5 March 2014

George Moore on Translation

George Moore, Confessions of a Young Man (London: T. Werner Laurie, 1904), pp. 138-141:
French translation is the only translation; in England you still continue to translate poetry into poetry, instead of into prose. We used to do the same, but we have long ago renounced such follies. Either of two things — if the translator is a good poet, he substitutes his verse for that of the original; — I don't want his verse, I want the original; — if he is a bad poet, he gives us bad verse, which is intolerable. Where the original poet put an effect of caesura, the translator puts an effect of rhyme; where the original poet puts an effect of rhyme, the translator puts an effect of caesura. Take Longfellow's "Dante." Does it give as good an idea of the original as our prose translation? Is it as interesting reading? Take Bayard Taylor's translation of "Goethe." Is it readable? Not to any one with an ear for verse. Will any one say that Taylor's would be read if the original did not exist. The fragment translated by Shelley is beautiful, but then it is Shelley. Look at Swinburne's translations of Villon. They are beautiful poems by Swinburne, that is all; he makes Villon speak of a "splendid kissing mouth." Villon could not have done this unless he had read Swinburne. "Heine," translated by James Thomson, is not different from Thomson's original poems; "Heine," translated by Sir Theodore Martin, is doggerel.

---

But in English blank verse you can translate quite as literally as you could into prose?

---

I doubt it, but even so, the rhythm of the blank line would carry your mind away from that of the original.

---

But if you don't know the original?

---

The rhythm of the original can be suggested in prose judiciously used; even if it isn't, your mind is at least free, whereas the English rhythm must destroy the sensation of something foreign. There is no translation except a word-for-word translation. Baudelaire's translation of Poe, and Hugo's translation of Shakespeare, are marvellous in this respect; a pun or joke that is untranslatable is explained in a note.

---

But that is the way young ladies translate — word for word!

---

No; 'tis just what they don't do; they think they are translating word for word, but they aren't. All the proper names, no matter how unpronounceable, must be rigidly adhered to; you must never transpose versts into kilometres, or roubles into francs;  — I don't know what a verst is or what a rouble is, but when I see the words I am in Russia. Every proverb must be rendered literally, even if it doesn't make very good sense; if it doesn't make sense at all, it must be explained in a note. For example, there is a proverb in German: "Quand le cheval est sellé il faut le monter;" in French there is a proverb: "Quand le vin est tiré il faut le boire." Well, a translator who would translate quand le cheval, etc., by quand le vin, etc., is an ass, and does not know his business. In translation, only a strictly classical language should be used; no word of slang, or even word of modern origin should be employed; the translator's aim should be never to dissipate the illusion of an exotic. If I were translating the "Assommoir" into English, I should strive after a strong, flexible, but colourless language, something — what shall I say? — a sort of a modern Addison.
Note: I don't know any German Sprichwort about riding saddled horses, and I don't understand why Moore has translated it into French in the first place.