NABOKV-L post 0015567, Wed, 10 Oct 2007 18:13:46 +0100

Re: THOUGHTS: Translation and a non-sighting
On 1/10/07 01:38, "Nabokv-L" <nabokv-l@UTK.EDU> wrote:

> Subject:
> From:
> "jansymello" <> <>
> Date:
> Sat, 29 Sep 2007 18:49:35 -0300
> To:
> <> <>
> Between the years 1967-68 writer Jorge Luis Borges delivered six lectures at
> Harvard University ( published as "This Craft of Verse", Harvard University
> Press,2000).
> (btw: I only have the text in Spanish, so I cannot render it back with
> precision into English when I quote fom it.) In his fourth lecture, Borges
> dwells on the question of translation and quotes Matthew Arnold's words:
> "literal translations engender estrangement and ostentation ( estranhamento e
> bizarria)". Borges illustrates how a literal translation may also create
> "beauty and singularity" ( singularidade e beleza). In his discussion he
> mentioned Sir Richard Burton's translation of Quitab alif laila wa laila,
> following the Persian original to obtain: "Book of the thousand nights and a
> night", instead of a more common "Book of the thousand and one nights",
> thereby creating an unintended shock of surprise to English ears. Borges
> praises FitzGerald's translation of Khayyám, for example, by his having added
> the word "left" to obtain a delicate and forebodingly "sinister" effect:
> "Dreaming when dawn's left hand was in the sky/ I heard a voice within the
> tavern cry..."
> In these lectures there was no mention of VN's 1964 published translation of
> "Eugene Onegin", nor to the ensuing debates about a translator's role and
> adherence to the literal rendering, probably because Borges's delivery was
> not aimed at a profound analysis of translation, nor did he seem to plan to
> fully explore "the enigma of poetry." Borges advanced the hypothesis that
> poetic liberties, as in the multiple translations of Homer ( such as Pope's
> and Chapman's) were based on the realization that Homer was a mere human being
> and therefore his words could be tampered with. He noted that things changed
> radically after the time when Luther translated the Bible for that was a Holy
> Script, authored by the Holy Ghost, and not even a slight variation from the
> original could be admitted.
> Borges returned to Hamlet's suicidal thoughts (First Lecture): "When he
> himself might his quietus make/ With a bare bodkin". For him these words are
> not particularly beautiful and yet they acquire the status of "poetry" because
> of their context. Borges wrote: " At present, nobody would dare to employ
> these words [quietus, bodkin] because they would remain as a quotation
> extracted from Shakespeare's original."
> Jansy: thanks for a stimulating email. There¹s no final verdict, of course, on
> what the aims of Œtranslation¹ should be, and, consequently, on whether a
> translation is successful or not. As you hint, seeking Œprecision¹ is
> problematical when the original is deliberately Œunprecise¹ playful, or
> ambiguous, as is the case with what we call Œpoetry.¹ Each natural language
> has its own bag of unnatural tricks! Mastering these in one¹s primary Œnative¹
> tongue is hard enough, never mind acquiring the same deep command in other
> languages.
> One common error is applying the term Œfluency¹ as if it had some absolute
> meaning rather than representing a rather subjective spectrum of linguistic
> proficiencies which change with the speaker¹s space-time coordinates! One¹s
> Œfluency¹ can not only Œimprove¹ with time and exposure to fresh linguistic
> discourse, it can also decline through absence from the Œsource[s].¹ By
> Œsource[s]¹ I mean the diverse places where a living language inevitably
> evolves in the daily, unpredictable hurly-burly of usage. The emergence of
> neologisms, semantic shifts and crazy, illogical idioms transcends all the
> academic thumbing of dictionaries!
> I have in mind here VN¹s increasingly super-fluent mastery of English while he
> himself bemoaned a gradual distancing from the ever-changing contemporary
> flavors of his Œnative¹ Russian. However, VN was uniquely placed to tackle the
> Œtranslation¹ challenge; his essays on the subject have the edge over Borges¹
> lectures (useful though they are) clinched by VN¹s towering achievements with
> Alice (into Russian) and (over-toweringly) with Onegin (into English). Here we
> have a writer close to Pushkin¹s creative genius equally Œfluent¹ in English
> and Pushkinese (to coin an ugly term for what was then almost a rebirth of the
> Russian language). Whether we call it Œtranslation¹ or Œliteral recreation,¹
> the aim of VN¹s Onegin is to provide the non-Slavophone with as close an
> insight as possible to the original without pretending that all the glorious
> nuances can be captured. I¹m tempted to call it Œextreme rendition,¹ but I
> gather that that phrase has been co-opted by the military! VN¹s Onegin must be
> read in toto, his dauntingly detailed commentary alongside the mapping of
> words. The latter remains a deeper mystery than many admit. We really have no
> agreed understanding as to what Œliteral¹ means! Literally, like! Substituting
> one token for another by dipping into a dictionary or thesaurus wrongly
> assumes some static 1-1 semantic correspondence between tokens and ideas.
> VN¹s objections to the many Œflowery,¹ so-called Œpoetic¹ translations of
> Onegin were based on his axiom that
> liberties should not be too lightly taken in the search for rhymes, assonances
> and prosody. Of course, it¹s often the case that VN detects a gross
> mistranslation ‹ that¹s not at all what Pushkin actually wrote or meant! Or
> that a deliberate archaism or irony has been lost. (Poor Bunny Wilson never
> quite Œgot the picture¹ and lost a good friend, but I digress.)
