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Squib #1: On Reading Translations and Excerpts


Some Reasons Why My Friend Bill of Six Languages Hates Fiction and Poetry

By S. Rhoads

How much of our knowledge and opinions of history or foreign literature is formed based on English translations and excerpts of authors who wrote in other languages? All of it, if you are a unilingual slob like me.

Know that the translator and the excerpter has you at his mercy. His view is what you are reading. From the tone, to the mood, to innuendo, meter and rhyme you are dependent on his interpretation. The basic facts as well are sometimes subject to his whims, agenda, desire for tenure, hope of being on talk-shows, etc. Hopefully, the version you read true to the text. This is what a good translator does: to convey, faithfully, the original author’s whims and desires and hopes.

The English reader is also dependent on the translator’s choice of versions of the text to translate. So much is compiled, corrected and edited from lost, inaccurate copies and incomplete sources at times, that the final version is only a best guess of what the original author said. Again, this final text is sometimes the translator’s view of what he thinks the original text should have been, (unless he is scrupulous and includes, somewhere in his presentation, all the variant texts, words and lines on the subject that he can find.)

The very, very good side is this: you can read what these translators thought was important to translate. Everything you know about events before English was around, or became the language as you speak it today, is due strictly to the work of translators. Be grateful they shared. They didn’t have to.

The bad side is this: translating is difficult, to put it mildly. If you like a translation or not, that may have little to do with the original author. How many people hate the Iliad in translation? and is that a fair conclusion? Not hardly. This story was so wonderful, in Greek, that it has been saved for three thousand plus years. Perfectly understandable, too. The monks had to have some 'light' reading hidden away somewhere, to balance all those patristic texts of the church fathers (Sorry, Roger!). It has probably been translated three thousand times, probably an underestimate. Nobody ever thinks the translation is as good as the original. Everybody hopes to do better. He will be translated another three thousand times, I have no doubt.

What is worse, translations (and excerpts) can be an EXCUSE. Some translators say they are translating but in reality are rewriting the work completely. Excerpts, too, can end up being propaganda to support any variety of views, good, bad, fair or unfair.

So, no matter what, question the conclusions you come to after reading literature in translation. Whether you love it or hate it, who exactly is responsible?

The moral is: before you decide that you hate Homer, or love Bede, or think, overall, that Cicero is a disgusting, servile, panderer to the mighty (Sorry, Father Healey!), read another version, and another, and another. Eventually, in combination, you might get some idea of what the author was really like in the original, and what he really meant to say.

Sometimes the translator has a work that is basically his own, often beautiful, interpretation. The original was just an outline, and he took it and created what is, in reality, a whole new work. The original served as inspiration. Pope’s translation of Homer is an example. Then it is a new poem in essence, a take-off-- or some critics say it is mere plagiarism of the original. Some will come right out and tell you that they have modified it to suit the “English” ear. Others don’t, and that is less honest. You will not know this, if you read only one version.

One hint though: if any translation of an ancient Greek text rhymes, it wasn’t written that way by an ancient Greek. (I didn’t know that until I had thrown down Homer in English in High School and never looked at it again until two years ago. Then I fell in love with the poet because I started looking beyond the translation and trusted that Homer had to have done a much better job to still be so famous.) Rhyming verse is your first big hint when you read the ancient Greeks that proves that you are entering the realm of a very free translation.

With luck, what you are now reading in English, hopefully, will give you the sense at least of the real author's meaning and quality. But to judge if that is true, you should read another version. It often appears to be almost totally different! Somewhere underneath is the original author, how far is hard to say. You won’t know who that the author really is by reading one version. My own rule is to compare a couple of translations or so, especially if I hate it in English. If I hate it, then I mistrust me this translator. I’ll read another version, then if I still can’t stand it, then I might give up, the history of bad writing goes back many thousands of years. All writing is not all good, in any language.

So where is the proof you cry? The pudding?

Jeepers, I was getting to it! OK?

