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.

On translation, part 1 of 2

To make up for the lack of updates I thought I’d share some more about translation and how it relates to painting. What follows may make a poor analogy but you may find it an interesting read. (Thanks to some basic OCR software I avoided having to type out most of the quoted parts below. I hope that my inclusion of them here falls within the bounds of fair use.)

The other times I touched on this subject, I had in the back of my mind the preface to a book I bought several years ago - a translation, published in 1998 by Schocken Books, of Franz Kafka’s The Castle (Das Schloß). I confess this is one of those books I got stuck in the middle of, though not through any fault of the book’s.

In his preface the translator Mark Harman begins by saying: “W.H. Auden once said that anybody who presents a new translation of a literary classic ought to justify the endeavor – a task, he adds, ‘which can only be congenial to the malicious.’ I have no desire to malign the translations of the Muirs[.]” Edwin and Willa Muir were a Scottish couple who, Harman says, “were in Prague learning Czech while Kafka was in Silesia writing Das Schloß” and whose “elegant translations, beginning with The Castle (1930), quickly established Kafka’s reputation in the English-speaking world.”

Harman’s justification for his endeavor was that, after more than a hundred years since Kafka’s birth, it had become obvious how dated the “classic” translation was. The Muirs had a 19th-century literary sensibilty and many scholars since have complained that they generally toned down the modernness of (and maybe even misunderstood) Kafka’s original text. Plus, Harman writes, “the Muirs’ translation furthers the rather simplistic theological interpretation proposed by [Kafka’s friend and publisher Max] Brod.” From then on Harman discusses his task as a translator, giving examples of the choices he made in his attempt at “mimick[ing] the original.”

Translator’s notes fascinate me. Their process at times seems a lot like choosing the proper colors, to make this a simplistic comparison. As a painter I sometimes feel that I am doing little more than reinterpreting something that has been tackled countless times already. Change the words in Harman’s above quote about W.H. Auden from “translation of a literary classic” to “fruit still life” (or “nude” or “seascape”) and it becomes something painters might relate to - though minus the “malicious” part, as there’s no maliciousness in art. Is there? (There's triteness, but, well, that would be a whole other discussion).

The big disparity here, of course, is that “classics” don’t exist in visual art. Painters paint within genres, but generally aren’t working from the same subject the way two translators interpret the same source material, except possibly 0.01% of the time. Often we do variations of others’ work. Even so, each of us can regard certain paintings as the epitomes of their genres, and may have such an ideal in mind each time we paint a common subject – be it a Caravaggio still life, a Bouguereau, or perhaps a Turner.

Surely, to make a painting is not always to make a statement against previous painters’ treatments of a subject. It may be a simple exercise in translation. Initially I tried too hard when faced with the bright yellow-green of a tennis ball to find that same unnatural glow in paint, and I forgot that I had to use the limits of my particular “language” – paint as opposed to photographic reproduction, say, and beyond that, the limits of my usual color palette. At times we might as well be be wrestling with passages in Kafka, sharing with a translator such as Mark Harman that task of "mimicking." But how best to mimic? That is, how to be faithful without reaching the level of reportage, and how to be artful without too much artifice - how to convey what is true about the subject the way a conscientious translator would capture the truth and beauty of his source material?

Regarding choice-making, the most important examples given by Mark Harman in his preface to The Castle is the paragraph below – first is the Muirs’ classic translation, followed by Harman’s, and lastly Kafka’s original (for the benefit of anyone reading who knows German). Here the main character K. compares the tower of the Castle with that of the church in his hometown:

And in his mind he compared the church tower at home with the tower above him. The church tower, firm in line, soaring unfalteringly to its tapering point, topped with red tiles and broad in the roof, an earthly building - what else can men build? - but with a loftier goal than the humble dwelling-houses, and a clearer meaning than the muddle of everyday life. The tower above him here - the only one visible - the tower of a house, as was now evident, perhaps of the main building, was uniformly round, part of it graciously mantled with ivy, pierced by small windows that glittered in the sun - with a somewhat maniacal glitter - and topped by what looked like an attic, with battlements that were irregular, broken, fumbling, as if designed by the trembling or careless hand of a child, clearly outlined against the blue. It was as if a melancholy-mad tenant who ought to have been kept locked in the topmost chamber of his house had burst through the roof and lifted himself up to the gaze of the world.  [Muirs]

