Saturday, January 26, 2008

On translation, part 2 of 2

Poetry must pose a different problem, because of the limits it imposes, and here I’ll visit Old English. Perhaps the modern “classic” version of Beowulf is that of Burton Raffel from 1963, published by Penguin. In 2000 Norton published a new translation by Seamus Heaney. The latter, interestingly, is more flowery and elegant than the former. I’m not sure which I prefer, as both versions veer widely from the original in places (which could be necessary for readability, due to the strangeness of Old English structure), though I haven’t taken the time to examine their differences. Personally, I think most translations of Old English have too much extra “stuff.”

What follows is a short passage describing Beowulf’s triumphant display of the monster Grendel’s hand, which ends with quite possibly the most visually powerful lines in Old English. First is the original, followed by a fairly literal attempt by me, then Raffel’s version, and finally Heaney’s:

               Hæfde Éast-Denum
Géatmecga léod gilp gelǽsted,
swylce oncýþðe ealle gebétte,
inwidsorge, þe híe ǽr drugon
ond for þréanýdum þolian scoldon,
torn unlýtel. Þæt wæs tácen sweotol,
syþðan hildedéor hond álegde,
earm ond eaxle – þǽr wæs eal geador
Grendles grápe – under géapne hróf.

               To the Danes
had the prince of the Geats fulfilled the boast -
such grief! - he avenged it all,
the wicked sorrow which earlier they endured.
And for the torture they were forced to suffer,
no small wrath! Here was clear proof
since the battle-brave one had laid down hand,
arm, and shoulder - there it was all together,
Grendel’s grasp, under the gaping roof.

               the Danes
Had been served as he’d boasted he’d serve them; Beowulf,
A prince of the Geats, had killed Grendel,
Ended the grief, the sorrow, the suffering
Forced on Hrothgar’s helpless people
By a bloodthirsty fiend. No Dane doubted
The victory, for the proof, hanging high
From the rafters where Beowulf had hung it, was the monster’s
Arm, claw and shoulder and all.  [Raffel]

               The Geat captain
had boldly fulfilled his boast to the Danes:
he had healed and relieved a huge distress,
unremitting humiliations,
the hard fate they’d been forced to undergo,
no small affliction. Clear proof of this
could be seen in the hand the hero displayed
high up near the roof: the whole of Grendel’s
shoulder and arm, his awesome grasp.  [Heaney]

I don’t think mine is too bad. Almost more concise than Heaney’s, but I wasn’t trying to match [edit: I should say outmatch] the poetic feel of the original, and nor could I possibly. Translators of Old English poems usually try to create a more fluid read, yet still match as much as they can the bang-bang, hammering hammer of consonance/alliteration that is the poems' major characteristic, but it usually comes off as forced. Most of the time I get the sense that it’s done for the benefit of readers who may not otherwise be familiar with just how much alliteration is in the originals, and that’s ok. When it’s done well it can really sing, but I wonder if they could capture the tone better by mimicking more subtly. The structure of the Old English lines does (or at least should) put a limit on phrase choices, and as this casual student has found, this sort of helps – in the way that, when one is faced with the challenge of matching a difficult color, a palette’s limitations can help solve a lot of issues.

For a visual example I turn to the paintings A Seated Turk and Turk Seated on a Sopha Smoking, by Bonington and Delacroix, respectively. This is interesting because, according to the book Richard Parkes Bonington ‘On the Pleasure of Painting’ by Patrick Noon (Yale Center for British Art, 1991), Bonington painted his picture in Delacroix’s studio, perhaps in the presence of the latter’s painting which is dated maybe a year or two earlier. The Bonington piece, says Noon, “should not be considered as an attempt at imitation but rather as a translation of his friend’s composition into his own developing stylistic idiom, which was, as [art critic Théophile] Thoré conceded, more exquisite in touch and possibly more sophisticated in the command of glazes.” Just looking at reproductions I can say that that's an understatement. “Not until Delacroix’s Odalisque Reclining ... is there a parallel transparency of coloring, although both artists, with [friend Alexandre] Colin, were certainly experimenting simultaneously with advanced oil techniques approximating the visual effects of watercolor painting.”

In the book Delacroix's picture is reproduced immediately after Bonington's for comparison. In its description Noon writes that “the development of Delacroix’s oil technique from the choppy, somewhat dry handling in this picture” to a more delicate touch and exquisite coloring “must be attributed, in part, to Bonington’s mediating influence, of which Delacroix wrote ... in January 1826, ‘there is much to be gained from this chap, and I can assure you I have made the most of it.’” Bonington would die just over two years later, while Delacroix would go on to become one of the period’s great painters.

Many books show side by side two or more painters’ views of the same scene (the way the great translators’ examples (plus one by a novice) are shown above). Just pick up any large coffee-table art book. But here is an instance when one artist has interpreted another’s interpretation of a subject, if I may put it that way, and which I include here simply because I find one of them to be totally sublime – but the viewer can form his or her own opinion:

Eugène Delacroix, Turk Seated on a Sopha Smoking, ca. 1824-25. Louvre.

R.P. Bonington, A Seated Turk, 1826. Yale Center for British Art.

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