Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Lust In Translation

You've heard of English being translated into other languages, and other languages being translated into English, but how about English into English? I found one example of this in a Sydney bookstore. It was a modern translation of Shakespeare's plays. It took ordinary Shakespearean phrases, like:
Methought I had been pierced with Cupid's bow

And translated them:
I fell in love.

The Ovid translation I'm reading at the moment isn't quite as bad, but it's getting there. In Erotic Poems, translated by Peter Green, insipid words are weakly arranged in limp, rhymeless verse by a simpering, pedantic Profesor of Latin. The force and fire of Ovid's original words are almost completely extinguished. Phrases are translated faithfully; the only things missing are sound, rhyme, metre, interest, joy, and meaning:
Like a fabulous Eastern queen, en route to her bridal
Or a top-line city call girl ...

Why not the phrase 'Like a fucking classy hooker'? This is a poem about rooting, you can't afford to hold back.
Good puns are badly translated and become bad ones:
... poor virgin Europa whisked off overseas clutching
That so-called bull by the - horn.
Anybody from outside university could have told him that 'horn' actually is a well-known phallic symbol; there's no need for that hyphen.
You wonder why he bothers with the verse part at all. My translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses is in prose and, while it isn't brilliant, it's far better than this. This is not free verse (if it was, the lines would vary a great deal more); and it's not metrical. It kind of hovers in between, like an amorphomous entity of words that are arbitrarily grouped together. It's as if Green put them together in between bouts of brandy and scrabble with his fellow professors.
He resorts far too often to italics to provide a kind of 'fake' stress to words. Good poets - or good writers of any sort - would never do this. These are just from the first four pages:
Take that!
Though he was drawn
Caesar - this conquest's
Listen, Venus:
What have I got
Immortalise you
Just to look at my darling, while he

Not one imaginative phrase amongst that lot. It's almost as if Green wasn't hired to translate Ovid, but to kill the English language. He should go back to reading his lexicons.


At 12:57 PM, Blogger Tim said...

I have the A.D. Melville verse translation of Metamorphoses which I find highly enjoyable. Mind you, I know nothing about poetry or Latin, and sometimes I wonder about my grasp of English, so I can't say whether it is a "good" translation. It is a good book, though.

At 1:53 PM, Blogger TimT said...

I'll look out for it.

Ted Hughes translated parts of the Metamorphoses; as did John Dryden and various other seventeenth/eighteenth century authors.

My version - the translator's name escapes me - is a bit dull, but it at least shows up Ovid's strength. My main complaint about it is that the translator doesn't seem to have a feel for the English language herself. As a result, the stories all tend to run into one another.

By contrast, I have a fabulous collection of Aristophanes plays, in Penguin! The translator there really does have a feel for poetry, and as the copious footnotes demonstrate, he knows his onions as well.

I think a lot of people get put off by poetic classics by Ovid, Homer, or even Edmund Spenser or Shakespeare. A pity - poetry's part of English as well, and it's not difficult at all to get used to the verse styles of the masters (especially when they're as pleasant and readable as Spenser).

At 2:35 PM, Blogger Beth said...

I hate italics - that excerpt caused me pain.

At 5:04 PM, Blogger TimT said...

Ouch! Sorry!

I'd say they're usually a pretty reliable indication of bad writing.

"Oh, look, here come the italics! Did someone have a little trouble writing this passage?"

At 9:15 PM, Blogger Tim said...

I love italics! I won't stand for such snobbery!

Ahem. What I was going to say (there I go again! I bet you don't like exclaimation marks either!) is that the Melville translation is available in Oxford World's Classics. Just thought you might want to know.

At 10:25 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Tim, you might be interested in this list. I'd like to check out the Burgess.

At 7:54 AM, Blogger TimT said...


At 7:59 AM, Blogger TimT said...

Not one mention in that list of Byron's Don Juan or Spenser's Fairy Queen or barely anything else outside of the twentieth century. Hmmmph.


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