about fiesta, then? It can, of course, mean ‘feast’ in the sense of a periodic religious holiday, but not in the sense (far more common in English) of a large and sumptuous meal. The title The Feast of the Goat would, I believe, evoke a banquet at which goat is served, or perhaps a religious ritual at which a goat is worshiped or sacrificed.

Needless to say, the book is about none of the above. It’s about a party (by far the most current meaning of fiesta) that is supposedly given by the Billy-goat and to which the novel’s female protagonist is invited, except that she turns out to be the only guest and is duly raped by the dictator. The Billy-Goat’s Party would have perfectly conveyed the meaning of the title in relation to the book.

But then there is the case of another Vargas Llosa title that was not translated literally, and should have been. La tía Julia y el escribidor was rendered as Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. Now, escribidor means ‘scribbler’ or whatever other word one might use for a bad writer. ‘Scriptwriter’ sounds like someone who might be a bigwig in Hollywood or on television, but in this book the character writes silly scripts (yes) for a provincial radio station.

Then there is the mystery, which I’ve never solved, of why Vargas Llosa’s first novel, La ciudad y los perros (‘The City and the Dogs’), was published in English as The Time of the Hero. Perhaps, the book being by a heretofore unknown author, the translator felt freer  But then I never actually read the book.