Friday, March 19, 2004


Oh, well. Another squeeze of the sponge and we'll see what drops spatter the blank page this time.

Due to the facts that I am stone cold sober, haven't read a newspaper in weeks and am therefore not in the slightest bit miffed, peeved or otherwise in a bate about anything right now, it would seem opportune to don once more my linguistician's hat, chapeau or titfer, respond to Jess's automatic blog-update reminder and throw in my two pennorth on that most trying of subjects...translation.

A word about translation...impossible.

Quite an overabundance of words about translation...well, maybe not impossible, but as near as makes no difference. Anything written or spoken in any language has behind it a history, tradition and culture unique to the individual who produced it. And yes, I do mean individual and not 'language community'.

Allow me to expand, if you would be so kind and ponder a minute on the nature of language. We'll start with one of the most basic units, the word. For the purpose of this little bloglet, we'll ignore the morpheme, shall we? Good. Then I will hie me on to my theme.

Words are unfortunately not what they say they are. It might seem trite to point out that the word 'stone' is not a stone but rather analgous to a banknote. Whenever I wish to perform some pecuniary transaction, I never have to actually show up with whatever it is the Bank of England promises to pay the bearer on demand but usually, a small rectangular bit of rather tawdry paper will suffice to persuade my partner in the bargain that what I am offering him in return for his goods or services is indeed worth more than the paper it is written on. So it is with words. They are mere linguistic currency. Whenever I might wish to refer to a stone, the use of the word 'stone' will save me the tiresome bother of having to dig one up out of the garden to show my interlocutor.

But herein lies a problem. Rather like with the banknote, the use of a word relies on trust and common understanding. What is quite definitely a stone to me may be, to another, a pebble; to another, a rock; to yet another, a small family bungalow just outside Little Wattling in the Meadow.

To hark back to Xeno again...if you remember, he was the chap who spent an afternoon in the grove of academe (quite literally - look it up) heaping one olive upon another all the while asking one of his students whether or not it was a pile. When said student eventually answered in the affirmative he was faced with the accusation that he was officially telling the world that 92 olives thuswise arranged constituted a pile and that 91 olives in similar arrangement, did not.

" exactly."

"Precisely, my point to a tee." or somesuchwise replied the tutor. And I find myself in complete agreement. Communication is so absolutely riddled with such 'not exactlyness', it is a wonder to me that on visiting any emporium, I usually manage to emerge with whatever it was my intention to procure upon entering.

Still not convinced? Okay then...another tack. one. Consider the phrase, "She's gorgeous." What does it tell you about the she under advisement. Absolutely nothing which would enable you to picture her. Maybe you have a picture in your mind of a woman whom you would consider gorgeous. Would it then surprise you to discover that the she in question bore absolutely no resemblance to your mental picture? It shouldn't. You can only begin to approximate an understanding of such an utterance if you have prior knowledge of the speaker's preferences in women. Without such knowledge, all that phrase would convey is the information that the speaker is referring to a woman and that in his opinion, she is of above average desirability. Such discernment and precision is rare to the point of non-existence in average communication and we rely on assumptions, usually assuming that our interlocutor shares the same set as we ourselves.

So, if we accept that communication between individuals is at best, an approximation of intent and understanding...that between my intention to express something, then formulate it into an utterance and the hearing and decoding of said utterance there lie a multitude of opportunities for inexactitude, then what happens if we introduce another language into the equation? Mayhem, that's what.

You may think that we are on pretty solid ground with nouns which describe objects and, to a large extent, you'd be right. Unfortunately, most of that which is worth translating transcends the mundane, the ordinary and the banal. We enter the realm of metaphor, allegory and poetic licence. I had mine endorsed once for being drunk in charge of an iambic pentameter but that's another story. Let me try and is a hopeless example but the best I can conjure up at such short notice but I guess one could imagine an English writer coming up with the image of a 'bulb, shooting out light.' Most English speakers would, whilst stifling an urge to vomit at such bilge, recognise the reference to the two meanings of the word 'bulb'. Now, how would I translate that into say, Hungarian where the word for lightbulb would be translated as the English word 'pear' and the flower bulb, as the English word 'onion'? Answers on a postcard please to the usual address.

