M.G. Piety

Posts Tagged ‘Literal translation’

Remembering the Dead

In Translation issues, Uncategorized on March 19, 2018 at 11:52 am

9d1af61698cd834326cd38729144efaa--mourning-jewelry-opalineI’m on sabbatical now. My plan had been to use this time to finish Fear and Dissembling, the book I have been working on for many years. I’d conceived that plan, however, before my father died, and since his death I’ve found it hard to get back to that project. I’ve actually found it hard to do anything constructive. I need to do something, though, to occupy my time until my powers of concentration have returned, something worthwhile, so I have hit upon a project that I have so far found very therapeutic. I am translating the chapter from Works of Love entitled “The Work of Love of Remembering the Dead.” My plan is to find a publisher for this little book so that it can be available as a comfort to people who have recently lost someone they love. It will be a very slim volume because the chapter is only ten pages or so long, so even with the original Danish text on facing pages, a translator’s introduction, a preface, and very wide margins, it should come in well under a hundred pages.

I think it should have very wide margins because wide margins make for a more attractive page. The volume I am envisioning will be small and thin and beautiful, something that the bereaved can carry around with them, like a breast-pocket New Testament; something they can find comfort in, not merely because of the words, but because of the beauty of the object itself. There is something comforting about beauty. People realize this at an instinctive level. That’s the reason, or at least part of the reason, for mourning jewelry. That’s also part of the reason, I believe, why there is so much work on the relation between aesthetics and religion.

I have pasted the first two pages of my translation below. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I favor what is known in translation theory as “semantic translation,” or translation that endeavors to preserve the sense of the original, or “source,” text but which tends to be freer than “literal” or “faithful” translation (see Peter Newmark, A Textbook of Translation). Hence I have taken a few liberties in the text below. The term “graveyard” (i.e., Kirkegaard) does not appear in the original. Where I have “go out to a graveyard,” in the second paragraph, the text actually reads “gaae ud til de Døde” ––i.e., “go out to the dead.” My husband thought, however, when I gave him the text to read, that this might be a little disorienting to the reader, so he suggested that for at least this first reference to “de Døde,” I substitute “graveyard” for “the dead.” That seemed to me a good suggestion, so I have taken it.

I have also added, at my husband’s suggestion, more paragraph divisions than exist in the original. The entire text below is only two long paragraphs in the original, and that is also, I fear, a little disorienting.

I used both the Swensons’ translation from 1946 and the older Hongs’ translation from 1962 as guides. The Swensons’ translation is, unsurprisingly, generally superior to the Hongs’, but even it is not without problems as I will explain in detail in the eventual “Translator’s Introduction.” For now, the only translation issue I want to draw your attention to, in addition to the aforementioned one, is my choice of “reduced circumstances” for Kierkegaard’s “indskrænke sig.” That, I hope you will agree, is a clear improvement on both the Hongs’ “cut back,” and even the Swensons’ “restrict itself.”

But read the text and judge for yourself.

When, for some reason or other, a person fears he will be unable to maintain a general grasp of something complicated and complex, he tries to make, or to acquire, a brief summarizing concept of the whole –– to help him maintain his grasp. Death, in this way, is the shortest summary of life, or life reduced to its shortest form. That’s why it has always been so important to those who reflect on the meaning of life, frequently to test what they have understood about it by means of this short summary. For no thinker has such a command of life as death has, that powerful thinker, who is able not merely to think through every illusion, but to grasp it in its parts and as a whole, to think it to nothingness.

If then, you become confused when you consider the many and various paths life can take, go out to a graveyard, there “where all paths meet” –– then the grasp becomes easy. If your head swims from constantly observing and hearing about life’s diversities, then go out to the dead; there you have control of the differences; there in “Muldets Frænder,” “the fellowship of mold,” there are no differences, only close kinship. That all human beings are blood relations, that is, of one blood, this consanguinity is often denied in life, but that they are of one mold, are related through mortality, cannot be denied.

Yes, go again out among the dead, so that you can, from there, get a view of life. This is what a sharpshooter does. He seeks a place where the enemy can’t hit him but from which he can hit the enemy, and where he can have the requisite calm for taking aim. Don’t choose the evening for your visit because the stillness of the evening, of an evening spent among the dead, is often not far from a certain exaltation of mood which strains and “fills one with restlessness,” creating new mysteries instead of solving the old ones.

No, go there early in the morning when the sun peeps between the branches, alternating light with shadow, when the beauty and friendliness of the sea, when the singing of the birds and the multitudinous life everywhere almost allows you to forget that you are among the dead. It will seem to you as if you have arrived in a foreign country, a place unfamiliar with the distinctions and confusion of life, a childlike place, consisting entirely of small families. Here is attained what is sought vainly in life: equality. Each family has a little plot of land for itself, of approximately equal size. Each has more or less the same “view.” The sun can easily shine equally over them all; no building rises so high that it cuts off the sun’s rays, or the nourishment of the rain, or the wind’s fresh breezes, or the songs of the birds, from a neighbor. No, here everyone is equal.

It happens sometimes in life that a family that has enjoyed wealth and abundance must accept reduced circumstances, but in death, everyone must accept reduced circumstances. There may be minor differences, perhaps six inches in the size of a plot, or that one family has a tree, which another inhabitant does not, on its plot. Why do you think there are these small differences? It is to remind you, by means of a profound jest, of how great the difference was. How loving death is! For it is certainly loving of death to use these small differences to remind us, through edifying humor, of just how great the difference was. Death does not say “there is absolutely no difference”; it says “you see there how great the difference was: six inches.”

If there were not these small differences, neither would death’s grasp be completely reliable. Life returns, in this way, in death, to childishness. Whether one owned a tree, a flower, a rock, made a great deal of difference in childhood. And the difference hinted at what later in life would appear on a very different scale. Now life is over and this little hint of a difference among the dead remains to soften, through humor, the memory of how things were.