Here is an example of two translators’ interpretations of one Italian poem. The poet is Sacchetti a fourteenth century Italian. D. G. Rosetti* says ‘he is the earliest Italian poet with whom playfulness is the chief characteristic’, a good reason to read him right there. To have a sense of fun in Italy in the 1300’s was a major feat. You have to admire this man right off and want to know his secret to happiness and how he managed to keep his sense of humor long enough to write a "playful" poem.

What follows are both English translations AND the Authors’ transcription of the original Italian poem they used. After reading the translations, and briefly casting your eye over the unfamiliar Italian, some conclusions are obvious to anybody. Both poems are similar but have obvious differences in the English versions. Your final impression is not the same.

Then lo! you find it is the same, too, with the Italian texts that were the basis for the translation. These two versions are not the same at all! Even us English-only speakers can tell, if we compare them. It is possible that their sources of the poem were different, they don’t say where they found the original poem. One either must trust that these are the exact sources they used -- which means someone, before they got to them, has been tinkering. Or the translator’s made their own adjustments, and this is what they felt was the most authentic version of the poem. Either way there is a good lesson there about the transmission of old texts to us non-scholars and/or non-Italian speakers today.

By the way, it is also worth glancing at the original Italian as well, because, this case is one where you can see pretty easily the style of the poet, and learn some idiomatic phrases. Even if you are a unilingual slob you can see that the style is basically similar in both Italian versions, and spot a few familiar words as well.

The final puzzle: since the impression left after reading both translations is quite different, which one did Sachetti himself mean to convey?

That is up to you to decide.

If you want, print this page and you will be able to compare the poems side by side.

Ladies first. Lorna de Lucchi** has:


Caccia by Franco Sacchetti

ONCE, deep in thought, I, passing ’neath some trees,
Beheld a troop of maidens gathering flowers;
One cried: “Ah look”; another: “Nay, see these,”
“What hast thou there?” “I doubt not lily-showers.”
“And here, I trow, are violets blue.”
A rose — woe’s me, a thorn hath pricked my finger through!”
“Alas, alas!”
What’s that in the grass?”
“A cricket.” “Make haste,
Here are salads to taste.”
“No, no!”
“But it’s so.”
96 “Thee and thee I will show
Where the mushrooms do grow:
And this is the way
For the wild-thyme spray.”
“Come homewards, it darkeneth and soon it will rain,
It lightens, it thunders, hark! vespers again!”
“But it’s early still!”
“The nightingale, I’ll be bound.”
“I hear a louder sound.”
“ ’Tis strange to me.”
“O what can it be?”
“Where, where?”
“Out there?”
“In the bushes.” Tic, toc.
Ever nearer the knock,
Till a snake crept out:
Then they turned about
In a wild affright:
“Ah me, sorry plight!”
“Alack aday!”
“Flee away!”
Then the rain poured down forlorn,
One slipped, another fell,
One trod upon a thorn,
Bossoms were spilled pell-mell,
Some cast aside, some left to lie,
Most fortunate who could swiftest fly:
And while I watched what they would do
The rain-shower drenched me through and through.

De’ Lucchi’s version of the Italian is here:

PASSANDO con pensier per un boschetto,
donne per quello givan fior cogliendo,
“to’ quel, to’ quel dicendo,
“eccolo, eccolo,”
che è, che è?”
è fior alliso,”
va là per le viole.”
Omè che ’l prun mi pugne!”
quell’ altra me’ v’ aggiugne.”
Uh, uh, o che è quel che salta?”
È un grillo.”
Venite qua, correte:
raponzoli cogliete.”
96 “E’ non son essi.”
“Si, sono.”
o colei,
vei’ qua, vie’ qua per fungi:
costà, costà, pe’ l sermollino.”
“Non starem troppo, chè ’l tempo si turba,
e balena
e tuona,
e vespero già suona.”
“Non è egli ancor nona.”
“Odi, odi:
è l’ usignuol che canta.”
“Piu bel v’ è.”
piu bel v’ è.”
I’ sento, e non so che.”
In quel cespuglio.”
Tò, picchia, ritocca:
mentre ’l busso cresce,
et una serpe n’ esce.
“O me trista! “O me lassa!”
fuggendo tutte di paura piene,
una gran piova viene.
Qual sdrucciola, qual cade,
qual si punge lo pede:
a terra van ghirlande:
tal ciò c’ ha colto lascia, e tal percuote:
tiensi beata chi più correr puote.
Si fiso stetti il dì che lor mirai.
ch’ io non m’ avvidi, e tutto mi bagnai.

