13 November 2016

Lost in the Translation

When it comes to translations, we monolingual North Americans are stuck with (and often stuck waiting for) translations as we catch up to the rest of the literary world. That makes us highly dependent upon the talent of the translator who, if not exactly anonymous, nonetheless wields enormous power over the final result.
The Moving Finger

Upon occasion, translators become almost cult figures. Take for example The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Wikipedia lists about twenty different attempts at translation of the famed Tentmaker’s tantra. (Knowing Wikipedia, we can assume that means between two and twice twenty-two.) Its best known English translator is Edward FitzGerald.

To me, FitzGerald represents an interpreter rather than a translator. He sought more the spirit of the original work than a literal, word-for-word conveyance, but also shaped the product in his own seductive way. Rather than translate the entire body of poetry, FitzGerald chose to transmogrify and rework only five to ten percent of key sections, gradually revising his lexical rendering over time.

The Rubáiyát became highly valued in the latter 1800s and was often printed in gorgeous, gold-illuminated editions. A jewel-encrusted copy was lost on the Titanic. In these days of Middle Eastern xenophobia, it’s worth noting the enormous influence of The Rubáiyát upon our language and culture. It’s difficult to read more than a few dozen quatrains without stumbling upon a familiar phrase such as “a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou.”

The Rubáiyát is familiar to novelists, especially mystery writers. Many of the golden age authors titled their books or used themes in phrases written by Khayyám. Examples quoting The Rubáiyát include Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novel The Moving Finger, Stephen King’s similarly named short story The Moving Finger, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novel Some Buried Caesar, and Daphne du Maurier titled her memoir Myself when Young. Other genres, especially science fiction, have drawn from the Persian opus.

As Rob, Janice, John, Deborah, and I worked to bring this web site to fruition, we struggled to find a perfect name for our cadre. Despite rumors to the contrary, I didn’t come up with ‘SleuthSayers’, Rob Lopresti did and the rest of us burst out with an enthusiastic “Yeah!” Only afterward did it dawn on us the name contained an embedded tip o’ the hat to Dorothy L, kind of a retronym.
By Divine Hand

A couple of my college courses studied Dante’s Divine Comedy, specifically Inferno. One professor required students to purchase two translations, Sayers and Ciardi.

Dorothy Sayers is best known to mystery readers for her Lord Peter Wimsey novels and short stories. To scholars, she’s also well regarded for her analysis of La Divina Commedia. Her translation of Dante’s work focused on maintaining the original rhyming structure, which resulted in occasional idiosyncratic wording. However, her notes are considered unparalleled in their detail and accuracy.

John Ciardi, a highly respected poet, began his translation shortly after Sayers. His version became renown for capturing the spirit of The Divine Comedy. Students read Sayers for the technical aspects and Ciardi for the art. Recently, Mark Musa and Robin Kirkpatrick have published ‘more modern’ versions.

Thumbed by Twain

I often enjoy mysteries by non-English authors– French, Russian, Scandinavian, and of course the famed Argentinian, Jorge Luis Borges, who’s been mentioned in these pages. Note that Borges wrote a history of The Rubáiyát and Borges' father, Jorge Guillermo Borges, wrote a Spanish translation of the FitzGerald version of The Rubáiyát.

Sometimes translations turn out less than satisfactory. Mark Twain did a literal retranslation of one of his stories in French back into English with hilarious results. Twain made the point that we can’t always be sure how much of the author’s original sound and feel make their way into other languages. In many cases, it’s difficult to connect with a story as if trying to penetrate an unseen barrier.

The Unseen Hand

Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander / Mikael Blomkvist series (AKA the Millennium trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.) impressed me so much, I haven’t yet seen the films– I didn’t want the movies to mess with the image in my mind. I credit the translator for making that bond possible.

Despite my name, I know less Swedish than Latin or even French, possibly even isiZulu. Not a lot of novels are published in Latin these days, so I require not merely an interpreter but a spirit guide.

Reg Keeland seems to be the pseudonym of translator Steven T Murray. According to his bio, Murray works not only in Swedish, but Danish, Norwegian, German, and Spanish. I can’t guess how much of a translator’s influence colors the underlying work, but I suspect less is more, the less visible the better.

I don’t doubt that takes considerable talent. North American fans owe a debt to the unseen hand that made Larsson accessible to English audiences.

Clever fans may notice the title of this article contains a double meaning. A well-done interpretation of a good novel can indeed leave an absorbed reader lost in the translation.


  1. Nice post on translation and translators, Leigh. I have a good friend who has translated a number of crime novels from Scandinavian languages, and talking to him about the process has been interesting: balancing fidelity to specific words and sentences, for example, against the different ways that the languages work in terms of style and meaning, and not just because of specific idioms that don't translate. I'm not doing justice to his comments to me--translating myself, I guess, or at least paraphrasing badly. But suffice it to say I've learned from him how complex the process is, each decision down the line. Very much appreciated your post here!

  2. Another Rubaiyat fan! I thought we were a vanished breed!

    And good to know Sayers' Dante translation is so well thought of.

  3. I've read both the Ciardi and Sayers' translation of the Divine Comedy. And I have 3 English translations of the 11th century Japanese novel, "The Tale of Genji." And I honor, with all my heart, the translator of Marquez' "One Hundred Years of Solitude" which made/kept it so hauntingly beautiful, even in another language. All hail great translation!

  4. Art, I imagine making those choices, especially for a beginner, must be daunting. In Larsson’s series, I found myself wondering about idiom and even swear words. “Crap” in its various forms seems to be a universal expletive (¡Mierda! Merda! Scheiße! Чёрт! Uthuvi!) But when I introduced “merde du vache” to the French, I’m afraid it didn’t catch on.

    Janice, I think we are a vanishing breed. I picked up my enjoyment of The Rubáiyát from my father. Although I recall mention of Rumi, I don’t remember any courses about Khayyám despite his importance to our literature.

    Oops, Eve. I see I have more reading to do!

  5. Leigh, when I use a few words of foreign language in some of my short stories, I always use more than one translation dictionary and then to be sure, I translate the words back into English. The meanings don't always come out the same. It's easy to see how misunderstandings can occur among
    foreign governments and various peoples.

  6. Exactly, RT. I’m told that the UN always use at least two languages in their documents, English because of its broad use, and French because of its precision. Supposedly when disputes arise, the French wording prevails.

  7. It is better to have read a great work of another culture in translation than never to have read it at all.”
    ― HG Doyle

  8. Wonderful post, Leigh. During my many years as an adjunct professor, I often ended up teaching world literature courses--not because I have any particular qualifications in that field (my dissertation was on Wordsworth), but because the tenured professors didn't want to teach it. (That's why I ended up teaching the 8:00 remedial composition classes, too.)I always included the INFERNO and always used Ciardi's translation. Since I don't know any Italian, I have no idea of how faithful to the original it is, but it's definitely lively and moving. I wish I were knowledgeable enough to judge it by other standards as well. I admire Sayers' translations, too, but I didn't think students would respond to it as well.

  9. ABA, that is a cogent point as well as a clever touch of Tennyson.

    Bonnie, I've read that Harvard in its early days considered only works in Latin and Greek to be literature, and therefore they were reluctant to study The Divine Comedy in one of those dreadful modern languages.

  10. Actually, Leigh, The Divine Comedy was originally written in ITALIAN, which drove everyone crazy at the time, because epic poetry was supposed to be written in Latin or Greek. It's always been "vulgar."


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