Wednesday 8 October 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Recitative)

Traduttore, traditore

Thus goes this old Italian axiom. Translator, traitor. And sometimes I join the chorus of disapproving voices whenever a book or poem I have read in the original language has failed to deliver the same hypnotic feeling in the lingo translated into.

I have already addressed this issue in previous posts (here, here, and here). But whereas before I focused mainly on my own experience as a former translator and interpreter (although every now and then I still dabble in the odd translation, especially if it's well paid), today I would like to concentrate more on the travails a language specialist faces in his or her daily labour.

So, traduttore, traditore?

I don't think so. Or at least not most of the time. A translator is a living bridge that serves as a link, and on occasions as the only link between cultures and therefore the onus on him or her is far too big to think of their work glibly or to dismiss it off-handedly. There are many examples of bad translation and one of them can be found in one of the links I provided above. Yet, the positive case studies far outweigh the negative ones. The translator's job is not just to transpose words, phrases and idioms from one language to another, but to place them ever so carefully in the right order and context so as to make the reader believe that what they are digesting is the real McCoy. And that's artistry at its best.

A few weeks ago the owner of one of the blogs I frequent, Willow from Life in Willow Manor, uploaded a couple of poems by two Italian poets. One of them you can find it here and the other one here. What captivated me from the first moment was not just the beautiful images each work evoked, but the careful and detailed translation. Remember, they were being transposed from a romance language to a Germanic one. And the translator pulled it off, in my humble opinion.

Those two poems also reminded me of the time when I came across a translation of one of my favourite pieces ever by the Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz a few years ago. This was a woman born at a time when Spain still had a strong colonial presence in America, 17th century; when 'to speak too openly was the equivalent of sinning'. Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana's talent shone from a very early age and she used it to further women's cultural rights from her ecclesiastic position. It was her achievements in this field that have led academics and scholars alike to name her Latin America's first femininist. And when you read the poem I have selected below you will find out why. And all thanks to the wonderful power of translation.

N.B. (I found this translation online but could not find the author. Please, be aware that no permission has been sought to reproduce the text and should the author want me to remove it, I will comply immediately with her/his request. Also, should the author want me to credit him/her with the translation of the poem, I will update the post accordingly. Thanks)

You Men

Silly, you men
so very adept at wrongly faulting womankind,
not seeing you're alone to blame
for faults you plant in woman's mind.

After you've won by urgent plea
the right to tarnish her good name,
you still expect her to behave
you, that coaxed her into shame.

You batter her resistance down
and then, all righteousness, proclaim
that feminine frivolity,
not your persistence, is to blame.

When it comes to bravely posturing,
your witlessness must take the prize:
you're the child that makes a bogeyman,
and then recoils in fear and cries.

Presumptuous beyond belief,
you'd have the woman you pursue
be Thais when you're courting her,
Lucretia once she falls to you.

For plain default of common sense,
could any action be so queer
as oneself to cloud the mirror,
then complain that it's not clear?

Whether you're favored or disdained,
nothing can leave you satisfied.
You whimper if you're turned away,
you sneer if you've been gratified.

With you, no woman can hope to score;
whichever way, she's bound to lose;
spurning you, she's ungrateful
succumbing, you call her lewd.

Your folly is always the same:
you apply a single rule
to the one you accuse of looseness
and the one you brand as cruel.

What happy mean could there be
for the woman who catches your eye,
if, unresponsive, she offends,
yet whose complaisance you decry?

Still, whether it's torment or anger
and both ways you've yourselves to blame
God bless the woman who won't have you,
no matter how loud you complain.

It's your persistent entreaties
that change her from timid to bold.
Having made her thereby naughty,
you would have her good as gold.

So where does the greater guilt lie
for a passion that should not be:
with the man who pleads out of baseness
or the woman debased by his plea?

Or which is more to be blamed
though both will have cause for chagrin:
the woman who sins for money
or the man who pays money to sin?

So why are you men all so stunned
at the thought you're all guilty alike?
Either like them for what you've made them
or make of them what you can like.

If you'd give up pursuing them,
you'd discover, without a doubt,
you've a stronger case to make
against those who seek you out.

I well know what powerful arms
you wield in pressing for evil:
your arrogance is allied
with the world, the flesh, and the devil!

