THE ART AND CRAFT OF TRANSLATION
For a period of about a dozen years, I had the good fortune to teach a course in The Art and Craft of Translation to a small group of language majors at Middlebury College. What we did in that seminar was unusual, perhaps unique in the collegiate scene of this country, therefore I would like to summarize and crit. my course, in hopes that a description of this very rewarding project may arouse interest among some other college language teachers.
Behind our venture stands the formidable figure of William Arrowsmith, whose pioneering group in Texas years ago seeded the imagination with ideas which have made the art of translation flower. I knew Arrowsmith's exciting work from the Arion period, and had chances to talk with him when he lived near Middlebury some years ago. I was impressed by his vigor and his work in translation, and decided to offer a course such as I thought he would like to design, hoping that Arrowsmith might eventually be enticed to teach it at Middlebury, a wish which time and nasty college politics vetoed.
In colleges the languages tend their own gardens, and when cross-cutting programs in "Comparative Literature" appear, they generally do much of the work in English, which is clearly an unauthentic way. Yet the idea of going at "translation" in a variety of languages straight-on is difficult. Who is sufficient master of six or more languages to offer to teach translation in them all - - - simultaneously? Perhaps some sort of academic fear or modesty is part of the reason that courses like mine have not appeared.
But perhaps it is because the languages have staked out their areas clearly, and regard these territories, rather than the larger map of world literature, as supremely important. Language studies have not been popular in the last twenty years, each department longs for major students for its own program. In such a tense setting, interdepartmental ventures are not common. In our case, the venture was initiated from by me from the Classics Department, which has been short of students for half a century, so there was nothing to lose and a great deal of intellectual excitement to gain.
Each year the course, simply labeled as "The Art and Craft of Translation", was offered to under ten students who had done at least two years of a language major, but were usually Juniors or Seniors with four years college work after HS introduction to their language. Since Middlebury is expert at teaching the modern languages as working, communicative vehicles for thinking, the language abilities of our students were generally above par. But by contrast, they had very little literary theory and often seemed literarily "naive", which may not have been a disability in the long run. Once the nature of the course was confirmed as a venture in art-translation of difficult prose and especially poetry converted into English, rather than a course in technical translation for commercial or political uses, the course got under way.
As introduction, during the first week, I brought in samples of English poetry which I used to sensitize their ears to the sound of spoken art-language. As aid to this, I gave them a brief outline of phonetics, showing how the various sounds stood in relation to each other and to language as a whole. Sound was to be perceived as a spoken kind of music, each sound had a tone-center and worked contrastively with the rest. This was new and difficult material to the students, we fleshed it out with continuous reading of short poems in English, until they began to feel familiar with the idea of euphony. Then I set a few exercises of translation from very short samples of English into a foreign language: We found some of Cummings' lyrical pieces excellent for this, and discovered that some of them went neatly into French, others into German, and we tried to figure out exactly why. (We never found out, but the exercise was well worth the effort.)
An important tool was introduction to the sound spectrogram, which displays a visual, analytical pattern for each sound in real-time. Since small colleges will not have access to a Sound Spectrogram Machine I used examples from the ancient manual: Visible Speech (Potter Kopp and Green, Van Nostrand l947). This project was an experiment in developing a real-time screen picture of sounds in a continuous stream, coordinated with a teaching program which hopefully would enable a select group of deaf experimenters to "read" sound. It did work, but required dedicated persons with a great deal of practice and was abandoned as electronics verged into un-suspected miracles. But the book itself is replete with excellent, clear photographs of sounds processed by the sound spectrograph. On pages 60 and 62 there is a series of manual characters, which represent the spectrograms in a much abbreviated, line-drawn form. After surveying the range of what the Sound Spectrogam can represent, we photocopied out the manual signs, which became a part of our approach to the sounds of samples which were working with.
From another angle, we designed a quadrant in the sectors of which we located sounds which were essentially different from each other in timbre, duration and use. In the upper left quarter of our circle we placed the vowels, which are the rich, musical sounds which carry syllables, the musical core. Below this sector we placed the nasals and liquids, -m-, -n-, and -l-, -r-.. These have spectrogaph displays not unlike the vowels, but they are denser, heavier and often longer. In the right upper sector we placed the "air-sounds", from -s- and -h- to the fricatives of various sorts. Below these we compressed the con-sonants, or modifiers of the vowels, which have amazing short, at times almost invisible durations. They are recognizable by formant blocks at various elevations on their thing and evanescent spikes (-k- -p- -t-) and as voiced consonants, with a slow anticipatory growl at the bottom of the spectrogram (-g- -b- and -d-).