> Even with my limited schoolboy Russian (much improved, though, by a wonderful
> vodka-friendly visitation chez nous by Viktor & Galina Fet) I can share the
> joyous gist by reading the original Onegin in parallel with Nabokov¹s
> rendition.
> PS: Jansy, RE your
> Richard Burton's translation of Quitab alif laila wa laila, following the
> Persian original to obtain: "Book of the thousand nights and a night",
> instead of a more common "Book of the thousand and one nights", thereby
> creating an unintended shock of surprise to English ears.
> First note that the title ŒQtab alif laila ua laila¹ (to use an alternative
> transliteration) is, of course, Semitic-family Arabic quite distinct from
> Indo-European-family Persian language! The tales themselves, as I understand
> the situation, do have a Persian origin/milieu, so they have already suffered
> (or enjoyed) long, unknown orally-transmitted mutations before reaching us as
> translations into Arabic and only thence as translations-of-translations into
> Burton¹s (and others) English. Worser yet, we meet situations where
> translators have added their own tales not found in the original anthology, or
> borrowed some from similar collections**
> I have found Borges¹ English text with comments at
> but not sure in which language his lecture was originally penned nor who
> translated what into what. I think it¹s rather intriguing to find
> translational quirks occuring in an essay on the quirks of translations! At
> least we know that Borges approved of the following:
> Matthew Arnold pointed out that if a text be translated literally, then false
> emphases are created. I do not know whether he came across Captain Burton's
> translation of the Arabian Nights; perhaps he did so too late. For Burton
> translates Quitab alif laila wa laila as Book of the Thousand Nights and a
> Night, instead of Book of the Thousand and One Nights. This translation is a
> literal one. It is true word for word to the Arabic. Yet it is false in the
> sense that the words ³book of the thousand nights and a night² are a common
> form in Arabic, while in English we have a slight shock of surprise. And this,
> of course, has not been intended by the original.
> Jansy: this clarifies a tiny ambiguity in your version. Was it simply Burton¹s
> uninformed Œliteralness¹ that caused an UNintended slight shock? I¹m tempted
> to query the ³unintended!² We may never know for certain, but my feeling is
> that polyglot-extraordinary Burton knew enough about Arabic & English
> enumerational idioms to realize the impact of his rendition: ŒBook of the
> Thousand Nights and a Night¹. This is only Œslightly shocking¹ if you take
> Burton¹s title as an idiomatic failure! You may think that the Arabic means
> only a mundane total of 1001 nights and must therefore be translated into the
> conventional English phrase for 1001 (Thousand and One)! On the other hand, as
> the very structure of the PLOT reveals, that putative Œfinal¹ tale/night is
> life¹n¹death different from the preceding one thousand. I believe that Burton
> deliberately echoes that fact, embedded (literally) in the Arabic, by using an
> apparently unusual English phrase. Subsequent editors have rather plumpenly
> Œcorrected¹ Burton¹s telling title.
> Borges concludes that the Arabic Œalif laila wa laila¹ holds no surpise for
> Arabic readers. He rashly adds an Œof course!¹
> And this [slight shock in English], of course, has not been intended by the
> original.
> I wonder if our resident Arabists could comment. It seems (with my almost zero
> command of Arabic) that there ARE perfectly valid, conventional ways of saying
> Œ1001 nights¹ in Arabic OTHER than Œ1000 nights and a night.¹ To order 21 Xs
> you would say ³ahad wa Œishrun Xs² (one and twenty Xs) NOT (usually) ³¹ishrun
> Xs wa X² (twenty Xs and an X). If a translator encountered ³¹ishrun Xs wa X²
> she might be tempted to take this as meaning ³Twenty Xs ‹ O MAKE THAT Twenty
> One!²
> Let¹s not forget that the TITLE for this collection of Tales is (i) not
> necessarily due to the tales¹ author[s]. Cf ŒThe Gospel according to Mark¹ is
> not found as a title on the original m/s. (ii) is not to be taken Œliterally.¹
> The numbers 1000 and 1001 are FULL OF EASTERN PROMISE (just like Fry¹s Turkish
> Delight Candies). Cf Heinz¹s 57 varieties. Have you ever counted them? Hint:
> the Greek idiom: 57 meant ³a LOT.²
> ** See Neal Sokol¹s interview with Ilan Stavans (Literary Review, Spring,
> 2002):
> Neal: Susan Sontag argues, in an essay of hers in Where the Stress Falls, that
> there are three basic tactical approaches to handling translation: translation
> by explanation, translation by adoption, and translation by improvement. The
> last intrigues me the most. I wonder how often a translator improves the text
> beyond the ambitions of the original. Is it the translators job to do so?
> Ilan: I also like Sontag's idea of "translation by adoption." I'm not fully
> certain what she means (this often happens with Sontag), but what comes to
> mind is the fate of the Quitab alif laila ua laila, known to us as A Thousand
> and One Nights, in English and French: the [f?]act that to us it is a doorway
> to the Arab world, even though the tales are from Persia; and the benefit that
> that anthology has nurtured from the British, German, and French
> translators--Richard Francis Burton, Edward William Lane, Husain Haddawy, Enno
> Littmann, Antoine Galland, et al--that even dared to introduce altogether new
> characters nowhere to be found in the original. Translation as re-creation.
> Stan Kelly-Bootle
> ACM Queue¹s Curmudgeon

Search the archive:
Search archive with Google:

Contact the Editors:,
Visit Zembla:
View Nabokv-L policies: