More thoughts on translation

I think translators need an oath, like doctors have the Hippocratic. Here’s my draft:

I undertake this craft understanding that I cannot succeed. No translation will ever convey more than a faint hint of the original.

I vow that first I will do no harm: I will not intentionally misrepresent my author.

I vow that I will not attempt to make my author more familiar or comfortable to my contemporaries. This is a lemma of the vow above.

I promise to be as literal as I possibly can.

I promise to be as plain-spoken as I possibly can in the language I’m translating into. Subject to the following clause:

I promise to observe the register. When my author is hieratic, I promise not to be demotic.

I vow, on pain of eternal torment, and the worm that dieth not, and the inextinguishable fire, to make no contemporary reference.

Recognizing that a precious old text has been entrusted to my unworthy hands; recognizing that all translation is vandalism; recognizing that the whole project is bullshit; I nevertheless take it on, in fear and trembling.

And let the congregation say Amen.

Translation, a perennial perplex

I’ve been reading through the Coverdale translation of the Psalms, and it’s actually very good. Modernists pooh-pooh it, largely because, being essentially illiterate, they don’t have any grasp of 16th-century English, so it all sounds very quaint and gadzookish to their large fair donkey ears.

One of the things I like about Coverdale is that he doesn’t try to cover-up the difficulties of translation; he plods through, rendering each Hebrew word as best he can. So it feels in some ways like a pony — one of those interlinear translations that schoolboys depend on. And yet at the same time it captures the earnest plain-spoken urgency of the original, and its impetuous rhythm.

No translation is ever satisfactory — this goes without saying — but a translation that familiarizes is a bigger liar than a translation that doesn’t. These are weird old texts and anything that diminishes their weirdness is falsification.

Ethnicity, a bogus concept

Demographic descriptions of the Ukraine seem to employ some rather odd categories.

The category of Ukrainian speakers as distinct from Russian speakers is at least clear in principle — though I bet there’s a lot of dialect smear, as there is with the Romance dialects; travel south from Paris and every town sounds closer to Catalan.

But the thing that really seems problematic is the “ethnic” category: supposedly there are people who are ethnically Russian and others who are ethnically Ukrainian, and there are Ukrainians who speak Russian and Russians who speak Ukrainian…

This all seems like a desperate muddle. If you had a good ear for dialects you could probably tell whose speech was closer to (normative) Russian and whose closer to (normative) Ukrainian, but how on earth, in a place like this, can you tell who’s “ethnically” Russian and who Ukrainian? Facial features? DNA? I doubt it; people have been moving around and mixing it up in this part of the world for a long time. So I can only assume it’s self-reporting.

Which is to say that people have a fancied ethnicity in their heads and continue to reproduce it on the ideological plane. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that “ethnicity” is a useless concept, except in very specific contexts. For example, in the US, there were people who were “ethnically” Irish or Italian, simply because they were the children or grandchildren of people who recently arrived from Ireland or Italy. After a few generations, though, this becomes pretty insignificant; and it always was a purely social category.

On the map above, one thing missing is the Orthodox/Catholic distinction. But of course including that would have required more colors than humans can see.