The Craftsmanship of Writing/The Technique of Translating

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The Craftsmanship of Writing by Frederic Taber Cooper
The Technique of Translating



There seems to be a widespread and unfortunate belief that there is no such thing as a technique of translating; or that, if there is, it is a negligible matter,—something which is unconsciously absorbed along with the power to render into English Ollendorfian sentences after the fashion of "No, I have not the green umbrella of your deaf grandmother, but the big Russian is up a tree." Translation, so the argument seems to run, is an even simpler matter than original work: the latter requires pen, ink and paper, and a certain natural aptitude; translation requires only pen, ink and paper,—the foreign author is expected to supply the natural aptitude. Here, on the one hand, is the book to be translated; and here, on the other, is a stout, able-bodied dictionary which can be relied on to give some sort of an equivalent for each of the foreign words. A little patient plodding and industrious thumbing of the pages,—and there you are!

Such is the genesis of a good deal of the mediocre translation which in recent years has brought the whole craft into disrepute. The prevailing modern attitude, in this country at least, is well illustrated by a sentence in a popular novel of the present season. The author, wishing to impress upon us his heroine's want of culture and of literary standards, remarks that she will read anything, ranging all the way from works of real worth to ten-cent translations of French novels. It apparently did not occur to that author that a ten-cent translation of a French novel is quite as likely to be a masterpiece as are the great majority of current American novels which will probably never be translated into any sort of foreign edition, ten-cent or otherwise.

Now, as a matter of fact, there is a technique of translating and one which is neither quickly nor easily acquired. Walter Pater's comparison of translating to a copy of a picture made through tracing paper sounds clever but is misleading. Mechanical aid in rendering one language into another is precisely the sort of aid which must be most scrupulously avoided. The mere ability to hold a pencil and copy the strokes line by line does not even make up the alphabet of the craft. You might spend your life putting tracing paper over Raphael's Madonna della Sedia without ever getting more than a caricature of the original. It takes a long apprenticeship and a specially developed skill to enable a painter to produce on canvas a really worthy copy of a great master.

And yet a good many beginners in writing persist in believing that there is a market for their amateur translations. They do not seem to realise that for several reasons there is much more hope for their crude original work than for their equally crude distortions of the work of someone else. Early work usually shows a certain amount of proportion between subject and execution. The great majority of short stories that may honestly be called "not half bad" in workmanship are also "not half bad" in theme. But when a beginner attempts to translate one of the world's classics, or even the latest volume of some widely read modern novelist, he is clothing big thoughts in unworthy phrases and his deficiencies of style are doubly glaring by contrast.

Nevertheless, the practice of translating, as the quotation from James Russell Lowell in the preceding chapter pointed out, is one of the best possible means of acquiring style; and if practised merely as an exercise and without any misplaced ambition for publication, it is a training which cannot be too strongly recommended to the apprentice in the craft of writing. The only trouble with Lowell's utterance is that he limits the value of translation to a single element of style, namely, precision. As a matter of fact, it is one of the most valuable aids which we possess to acquiring an appreciation, not merely of a precision of words, but of new rhythms and new possibilities of linguistic effects. A trained translator of sterling authors soon learns that if he hopes to preserve, with a fair amount of fidelity, the distinctive quality of the original author, he must convey over into his own language something of the linguistic harmony and the phrase cadence. The present writer knows from experience how hard a task this is and what hours of labour it sometimes takes to reproduce in English a single paragraph of French or Italian or Spanish, with even an approximate retention of the original sound pattern and the original number of syllables. Of course, it is only now and then in some passage of particular lyric beauty that care like this becomes imperative; but the ordinary hack translator seldom if ever troubles himself at all about such matters. The ambitious craftsman, on the contrary, may well spend many a day and week after this fashion because he will thus learn a surprising amount of sheer linguistic gymnastics. Translation, whether from Greek, Latin, or some modern tongue, is to the literary craftsman like chest weights and Indian clubs to the college athlete: it brings his mental muscles into training.

Now if we want to train ourselves to translate well, the first step is to get fixed clearly in our minds on which of several principles the best kind of translation is based. It was Lowell who after subdividing translation under the two heads of paraphrase and reproduction, went on to say:

The paraphrase is a plaster-cast of the Grecian Urn; the reproduction, if by a man of genius, such as the late Fitzgerald, is like Keat's Ode which makes the figures move and the leaves tremble again, if not with the old life, with a sorcery which deceives the fancy.

As between literal paraphrase and a certain degree of freedom, Lowell is undoubtedly right in deciding in favour of the second. Common sense, as well as the verdict of literary history, supports the contention that any translation which is to survive must be the work of somebody possessed of a certain individual bigness, somebody who himself has something to say, something original with which to replace that delicate and volatile essence that is inevitably lost in the process of transference. Of all the arts and crafts, translation is most closely akin to acting. The translator, like the actor, must temporarily sink his personality in that of another; he must speak not his own thoughts, but the lines that are set down for him. But every translator, like every actor, has a right to his own conception of his part; he can, so to speak, supply his own gestures, his own stage business. And, if he is an actor devoid of originality, if he has no ideas to supply, no gestures of his own, no power to make his personality tell upon the stage, then at best his must be a sorry performance. Edgar Allan Poe is not the only writer who has formulated the following theory of the best translation; but no one else has expressed it half so well:

There is one point (never yet, I believe, noticed) which, obviously, should be considered in translation. We should so render the original that the version should impress the people for whom it is intended just as the original impresses the people for whom it (the original) is intended.

Now, if we rigorously translate mere local idiosyncrasies of phrase (to say nothing of idioms) we inevitably distort the author's designed impression. We are sure to produce a whimsical, at least, if not always a ludicrous, effect—for novelties, in a case of this kind, are incongruities and oddities. A distinction, of course, should be observed between those peculiarities which appertain to the nation and those which belong to the author himself, for these latter will have a similar effect upon all nations, and should be literally translated.…

The phraseology of every nation has a taint of drollery about it in the ears of every other nation speaking a different tongue. Now, to convey the true spirit of an author, this taint should be corrected, in translation. We should pride ourselves less upon literality and more upon dexterity at paraphrase. Is it not clear that, by such dexterity, a translation may be made to convey to a foreigner a juster conception of an original than could the original itself?

To produce upon an English reader the identical impression produced by any particular original work upon an ancient Greek or Roman, a modern Frenchman or Italian is, of course, an unattainable ideal. The thing at best can be done only approximately. In the case of the Iliad, for instance, a certain dominant note felt by every Greek must have been that of intense patriotism, a thrill of pride at the thought of his own nation's achievements,—and of course no dexterity of translation could ever duplicate that thrill in the alien Anglo-Saxon reader. But this is no reason for adopting the fallacious theory of translation laid down by Matthew Arnold in his well-known essay On Translating Homer:

No one can tell him (the would-be translator) how Homer affected the Greeks, but there are those who can tell him how Homer affects them. These are scholars, who possess, at the same time with knowledge of Greek, adequate poetical taste and feeling. No translation will seem to them of much worth compared with the original; they alone can say whether the translation produces more or less the same effect upon them as the original. They are the only competent tribunals in this matter; the Greeks are dead; the unlearned Englishman has not the data for judging; and no man can safely confide in his own single judgment of his own work. Let not the translator, then, trust to his notions of what the ancient Greeks would have thought of him; he will lose himself in the vague. Let him not trust to what the ordinary English reader thinks of him; he will be taking the blind for his guide. Let him not trust to his own judgment of his own work; he may be misled by individual caprices. Let him ask how his work affects those who both know Greek and can appreciate poetry; whether to read it gives the Provost of Eton, or Professor Thompson at Cambridge, or Professor Jowett here in Oxford, at all the same feeling which to read the original gives them.

It is difficult to imagine any method of translation better calculated to distort if not destroy the spirit of the original than this advice of Matthew Arnold's. Whatever impression the Iliad made upon the ancient Greeks, it is safe to assume that it was as far removed as possible from the impression that it makes to-day upon the typical middle-aged professor of dead languages, profoundly versed in archæology and syntax. It is very much as though he were to say to the contemporary translator of Flaubert or Maupassant: "Do not trouble yourself about what the modern Frenchman thinks of these authors; do not trouble yourself about what the modern Englishman is likely to think; put no faith in what you yourself think,—but try to imagine that you are translating for the benefit of a small audience of people who know French as well as English, who by long residence have absorbed the customs of the country and who by nature and training have rather more interest in literature than they have in life." Unfortunately for this theory, it is the ordinary English reader who is going to decide what he thinks of a foreign author given to him in translation; he, and no one else, is the man who must be satisfied. And you can satisfy him only by remembering constantly that a translator is an interpreter and guide. It is not enough for him to know exhaustively the meaning of the original, but he must also realise the limitations of his English audience and foresee what portions of a foreign-work will be unintelligible for other reasons than that of a foreign tongue. The translator of the highest type is in a measure an appreciative and indulgent critic whose first aim is to make his audience share his own enthusiasm for his subject, to bring out not merely some one beauty, but all the beauties of the original; to make us feel not merely an author's theme but his individual style, not only the action of his story but its pervading atmosphere.

Let us ask ourselves briefly what are the requirements for this ideal type of translator. He must have, first of all, a thorough mastery of the foreign language, and secondly, of his own; he must have a special and intimate acquaintance with the author he has undertaken to translate, and lastly, he needs an intuitive sense of the limitations of the public for whom he is translating.

Now, when we speak of a thorough mastery of a foreign language, we mean that sort of knowledge which grasps the sense of a printed page without conscious effort, appreciating all those nicer subtleties of language that lie beyond the reach of grammar and lexicon. There are translators who from long practise can glibly roll forth a smooth and readable translation from a book they have never seen before at a speed which taxes the power of their stenographer to keep pace with them. No matter how experienced translators of this sort may be, they are to be mistrusted for work demanding a fine linguistic appreciation. There is in all work of a high literary order a certain quality peculiar to the genius of the language. As your eye travels down the printed page you catch something which you know can not be carried over in full measure into another tongue; you must pause and hesitate and reconsider in a constant and ever recurring effort to reduce such sacrifice to a minimum. And for this reason, when you see another translator pushing blithely onward undaunted by such difficulties, the natural conclusion is that he is afflicted with a certain mental color-blindness, serenely unaware that he is missing the more delicate shading of verbal tones.

And the same nicety of sense of the meaning of words, the rhythm and cadence of sentences is demanded of the translator regarding the language into which he is translating. A far greater wealth of resource is needed by him than by the original craftsman. A writer who is doing creative work is free to choose his own vocabulary; he may affect the abruptness and simplicity of Anglo-Saxon monosyllables or he may emulate what Carlyle has called the "fine buckram style" of Dr. Johnson; he may use few words or he may roll them out in a rushing, surging flood. But the translator is in all these respects bound by his foreign model; he, more than any other writer, must be possessed of an infinite resource of word and phrase,—because sometimes only a hair's breadth lies between humour and pathos, between the tragic and the grotesque; and that hair's breadth the translator is bound to preserve.

Thirdly, before trying to put into English even some very simple and very brief piece of writing from a foreign pen, it is your duty as a good craftsman to know your author,—not merely to know the one specimen of his work that you are translating but a sufficient number of his volumes to give you the right to claim an intimate knowledge of his style, his structure, his philosophy of life. You may be able to produce a fairly adequate rendering of Une Passion Dans le Désert or of La Fête à Coqueville without ever having heard the phrases, Comédie Humaine or Les Rougon-Macquart. Yet it is safe to say that there would be something missing, something of that intangible personality which lies behind the words and which would persistently elude any translator who was not thoroughly imbued with the writings of Balzac or of Zola in their entirety. I remember a striking instance of this in the case of a translation published some years ago of Stendhal's Chartreuse de Parme. Now anyone who is familiar with Stendhal knows that his style was short, abrupt, rather bold, formed as he himself ironically insisted on a daily reading of the Civil Code. But this the translator in question did not happen to know; it was safe to assume that aside from the Chartreuse de Parme he had never read a line of Stendhal. And not liking the plainness of the style and quite missing the terse, crisp forcefulness of it, he proceeded to embellish it in the English translation, smoothing and amplifying and incidentally falling into numerous amusing blunders. The simple statement, for instance, that a carriage was heard "approaching at a trot," was expanded by the translator into "the brisk trot of the two sturdy little horses," regardless of the fact that the context showed that the carriage in question was a one-horse vehicle.

And, fourthly, it is essential to keep in mind the limitations of the special public for whom you are translating. A version of a classic author intended as a "crib" for college students is necessarily a very different sort of production from a rendering intended for the general reader. In the former case, the intention is to emphasize the points of difference between classic habits of speech and thought, and our own; in the latter, the intention is to disguise these points of difference. The one translation says: here is an unaccustomed road, steep and craggy and full of ruts; jolt over it as best you can. The whole purpose of the other is to make the road so smooth that you almost forget that the road lies in a foreign country.

The words, almost forget, are used advisedly. We have seen that the aim of the ideal translation is to place us as nearly as possible in the place of readers for whom the original is intended. Now, take a French novel, the scene of which is laid in Paris. A Frenchman, reading this novel, would on the one hand feel no sense of strange environment; but, on the other, he would not for a moment lose sight of the fact that the action was taking place in Paris, and there is but one Paris in the whole wide world. Now, in translating, it is impossible to preserve both these impressions; you must either in a measure sacrifice the environment, the milieu, or else you must convey to the Anglo-Saxon reader some sense of strangeness. It is a matter of compromise, and no general rules can be laid down. Take for example, the whole question of street nomenclature: To the reader with no knowledge of a foreign tongue, rue and strasse and via and calle necessarily strike the eye and ear with a certain degree of queerness,—yet, to call these foreign public ways streets would seem still queerer. One expects the signs in a foreign city to look different, just as one expects to be wet when one goes in swimming. It is not the normal rule of life to be wet, but it would seem considerably queerer to go in swimming and remain dry. It was possible for Thackeray, in light verse, to say whimsically, "Rue Neuve des Petits Champs the name is, The New Street of the Little Fields;" but it would be sheer grotesqueness in serious prose to speak of the Place of the Star, and the Avenue of the Elysian Fields.

Similarly, foreign titles of courtesy and conventional terms of address cannot be translated without producing a curious hybrid effect utterly out of tone with the context. Mme de Montespan has a foreign sound; Mrs. De Montespan is neither more nor less than burlesque. Even the least travelled modern reader knows that in Berlin people greet each other as Herr and Frau, in Florence as Signor and Signora, and not as Mr. and Mrs. Of course there are certain anomalous cases that are rather baffling; in Germany especially the complicated forms of address, Herr Ober-Lieutenant, Frau Professorin, and the like, lead the translator between a Scylla of inconsistency and a Charybdis of farce-comedy. Here, as always in translating, the one safe rule is, compromise,—and in this the instinct of the born translator is revealed.

But there are certain problems, certain pitfalls, that cannot be foreseen, any more than they can be classified, which every now and then arise to disconcert and hamper the translator, usually at a moment when everything seems to be running most smoothly. There are, for instance, certain plays upon words, certain effects dependent upon the sound or cadence of the original that is simply untranslatable. Mr. William Archer, in his preface to the collected works of Ibsen, points out that this type of difficulty is curiously frequent in the writings of the great Norwegian dramatist, and cites in particular the following illustration:

In not a few cases the difficulties have proved sheer impossibilities. I will cite only one instance. Writing of The Master Builder, a very competent, and indeed generous, critic finds in it "a curious example of perhaps inevitable inadequacy.… 'Duty! Duty! Duty!' Hilda once exclaims in a scornful outburst, 'What a short, sharp, stinging word!' The epithets do not seem specially apt. But in the original she cries out, 'Plight! Plight! Plight!' And the very word stings and snaps." I submit that in this criticism there is one superfluous word—to wit, the "perhaps" which qualifies "inevitable." … It might be possible, no doubt, to adapt Hilda's phrase to the English word and say, "It sounds like the swish of a whip lash," or something to that effect. But this is a sort of freedom which, rightly or wrongly, I hold inadmissible.

An analogous case, in my own experience, occurred in an attempt to translate the opening chapter of Don Gesualdo, from the Italian of Giovanni Verga. It went quite smoothly,—Verga's style is the essence of simplicity,—until I reached the place where the Trao Palace is on fire, and old Don Ferdinando, "looking like a madman, with a face of parchment, kept repeating asthmatically, precisely like a duck: 'This way! this way!' Now, in English this statement seems devoid of significance; it is not the habit of any ducks of which we have ever had experience, to repeat "This way! this way!" It happens, however, that what Don Ferdinando said in Italian was, "Di qua! di qua!"—which seems to be fairly good duck language, whether in Sicily or America,—but unfortunately one of those happy effects that refuse to be translated.

Lastly, a word or two of practical advice about the best way of achieving results in translating. Remember that the translator is in a certain sense a dual personality; he must be on the one hand a born Frenchman, and a born Englishman or American on the other. Now, no one can be to the full extent these two things at once; and therefore no flawless piece of translating can be produced at a single sitting. The best way, then, is to saturate yourself with the foreign language, and make a first rough draft in English, as complete as possible, but clumsy in vocabulary and ragged in idiom. Put it away for a few days; and then, with the original out of sight and out of mind, proceed to recast and to refine. A good translation is like a good vintage; the first draft is simply the pressing of the grapes,—the best you can do is to make sure that you have expelled the juice to the last drop. But you must give it time to age, before it is ready to be put on the market.