Friday, April 21, 2006

On Their Own Terms

Can all works be translated? Should they be?

In February, a DVD was filmed here in Helsingborg of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem “Beowulf.” Benjamin Bagby, a modern-day bard who is the star of the film, relies on only the poetry of the old English words, his voice, and the sound of his lyre when performing the poem. He does not perform the work in translation. During his visit to Sweden in February, Mr. Bagby spoke to me about “Beowulf,” including the issue of translation.

If Mr. Bagby recited the poem in modern English, that would mean that what was important was the information, the actual details about what was happening in the story and why. But performing “Beowulf” is not just about transferring information; it’s about the language itself, and what the sound of the words and the meter in the poem mean. “What is the actual music of this that’s locked up in the language?” the bard asks. Dr. John Foley, a professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia and an expert on oral traditions who was an advisor to the film, told me that in the poem, each line has 8-16 syllables, there are always 4 stresses per line, and each of the 2 half lines per line has alliteration. All of that, obviously, would be lost in translation or, if it were to be retained, other aspects of the poem would be lost instead.

“Beowulf,” along with many other texts, is problematic to translate. The translator must consider a variety of different issues even before starting to translate. For example, should the poem be translated as prose or as poetry? If it is translated as a poem, what kind of poem should it be? Should it retain the meter? The rhythm? The sound of the words? What should be prioritized in a translation of “Beowulf” – the style or the sense or the sound? As Mr. Bagby phrases it, “Is the sound the meaning or the meaning the meaning?”

“Beowulf” has been translated into many languages, and sometimes the translations are quite successful, but since the sound of the old English means so much to the story, Mr. Bagby chooses to perform in the original language rather than in a modern English translation. He does use supertitles with short summaries of what he is saying, but it is actually quite possible to understand the poem just from listening to and watching him. “It’s a treat to listen,” he says, “but it demands energy from both the audience and the teller.” Naturally, watching a performance is different from reading a text, and the bard’s tone of voice, movements, and facial expressions help the audience understand what is happening in the story, so readers of “Beowulf” who don’t have the benefit of being able to see a bard perform the tale have no choice (beyond learning Old English, that is) than to enjoy the work in translation instead.

In The Art of Hunger, a collection by Paul Auster that was mentioned in the last post, Mr. Auster discusses a book called Le Schizo et les Langues by Louis Wolfson. I had never heard of this book before, but apparently Mr. Wolfson is a schizophrenic American who wrote his book in French because he was exceedingly uncomfortable with his mother tongue. Mr. Auster says that this book is impossible to translate, in large part because of the language issues dealt with in the text, and, what’s more, that a translation should not even be attempted. “To be fair to him (Mr. Wolfson),” Mr. Auster writes (I translated this quote back to English from Swedish), “we should read him on his own terms.” Only French-speaking readers will be able to read Mr. Wolfson’s book, but the size of the audience should certainly not be the only consideration. The meaning of his book and the integrity of his vision might be hindered if an English translation were made.

Sometimes translators want to believe that most works, even if very challenging, can be translated, or that they should be translated. But there are clearly some works that should be read only on their own terms.

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