And in thought he compared the church tower in his homeland with the tower up there. The church tower, tapering decisively, without hesitation, straightaway toward the top, capped by a wide roof with red tiles, was an earthly building - what else can we build? - but with a higher goal than the low jumble of houses and with a clearer expression than that of the dull workday. The tower up here - it was the only one in sight - the tower of a residence, as now became evident, possibly of the main Castle, was a monotonous round building, in part mercifully hidden by ivy, with little windows that glinted in the sun - there was something crazy about this - and ending in a kind of terrace, whose battlements, uncertain, irregular, brittle, as if drawn by the anxious or careless hand of a child, zigzagged into the blue sky. It was as if some melancholy resident, who by rights ought to have kept himself locked up in the most out-of-the-way room in the house, had broken through the roof and stood up in order to show himself to the world.  [Harman]

Und er verglich in Gedanken den Kirchturm der Heimat mit dem Turm dort oben. Jener Turm, bestimmt, ohne Zögern, geradenwegs nach oben sich verjüngend, breitdachig abschließend mit roten Ziegeln, ein irdisches Gebäude – was können wir anderes bauen? – aber mit höherem Ziel als das niedrige Häusergemenge und mit klarerem Ausdruck als ihn der trübe Werktag hat. Der Turm hier oben – es war der einzige sichtbare –, der Turm eines Wohnhauses, wie sich jetzt zeigte, vielleicht des Hauptschlosses, war ein einförmiger Rundbau, zum Teil gnädig von Epheu verdeckt, mit kleinen Fenstern, die jetzt in der Sonne aufstrahlten – etwas Irrsinniges hatte das – und einem söllerartigen Abschluß, dessen Mauerzinnen unsicher, unregelmäßig, brüchig wie von ängstlicher oder nachlässiger Kinderhand gezeichnet sich in den blauen Himmel zackten. Es war wie wenn irgendein trübseliger Hausbewohner, der gerechter Weise im entlegensten Zimmer des Hauses sich hätte eingesperrt halten sollen, das Dach durchbrochen und sich erhoben hätte, um sich der Welt zu zeigen.  [Kafka]

Harman talks about the importance of getting the tone right. However, he concedes that the classic translation still reads well and that people may prefer it over his more modern one; the Muirs’ English gives the passage a “smooth readability,” he says. His version is admittedly “stranger and denser” but, he adds “so, too, is Kafka’s German.” Kafka tends to be a little cryptic, leaving much up to the reader, and the Muirs fill in for what they feel is missing by injecting a spiritual undertone.

I switch here to another translation for a bit, of Camus’ The Stranger, published in 1988 by Vintage International. In the translator’s note Matthew Ward points out that one might typically find the opening word in English to be “Mother,” but, supported by Camus’ own notes and Sartre’s thoughts on the book, he retains the main character’s use of “the child’s word ‘Maman’” and translates the opening sentence: “Maman died today.” This seemingly small difference when repeated throughout a book becomes huge.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Tennis ball

tennis ball
1/22. Tennis ball, oil on linen panel, 4x4 in. SOLD

It always amazes me how a color can seem "off" yet still read as the color you're after. With just the yellows and blues on my palette - cad. yellow med., Indian yellow, ultramarine and Prussian blue - I quickly saw there was no way to match the bright, acidic green of a tennis ball. But of course there wasn't, nor should there be. (Who wants that radioactive glow in a painting?) As I should have learned from the time I tried to match the orange-red of a carrot, painting is a process of translation.

A few of my "failed" yellow-green mixes below, though I didn't think they were very bright, proved to be really good matches. Once I got the color out of the way, this became simply an exercise in rendering a sphere.

palette 1/22

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Rubber duck

rubber duck
1/19. Rubber duck, oil on linen panel, 4x4 in. SOLD

This duck is part of a Russ baby bath set that was given to Breagha a while back. I think it's one of the cutest duckies out there, but apart from being able to squirt water out the little mouth hole it functions poorly as a bath toy (being tall and top-heavy).

Old English word of the day:
snáw [snau]: snow.
Here are some shots of Breagha I took late this morning, taking advantage of some rare snowfall. It was already starting to melt by this time but there was still enough to have some fun with. [Every time she sees her duckie on the computer screen she points and goes "quack!" - or something between "kaaa" and "kaaaaack."]

Breagha on a snowy morning Breagha on a snowy morning
Breagha with a snowball