Behold This Palm, That Oak, Those Bays

Verse is one of those things that make translating a truly losing proposition, a cause for premature balding. Translators are tearing out their hair constantly as yet another phonetic or semantic effect proves impossible to render in the into language. With prose, the utilitarian prose that we read most of the time, you have more or less something to say and you come up with words that seem to you to get at your thoughts with, you hope, increasing accuracy. With poetry, you may have something to say but you also have something to sing; and indeed, sometimes the singing bit comes first, the music preceding the meaning. Glance through a poet’s notebook and you will find ample proof of the preceding évidence (obvious fact, even head-slappingly obvious fact): possible rhyme schemes drawn up without any complete verse to show for it, or the lone poetic line or two jotted down because clearly they sound good and the poet may eventually place them somewhere else. I know of at least two beautifully fictionalized accounts of the workings of a poet’s mind, chapter three of Joyce’s Ulysses, when we are treated to Stephen Daedalus’s thoughts for quite some time as the young man wanders over the “seaspawn and seawrack” and “into eternity” on Sandymount strand; and various passages passim in Nabokov’s The Gift, when the young protagonist, the poet Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, reflects on, for example, the very mechanics of versifying (and in the process begins composing a poem—he can’t help himself). Not surprisingly, phonetic effects—rhymes and lines of prose that in fact scan as verse—are as thick as those autumnal leaves strewing the rills and gills and kills of Vallombrosa.

In another clear and elegant example, chapter eleven of his wonderful autobiography Speak, Memory, Nabokov recreates years later in English the genesis of his first poem, no doubt in Russian, in the planished (as he terms it elsewhere) prose of his sterling grand style. There he claims that it is initially an image, a raindrop, a “globule of quicksilver” performing a “sudden glissando down the center vein of a leaf,” that gives rise to his first lyric. (Indeed, he stated in one of his “interviews”—he famously wrote out all of his answers—that he thought in images when writing, rather than in any one of the three languages he mastered.) In the passage, however, Nabokov makes lovingly clear that sounds, the simple rhyme scheme of what is shaping up to be a quatrain, are immensely important, if not primordial: “…having shed its bright load the relieved leaf unbent: Tip, leaf, dip, relief…”

Although he does not say it, we are left to imagine that with those two rhymes in place, ip and ief, all he had left to do then was to string the wire of some plausible meaning between the telephone poles of those four words. For example:

A trickle to the tip
Of a tiny mouse-eared leaf
Precipitates a dip
And brings a green relief.

A translator trying to do this ditty over into, say, French, already faces a number of difficulties—and this quaint quatrain isn’t even very complicated! There are the tee sounds of trickle, to, tip and tiny in the first two verses that make for a kind of tinkling rill-like run down to “mouse-eared.” There is the commanding presence of “precipitates,” whose four syllables make it the longest single word in the ditty. That and the internal rhyme of “precip-” and “dip” lend it a special emphasis. Indeed, it has here, dare I say, a certain gravitas (that’s Latin for you), a notion that goes well with an image in which the laws of gravity play such a central role. And why a green relief? One has to put that question to Andrew Marvell in “The Garden” (“Annihilating all that’s made/To a green thought in a green shade”). It is a possible intertextual echo that the translator has to be mindful of.

Now, while the French translator does have précipiter available to work into the translation, “tip” could be rendered as bout (pronounced a bit like boo), the vowel sound not at all like that of the daintier tip, evoking smaller things, tiny drips and tiny leaves. There is also extémité, but that has four syllables and would prove difficult to place. There is pointe, too, but unless one works a variant of the word pointe (appointe, chasse-pointe, etc.), the rhymes are not legion. This is true of feuille as well, the French for “leaf.” The rhymes are few. And how nice that “leaf” is completely embedded in “relief,” an effect that can only be replicated in French by turning to a variant on feuille, as it were, like the verb effeuiller, to pluck the petals of, to take the leaves from. All of these rhymes, by the way, point us in directions that are quite different from the general movement of sense that tip => dip and leaf => relief establish.

Change the first line of our lyric to “Quicksilver at the tip…” and the translator now has to take care to place two colors in the final translation, at the start and at the end. Go all recherché and make the second verse read “…Of a porraceous leaf” (the clear light green of leek leaves, which is indeed the color of some young leaves) and we also smuggle in an echo of the verb to pour, again a bit of flowing liquid in the background that adds to the overall impression. The French translator here is in a bind. Littré, the great nineteenth-century lexicographer, includes porracé in his dictionary (the term comes from histoire naturelle), but adjectives normally follow the nouns they modify in French (une feuille porracée) and the verse would no longer conclude on the very important “leaf,” with the line end suggesting a pause while the sense runs on into the next verse, mimicking in a way the tension of a drop of water now clinging, now falling from the tip of a leaf. And in any case, “to pour” is verser in French. That’s another tuft or two of hair forever uprooted.

