The Art of Translating

This is a quote from Touchstone Magazine. It touches on some of the discussions regarding translating that we’ve been having in our Proverbs class. I think it is really helpful in showing the complexities and decisions made when we (attempt to) translate.

Word to the Wise by ANTHONY ESOLEN (excerpt)

Dante is often obscure: He coins odd words; he uses forms from outside Tuscany; sometimes he is deliberately archaic; sometimes he wants his syntax tangled. When I translated The Divine Comedy, I assumed that my job was not to sand smooth what the Great One had left rough. It astonishes me to see translators do to the Word of God what I have struggled so hard, even within the severe constraints of meter and rhyme, not to do to Dante. I would not have presumed to do it.

One of my guiding principles in translation has been to retain what is strange in the original language, especially when it is embedded in an old metaphor. So if that cranky materialist Lucretius uses the word suffulcit to mean that a certain premise “supports” a conclusion, I uncover the odd metaphor hidden in the literal meaning of the word: “props up”.

People who do not write poetry (and maybe some people nowadays who do, but who are too busy expressing their feelings to learn anything about it) always assume that poets are more abstract than prose writers, but precisely the opposite is true, with only rare and partial exceptions among the second-rank poets (Thomas Gray). That is a reason their language is sometimes strange—even to their original readers.

So the biblical language is sometimes strange. Let it be. So people do not always understand. The better then to suggest to them that in fact they do not understand it, and that there are mysteries whose surfaces they have only begun to peer into.

If the Bible, at once immediately accessible by children and yet embracing unfathomable truths, does not sometimes suggest the depth of an infinite sea, the translators ought to be sent packing. Let ’em translate signs in train stations, where dynamic equivalence serves some immediate practical purpose.

Esolen, Anthony
2006 “Word to the Wise”, Touchstone 19.10, 4-5.

HT: Fred Putnam