Before moving on to the cognitive and creative issues I want to focus on, let me try to bring my remarks into some manageable compass by citing and then discussing one small – very small – piece of an actual translation. The discussion will be detailed and probably difficult to follow, but it ought to establish a solid context for what will follow. I have chosen a single neatly illustrative sentence from a 1949 novel, Atheis (The Atheist), written in Indonesian, by Achdiat Mihardja: “Tapi, sore esoknya aku sudah menadjung lagi menudji Kebon Manggu.” My own 1963 version of this (I did not translate the entire novel) reads: “But there I was, late the next day, pedaling along the road to Kebon Manggu” (Raffel 1971, 98-102). The complete translation by R. J. Maguire, published in 1972, reads quite differently: “The following afternoon, however, I rode toward Mangosteen Gardens again” (Maguire 42). Rendered more or less literally (there really is no such thing as “literal” translation), the Indonesian original reads: “But [or ‘all the same’ [or ‘still’], the next afternoon I was [or ‘there I was once more’ [[or ‘again’]] ] pedaling toward [or ‘in the direction of’] Kebon Manggu.” (Kebon Manggu is a geographical marker which can be translated, if it should be translated at all, as “Mango Gardens” or “Mango Plantation.” But do we turn “Times Square” into “Le Carré du Temps”? or “La Plaza del Tiempo”?)
The time indicator in the Indonesian original is also worth noting, since the question of when an event occurs is almost always of high-order importance, in fiction. The relevant Indonesian time expression, here, is sore [bisyllabic], which any Indonesian-English dictionary will tell you means, lexically, “afternoon.” I have turned sore, in this context, into “Late the next day”; Maguire renders it “the following afternoon.” The commonly recognized part of the day which occurs just before “afternoon” is, of course, “noon.” In Indonesian “noon” is tengah hari (“middle of the day”). Culturally, however, the two languages do not view either the concept of “noon” or that of “afternoon,” as they do not view a great many concepts, in exactly the same light. The English word “noon” means more or less precisely twelve o’clock, give or take a few minutes. We regard 11:59 A.M. as “just before noon,” and 12:01 P.M. as “just after noon.” But the Indonesian tengah hari stretches loosely to one, two, or even three o’clock. Indonesians take a very different attitude to time in general—and, in the case of the concept expressed by sore, Indonesians tend to stay at home, during much of what we who speak English might call “afternoon,” sensibly avoiding the tropical heat, rather than pedaling bicycles in any direction.
Culturally, therefore, sore does not mean “anything after twelve o’clock,” or “noon,” but rather “middle afternoon,” or “late afternoon,” or “early evening.” (Malam, too, which the dictionary will tell you means “night,” cannot usually be translated as “evening”: malam refers to times when daylight is gone, when darkness has settled solidly in.) Again, the narrative significance of this is indisputable. One sentence does not a novel make, but the importance of all narratological markers is both cumulative and weighty. Losing an exact hold at any point can have repercussions, for the reader, which may well extend up and down the entire story line.
Further: most readers, not being writers, translators, or linguists, tend to think of translation as a transfer, even a “mere” transfer, of the words of one language into the words of another language. But this is a large error and, for a translator, a disastrous one. Lexicon must be understood as constituting only one part of what utterances mean. Indeed, word-meaning is not necessarily even controlling as to utterance-meaning. Consider the following example. Though in practical fact one can use—that is, one can pronounce or write—the words “thank you” only in English, one says (or writes) what serves as “thank you” in Indonesian by the words terima kasih. The deeper, not strictly lexical meaning of these words is clearly signaled by the lexical meaning, which is “acknowledgment (or ‘acceptance’) of received giving” (or ‘of a favor’).” One does not usually bow, in Indonesian, when saying terima kasih. But bowing would not be inappropriate and does occur, even in non-formal contexts. That is to say, the exigencies of Eastern politeness are embedded in the words. The primary sense of the first half of the Indonesian expression, terima, is “acceptance.” Kurang terima kasih (kurang meaning “less”) means “ungrateful”; salah terima (salah meaning “wrong” or “wrongful”) means “to admit guilt.” And kasih, the second half of the Indonesian expression, has the basic sense of “love” or “affection,” often in religious contexts. It can also refer to someone who is “altruistic”; kasihan (a nominal formed, like many many Indonesian words, by the addition of particles either fore or aft of the basic term) means “pity.” Kasih can also mean “mercy.”
We need to remember that languages are artifacts of culture, exactly like architecture, baking, cooking, delicacies, eating habits, food tastes, gardening styles, household manners and mores. An Indonesian using his words for what we call “thank you” cannot be and is not expressing a mere “equivalent”. Nor is anyone who steps into the Indonesian cultural world by saying or writing terima kasih to an Indonesian exempted from all the cultural baggage thereunto attached. Saying or writing terima kasih, one is not and cannot be, either in recognizable sound or in the full and necessarily broader sense of “meaning,” saying “thank you.” (As, also, one is not saying de nada, or merci, or danke schön, or toda rabah.) Languages -- like architecture, baking, cooking, delicacies, eating habits, and all other cultural artifacts -- cannot be forced. Languages can be influenced, to be sure; over time they can change and be changed. But at any given time they are what they are, and that is that. The only proper answer to the question, asked of any language, “Why is such-and-such said this way rather than that?” has to be, in the end, “Because.”
