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.

5 thoughts on “More thoughts on translation

  1. in one of the few examples of rhyme in classical hebrew, aka “the bible,” an orthodox siddur with a KJV ring to its translation uses “rime” for “hoarfrost”, where the phrase is “he scatters dust like hoarfrost”. dust and hoarfrost rhyme in Hebrew. rather ingenious.

    since something like Hesiod’s “works and days” as well as the psalms would have been known to most people via recitation (cf “quran”, reading, public recitation), not via reading, there is the aural component to the aesthetics of translation as well. how shall we translate…GM Hopkins into another language? already the content is being lost in the form. or the book of Job. vast caves of darkness, with silver and gold hidden therein (cf ch 28). but if we think about translating Shakespeare or the like, maybe we think about it much more as a performance, not so much simply as a reading.

    anyway, just for fun, since cicadas are a part of the plagues for some, here’s a fun article on cicadas, to which are compared the two elders calling for peace, as mentioned in the discussion below on “the Iliad.” i’m curious how the cicada sound is represented in the poetry, incl in the Phaedrus. What did Vergil, e.g., make of Homer?

  2. lots of fun translation problems in Judges, like in the song of the bee and the thunder, ch 5:

    10 “Tell of it, you who ride on tawny asses,
    you who sit on rich carpets
    and you who walk by the way.
    11 To the sound of *musicians* at the watering places,
    there they repeat the triumphs of the Lord,
    the triumphs of his peasantry in Israel.

    10 Speak, ye that ride on white asses,
    ye that sit in judgment, and walk by the way.
    11 They that are delivered from the noise of *archers* in the places of drawing water,
    there shall they rehearse the righteous acts of the Lord,
    even the righteous acts toward the inhabitants of his villages in Israel…

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