Now add a facile punning title to the piece like “Spring Release” and you are going to draw a sigh of defeat from the French translator. The season of spring is printemps (the best and true “prime time,” the one really worth watching); on the other hand, a spring in the sense of a mechanism is a ressort in French, while the closest I can get to “spring release” is ressort de séparation, under “spring release device” in the on-line Grand dictionnaire terminologique out of Quebec (the field is said to be “astronautics,” moreover). Even a simple title like “Drop” has, given the poem’s contents, two major senses crouching for employment within, the idea of a bead of water, of course, and the idea of a fall, of a bead of water dropping. In French, the former is goutte, the latter chute or such verbs as tomber, chuter, or choir. In English, the two meanings exist in a quantum state, so to speak, both available, both applicable to the poem to come. In this case, it is the translator who is forced to “decide” the state of the title, tipping it over into one or the other sense. This notion that the translator sometimes faces a quantum-state meaning is an important one and deserves a posting of its own.

Finally, if we trick out our poem in lace ruff, doublet, trunk hose, and bombast for good measure,

Lo, the drop-heavy tip
Of motley April’s leaf
Bows slowly down to dip,
Then leaps in quick relief.

we give our translator additional reasons to despair. No, it’s not the musty wording here (“lo,” “motley,” and a compound construction like “drop-heavy”). That is a question of what is called register (recherché, formal, informal; obsolete, old, recent; bloviating, bureaucratic, belle-lettrist) and is usually not too difficult to solve. Good translators know the breadth of their into language; they can come up with an equivalent. It’s a matter of imitating a comparable style in one’s own language appropriate to the time and voice of the out-of text. I still recall with pride managing years ago to place the archaic verb form “shew” in the translation of a French text from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. The translator needn’t overdo it, of course (as I recall I strictly avoided in that text such obvious effects as seemingly whimsical Capitalisation and olde-style Spellings but indulged in a few dated expressions and one archaic verb form).

The new difficulties in the above reworked quatrain spring from the shift in vowels to a lower, and heavier as it were, sound, from the higher-pitched vowels of “trickle,” “tip” and “eared” in the first two verses of the original ditty, which tend to underscore tininess or daintiness; to the now deeper vowels, and in one case interior rhyme, of “lo” and “slowly” in particular, “down,” and “drop,” “motley” and “bows.” (In phonological terms, the general shift is from front vowels to back ones.) It’s as if a bit more weight has been added to the verse, stressing now the slow bending of the leaf before it springs back when the clinging drop finally slips from the tip. In a word, the first poem is more drip, the second more drop. A translator, again, has to be attentive to all that, and, as we have seen, the corresponding vocabulary in the into language may not cooperate at all. Finally, at the very start of the verse the “lo” Shakespearean pun, which is actually quite clever (in sonnet 7, “Lo, in the orient when the gracious light/Lifts up his burning head…”), is impossible to replicate in French, I think, although I would love to be proved wrong (bah, quips the French punster, but, no, that does not count…)

Wer den Dichter will verstehen
Muß in Dichters Lande gehen.

(He who the poet would understand
Must betake him to the poet’s land.)

Lovely place really. No visa required, not even a passport. One’s only papers, the heavily rewritten, slightly crumbled ones spilling from various pockets of the rumpled poet of popular imagination. A land of rills and gills and kills. Though beware: no one patch of that earth is like any other.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

An Invitation, but to What Exactly, Monsieur Baudelaire?

I was with a few non-French-speaking friends recently when the following tagline (apparently signature in French, a nice repurposing of the term) for a French specialty cheese drew our attention: Invitation à un voyage sensoriel.

First came an explanation of the allusion hovering behind the phrase, a reference to the French poet Charles Baudelaire’s rightly famous poem “Invitation au voyage,” the title usually being translated as… “Invitation to the Voyage” (I have my doubts about that rendering and return to it below). “Invitation au voyage,” the title at any rate, is immediately recognized by most French-speakers and hence is not unheard-of in advertising copy. Hunting around for English equivalents, I can think of Keats’ “On Chapman’s Homer” (true title: “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”), or Frost’s “Stopping by Woods” (again the complete title is “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”), which are generally familiar to people in the United States, although I suspect that English-language advertisers haven’t been falling over themselves in their rush to capitalize on poem titles.

The more enlightening discussion, however, had to do with sensoriel, which you could English as “sensory.” To take an example close to our cheese noodling here, the concept of sensory marketing is called le marketing sensoriel in French; it could well be that the French marketing or advertising team had that very usage in mind, consciously or unconsciously, when someone came up with the tagline. In any case, a rough mental first-draft translation might be “Invitation to a sensory voyage.” Why not “sensuous voyage” or “sensual voyage,” my non-Francophone friends wanted to know. Ah, there’s the rub. Sensuous or sensual voyage in French would be voyage sensuel, and that, good members of the reading public, is not what the author or authors wrote. Translator’s gotta translate what’s on the computer screen. That suggestion, however, leads to two observations.

