Sunday, June 03, 2007

Translator days

During the 1960s I mostly earned my living as a translator of printed materials--scholarly articles and books. I had an ideal apprenticeship, because for the first five years I was a translation editor for McGraw-Hill. I would send out the foreign texts, and correct them, line by line, when they came back. In this way I observed a plethora of typical mistakes--syntactical errors, overliteralness, unidiomatic English, “false friends,” and simple carelessness.

Experience showed that it was generally unwise to employ translators whose native language was not English. Lacking the requisite Sprachgefuehl, they would write sentences that were technically correct, but not something that one would actually use. Recently I saw a book, translated from the French, that bore the title “Argenteuil during the Monet Time.” One knows what it means, but the effect is grating and barbarous. Better to say “Argenteuil during Monet’s Time,” or maybe even “during the age of Monet.”

In the case of nonfiction it is desirable to have a good knowledge of the subject matter. Someone like myself, who doesn’t even drive a car, would have no business translating a book on automobile maintenance.

During the second half of the decade I went free-lance, translating a number of books from French, German, and Italian, while I pursued work on my dissertation. It was if I had just jumped in and swum. Or rather I had been swimming for some time, and kept it up.

Only towards the end of my practice of this useful trade did I feel the need to look into the theory of translation. I still have a shelf of books of this type, which have been gathering dust for many, many years. Those that can do.

In these delvings I can only recall four principles that I found useful. The first stems from Eugene A. Nida, a translator of the Bible into obscure tribal languages. Nida distinguished between the Formal Equivalent (FE) and the Dynamic Equivalent (DE). Suppose, for example that one has to translate into a Central African tongue the biblical trope of making one’s sins white as snow. Of course, one can simply render it literally (FE). But since most of the target readers in Africa will never have seen snow, it may be best to attempt a DE: “white as egret feathers.” Unfortunately, this dynamic principle has opened the door to some politically incorrect emendations of contemporary translations of the Bible.

The second principle came from my understanding of Noam Chomsky’s sentence diagrams in terms of surface structure and deep structure. With the often troublesome matter of German syntax, I found it useful first to cast the foreign sentence down into the abyss of deep structure, and then to drag it back up into an English surface structure.

The third principle was the commonplace distinction between denotation and connotation. I picked this up from Ogden and Richards’ book “The Meaning of Meaning” of 1923, though it is usually referenced to John Stuart Mill. Denotation is the literal meaning of a word, while connotation refers to the various overtones it evokes. In contemporary English, for example, “escort,” “sex worker,” and “whore” have the same denotation, someone who regularly consents to perform sex acts in exchange for money. However, the connotative auras of the three expressions are significantly different. This distinction was to loom large for me in my work on the language of homosexuality, first published in my book “Homolexis” twenty years ago.

The final useful bit was the concept of the Sprachfeld, or semantic field. For example, the semantic field of the Italian word stanza encompasses two English expressions, “room” and “unit of poetry.” Only the latter may be designated by our word stanza. We divide the Italian semantic field into two; or, if you will, the Italians merge our two fields.

One can see the bearing of this last principle on the discussion in the previous posting of the Greek words for love. According to C.S. Lewis we cover the matter in a single semantic field. In his view the ancient Greeks apportioned it into four: eros, agape, philia, and storge. Imagine first a large square; and then four smaller fields that fit into the same space:

L O eros agape

V E philia storge

None of this, I think, addresses the central feature of the phenomenon I alluded to in the Greek posting. In our language and in many others it is common to endow borrowings from a prestige language with a special halo. Thus Japanese boasts thousands of borrowings from Chinese, which have a noble cast merely because of their distinguished origin. They may also seem to have a precision that is lacking in humble native terms. For the Japanese, Chinese is their Greek and Latin.

During the nineteenth century and after many Americans went to Germany for graduate study. Returning students and their friends would sprinkle their conversation with remembered Teutonisms. One could speak airily of Weltschmerz and Schadenfreude. When analyzed, though, the effect is less impressive. Weltschmerz is “cosmic sorrow”--but can sorrow really be cosmic? And Schadenfreude is perfectly captured by the English word “gloating.” Curiously, many who cling to the fancy German term Schadenfreude refuse to concede this point.

So is it true, more enduringly, with Greek terms taken into English. The classical tradition has taken many knocks, but Athena stubbornly refused to relinquish her throne for the African counterpart championed by Professor Bernal. Resorting to a Greek term is still nifty. The practice may also be pretentious and pseudo-precise. That was the point I sought to illustrate in my previous posting.



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