A comment thread at Celia Farber’s blog reminded me of a passage I thought I remembered from Jean Anouilh’s version of Antigone:
The machine has been wound up since the beginning of time, and it runs without friction
(The “machine” Anouilh is talking about here is tragedy, in the Greek sense)
Googling, I came up with two very different translations from the original French:
You just sit back and watch it go. It’s a well-oiled machine in perfect order. It’s been up and running since the beginning of time.
…is pretty different from what I remembered, while this version:
You don’t need to lift a finger. The machine is in perfect order; it has been oiled ever since time began, and it runs without friction.
…is pretty close though not identical.
I don’t read French and I’m not sure which version is the more accurate translation…I think I prefer the second, in terms of spoken English…but they are remarkably different, aren’t they?
In the introduction to his translation of Goethe’s Faust, Walter Kaufman makes some interesting remarks about the problems of translation. As an example, he takes the story of Joesph in the Bible. In the King James version, the father’s reaction after Joseph’s coat is found covered in blood is rendered as:
And he knew it, and said, It is my son’s coat; an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt rent in pieces.
…whereas according to Kaufman, a more accurate translation from the original Hebrew would be more like this:
He knew it and said: my son’s coat! an evil beast devoured him! torn–torn is Joseph!
Clearly, the emotional temperature of the two translations is quite different.
About the King James version as a whole, Kaufman says that
The King James Bible is not only an imposing work of English lierature but also, on the whole, amazingly accurate. Even so, its style, mood, and atmosphere are often antithetical to the original. The austerity and laconic simplicity of the Hebrew gives way to a richly ornamental medium, and agonized outcries are refurbished “to be read in churches.”
Related: Some of Heine’s poems, in translation.