28 December 2011

Transmute Boldly

These are the notes I took while reading Hilaire Belloc’s On Translation (Oxford: Clarendon, 1931). At the time it didn’t occur to me that I might want to make them public, so I was not very careful; there are no page numbers, and the quotations may not be perfectly accurate.

The book is hard to find (I consulted a copy in the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library at the University of Toronto), so my sloppy work may still be of interest:

Rules for Translation 
1. The translation should be into the language of the translator (i.e., his mother tongue) 
2. The translated language should be possessed by the translator as perfectly as possible, short of causing confusion in his mind. 
3. The translator must be emancipated from mechanical restrictions, of which the chief forms are:
i) The restriction of space (word count) 
ii) The restriction of form (verse should be translated into prose)

Concerning the second rule, Belloc says that, as far as he can recall, no perfectly bilingual person has ever made a good translation. “Too great a familiarity with a foreign idiom may render a man confused between that idiom and his own. It may make him at times run the two together within his mind, diluting and marring each with the properties of the other.” 
“There is a certain degree of familiarity with German which makes an Englishman, especially in the logical field, incomprehensible.”  
Belloc warns against including words or phrases from the translated language for the sake of spice or atmosphere. “I should say that any hint of foreignness in the translated version is a blemish. I should keep to my canon that the translated thing should read like a first-class native thing.” 
As an example of good translation, Belloc points to the English version of Alain-René Lesage's Le Diable boiteux (The Devil Upon Two Sticks), but also notes that the translator is not named. This is the kind of recognition one may expect in this business.
“The wages of literature anyhow are pretty bad; they come next, I think, in order of disappointment to the wages of sin: but of all literary wages as paid in fame the very lowest are the wages of the translator; and I suppose that is why translation has today almost been given up in despair.”  
“Transmute boldly: render the sense by the corresponding sense, without troubling over the verbal difficulties in your way. Where such rendering of sense by corresponding sense involves a considerable amplification, do not hesitate to amplify for fear of being verbose.” 
“If you discover your effort to be wholly unworthy of the original, it is far better for two good reasons to burn it rather than let it stand. The two good reasons are, first, that by publishing it you traduce the poet; and second, that you commit that unforgivable crime of making a fool of yourself.”