On 1/10/07 01:38, "Nabokv-L" <nabokv-l@UTK.EDU> wrote:

"jansymello" <jansy@aetern.us> <mailto:jansy@aetern.us>
Sat, 29 Sep 2007 18:49:35 -0300
<nabokv-L@listserv.ucsb.edu> <mailto:nabokv-L@listserv.ucsb.edu>

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. There’s no final verdict, of course, on what the aims of ‘translation’ should be, and, consequently, on whether a translation is successful or not. As you hint, seeking ‘precision’ is problematical when the original is deliberately ‘unprecise’ playful, or ambiguous, as is the case with what we call ‘poetry.’ Each natural language has its own bag of unnatural tricks! Mastering these in one’s primary ‘native’ tongue is hard enough, never mind acquiring the same deep command in other languages.

One common error is applying the term ‘fluency’ as if it had some absolute meaning rather than representing a rather subjective spectrum of linguistic proficiencies which change with the speaker’s space-time coordinates! One’s ‘fluency’ can not only ‘improve’ with time and exposure to fresh linguistic discourse, it can also decline through absence from the ‘source[s].’ By ‘source[s]’ 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 VN’s increasingly super-fluent mastery of English while he himself bemoaned a gradual distancing from the ever-changing contemporary flavors of his ‘native’ Russian. However, VN was uniquely placed to tackle the ‘translation’ challenge; his essays on the subject have the edge over Borges’ lectures (useful though they are) clinched by VN’s towering achievements with Alice (into Russian) and (over-toweringly) with Onegin (into English). Here we have a writer close to Pushkin’s creative genius equally ‘fluent’ in English and Pushkinese (to coin an ugly term for what was then almost a rebirth of the Russian language). Whether we call it ‘translation’ or ‘literal recreation,’ the aim of VN’s 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. I’m tempted to call it ‘extreme rendition,’ but I gather that that phrase has been co-opted by the military! VN’s 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 ‘literal’ 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.

VN’s objections to the many ‘flowery,’ so-called ‘poetic’ 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, it’s often the case that VN detects a gross mistranslation — that’s not at all what Pushkin actually wrote or meant! Or that a deliberate archaism or irony has been lost. (Poor Bunny Wilson never quite ‘got the picture’ 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 Nabokov’s 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 ‘Qtab alif laila ua laila’ (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 Burton’s (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 Borges’ English text with comments at


but not sure in which language his lecture was originally penned nor who translated what into what. I think it’s 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 “book of the thousand nights and a night” 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 Burton’s uninformed ‘literalness’ that caused an UNintended slight shock?  I’m tempted to query the “unintended!” 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: ‘Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night’. This is only ‘slightly shocking’ if you take Burton’s 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 ‘final’ tale/night is life’n’death 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 ‘corrected’ Burton’s telling title.

Borges concludes that the Arabic ‘alif laila wa laila’ holds no surpise for Arabic readers. He rashly adds an ‘of course!’

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 ‘1001 nights’ in Arabic OTHER than ‘1000 nights and a night.’ To order 21 Xs you would say “ahad wa ‘ishrun Xs” (one and twenty Xs) NOT (usually) “’ishrun Xs wa X”  (twenty Xs and an X). If a translator encountered “’ishrun Xs wa X” she might be tempted to take this as meaning “Twenty Xs — O MAKE THAT Twenty One!”

Let’s not forget that the TITLE for this collection of Tales is (i) not necessarily due to the tales’ author[s]. Cf ‘The Gospel according to Mark’ is not found as a title on the original m/s. (ii) is not to be taken ‘literally.’ The numbers 1000 and 1001 are FULL OF EASTERN PROMISE (just like Fry’s Turkish Delight Candies). Cf Heinz’s 57 varieties. Have you ever counted them? Hint: the Greek idiom: 57 meant “a LOT.”

** See Neal Sokol’s 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 Queue’s Curmudgeon

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