On Translation

Merely translating literal meaning from one language to another can prove difficult.  Translating literature, however, from its native language to some target language is, in some senses, impossible.  Literature is an art that utilizes words as its tool--words that are confined to the language in which they exist.  Thus, translating a piece of art work that owes its being to one language into some other language removes it from what it "is."  Translation is the process of changing something into what it is not so that it will be itself--but for another audience, in another time. 

Rendering Homer's Iliad into English is analogous then to sculpting the Mona Lisa.  Certainly, seeing Mona L. in 3D molded by the hands of a talented sculptor could prove exhilarating.  Perhaps she could retain her cryptic gaze, her somber smile, but still she would be different.  Her colors would change, her texture, her impact.  Though we might stand to gain much from Mona in her new medium, we would still lose something of what she is and was.  Mirra Ginsburg, translator of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground writes, "As always . . . translation is a struggle with impossibility, and there are losses that must be accepted as inevitable"55.  As D.S. Carne-Ross suggests, "There is one place to get Homer's Iliad and only one place: in the 15,000 lines or so of the Greek text"56.

However, despite the impossible nature of translation and despite the reluctance of some to learn Latin and Greek and Russian and any other language in which someone has written a great book, I do not suggest that English speakers ignore Vergil or Homer or Dostoevsky.  Though impossible, translation is not futile.  Fortunately or unfortunately, important ideas and engaging narratives occur in languages other than English.  Thus, sacrifices and decisions must be made.

Translators first must determine their audiences, which will determine, or at least narrow, their purposes.  For example, if a student needed help translating Vergil's Aeneid for his Latin class, he would want an extremely literal translation, so that he could understand exactly what Vergil's Latin says.  However, if a professor were teaching Roman Poetry to an English-speaking class, he would want a translation that maintained the poets' basic literal meanings, but that transformed the literal translations into smoother, more readable, modern English.  Some readers, however, want to experience what ancients experienced when they heard and read ancient authors, i.e. the impact of the literature.  Lorna Hardwick explains translator's F.W. Newman's "view that to be 'faithful' a translation should affect the reader just as the original affected its ancient audience"57.  

Due to the fact that modern culture is so far removed from ancient culture and because our understanding of ancient culture is limited, creating analogous experiences may prove impossible.  Literature exists not only within a language, but also within a culture.  And thus to translate literature is often to translate culture, probably often improperly.  Translators must choose whether to imitate ancient techniques, though they may not affect modern audiences in the same way they affected ancient audiences, or whether to simulate an analogous experience using modern poetic techniques since the ancient authors' techniques were modern when they wrote.  Confronting this problem, F.W. Newman tried to illustrate the distance between ancient Greek culture and his own 19th Century England by using the archaic language of Anglo-Saxon poetry to translate Homer's Iliad58.  Fellow Iliad translator Matthew Arnold criticized this approach, arguing that Homer's language was "rapid, plain, direct, and noble," whereas Newman's translation was "'odd' and 'ignoble' resulting from a false analogy between Homer and popular ballads"59.  In an essay about Christopher Logue's translations of Homer (which use modern poetic techniques), D.S. Carne-Ross writes:

"Logue's Patrocleia insists that the Iliad is a poem, and if it is unlike such versified Iliads as we have had recently, that is because Logue believes, like Pope, that a translation must stand in a responsible relation not only to its original but also to the literary situation of the translator's own day.  There is, of course, no rule that translation must be 'modern' . . .  How far the resources of modern poetry are to be used is a matter for each translator to settle for himself; but that he should ignore them altogether and still succeed is almost unthinkable.  While Logue's version is in no real sense 'the Iliad in modern dress,' it is written in the belief that no sort of fancy translationese should be allowed to muffle the impact of the original"60

In order to render impact into other languages, translators must first decide what gives literature "impact" in its native language, and then find some analogous way to translate that into the intended language.  Rarely, or possibly never, can translators convey every aspect of impact in their translations.  Once again, decisions must be made.  Translators of Latin poetry might choose to convey any of a host of poetic elements, including word order, word choice, rhythm, structure, alliteration, assonance, tone, humor, succinctness, suspense.  Indeed, much of a translation's outcome depends on how the translator understands and values certain aspects of the original work and the work as a whole in its original language.

In my translations, I decided that the most important qualities of Martial's poetry were humor, brevity, suspense (usually occurs due to word order), and his biting, invective tone.  Before translating each poem, I studied the Latin carefully in order to determine which techniques Martial had used to achieve his effect and then kept those things in mind while translating.  With that being said, in my more successful translations, I did not necessarily translate the important qualities that I found in each particular poem, but rather I translated the way Martial operates in his body of poetry as a whole--Martial's voice.  For example, in what I think is my best translation, 1.38, "Plagiarism," I translate Martial's general mode of operation, rather than his mode of operation in this particular poem.  Literally, "Plagiarism" translates, "The little book, which you recite, is mine, O Fidentinus, / But when you recite badly, it begins to be yours".  My creative translation reads, "The Backstreet Boys have stolen my song. / Do I want it back? / No"61.  In this translation, I preserve the "mine" and "yours" idea, but not with the same words.  Also, I preserve the last line as punch line, but I add another of Martial's techniques, which is not present in the poem, repeating words but implying different shades of meaning to create humor.  In my creative translation, I have repeated the word "back," but the second time, it assumes a crucially different meaning, which is what makes the translation work.

As Dr. Tillyard notes, "Critics of translation usually fix their eye on the small detail, on the accuracy of the phrase or the short passage.  The better tests of a long work are whether the translator has a durable rhetoric and whether he can follow the main undulations of the original"62.  Though each of Martial's epigram is by no means a long work, Martial's body of epigrams is quite long; and as a result, the best translations of individual epigrams "follows the main undulations" of his entire corpus.

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