But let me leave the discussion of translation processes and turn to translation attitudes. Probably the most basic is: For whom does one translate? There is a great deal more to the question than I can deal with, here. Issues of translator fees and royalties are not on this agenda, but they are real and pressing. Translators’ names may not always appear in book reviews, or even on title pages, but translators, too, have to eat and pay their bills.
Writers, and artists generally, often say that in the final analysis they write for themselves. In the final analysis, however, this is simply not the whole story. Artists are human beings, and all humans not only appreciate praise and encouragement, but need it. Sometimes, we crave it (as do all animals reasonably advanced on the evolutionary scale: even cats have their moments of actively desiring a gentle stroking). Nor do artists, any more than other human beings, operate in some holy, purer-than-pure, Olympian isolation. The so-called “ivory tower” is a myth: even artists who seem to be in total retreat, sealed away from everyday existence, are at best in active retreat from fairly specific aspects of their prior lives in that existence. The hooks left in us by everyday experience may not often be visible. But they are for all that planted deep and irrevocably. In Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, the Devil responds to the learned doctor’s surprise, seeing a denizen of Hell corporeally present in his living room, with the dry observation that “Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscib’d / In one self place, for where we are is hell, /And where hell is, must we ever be … / For I am damned, and am now in hell” (ll. 553-55, 569).
And at worst, artists who claim to have achieved total isolation not only maintain all sorts of active contacts with the “outside” world—for they too have to eat, and how many of us are able to grow our own food, cobble our own shoes, weave and sew our own clothes?—but they remain in their own ways deeply involved with what they think they have turned away from. J. D. Salinger may have “cut himself off” from the literary world, and from most human beings, but when something occurred or even threatened to occur outside his cocoon, and he took objection thereto, he was quick to have his lawyers intervene, and those interventions were neither casual nor indecisive.
The truth is that artists in a very real sense are their art: one can even measure the degree to which an artist is entirely committed to his work by the degree of his involvement in producing it. The painter Jasper Johns, at one period of his life, gave himself the appearance of casual disengagement, floating hither and thither, at large and freely at ease, able and willing to do anything he liked. But every morning at 4 A.M., and until 8 A.M., he was at his easel and working. Writers may joke, as some have, that they love being writers: it’s the paperwork they can’t stand. Like it or not, the need to work, and to work hard, is as much part and parcel of an artist’s existence as it is for the corporate C.E.O., the financier, or the insurance salesmen. Or for anyone whose labors involve one or another sort of creative imperative. Creativity is both human and multiple in its manifestations, unique neither to the theoretical mathematician nor the physicist, nor to musicians and sculptors.
Translation, if not as once upon a time I used to think an entirely “minor” art, is nevertheless a lesser one. But it is an art, in every sense of the word. And the degree of a translator’s commitment becomes an inseparable part of how he translates. Without going into the making of the specific translations, let me cite, first, a passage from a translation of my own which I do still like, and then the same material as translated by a fine scholar and extremely able literary craftsman. These immensely contrasting passages are both from published versions of the Old English poem, Beowulf—versions not only published in the same year, 1963, but produced by two people who graduated, together, from the same undergraduate college and, again, graduated in the same year, 1948:
Hear me! We’ve heard of Danish heroes,
Thus my version of Beowulf, lines 1-12. Here is my classmate, the late William Alfred’s, version:
Listen. We have learned the song of the glory of the great kings of the Danes, how those princes did what was daring:
You may wonder if Alfred and I were working from the same Old English text. We were. And in the very narrowest and I believe lowest sense of translation—that is, the word-for-word process—he is in fact often (though not invariably) closer than I am to the Old English words. The poem, however, seems to me to have disappeared. Not only does Alfred take the dogtrot road, but (1) he makes no attempt to produce a version which indicates the poetic nature of the original, casting his translation entirely in prose; (2) he lets that prose drone on in what, were this spoken, would be a pretty deadly monotone, never making the emotional level in any way match the sense, as it so brilliantly, often thrillingly, does in the Old English original; and (3) he translates even the literally untranslatable word for word. “Scyld of the Sheaf pulled seats in the mead-hall out from beneath troops of his foes.” Was this stalwart conqueror truly no more than a deadly practical joker, forcing his enemies, as they attempted to seat themselves for another long night of drinking in the mead-hall, instead to crash to the floor and, perhaps, damage their lower spines in so doing? What the Old English actually says, in dogtrot translation, is that Scyld “deprived them of their mead-hall seats (or ‘places’): meodosetla ofteah. But a Harvard professor, as Alfred was, with a PhD in English and a long-standing fascination with the older forms of literature in that language, cannot help knowing that in the Germanic world of that time, well over a millennium ago, only free men could hold a seat in the mead-hall. And a man lost his free status by being taken captive in battle.