Most Hungarians of my acquaint profess a love of Shakespeare. Almost none of them has ever read a word of his in the original language. A Hungarian at school today can read Shakespeare in translation as easily as if it were Winnie the Pooh. The Hungarian of the translator is still very much the Hungarian of today. The whole magic of the 16th century English, therefore, has guessed it...lost in translation.

Let me take a sonnet as example.

'You are to my thoughts as food to life'

was translated as...

'You are to me as life's bread'

A good translation? Yes. You'll just have to take my word for it on this one. But, is it Shakespeare? No way Janos.

And what about all those words and expressions that are absolutely untranslatable. We tend to leave them in their original form and absorb them that way. (At this point you will have to forgive me, as this Blogger refuses to recognise my Hungarian keyboard so I will have to write without accents.) Things like 'Weltschmertz', 'apres ski', 'schadenfreude' and 'je ne sais quoi' have all passed unchanged and unchallenged into our language as we just do not have an English equivalent.

The Hungarians have a wonderful noun...'puszibarat'. It means someone who one knows well enough to kiss in the street. So we might have the exchange.

"Do you know Istvan?"

"Well, I know him, but we're not puszibaratok."

Again, answers on a postcard, please.

It might sound from all the above as if I have little respect for the translator's art. Au contraire, it is precisely because of all the above that I have an enormous respect for it. I do a lot of it myself and love it and loathe it simultaneously but the feeling of a job done well, when it is indeed done well, is rather akin to having produced one's own little work of art.

A good translation should pay scant regard to the original words and the utmost respect to the meaning.

It should not be stilted, but should still sound like nothing a native speaker of the 'into' language would ever have produced even were an infinite number of them locked in a room with an infinite supply of typewriters for an infinite length of time.

As an example of grade A, dog's bollocks translation, I give you the following. An emigres story. From Sandor Marai's 'Memoir of Hungary 1944 - 1948'.

Twenty- five years, a brief generation, rolled by from the time I last saw Budapest. During these twenty-five years, rare was the day when I didn't look in my special album; it rarely happened that I didn't think of Budapest. And the pulse of solidarity always throbbed in my consciousness whenever I thought of this beautiful, extraordinary city. But there wasn't a single day during this quarter of a century when I thought of Budapest nostalgically. And every time I dreamt that I was at home again in Budapest, the dream was always painful and distressing. And waking up was always a great relief because it had all been just a dream. For a quarter of a century, in a strange land, sometimes in the middle of a chilly indifference and a sea of apathy, it was once again a relief to know I had had the strength to leave and did not have to live through all that happened there in the course of these twenty-five years. Sometimes I thought that this "relief" that followed the awakening from my nightmare was an act of cowardice; I was happy because I had the strength to leave the danger zone in time, and I did not - involuntarily, recalcitrantly, but through the sheer fact of remaining there - become an accomplice in everything that took place. But this was an easy, evasive explanation. The reality was different. At the bottom of everything I thought, felt and dreamt in connection with the homeland and Budapest glimmered the memory of the moment when I understood why a sense of relief flooded my consciousness, like a burning, bloodrushing giddiness, when on the way from the village I saw the pile of ruins that remained of our flat. I frequently recollect this moment. I never sympathised with the connoisseurs of ruin; I never understood Gandhi who, on seeing the splendid palaces of New Delhi on a moonlit night, murmured: "What beautiful ruins they will make."

What I saw was not beautiful.

"...beware, now your feet will sink in blood,
here at the mud-dazed
Bulwark, the scattered dead yet gaze at the
Smoke signals swirl up from the depths to the
For somewhere below Krisztina town blazes
All traces of zither and Gypsy have been blown
From the 'Broadaxe', filled now by shadows and
stench alone
And side by side in the castle church lie corpses
Of dead princes and slaughtered horses..."

Albert Tezla...I salute you.


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