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“Crazy Capers”!

In Translation issues, Uncategorized on December 5, 2015 at 4:53 pm

I promised I would do a post comparing my translation of a particularly tricky passage from Kierkegaard’s Repetition with the Hongs’ translation of the same passage. This comparison will give readers a sense for how difficult translation sometimes is.

The passage in question comes from the part of Repetition where Kierkegaard talks about farce. It begins on page 27 of Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs (Oxford, 2009) with the paragraph that starts “They show farces in the Königstädter Theatre,” and ends just before the middle of page 34. This material on farce is really wonderful and ought to be excerpted and included in collections of writings on theater.

The narrator of Repetition is presented as an older man who has become preoccupied with the question of whether repetition is possible in the face of what would appear to be time’s relentless unfolding of the new and the novel. He undertakes a trip to Berlin as an experiment to test whether he can repeat the joys of an earlier visit. One of his chief pleasures is farce, so he had been a frequent visitor to the Königstädter Theatre which was famous for its farces. Pages 27-34 present his extended analysis of what one could call the logic of farce.

The narrator is particularly interested in two famous performers, Phillipe Grobecker and Friederich Beckmann (both genuine actors associated with Königstädter Theatre) whom he refers to as G. and B. respectively. B.’s dancing,” he asserts in a description of one of B’s performances,

is incomparable. He has sung his couplet and now begins to dance. What B. dares here is back-breaking because he does not presumably venture to affect the audience in the strictest sense through his graceful movements. He is well beyond this. The lunatic laughter that is in him cannot be contained in either physical form or spoken lines. Only a Münchhausen-like grabbing oneself by the neck and repeatedly transcending oneself in a crazy, riotous sort of leapfrog captures this spirit. (p. 32.)

That reads easily enough, doesn’t it. You’d never know it took me several days to translate those few brief lines. Compare the passage above to the Hongs’ translation of the same passage:

B.’s dance is incomparable. He has sung his couplet, and now the dance begins. What B. ventures here is neck-breaking, for he presumably does not trust himself to create an effect with his dance routines in the narrow sense. He is now completely beside himself. The sheer lunacy of his laughter can no longer be contained either in forms or in lines; the only way to convey the mood is to take himself by the scruff of the neck, as did Münchhausen and cavort in crazy capers. (p 164.)

The Danish is:

B.’s Dandsen [er] uforlignelig. Han har sunget sit Couplet, nu begynder Dandsen. Hvad B. her vover er halsbrækkende; thi han trøster sig formodentlig ikke til i strængere Forstand at virke ved sine Dandse-Stillinger. Han er nu aldeles ovenud. Latterens Vanvid i ham kan ikke mere rummes hverken i Skikkelse eller Replik, kun det, som Münchhausen, at tage sig selv i Nakken og henjuble sig selv i afsindige Bukkespring, er i Stemningens Medfør.

A literal translation would be

B’s dancing is incomparable. He has sung his couplet, now the dance begins. What B dares here is throat-breaking: because he presumably does not trust himself to, in a stricter sense affect [the audience] with his dance positions. He is now altogether out above. The frenzy of laughter in him can no longer be contained in either a figure or a line [as in lines actors recite], only that which like Münchhausen, to take oneself by the neck and cheer oneself in a deranged bucking is in [keeping with] what the mood brings along.

Pretty weird, eh? I’ll admit that I took a lot of liberties with the translation of this passage simply to come up with something that was readable in English while still conveying the essence of what Kierkegaard appeared to be trying to say. “Throat-breaking” is not idiomatic in English, so I changed it to “back-breaking.” “[O]venud” means “out above,” or “over” as in “the water ran over,” but “He is now altogether out above” isn’t even a sentence in English. It seemed to me that the context suggested Kierkegaard meant something like “beyond,” so I rendered “Han er nu aldeles ovenud”as “He is well beyond this.”

The biggest liberty was translating “henjuble sig selv” as “transcending oneself.” “Henjuble” appears to be a word Kierkegaard made up out of “hen,” which according to Ferrall-Repp can mean ”away,” “off,” “on” “to,” “toward,” or ”against,” and “juble,” which means to “call,” or to “shout.” So it would appear to mean something like “cheering oneself forth.” That doesn’t make much sense in English, though, so I came up with “transcending oneself.” I dropped all mention of “cheering” and replaced the literal “bucking” with “leapfrog.”

Again, I took some liberties with this passage, but if you have read my other posts on translation you will know that I am a proponent of what is known in translation theory as “semantic translation” (see Peter Newmark’s A Textbook of Translation) which is an approach to translation that privileges the sense of a passage over a literal word-for-word rendering of the original. Only in this way, I think, can a reader get a reliable sense of how a text reads in the original language. One of the complaints I hear over and over again about the Hongs’ translations is how wooden they are. They definitely do not read at all like Kierkegaard’s texts do in the original Danish. Kierkegaard was a brilliant prose stylist, one of the greatest in the history of Danish literature. The problem with the Hongs’ translations is that they tend to be too literal and literal translations almost never preserve the feeling of the original.

The Hongs aren’t always literal, however. “The sheer lunacy of his laughter,” for example, is simply wrong. The Danish is “Latterens Vanvid i ham” which translates literally as “The lunacy of laughter in him.” That is, the reference isn’t to his laughter, but to laughter as such, with which he, as a comedian, is intimately familiar. That is no small distinction from the perspective of philosophy.

The Hongs have also simply interpolated “sheer” in this passage. There is nothing that corresponds to it in the original Danish text.

There are other instances in which the Hongs deviate even more bizarrely from the original. I look at some of those instances in future posts.