Now for D. G. Rosetti’s translation of the same:


by Franco Sacchetti

As I walked thinking through a little grove,
Some girls that gathered flowers came passing me,
Saying, “Look here! look there!” delightedly.
“O here it is!” “what’s that?” “A lily, love.”
“And there are violets!”
“Further for roses! Oh the lovely pets —
The darling beauties! Oh the nasty thorn!
Look here, my hand’s all torn!”
“What’s that that jumps?” “Oh don’t! it’s a grasshopper!”
“Come run, come run,
Here’s bluebells!” “Oh what fun!”
“Not that way! Stop her!”
“Yes, this way!” “Pluck them, then!”
“Oh, I’ve found mushrooms! Oh look here!” “Oh, I’m
Quite sure that further on we’ll get wild thyme.”

“Oh we shall stay too long, it’s going to rain!
There’s lightning, oh there’s thunder!”
“Oh shan’t we hear the vesper-bell, I wonder?”
“Why, it’s not nones, you silly little thing;
And don’t you hear the nightingales that sing
Fly away O die away?
“O I hear something! Hush!”
“Why, where? what is it then?” “Ah! in that bush!”
So every girl here knocks it, shakes and shocks it,
Till with the stir they make
Out skurries a great snake.
324 “O Lord! O me! Alack! Ah me! alack!”
They scream, and then all run and scream again,
And then in heavy drops down comes the rain.

Each running at the other in a fright,
Each trying to get before the other, and crying,
And flying, stumbling, tumbling, wrong or right;
One sets her knee
There where her foot should be;
One has her hands and dress
All smothered up with mud in a fine mess;
And one gets trampled on by two or three.
What’s gathered is let fall
About the wood and not picked up at all.
The wreaths of flowers are scattered on the ground,
And still as screaming hustling without rest
They run this way and that and round and round,
She thinks herself in luck who runs the best.

I stood quite still to have a perfect view,
And never noticed till I got wet through.

Now, here is how Rosetti lists the Italian text he used:


PASSANDO con pensier per un boschetto,
Donne per quello givan fior cogliendo
Con diletto: “to’ quel, to’ quel dicendo.
“Eccol, eccol! Che è?” È fior aliso,”
Va là per le viole.”
Più colà per le rose. Cò cò?
Vaghe! amorose! Omè che ’l prun mi pugne!”
Quell’ altra mi v’ aggiugne.”
Ve’, ve’!, o che è quel che salta?” Un grillo! un grillo!
Venite qua, correte:
Raponzoli cogliete: Eh! non son essi!”
Si, son. — Colei, o colei?
Vien qua, vien qua per fungi: un micolino
Più colà per sermollino.

“Noi starem troppo, chè ’l tempo si turba:
Ve’, che balena e tuona,
E m’indovino che vespero suona.
Paurosa! mon è egli ancor nona.”
E vedi e odi l’ usignuol che canta.”
“Piu bel ve’, e piu bel ve’.
I’ sento, e non so che.”
O dove è? dove è? In quel cespuglio.
Ognun qui picchia,
Tocca e ritocca.
E mentre il bussar cresce,
Una gran serpe n’ esce. 325
“Oimè trista! oimè! lassa oimè! oimè!
Gridan, fuggendo tutte di paura piene,
Ed ecco che una folta pioggia viene.

Timidetta già l’ una all’ altra urtando,
E stridendo s’ avanza:
Va fuggendo e gridando.
Qual sdrucciola, qual cade,
Qual si punge lo piede.
Per caso l’ una appone lo ginocchio
Là ve’ reggea lo frettoloso piede:
E la mano e la vesta,
Questa di fango lorda ne diviene;
Quella è di più calpesta.
Tal, ciò che had coltao lassa, el percote,
Nè più si prezza, e pel bosco si spande.
De’ fiori a terra vanno le ghirlande:
Nè si sdimette per unquanco il corso;
In coatal fuga ripetute rote,
Tiensi beata chi più correr puote.

