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  • Lost in Translation

    Posted by David Foster on January 23rd, 2010 (All posts by )

    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:

    This version:

    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.

     

    4 Responses to “Lost in Translation”

    1. Lexington Green Says:

      This comparison of different translations of Beowulf is very striking.

      http://www.nvcc.edu/home/vpoulakis/translation/beowulf1.htm

      The translator gives you more of himself than of the author, all too often.

      Say this for the Straussians, they try to translate things as literally as reasonably possible, to make the original as available as it can be to the reader, via the translation.

      Harvey Mansfield, in the introduction to his translation of the Prince, says “If the reader thinks my translation a bad one, let him try his own; if the thinks it a good one, let him learn Italian.”

      That attitude of humility before an important and valuable book is the right one.

    2. Isegoria Says:

      I wasn’t familiar with Jean Anouilh’s version of Antigone, but I used to speak French passably, so I looked up the passage in question:

      Cela roule tout seul. C’est minutieux, bien huilé depuis toujour.

      I would translate it this way:

      It runs all by itself. It’s fine-tuned, well-oiled since forever.

    3. Isegoria Says:

      (Let me try to clean up the HTML…)

      I wasn’t familiar with Jean Anouilh’s version of Antigone, but I used to speak French passably, so I looked up the passage in question: Cela roule tout seul. C’est minutieux, bien huilé depuis toujour.

      I would translate it this way: It runs all by itself. It’s fine-tuned, well-oiled since forever. Or, less colloquially — and less literally — It runs itself. It’s fine-tuned, always well-oiled.

    4. david foster Says:

      Isegoria…thanks for the translation.