The Old English auditors of the Beowulf poem knew these things, too. For them, the words meodosetla ofteah not only constituted a fine piece of rhetoric but were fully and immediately comprehensible, their full and true meaning what we today would call an open book. I am unavoidably reminded of a similarly ghastly translation, in J. M. Cohen’s woeful Penguin version of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. In the second chapter of the third book, Cohen translates Rabelais’ introductory comment about what the immediately forthcoming chapter will include, as “How Panurge ... ate his Wheat in the Blade” (Cohen 292). I offer congratulations to anyone who can understand this. What Rabelais wrote was “Comment Panurge ... mangeoit son bled en herbe” (mangeoit being the Middle French form of the passé imparfait; in modern French this would be mangeait). And what these words really mean, as Cohen could have discovered by a careful reading of even a dictionary entry, is that Panurge spent his money before he got it. Wheat still “in the blade” refers to immature, unformed crops not fit for human consumption: the French phrase is an agriculturally-based idiomatic expression. Sound agriculturists do not attempt to eat drastically unripened crops, as fiscally sound citizens do not—especially in pre-modern times—attempt to spend what they do not have. Cohen’s rendering, like Alfred’s, is a straightforward translational irresponsibility.
What motivates both Alfred and Cohen, it seems to me, is necessarily and on the evidence of the translation itself a kind of indifference, an absence of significant identification with, or, in other words, a fundamental lack of respect for what is being translated. And since Alfred and Cohen both seem to have been working under contract, and understood perfectly well that a major publisher, commissioning such a rendering in the first place, meant to make its published book as widely available as possible, this sort of translation also demonstrates a lack of respect for and identification with the readers for whom, in the event, they would be translating -- for whom they would be, in effect, the Beowulf poet or François Rabelais. When the second of my daughters, then just entering college, heard that I was going to translate Gargantua and Pantagruel, she exclaimed—having known Rabelais only in Cohen’s translation—“Daddy! Why do you want to do that? Rabelais is so BORING!!”
Cohen’s Don Quijote rendering is considerably better than his Rabelais. Significantly, most of his translation work is from Hispanic materials. His identification with Spanish literature was obviously high, just as his command of the Spanish language seems also to have been better than his grip on Middle French. Alfred’s case is in some ways still worse, for as he shows in the introduction to his Beowulf (and elsewhere, too), when he does respect and identify with what he is translating, (a) he translates poetry into poetry, and (b) he does a first-class job:
Busy as you are, do not go yet. Please. Stay with me a moment.
These are the first few lines of a poem by a man Alfred calls “a near-contemporary of the Beowulf-poet.” It was written, in Latin, by the Abbot Alcuin (735-804), known in his own time as a teacher and a poet; he is primarily remembered, today, as the Old English scholar called to the nascent Holy Roman Empire by the Emperor Charlemagne, to organize the empire’s educational efforts. For whatever reason, this poem speaks to Alfred, and he makes it speak for us. I do not know why, but Beowulf did not speak to him. Or he did not let it. Or perhaps he was rushing to fulfill his commission. Whatever the cause, the end results are clear.
I also see this as a moral, as well as a psychological and creative, issue. In my judgment, a literary translator should not translate what does not mean something reasonably important to him. When I was approached as a possible translator for the Marquis de Sade, I declined. There are no volumes of de Sade on my shelves, and for good reason. Having as an explorative undergraduate read a few of his books, I do not want ever to read them again -- and translation requires intimacy with, and closeness to, literary texts. The translator of legal or business materials does not need to be anything like so closely involved, emotionally, with what he is translating.
Continue: May I, for my own self song’s truth reckon