REDONDILLAS - Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Hombres necios que acusáis
a la mujer, sin razón,
sin ver que sois la ocasión
de lo mismo que culpáis;

si con ansia sin igual
solicitáis su desdén,
por qué queréis que obren bien
si las incitáis al mal?

Combatís su resistencia
y luego, con gravedad,
decís que fue liviandad
lo que hizo la diligencia.

Parecer quiere el denuedo
de vuestro parecer loco,
al niño que pone el coco
y luego le tiene miedo.

Queréis, con presunción necia,
hallar a la que buscáis
para prentendida, Thais,
y en la posesión, Lucrecia.

¿Qué humor puede ser más raro
que el que, falto de consejo,
él mismo empaña el espejo
y siente que no esté claro?

Con el favor y el desdén
tenéis condición igual,
quejándoos, si os tratan mal,
burlándoos, si os quieren bien.

Opinión, ninguna gana,
pues la que más se recata,
si no os admite, es ingrata,
y si os admite, es liviana.

Siempre tan necios andáis
que, con desigual nivel,
a una culpáis por cruel
y a otra por fácil culpáis.

¿Pues como ha de estar templada
la que vuestro amor pretende?,
¿si la que es ingrata ofende,
y la que es fácil enfada?

Mas, entre el enfado y la pena
que vuestro gusto refiere,
bien haya la que no os quiere
y quejaos en hora buena.

Dan vuestras amantes penas
a sus libertades alas,
y después de hacerlas malas
las queréis hallar muy buenas.

¿Cuál mayor culpa ha tenido
en una pasión errada:
la que cae de rogada,
o el que ruega de caído?

¿O cuál es de más culpar,
aunque cualquiera mal haga;
la que peca por la paga
o el que paga por pecar?

¿Pues, para qué os espantáis
de la culpa que tenéis?
Queredlas cual las hacéis
o hacedlas cual las buscáis.

Dejad de solicitar,
y después, con más razón,
acusaréis la afición
de la que os fuere a rogar.

Bien con muchas armas fundo
que lidia vuestra arrogancia,
pues en promesa e instancia
juntáis diablo, carne y mundo.

Copyright 2008


  1. aun vigente.

    cuban, estuve buscando el link del radio freeky por aqui pero no lo encontrE.

    saludos, asereg.

  2. That's some good thoughts on translation!

    ...but, it's sad to see that "Redondillas" could just as well have been written today.

  3. I wouldn't want the responsibility of being a translator of poetry, especially. I'm sure they face much criticism, but without them, many of us, including myself, would be void of so much. Even with this last Ungaretti, I found myself thinking I would have used a different wording on the last line. But I agree, the positive far outweighs the negative here.

    Thanks, I am flattered that you mentioned me here! And sorry it took me so long to make my way over to London. ;^)

  4. I think I have a delay on my computer...I checked your blog this am and the Down There post was still on top. Checked again this eve, and this post is up dated 2 days ago. Hmpf.

    I agree with Willow...the translation of poetry must be intensely difficult. To find the emotion/balance of words in another language...such responsibility!

  5. Thanks to all for your kind comments.

    Asere, te mando el link enseguida.

    Sara, you are absolutely right! I have often thought about the subject 'Redondillas' addresses and it's still very relevant today.

    willow, you're spot on. I think the onus on a translator of poetry is bigger than on a person who translates prose. And thank YOU for uploading those little jewels. Fret not about arriving late in London. There was a bus strike in the city today.

    Diva, the delay is not in your computer, it is in mine. I usually write most posts days or weeks in advance, but sometimes blogger plays up and uploads the posts at a different time from the one I scheduled them to appear on my blog. Technological gremlins wreaking havoc here and there.

    Greetings from London.

  6. Interesting poem. Good translation. Sure it is difficult, almost imposible, to keep the original wording and spirit at the same time. Thats why some people say there is no sense in reading translated poems but there is no other choice when you don't understand the original.
    Al Godar

  7. I confess, London, I would never ever attempt to translate poetry.

    And I agree with everything you say and I think the work of a translator is far more difficult than what people think (people who are not familiar with it). There are some things I wouldn't do, for example, translate into English, because I think I need to live more years here in the US to be able to grasp the language in all its subtleties. I can understand it perfectly, talk and write, but using the words a native uses for every occasion without sounding "not native" it's something else. I think you are very good at that, by the way.