And culturally determined differences, as well as their likely cognitive significances, become almost startlingly clear when we consider how Indonesian deals with the English expression, “No, thank you,” used as a polite negative. When you are asked, in English, “Do you want to read a singularly boring discussion of translation?” and you reply, “No, thank you,” you are clearly indicating that you have better things to do and do not wish to be thus afflicted. But an Indonesian, asked the same question in his own language, can if he likes give the same response by saying or writing terima kasih. If we are to translate this into English, and if we were to operate by strictly lexical rules, we find ourselves translating the Indonesian’s reply as “thank you,” and thus conveying the meaning, in English, “Yes, I’d like that.” Which is not at all what the Indonesian would be intending to communicate (and if language is not communication, what is it?). Strictly lexical translation, which is what is ordinarily meant by literal translation, can thereby become drastic mis-translation. Human beings do not communicate dictionary to dictionary, but mind to mind, soul to soul.
For speech is not simply spoken prose. Those who “talk like a book” are employing a dialect (in this case, writing) just as surely as are those who employ the more commonly recognized dialectal forms we call Cockney, Lalans, Lancastershire, or Mississippi drawl. Writing is old, but poetry is virtually as ancient as language itself: every human culture, living or dead, has without exception had poetry. The same cannot be said of prose. Without writing, prose does not exist, and cultures which do not develop writing do not and cannot, by definition, have prose, which as I have said emphasizes linear thinking. Unlike poetry, prose is usually primarily, though not necessarily solely, concerned with information transfer. The linguistic imperatives of prose, accordingly, are centered in that component of language which best (but, again, not solely) organizes information, namely syntax.
Poetry, on the other hand, tends to have a deep, abiding concern with emotion rather than information transfer, and though still to a significant degree reliant on syntax is not anything like so tightly bound to it. Prose certainly has its own rhythmic obligations: prose which is “correct” but which ignores verbal rhythm is frequently, and rightly, called “dead.” But poetry’s rhythmic obligations are incomparably greater. Poetry need not be strictly metrical, or in other respects formal, though it often is. But poetry must sing: the form began in close association with “song,” and cannot be disassociated therefrom. When poetry fails to sing, we call it “flat”; when it singularly fails to sing, we call it “prosey.” So too, prose which draws away from syntactic (information transfer) constraints and imperatives, and closer to rhythmic and musical considerations, is termed “poetic prose.”
Poetry’s central musicality, as well as its much greater non-linearity, and thus the greater relevance of poetic translation to cognitive and creative issues, can be best exhibited in situ. To illustrate the essential quality of musicality, first, here are the initial lines -- only three; no more is needed -- of one of the greatest and best-known of all Western poems, Dante’s Divina Commedia. Dante consistently, almost miraculously achieves, here and throughout his long poem, the most limpid, flowing liquidity I know of, in any verse, in any language. The Divina Commedia never strains, never relies on mere trappings and effects. Its language (not simply its words) is plain, virtually unadorned, and the effect is of an unmatchable clarity and sweetness:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
“In the middle of the road of our life, I found (or ‘came to myself’) in a dark wood (or ‘forest’) where the right road (or ‘way’) had been lost (or ‘had gone astray’).” The lexical sense of the lines is exactly that straightforward. But a dogtrot rendering can only be a guide to the poem’s merely verbal aspects.
Full-scale translations of Dante into English are legion. None are as yet satisfactory, and the difficulties of transferring an alien musicality rank large among the deficiencies. The first of the five translations I will cite, Laurence Binyon’s sturdily-rhymed British version, is alas almost weirdly plodding. It appears to have emerged from some ancient, dark literary forest all its own, and out of a literary existence older and drier than the oldest and driest of parched hills:
Midway the journey of this life I was ‘ware
John Ciardi’s mostly over-dramatized version, for most of its fast-moving and easy-reading length sounding much more like John Milton than an Italian master of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, also begins rather ploddingly:
Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
Mark Musa’s translation is simply flat, even prosey, which in musical terms is perhaps something of an improvement:
Midway along the journey of our life
Alan Mandelbaum takes at least half a giant step forward; his is in my judgment still the best version we have, though not ideal, and least ideal in its musical deficiencies:
When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
Finally, having once tackled the first canto of the Inferno myself, I fully appreciate the difficulties:
Half done with this road of life
I no longer approve of this version, which I wrote almost thirty years ago. Nor was I encouraged, back then, to continue. I can more readily see why, today. I took the road of simplicity, and took it much too far. And that indeed made all the difference, for in achieving at least a degree of lyric flow, I managed to lose virtually all the stately elegance, the beautifully balanced, tautly contained, sober intensity—in short, the high-order musicality.
Continue:Tigre, Tigre, tout brûlant