First a bad translator, someone with only a cursory grasp, if that, of the out-of language, might well leap to the conclusion that sensoriel is surely the Frenchman’s way of saying “sensuous” or “sensual”—why the French are always slipping the pleasures of the flesh into most absurd of places, the thinking goes. Not so here, or at least not in the way a bad translator might understand it.

Secondly, and more importantly, an experienced translator normally cannot get away with a turn of phrase like “sensory voyage,” even though it would in fact be an accurate translation. The general reader, encountering something like “Invitation to a Sensory Voyage” on the wrapping of a specialty French cheese, would conclude that the phrase was a bad translation, an utterance that no native speaker or writer would ever make under normal speech conditions.

In the end I would settle for “invitation to a voyage of the senses,” which is strictly in French, invitation à un voyage des sens, but never mind, there is no end to compromise in the translation dodge. Translators are constantly weighing just how far they can go in their target language, looking for what they can reasonably get away with.

One final word about that usual English translation of the title of Baudelaire’s well-loved poem. The great American poet and translator Richard Wilbur, for instance, prudently avoids the problem altogether by leaving the French title at the top of his English translation. The difficulty lies in the use of the definite article. Le voyage could be, for example, “the voyage/journey/trip (that I took over the summer—that is, with any dependent clause that justifies the definite article here). But one could also conceivably render le voyage as “travel,” the general concept of moving over a significant distance for business or pleasure, which we express with the articleless noun (what specialists call anarthrous nouns or substantives). This presents a poser.

The content of Baudelaire’s poem doesn’t in fact describe a particular voyage, journey or trip, or the act of traveling, all of which could justify the use of the definite article: Invitation to the journey (we shall make together to this or that place…) “Invitation au voyage” describes an exquisite, ideal place (Amsterdam was the inspiration here) that the poet would like to reach and inhabit with his beloved. Perhaps a more accurate rendering would be “Invitation to Travel” (and notice how we have dropped the articleless noun for a verb, with the preposition “to” of “invitation” and the “to” of the to-infinitive neatly fusing into one word). Whereas “Invitation to a Journey” doubtless sounds better, and “Invitation Far Away” or “Invitation to a Distant Shore” are immediately—and all too slickly—perceived as “poetic” (a temptation the translator must constantly resist), the most accurate translation in the circumstances, the one that most closely approaches the original sense of the French, would probably be “Invitation to Travel.” After you, Monsieur Baudelaire.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

So Much Depends

The single word, then words together and how they sound, and now, finally, how words are allowed to go together to make a coherent utterance, that is, something that a native speaker and reader of a given language would hear or read and accept as coming from a fellow practitioner of the language, regardless of the content. This final category in what can prove impossible to translate, in what we lose when we say something is lost in translation, involves the bugbear grammar.

Bugbear, of course, because for most, grammar is the language stuff, the rules, that we were supposed to pick up at school and either did, and now often make sure others know that fact (you know who you are and frankly you are not helping matters… plus you are often mistaken); or didn’t and now either are playing catch up, by trying to relearn the rules as adults, or don’t care but know, too, that the rules are out there, somewhere, waiting to pounce.

That is not what I mean, however difficult, even impossible, one may deem grammar by the way. I mean something that is permissible in one language and is put to use by writers in that language, but which cannot be done in the target language. A very simple example by way of illustration. In French, as in many languages, all nouns have a gender (“table” is feminine, la table, whereas a pot is masculine, le pot, to take two examples where the words are nearly identical in spelling and sense in the two languages). The third person singular and plural pronouns in French will reflect the gender of the noun they refer to, so la table can simply be referred to as elle while le pot would be il, if you wish to speak of them elsewhere without actually repeating the words in question (Le pot ? Il est sur la table. La table ?! Mon dieu, elle est dans l’autre pièce… “The pot? It’s on the table. The table?! Jeeze, it’s in the other room…”). In English, as any English-speaker knows, for “table” or “pot” all we have is “it,” and indeed the neutral pronoun seems to apply to much that is in our world, or which we might want to talk about. Now if in French there is, say, a complicated sentence with a number of things mentioned but only one of them is masculine while the rest are feminine, or vice versa, and in the following sentence the writer only wants to focus on that one outstanding thing, the new sentence can limit itself to the appropriate pronoun, whether il or elle. The reader will almost instantly know the referent. In English, the translator cannot count on using “it” alone; the term might refer to several things in the earlier sentence. Thus, because of how the languages work, the English translator probably has to repeat the term in question, or find a synonym, to avoid ambiguity.