The point of all this rearranging and detailing is to make clear the basic differences between these four classes of speech sounds, so that when we examine a segment of poetry or highly wrought prose, we are in a position to see the way the sounds work with and at time against each other in the flow of words. This was the base of our Translation Course, and we devoted ourselves to re-forming parallel sound-sequences in our English translation. In other words we were translating not only meaning, but the musical sound sequences of our foreign language texts.
(Lest this seem strange and outre, note that Dionysos of Halicarnassos had outlined in the first c. B.C. a remarkably similar approach to the sound of Greek literary samples (Chapter 14 and ff. in his essay De Compositione, for which I recommend Rhys Roberts Editions with Greek and English, Cambridge l910.) Greek and Latin poetry must be read musically or their thrust is completely lost.
Next, each student was asked to spend some time in the library and bring back a few carefully chosen samples of text in a foreign language in photocopy, which was read a few times aloud to the class, and then compared with the student's first draft, again furnished in copy for all of us. Without the written text the students were lost, but this is part of the McLuhan-esque print culture which we are all involved in; indeed the discriminating use of the ear seemed the weakest link in the student's preparation for our work. At this point I made a formal statement about the ego, and we agreed that nobody was going to take offense at any criticism offered. This was necessary in order to get the group to work freely as critics of each others' work, an essential part of the course as I saw it.
As it worked out, our Seminar did become a special kind of a course, since the students selected their own assignments, came to class prepared with texts and translation, presented their own work for the others' criticism, and they all felt that it was "their course". For sensitive work in an art-form, this feeling is absolutely necessary. As "the teacher", I had plenty to do, suggesting new directions and new authors. I took my turn as a member of the class and produced translations from Greek and Latin which I was working on, since I was officially a Professor of Classics. By not running the course, but letting it run itself, I freed us from the usual academic tyranny of the grade. In fact each student (there were a few very rare exceptions) did far more work than in a regular, highly directed course, and I rarely had to grade below an A.
Such a course presents two problems. How can any one professor, who after all has his advanced degree in a single field, honestly offer coursework in such a multi-lingual framework? There are difficulties, of course. My Classical languages which were my teaching area, were sufficient, in French and German I had the typical good reading knowledge with less good spoken technique, Spanish and Italian were familiar by Romanic associations, but imperfect. The languages we normally dealt with were, in order of frequency of representation, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Russian, and rarely Chinese and Japanese, all of which are taught at Middlebury. Middlebury's richness in language study made it all but unnecessary to apologize for any ignorance on the teacher's part. Nobody can do it all, and if you are going to wait for somebody to know a dozen languages and have literary taste to boot, you will never get a course like ours off the ground. Perhaps that is why such courses are rare.
A second problem rests with the students. Many of our students had studied two, some even three languages, but none knew all the languages that were being worked on each term. It might seem an impossible situation for the students to hear someone reading Polish or Arabic, and explaining what each work meant and how it was being translated, while knowing nothing about the language beyond its name. Actually the students found an interesting freshness in hearing an undiscovered language, since they were unable to grasp meaning, they listened with great intensity to the sounds, and often their criticisms were based on criteria relating to sound-transference and tone-translation. Working with more the familiar languages, they tended to pass over these things lightly. Nobody was really confused by having to face new languages, in fact the academic horizon of poetry was considerably expanded by hearing Chinese poetry, which is not only strange in sound but in its entirely different method of composition. (A musical parallel might be introducing the student versed in Bach's counterpoint to the modern sounds of Edgard Vareze, which should only produce enlightenment as to the range of possible musical experience.)
Most students started with selections taken from standard anthologies, but when I pointed out to them that their work looked alike, they searched out books in the college library which seemed interesting, and found things which they could get personally involved with. Let me give some sketches of situations which came up in the Seminar over the years:
A student who was a major in standard French discovered some of the remarkable new writing that was coming out of Quebec, and did a series of translations of Gilles Vignault's French-Canadian elegant and puzzling little stories. Over the years many students worked on these, always with a feeling that they hadn't quite got everything. The compressed style of the originals made this seem reasonable.
Student X., a man of second generation Italian descent was visiting the summer before in Florence, his father was buying something for his mother in a dress-shop, when the owner's husband got talking with X. about literature,. and as he left gave him a small volume of privately published poems which he had written. X. thought nothing about this until in the Seminar, when he decided to try his hand at some of them. They were much finer than he had suspected, and he worked the rest of the term translating about half of the book. He hoped to reach the author and ask for rights to translate at a later date...
Students of German had a wide range. On the one hand there were the little untranslatable classics of Kafka which people are always translating, and our group was no exception. Equally valid was the translation of some postwar East German poetry, which had a different ring from what was going in the West, and seemed very interesting. And then there was the postwar war-guilt, ghosts of Auschwitz from both Germans and Jews, we all felt it frightening to have our hands on writing so terrible and so recent. And of course there was the l9 century with its emotionally exacerbated sensibilities.
Two students at different times worked with Old English, which they had to teach themselves first. One worked with a series of riddles, which were tough and crazy, the other took the early non-Beowulvian poems, and a few of the prose pieces including some of the sermons. The amount of work which went into these project was obviously huge, of course the students were hardworking and linguistically gifted.
One girl working in Spanish found a particularly entrancing series of poems, which she stayed with a great part of the term, working and reworking. I had at various times some help in my own translations by employing my unconscious mind in sleep, keeping a notepad near the bed and jotting down at waking intervals words which came to me while asleep. I told her of my thoughts, she tried them, and came back a week later with a stunningly perfect translation, the best I have ever seen anywhere. In fact I still believe, six years later, that it is better than the Spanish original. Now this brings up the problem of the translator outstripping the author, the classic example of this being Dudley Fitts' brilliant translations from the Greek Anthology. I asked him once years ago what he thought about this, he laughed and said that sometimes they come out that way. One can't guard against fortuitous excellence outstripping the original.
A Russian student brought in some "worker poetry", which was out of the sphere of Western poetic sensibilities. At first it seemed strange, but when we got used to it, is showed all the humanness which we asked of poems, and in its own way contributed a kind of freshness which was lacking from much of the European l9th century work. I think this was our first experience with something outside the usual poetical circle, and I believe it should be one of the aims of such a course to procure just such new kinds of expression. (Strangely the student felt we hated her work because it was lower-class, and it took a lot of reassurance to get her ego back into shape. This can happen.)
When poetry is rhymed, non-rhymed versions look as if something is lacking. But very few students in our time have any facility with rhyme, and several attempts to work with Villon in un-rhymed versions failed several times. But another student did a remarkable translation of Catullus' Latin Marriage Song (which is not rhymed) in rhymed English, which was quite good, even if she was not perfectly at home with the technique. Problems related to rhyming are certainly related to our student generation's lack of exposure to good rhymed poetry in their reading.
A student who was a native Arabic speaker did some translations of poems from the 7th century, which we found sure, clean and firm in their style. Again, it was important to see how different cultures prize entirely different poetic features, or, the other way around, how conclusively writing reflects culture, whether consciously or not. Just so, a student who was majoring in Chinese brought us new and unsuspected views of what a poem can be, both in terms of starkness and verbal economy, as well as subject matter. Without explication, there would be much that we would miss, that is the nature of literature from distant cultures and dates. But when a Vietnamese native speaker gave us some of her country's poems, which were highly rhythmic and direct in meaning, we understood them better, or at least we thought we did.
Not all Oriental poetry is exotic. A Japanese girl worked all term on some very direct and personal poems which a Japanese naval officer had written while on ship during WW II, poems which dealt with wind and water and mens' feelings. The material was much the same as a British officer might have written in the same period, but the poems were entirely different.
But most of the work we dealt with came from the body of European writers of the last three centuries, and it was only by comparison with "outside" writings, that we began to see how centered, and in some ways limited, these notions were. Especially in the l9th century, poets indulged in a great deal of sadness for lost times, for innocence, for childhood pleasures. I suggested that this might well be part of an unconscious reaction to the industrial revolution, which was fast eroding old ways and changing taste. The "Second Look" added to C.P. Snow's Two Cultures goes into this seriously, I believe we stumbled on something important in our poetical search, something serious to take with us for future consideration.
In closing my examples, I should mention that a student who worked with Pavese's poetry, unaware than anyone had done them in English before, finally was pointed to Arrowsmith's series of translations. By that time he was critical enough to like a great deal of what Arrowsmith had done, but object to his wording at several points. Right or wrong made no difference, this feeling of critical judgment was what we were after.
One thing should be mentioned: Everyone did a great deal more work in this course than anticipated, actually a great deal more than in any other course. I can say this for myself as well as for the students. The spirit of each class meeting was wonderful, everyone came in with his good things ready to see how the other would like them, we were all eager for each class. Beyond the subject matter of the course, this seems a vital point to note: In our academic structuring of prerequisites and courses leading to the major, we have often forgotten what education is supposed to be about. Finding something new, with aid from teachers but largely by your own efforts, being excited by what you are doing, and feeling that it is your own work (rather than the teacher's assignment).... this is what learning really is, actually what it must be if it is to have lasting value. In our Art and Craft of Translation Seminar we involved ourselves with these premises, and were rewarded by having an experience which we will not forget when the crabbed notebooks from canned lectures are turned yellow with age.
