30 July 2011

The Inferno of Translation

I keep on my hard drive a translation of Dante's Inferno by S. Fowler Wright, a successful novelist of the early twentieth century. One reason I keep it is that his Introduction to the Inferno contains many perceptive comments about how to translate poetry. I'd like to put some of them here. The reasons he gives that the Inferno is not well-known to English readers apply equally to Beowulf.
First, there is the general and almost insuperable difficulty of translating poetry of any kind from or into any language whatever. 
Next, there is a special obstacle arising from the form in which the Divine Comedy was composed, which cannot be successfully imitated in English. [Phrases in Old English seem to begin with stresses much more often than their equivalents in modern English. This changes the rhythm when Beowulf is translated.]
Third, there is the fact that a student of Dante is confronted by such a massed accretion of commentary that his approach to the poem is almost forced toward the pedantic rather than the poetic. He is inclined to regard the obscure or halting line, the obvious padding, the enforced rhyme, which must occur at times in the greatest epic, as too sacred to be altered, and too important to be ignored. Here I am tempted to say that my first qualification for this undertaking is that, while I have some knowledge of European poetry, and some practice in its composition, I make no claim whatever to Italian scholarship! [Beowulf is often translated by two people, a scholar and a poet. A.J. Wyatt provided guidance to William Morris and Professor Alfred David with Seamus Heaney. The first keeps the second from straying too far. The alternative is that a scholar is also a gifted poet, which is more than we can ask for.]
The first of these - the inherent difficulty of all translation of poetry - may be briefly stated in this way. A great poem must have beauty both of form and of content. Soul and body must both be admirable. Having his subject under control, the poet represents it in such a way as is most suitable to the rhythms and verbal beauties of which his language is capable. If a bilingual poet were to attempt composition of the same epic in two languages, without the feeling of obligation to himself which a translator must feel, I have no doubt that he would deviate very widely in details of expression, and often in the actual thoughts expressed, as he would be led by different felicities of expression or the suggestion or absence of a rhyming word. 
A translator, feeling an inferior liberty, faces alternate pitfalls. He may hammer out a verbal repetition of the original, phrase by phrase, which cannot result otherwise than in a doggerel imitation of poetry. He will labour diligently, and, in the end, he will not merely have failed to translate a poem: he will have produced a malignant libel. Alternately, he may be tempted to follow the lure of his own constructions, or to omit or insert as the exigencies of the verse may lead him. 
How can the narrow path be held successfully between these pitfalls - or, if one must be taken, on which side should the descent be made? (...)
Having selected a form in which I hoped to be able to move with sufficient freedom, and which, in English, is best adapted to the spirit of the poem, I had to face the larger questions of formal and spiritual fidelity. In regard to these I recognize two primary obligations: first, I regard it as inexcusable to introduce any word or phrase which discolours the meaning of the original, or deviates from it; second, I am bound to present the substance of the poem with such verbal beauty as I am capable of constructing, even though an adjective be omitted or added in the process, or some non-essential order of narration be changed to obtain it. This last freedom of rendering is not merely a translator's right, it is a clear duty, because the directness and vigour of the original cannot be reproduced by any verbal literality, and it is of the first importance that he should inspire the poem with a new vitality.
I like Fowler Wright's statement that a translator has two goals: "A great poem must have beauty both of form and of content. Soul and body must both be admirable." However, I see a translator as serving three masters, not two: the original meaning, the chosen form, and clear expressive language. One or another is frequently slighted in a single line, but I try to keep each of the three fairly happy.

The other reason I hold onto a copy of Fowler Wright's Inferno is because the translation itself is terrible, almost unreadable. It reminds me that, with full awareness of the problems and the best will in the world, the result may fall far below one's hopes. As an example, here are the first lines of Fowler Wright's translation:
ONE night, when half my life behind me lay,
I wandered from the straight lost path afar.
Through the great dark was no releasing way;
Above that dark was no relieving star.
If yet that terrored night I think or say,
As death's cold hands its fears resuming are.
Now compare those lines to Longfellow's translation.
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
Notice that even in the second line, the "dark forest" (something very important) is missing from Fowler Wright's translation, as well as a description of it. Also notice how hard it is to read an inverted clause like "As death's cold hands its fears resuming are." In contrast, Longfellow is not only easier to read, but much more faithful to the original meaning.

Beowulf may suffer at my hands, as the Inferno suffered at Fowler Wright's, but not (in either case) through carelessness nor lack of effort.

The reason that I am making a post about the difficulties of translation, instead of giving you my translation, is that I am bogged down in an especially difficult passage of Beowulf right now. I've been struggling with it for a few weeks. I've managed to win free of other difficult passages in the past, which is all that sustains me in this one. (For those who are wondering...the passage describes how Beowulf is welcomed home by the Geats). Wish me luck.

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