The Future of History

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Lost in Translation

My first paid commission as a writer was to adapt the libretto of a Danish comic opera into English.

It was an odd commission.  For a start, I don't speak Danish.  And I was at drama school at the time.  In fact, I was touring Holland and Belgium, playing in a different venue in a different town every night.  Didn't leave much time.

One thing I did insist on doing was replicating the rhyme scheme of the original Danish.  The other translations I was given hadn't even tried to do that.

Oh, and it was a comic opera.  So a gag or two seemed requisite.

Anyway, that little trip down Memory Boulevard was inspired by one of this week's niggling little problems: interpreting the old British poems which deal with Arthur.  It's not the first time I've grappled with some of these, and I doubt it'll be the last.

The image from China (above) illustrates the problem (I won't show you how a Chinese menu managed to render Crispy Fried Duck into English - suffice it to say that it was an alarming, though very amusing, image).  If you take a word from one language and spin it into another, something weird might happen.  The Book of Heroic Failures mentions the gloriously bizarre English-Portugese phrasebook produced by Pedro Carolino in 1883.  Pedro didn't speak English, so his useful phrases have a peculiar charm of their own. 

An example - his sample dialogue, "For to ride a horse", has as its opening gambit:

"Here is a horse who have bad looks.  Give me another.  I will not that.  He not sall how to march, he is pursy, he is foundered.  Don't you are ashamed to give me a jade as like? he is undshoed, he is with nails up". 

Which would surely mark you out as a tourist.  (And who could forget the wonderful English-language notes accompanying a production of Carmen, which included the dramatic chorus, "Toreador, toreador, oh for the balls of a toreador"?)

Great fun.  But a problem, too.  For even the most earnest of scholars can come a cropper when trying to translate something which belongs to another time and place.

In one of my chapters of The Grail, recently posted on the Moon Books blog, I included a few lines from the marvellous Y Gododdin poem of Aneirin (circa AD 600).  I gave the three lines in archaic Welsh, followed by Skene's 19th century translation of those lines, then a more general 20th century translation, then my own translation.

Before long, an argument had arisen.  I had done it all wrong, apparently, by departing from the text set down by my betters.  On one point, one of my interlocutors was absolutely right - I had wrongly transcribed one of the original Welsh words, which has since led to three days of obsessive research and revision to try and pin down the meaning of one word.

One word.  Three days.  About a dozen variants played with and discarded.  And this word (it's only four letters, by the way - ceni, if you must know) had already been translated in wildly different ways by acknowledged experts.

Well, I've finally come up with what I believe it meant, and that's gone into my manuscript of The Grail (but it's not online - you'll have to wait for the book).  But it was all a wonderful reminder of the great big problems of translation.

Context.  If you don't know the context in which the original words were created, you're not likely to get the meaning right when you convert them into modern English.

Mindset.  Language is not just words, it's a way of looking at, understanding and interpreting the world.  It's a means of expression, and what is expressed is how a person - and a culture - comprehends the world around them.  A different culture means a different way of perceiving and relating to the world.  They way they expressed their thoughts made sense to them: it might make no sense at all if you just alter those words to their nearest English equivalents.

You don't have to go back to Welsh poems from 6th century Britain to encounter these problems.  For the first twenty years of my research into William Shakespeare, I suffered from a major handicap: I didn't really enjoy reading or watching his plays.  No, I'll go further: I found them mind-bendingly obtuse, obscure, verbose and impenetrable.  Not much fun at all.

Reading a Shakespeare play (or going to see one) felt a bit like going to the dentist.  It would no doubt be a horrible experience, but I'd be the better for having submitted to it.

What was wrong wasn't me.  It was what I'd been taught about Shakespeare - or, rather, what I hadn't been taught.  No one had given me the vital key to understanding Shakespeare's writings (the key, by the way, is the Reformation).  Once I found that key, everything changed.  Now I can read a Shakespeare play for pleasure.  I find his work fascinating, lucid, hugely emotional, terrifying, disturbing and - most of all - relevant.  He's remarkably clear, once you get your head round the context (his world) and the mindset (how he saw it).

The poetry of Arthur's age has been persistently misinterpreted because the scholars who come to it know a fair deal about the language it's written in, but very little about the context (and, I often feel, next to nothing about the mindset).  But that's what makes working on these poems so fascinating.  Not only are you solving puzzles, but you're learning all the time about the world these people lived in and they way they saw it.

A "straight" translation tends to come across as gibberish, which is then re-interpreted through some modern idea of what people might have believed back then (for example, an excellent poem which describes Arthur's funeral has often been interpreted, somewhat crassly, as an account of a raid undertaken into the Otherworld to steal stuff).  But whether we're reading Shakespeare or trying to get our heads round what the major poets of Arthur's day were saying, the least we can do is listen to them.  Don't try to force an interpretation onto them (as so many directors do with Shakespeare, and so many critics have done).  Don't say, "This word means that.  It can only mean that.  There is no other possible meaning."  Listen to them.

It might take days.  Or weeks.  Or months.  Or years.  But the rewards can be amazing.  As if another person's world has suddenly opened up to you.  And you can see things as they saw them.

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