    And poetry not even from EN to ES. No way, I know I can't. So "me quito el sombrero" with whoever translated this poem.

  8. Por cierto, los links que pusistes arriba no funcionan. puedes arreglarlos para leerlos? creo que no los he leido todos.


  9. I have a little award for you over at the Manor. Feel free to pick it up any time! :)

  10. Thanks to all for your kind comments. Yes, I also 'tip my hat' to the anonymous translator, not only for doing the donkey work, but also for his/her (methinks it's a 'her') cultural contribution towards the bridging of the Anglo-Saxon and Latin worlds.

    Lisetg, the links work now, thanks for alerting me, you're ever so kind.

    Greetings from London.

  11. Hi, Cuban

    qué tema este interesante...creo que para ser buen traductor literario hacer falta ser también un buen escritor en el idioma propio, captar the spirit...Martí tradujo Ramona al español, del original en inglés de Helen Hunt Jackson, también tradujo a Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Longfellow, Whitman ...con bastante decoro porque era un maestro de la palabra.

    Aquí he encontrado una traducción realizada por Martí de Fable, de Ralph Waldo Emerson, con un breve análisis de las más sobresalientes técnicas de traducción que se observan.

    El título de la traducción que le dio Martí es "Cada uno a su oficio"

    The mountain and the squirrel
    La montaña y la ardilla

    Had a quarrel,
    Tuvieron su querella

    And the former called the latter "Little Prig;"
    "¡Váyase usted allá, presumidilla!"
    Dijo con furia aquélla

    Bun replied:
    A lo que respondió la astuta ardilla

    You are doubtless very big;
    "Sí que es muy grande usted, muy grande y bella;

    But all sorts of things and weather
    Mas de todas las cosas y estaciones

    Must be taken in together
    Hay que poner en junto las porciones,

    To make up a year
    Para formar, señora vocinglera,

    And a sphere,
    Un año y una esfera.

    And I think it a disgrace
    Yo no sé que me ponga nadie tilde

    To occupy my place.
    Por ocupar un puesto tan humilde.

    If I am not so large as you,

    Si no soy yo tamaña
    Como usted, mi señora la montaña,

    You are not so small as I,
    And not half so spry.

    Usted no es tan pequeña
    Como yo, ni a gimnástica me enseña.

    I’ll not deny you make
    Yo negar no imagino

    A very pretty squirrel track;
    Que es para las ardillas buen camino
    Su magnífica falda

    Talents differ; all is well and wisely put;
    Difieren los talentos a las veces:

    If I cannot carry forests on my back,
    Ni yo llevo los bosques a la espalda,

    Neither can you crack a nut."
    Ni puede usted, señora, cascar nueces".

    1969, Emerson, Ralph W., Selected Prose and Poetry, NY, Holt, Rinehart & Winston;

    1995, Martí, José, La edad de oro, Universal)

    Se comenta la traducción por cada frase aquí:

    te gustará leerlo, un abrazo desde Alcalá

  12. Gracias betty, por supuesto que El Maestro fue un buen traductor y esto se debio fundamentalmente a su posicion como literato también. Me gusto mas la version espan-ola que la anglosajona, quizas porque Marti la vistio con mas adornos. Agradecido estoy. Gracias por aparecer.

    Saludos desde Londres.

  13. "The translator's job is not just to transpose words, phrases and idioms from one language to another, but to place them ever so carefully in the right order and context so as to make the reader believe that what they are digesting is the real McCoy. And that's artistry at its best."

    so true. and i agree with what high desert diva had to say about translating poetry.

  14. Thanks for passing by, fly.

    Greetings from London.

  15. phenomenal poem, and a truly captivating post i plan to return to. i agree on the linkage of interpreters. they are absolutely integral to such things as emotion in poems. emotions, accents in language in general. not just word for word translation but the sense of what someone is saying. there are always many meanings to one thing. alternative meanings to often get lost in translation.

  16. Thanks, Mrs Sara. The poem is my favourite one of her extensive oeuvre.

    Greetings from London.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...