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Impearls: 2004-05-30 Archive

Earthdate 2004-06-05

The Art of Translation

A correspondent on a science fiction discussion group, in the midst of a conversation on various translated into Japanese works of SF literature that he's seen in Japan, added this:

Well, all of {Edward E.} Smith's books were translated into Japanese back in the 50s and 60s.  The Lensman series was just translated a second time, to bring the Japanese language and style used into the modern world.  Perhaps difficult to explain to a monolingual, but while the content remains the same, the phrasing used in Japanese was 50-ish.  Now it's 00-ish.  I believe they plan to redo the Skylark series as well, starting this fall.

One of the nice things about translation is that it makes much less difference when the source text was written.  Obviously there are structural differences, like Hamilton having his heroes shooting out the window or leaping from one spaceship to another, but matters of style are (usually) lost in the translation.  As far as the written Japanese language goes, there is no particular difference between a Japanese edition of Lovecraft and King (well, I suppose King uses fewer adjectives… <g>).

Maybe they're just bad (or — charitably — conventional) translations.  I should think that there ought to be a difference in style between Lovecraft and King, say, even when translating into a language as divergent from English as Japanese.

Here's what the translator Sidney Alexander of Francesco Guicciardini's History of Italy (Storia d'Italia) had to say on this subject. 1  (I'll quote perhaps a bit more than I need to in order to make the point, thereby falling into the parable of the overly verbose Laconian which Alexander cites.  Fortunately, since he leaves the siege of Pisa out of his translation, I need not pay the price!)

“If we consider intellectual power [the Storia d'Italia] is the most important work that has issued from an Italian mind.”  The judgment is that of Francesco de Sanctis, surely himself one of the foremost Italian minds.  {…}

Francesco Guicciardini might be called a psychological historian — for him the motive power of the huge clockwork of events may be traced down to the mainspring of individual behavior.  Not any individual, be it noted, but those in positions of command: emperors, princes and popes who may be counted on to act always in terms of their self-interest — the famous Guicciardinian particolare.

Guicciardini's style is Jamesian, Proustian — that is to say, his basic meanings reside in his qualifications.  His mind portrays itself in its sfumatura: the conditions, the exceptions, the modifications, the qualifications with which the author weighs every human act and motivation.  {…}

There is a theory and practice of translation in our day which, in an effort to avoid the archaicism and “no-language” of translatese, leaps to the other extreme and gives us Romans of antiquity who talk pure Hemingwayese.

But I should say that a true translation, while rendering available to the modern reader the speech of another time and culture, will also preserve the savor of that speech, the flavor of that time.  A pinch of antiquity must be added.  A good translation of a sixteenth-century text should be redolent of its period.  It should bring us back there; we should not only understand it, we should be permeated by it in a kind of historical osmosis, research through the pores.  To render Guicciardini in clear modern English available to the modern reader may be admirable pedagogy but it is not the art of translation.

I have called Guicciardini a Proustian historian — that is, a vision and a logic manifested in a certain kind of language.  The stylistic challenge I set myself therefore was more than searching for English equivalents that would avoid archaicism on the one hand and clear modern English (which is archaicism in reverse) on the other.  I have tried instead to re-create an English that would be faithful to the literal meanings of the text, and yet convey Guicciardinian involutions, his Ciceronian periods, his Proustian longueurs — an English that would convey in the twentieth century the flavor of a personalized Latinate Italian style of the sixteenth century.

Enmeshed in this web, one found that one was searching the processes of Guicciardini's thought.  Sometimes one had to cut the interminable sentences, balanced like some incredible trapeze act, clause upon (and within) clause, often a page high.  Sometimes one had to clarify Guicciardini's casual way with antecedents and pronouns, substitute proper names for his strings of ambiguous he's and him's.  (Those scholars who claim that Guicciardini never writes other than crystal-clear merely betray thereby their ignorance of the text.)  Great monuments are not marred by scratches, even Homer nods (or makes us), and Guicciardini's marvelous rhetoric is not without its faults of overelaboration, density, impenetrable thickets.

The true translator must only clear up as much of this Sargasso Sea as is absolutely necessary to make for passage.  But to clarify what was ambiguous in the original is not translation but explication.  The job of the translator is not to make clear that which was not clear, but to render in another tongue (and sometimes another century) the same degree and kind of ambiguity wherever this occurs.

Guicciardini's chief literary fault is his prolixity — the inevitable outcome of his obsessive search for detail, his quest for truth by amassing all particulars — which gave rise to the legend of the Laconian (condemned because he had used three words where two would do) who was offered his freedom if he read entirely through Guicciardini's interminable account of the siege of Pisa, but who pleaded — after attempting a few pages — that he be sent instead to row in the galleys.

I hope the reader will be able to savor in these pages (from which most of the siege of Pisa has been cut) something of Guicciardini's extraordinary qualities as a historian.  Scholars debate whether Francesco is more res than verba, but I should say that if there is a discrepancy between his hard skeletal thinking and the rhetorical artifices in which it is shrouded, this literature is very important.  To transform it into simple modern English is to destroy those obliquities which are the very mark of the man: his intellectual clarity, his astuteness, his diplomatic visor glinting at all times.


1 Francesco Guicciardini, The History of Italy, 1564, translated, edited, with notes and an introduction by Sidney Alexander, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1969; pp. xvii, xxviii-xxx.


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