Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

In Other Words

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

In Other Words

Article excerpt

Allen Mandelbaum, acclaimed translator of Dante's Divine Comedy and Virgil's Aeneid, died at the age of 85 on Oct. 27, 2011, while we were finishing the first draft of this column. When we read of his passing we had already decided to analyze the obligations awed by those who render literature from one language to another, including our own. Obituaries praised Mandelbaum's scrupulous and graceful fidelity to the classical masterworks, noting that he felt accountable to the pieces and their authors. Other practitioners of this craft differ on what constitutes the appropriate method.

Some practical requirements of literary translation are almost self-evident: a working knowledge of the source language; an excellent command of the second language; an unabridged dictionary and a good thesaurus in each. Aside from such attempts to ensure competence, however, approaches to literary translation vary and fall into three general categories: 1) staying as true as possible to the meaning, spirit, and form of the root piece: 2) introducing analogous idioms and textual additions as vital elucidation; 3) regarding the original work mainly as inspiration for the translator's own creativity.

The first tack, when done well, results in the pleasure of faithfulness; in fact, Mandelbaum won the 1973 National Book Award for his English translation of Virgil's Aeneid for this very accomplishment. This technique may necessitate footnotes--which some readers find distracting--to explain linguistic, historical and cultural subtleties. The second strategy moves farther from the original and essentially incorporates commentary into the text. No Exit, Stuart Gilbert's 1947 translation of Sartre's 1944 existentialist drama Huis Cloy, adds such explication; sonic critics appreciate it while others feel Sartre's terse and witty French dialogue has been both overwritten and undercut. The third process. which might be described as more self-interested than selfless, satisfies by delivering a type of artistic rebirth, as with Edward FitzGerald's 1859 Rubuivat of Omar Khayyam, which remains popular for readers of English but which drew little from the Persian original of almost 800 years earlier. And translators of lesser ranks may take unwarranted poetic license to stray too far from the original or simply be guilty of carelessness or incompetence.

Translators generally agree that poetry is the most difficult writing to capture in another language. Prose fiction, for example, mostly aims at expository communication (aside from dialogue), even in the genre's most vivid descriptions; one need only read Laurie Thompson's lucid and workmanlike English versions of Henning Mankell's best-selling Kurt Wallander mysteries in Swedish to see that compared to poetry, translating prose is a comparative walk in the park. A poem aims to communicate beyond the limits of language, principally through metaphor The considerable linguistic challenge posed by poetry means that translators often eschew the further complications of form, metrics, rhyme, and other devices. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.