This paper is, in very rough form, an account of what has been done in a certain course at Middlebury. But it is meant as something more, as an encouragement to teachers who feel strongly about the art of writing, who are interested in writing and the art of translation, and who want to try something invigorating. Try a course of this sort for yourselves, you can use my experience but the ideas and the results will depend on what you come up with. It will be interesting to see where such an experiment takes you and the handful of students who will profit by such an experiment Avoid cliches of criticism, avoid imitation of famous translators, just look at texts of great worth closely and repeatedly, and re-constitute them in your own tongue. There is no better exercise in criticism, and certainly no better use of your own imaginative and creative powers.
At this point it would seem good to reproduce a few of the translations which we worked out in our seminars. I will place first one which slowly matured during the course of the term, as one student, Susan Jones, worked and reworked her Spanish poem. At a certain point she felt she was stuck on a sequence of a few words, I suggested she read the poem carefully before going to sleep and leave a pencil and paper near her bed in case anything surfaced from the dream-world. (I suggested reading Jung's Man and his Symbols for hints...) To our surprise, this scheme worked, the last recalcitrant words fell into place, and the poem stand as I print it below, in some ways slightly superior in detailing to the Spanish original, in my opinion.
LOS NOMBRES (Jorge Guillen 1893)
Albor. El horizante
Pero quedan los nombres.
Dawn, The horizon
It was interesting just now for me to first type out the earlier handwritten version which she brought to class, which was much closer to the original than the version above, which I found under a sheaf of papers --- the final revision which I decided to use. The first draft has all the ideas, the final version can stand by itself as a complete poem in English, which was our purpose. She has clearly departed from the Spanish, especially in the middle section, but with a reason. In translating it is often necessary to go around the long way to get the thrust and feeling of the text. In doing this I think she has shown a good judgment in deciding to create a whole new section which carries the feeling of the original poem.
Looking over the sheaf of old papers, I was surprised to find another version of the same poem, without any student name, But noting the adjective "rosyfingered' right out of Homer, I suspect it may have been my version, it has a certain ring to it, and I am pleased to find it still readable, but less convincing than Susan's:
Dawn, rosyfingered, opened wide her eyes
Here is one which I did in the seminar, it took a lot of criticism to get in this form, we went over the Latin (Horace Odes I.13....which is accessible and I need not copy here) with a fine toothed comb, until we reached this version:
Seeing me coming, you are like a fawn
You can imagine the trouble we had with this little poem. On the one hand stand our sensibilities about men seducing young girls, a bad and often criminal situation. But we are talking of the Roman world, where these things had not been raised, where male chauvinism ruled without a second thought. In the middle of political and social issues, we wanted to get the light and airy tone of Horace's ancient poem, although we would be looking at the finished version (forever) with a 20th c. jaundiced eye. Getting something to look at was my aim!
Just now I found another translation by my student David Steece, which may be better than mine, simpler, clearer. It i s unusual to find rhyme in translation nowadays, but rhyme in a way matches the formality of Horace's very formal rhythmic layouts:
Renee, you run away like some small deer
You fear rustling forests and lovely spring,
I don't follow you a savage or a beast,
Catullus 26 is really not a very remarkable poem, and one which many readers might not understand at all, so in translating it we really have to a job of interpreting as well:
Furi, villula nostra non ad Austri
Ezra Pound tried his hand at it years ago, thus:
This villa is raked of winds from fore and aft,
Well put in the Pound style, but the pun of the original is lost or slightly blown away. The central point is the two meaning of the Latin verb 'oppono', which can mean "face toward." in a building's siting, OR is can be 'put up against', that is be put up a security for a mortgage. This great house with a great view also had a great big mortgage! So I tried another way, giving up on the wind-puns and the big bank draft (which is really something else), with this:
Happy Acres has real security.
Again to get the point I had to recast and leave the text, something one does rarely, but in a desperate situation where the meaning is simply not coming through, what else to do?
From Sebastiano Marchese who was virtually bilingual, we have these samples of translation from the Italian of an unknown, privately printed Florentine poet, Fabio Orlandini, who slipped his little book into Marchese's pocket on a visit. I will only give the English of a few since his handwriting is much worse than his verse:
Patches of red roofs
THE POINT OF DILEMMA
I guessed that you,
Today I asked
I have in these papers a note to myself to select out the best ones and send to Arrowsmith since he was so immersed in translation and especially modern Italian poetry, but apparently I never did it, and then he was gone..... We all learned a great deal from him, as much from his influence and enthusiasm as from his technique..
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