Sì fiso stetti sin ch’io le mirai,
Ch’ i’non m’ avvidi, e tutto mi bagnai.

As you can see, even if you don’t speak Italian, the texts the two translators use are not the same. Why? I don’t know. Which one did Sacchetti write? Did he write two versions? Or through time has everybody ‘translated’ him until we can no longer find his original words?

So what do we do? Enjoy, . . . or not, all the versions. The translators are poets themselves, obviously, good or bad. (Me? I like De’ Lucchi’s better, in case you were wondering.)

Only by learning the language can you decide which more accurately represents the original author. Since there is good literature in every language, this is not realistic, and other countries write great stuff that we can read and enjoy and learn from.

What do I do? If I like it in English, I like the translator as well as the author. It took both of them.

If I don’t like the translation, I always use my imagination and give the author the benefit of the doubt. After all his work has lasted a long, long time and people were passionate enough about his work to translate him and try to convey the beauty or importance of that work. Knowing that, I can be grateful they gave me the gist of it, fairly well, and I can modify it in my mind, change the thee’s and thou’s and hath's, etc. and hear what they mean to convey in my language.

Sometimes, I get frustrated with an unhappy, impossible, or dated-but-only extant translation of something, and then I tell myself I am going to study all the languages! and do all the translations over myself some day. Till that day comes (talk about unrealistic goals), I am thankful, so very thankful, that I can read these works at all. Bad, good, or indifferent translation, at least it is there to read, because of the work of a translators, all being great folk just for this reason. I am especially glad when I have a few versions to compare it with.

Remember as well, what you don’t see: all the stuff that the Translator decided was not fit to share. Often, that is all the good stuff. At least to me. The Monk of St. Gall who translated an "unreliable" but interesting history of Charlemagne has a lot of great gossip, the beginnings of future legends, evidence of older legends, and all the other stories that makes history fun, especially when we understand that it is legend. Unfortunately, the English translation leaves out SIX CHAPTERS because the guy took a detour and told a few stories that weren’t related to Charlemagne. That is what I want to read! I am so peeved.

Victorian translators were crippled by their moral standards. If a joke referred to sex, or bodily functions, you would never read about it in English. No matter how funny it was. The Edwardians started to fix that, but they still had a tough time with the concept. When they did translate ‘bawdy’ material, it’s like asking your great grandmother about, and then hear her trying to explain, impotence or contraception to you. It is sort of the same thing when we try to look at “minor works” of the old writers, when somebody did decide to share these morsels with the rest of us.

Once again, in these cases, you have to help the translator out and re-translate the joke into something that makes you laugh. Because somebody else sure did. That reader thought that joke was a keeper and didn’t toss it into the nearest bonfire of the censors; or to conserve parchment, papyrus, or palimpset ( they could have erased and wrote over it with something they liked better.) So use your imagination once more.

You have the chance, with some Renaissance Italian jokes, two translations of some of Poggio’s gests, or facetia, are here on Elfinspell, some translated by Edward Storer and some by an anonymous guy around the same time. Soon I will put the original Latin up, then we can get a better idea of the 'real' Poggio’s words. That might be a good reason to begin to learn Latin for me. Jokes are a far better way to learn a language than starting off with some of the other Latin texts used to teach it.

Of course, all this also applies to translations of the historical and religious texts of the past. Read another version of anything in translation!!!

What a long-winded way to explain why there are English translations on Elfinspell of authors already on the web but by different translators! The more translations of a text, the better. Or how will you make an informed opinion or a more accurate judgment?


* Italian Poets Chiefly Before Dante by D. G. Rosetti; The Shakespeare Head Press; Stratford-on-Avon; 1908; pp. 322-325.

** An Anthology of Italian Poems by Lorna de Lucchi; London: William Heinemann; 1922 (First printed in US in 1918 or so); pp. 94-97.

Copyright © 2004 by S. Rhoads


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