Along the same lines, a possessive pronoun (my, your, his, her, its, and so on) in French agrees with the gender of what it goes with, sa table but son pot; not so in English, of course. For the third person singular, for instance, we want to know the sex of the person referred to, whether it is his or her table. In a number of instances in the field where I often work, art history and criticism, I have faced the problem of not knowing from the artist’s name whether I need to write, say, “his vigorous, expressive brushstrokes” or “her vigorous, expressive brushstrokes,” since the original French here would offer me no clue. Usually, if there are at least a few sentences about the artist, somewhere there is an indication, a personal pronoun or a past participle that has to agree with the person: à Tokyo, il travaille… or née à Paris, elle travaille… (we have borrowed the latter née into English of course, written née or nee, as a way, now a bit posh I suppose, of indicating a woman’s maiden name). Quite recently in a French text, I had to deal with an artist whose given name is Gedi. My apologies if the limits of my general knowledge are showing. Since the piece involved short notices on about two dozen artists in all, there were exactly four sentences devoted to this artist and the work being shown, with nary a or née to help. Worse, while the second sentence of the notice did indeed use the masculine pronoun il (ah, I’m saved!), a careful reading revealed that it could arguably refer to two things in the preceding sentence, the artist or son travail (his/her “work” or “work of art”—masculine in French). In the pre-internet era, I would have been in a fix.

As it turns out, Gedi is a male name. Yet I was still in a fix, strictly speaking. Was the author referring to the artist or son travail, “his work,” when, in the second sentence, we read, “…il empêche l’accès à l’élément visuel…” (he/it thwarts [our/the viewer’s] access to the visual element)? Interpretation was called for, and in all likelihood, it was indeed the artist who was the subject of the clause. This kind of difficulty—not impossibility—is rare but perhaps not as rare today as one imagines. By way of an experiment, I found on line a gallery that shows Gedi as well as a good number of other contemporary artists, and along with the Rachels and the Richards, I find a Bjarne (I’ll guess male before looking it up) and a Haegue (lovely name, but no clue). And to return to the supposedly familiar arres, Ryan, come to think of it, used to be almost exclusively a male name, but not so since the 1970s.

Other difficulties arise between French and English, for example, because of such a simple thing as word order (I may be stretching the “grammar” category here). For nouns with modifying adjectives in English, the usual word order has the adjective coming before the noun, the yellow rose; in French the usual order is the opposite, la rose jaune. This may seem like a minor point, but in French it often allows the writer to continue to work from the adjective without interrupting the flow of the sentence. In a recent translation I encountered this turn of phrase, “…il extrait des objets emblématiques d’une certaine esthétique de la pacotille…” (…he selects objects that are emblematic of a certain cheap, bogus aesthetic…). The emblématiques following the noun it modifies allows the writer to specify what the objects are emblematic of without the addition of a dependent clause; in English I had to do just that, add a dependent clause (“…that are emblematic of…”). This may not seem like much, but the addition of two words, in cases where brevity is critical, can pose a problem. It can also prove quite a headache to recreate stylistically when working from what we might call classic French art-history prose. The sentences tend to be long and the writers very fond of what linguists call recursion, the capacity of language to add infinitely to an utterance in a nesting Matryoshka doll effect. It puts me in mind of a truly professional gentleman burglar before an especially tall chest of drawers: he neatly pulls out the lowest drawer, deftly goes over the contents, leaves it open and passes on to the drawer above that, and so on, to the very top. The sentences run to Faulknerian or Proustian lengths, often by using the short cut of building from an adjective or past participle which we have just seen above.

In the complete clause I quoted, for example, there are in fact two such constructions, “…il extrait des objets emblématiques d’une certaine esthétique de la pacotille (guirlandes lumineuses, fausses fleurs) assez typique des banlieues pavillonnaires,” which in English yields, “…he selects objects that are emblematic of a certain cheap, bogus aesthetic (strings of lights, fake flowers), one that is fairly typical of residential suburbs with their rows of individual houses.” (The astute bilingual reader had already noticed that extrait, from the verb extraire, lexically “to extract, to pull out of, to quarry,” even “to excerpt,” ought to be “…[from this] he draws objects…,” but an English verb closer to the original doesn’t really fit here.) Emblématiques de is followed closely by assez typique (fairly/rather typical of), modifying une certaine esthétique de la pacotille. In English this ought to involve two that or which clauses following closely on one another, but that would make for an intolerable echo of the breathless drone generated by the well-informed museum docent on a tear. I introduce a break in the sentence (“one that is fairly typical…”) to avoid just that. In a sentence with six, seven, or more such clauses, many more in a wonderfully meandering, beautifully wrought sentence by Proust (often a chest of drawers that soars right through the ceiling into the floor above—and beyond, making it as far as the attic three or floor flights up), it becomes impossible at times to mirror the contours—and the length—of the sentence in the original.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment