Posts Tagged ‘translating’

Essay. Tony Ullyatt: Practising the art of failure

Monday, December 15th, 2014







It may seem frivolous for translators to ask themselves why they translate, but it’s a question that cannot be ignored. This is especially so if, as Umberto Eco suggests, translation is the art of failure. Assuming there is any validity in what Eco says, then my wife and I belong to that quaint sub-species of practitioners willing to face the apparently inevitability of disillusionment, disappointment, and despair.

Even though Peter Newmark, a professor of translation studies, once observed that it’s hard to tell whether translators are fools or heroes, and despite all the apprehension, reservations, and downright folly that are assumed to accompany the notion of translation, many of us refuse to be daunted by the task or to heed commonsense. We continue with varying degrees of persistence because, at best, translation is as creative a process as writing poetry itself, and an honourable pursuit for poets. And we do this, knowing full well that, as Newmark explains, “translation of serious literature … is the most testing type of translation.”

Like other translators, we have what Seamus Heaney has called “the slightly predatory curiosity of a poet interested in the creative process of a poet.” Entertaining the prospect of translation compels one to study the creative processes of other poets with a particular intensity. This also fosters and hones one’s hermeneutic skills for translation is as much about reading and interpretation as it is about translation. Indeed, John Festiner observes, to separate “the functions of critic and translator … can make for artificial or partial views of poetry in another language.” In describing the processes involved in translating Neruda’s poem, Alturas de Macchu Picchu, he argues that the “two activities, interpretation and translation, began … to feel more like each other, then to animate each other.”

Newmark believes that the translator’s “main endeavour is to ‘translate’ the effect the poem made on himself.” A translator, whether fool or hero, confronts a poem with the question: Why do I want to translate this piece? It is a particularly relevant question for several reasons: first, you want to account for the effect the poem has on you as reader; secondly, through translation, you might want to come to some, albeit, incomplete understanding of your own creative methods; and thirdly, you might want to use translation as an unblocking mechanism, to free up your own stalled creative energies. The rigours of searching for apposite words, images, metaphors, diction – in fact, everything that goes into producing a translation – can provoke matters in the unconscious to seek their way into the conscious and demand attention from your creativity.


When I was a small boy in India, I heard and spoke Hindustani a good deal of the time. Some years later, living in the Sudan, Arabic was everywhere. And at university in Natal, I studied English and French, amongst other things, while hearing isiZulu in the streets. So for the greater part of my life, I’ve been accustomed to the idea of hearing other languages around me. After all, wherever I’ve lived, I’ve been the immigrant, the outsider listening to foreign tongues.

This matter has been put very neatly by another global immigrant/wanderer, Peter Bland, the English-born New Zealand poet, who has shuttled between, and settled regularly in, both countries. (He is back in England at present.) In the opening lines of his poem, “Advice to Immigrants”, he writes:

For the rest of your life

there’ll be two sets of voices –

those in the street

and those in your head.

When I arrived in Bloemfontein in the early 1980s, Afrikaans and Sesotho were the languages I heard in the streets.

So I began, apprehensively and with considerable difficulty, to attempt translations of Afrikaans poems into English. From the beginning, I assiduously avoided texts with tight structures and complex rhyme schemes, primarily because I was concerned about the stiltedness that can creep in when one hunts for rhyming words at the expense of meaning. This is one of the criticisms I share with André P Brink and what he calls “a very ponderous volume of texts in English translation” that was done in the 1960s by what he describes as “a group of well-meaning but heavy-handed academics”. Later, when I had become more adept at the practice of translation, I came to realise that those translations were not only “heavy-handed” but at times wayward. It was the sort of waywardness that recurred when I was researching differences between several translations of The Dhammapada. Translators were often tempted to sneak in interpretative words into their translations, thus altering the original text’s meaning. As Umberto Eco argues: “In translation proper there is an implicit law, that is, the ethical obligation to respect what the author has written.” Inevitably, therefore, we find ourselves entirely at odds with David Slavitt’s comment; “I feel no obligation to the literal meaning of the text whatsoever”.

Let me try to explain what I mean about the waywardness I’ve just mentioned. The first translation I published was Ernst van Heerden’s “My Ikaros”, primarily because I was busy at the time with research on the Daedalus and Icarus myth. As far as translating was concerned, it turned out to be an interesting choice right from the first line.

The poem opens with these words: “Die vlugtige en verbanne seun”. A careful perusal of the dictionary offers the following options for the word, “vlugtige”: “fleeing”, “fugitive”, “swift”, and “hurrying”. The word “verbanne” yields options such as “banished”, “exiled”, “expelled”, and “outcast”. Jean Branford, one of that “group of well-meaning but heavy-handed academics” Brink mentioned earlier translated the line (to be found in The Runner and the Shadow) as “Incorrigible and wayward boy”.

Although we might agree that it is Icarus’s waywardness and incorrigibility that bring about his literal downfall and death, those words interpret his behaviour in the myth rather than translate what Van Heerden has written. It is quite devious for a translator to slip in interpretative or explanatory words. (One explanation for this practice that I am familiar with argues that it saves burdening the text with countless footnotes.) At the time when Daedalus and Icarus sought to escape from King Minos, they were fugitives and outcasts in Crete. There are sufficient target-language words to provide diction appropriate to the poem’s subject without the interpolation of interpretative or informative words or phrases.

Also in Van Heerden’s poem, the last word of line 1 is “seun”, which may be rendered as “boy”, “youth”, or “son”. Given the centrality of the father/son relationship between Daedalus and Icarus, it seems almost perverse to opt for “boy” rather than “son”. Choosing “youth” as an alternative (with the same caveat I have about “boy”) would depend on how old one presumes Icarus to be, whether child or adolescent. And that choice, too, would impact on the meaning of the poem and, by implication, an understanding of the myth itself. Either way, it would still not justify the use of “incorrigible” or “wayward”. Ultimately, I arrived at “”The fugitive and outcast son”.


Which brings us to Coleman Barks, the widely-acclaimed “translator” of Rumi. The inverted commas are necessary here because, interestingly, Barks does not speak or read Persian. His translations do not therefore constitute natural language-to-natural language translations as such – what Jakobson calls translation proper – but paraphrases. He relies on other English translations, including versions by John Moyne and Reynold A. Nicholson. Although Rumi’s is rhymed, metered poetry in the original Persian, Barks opts for free verse in the main, and, on occasion, has been known to incorporate lines or metaphors from different poems into one “translation”. One has to ask whether Barks is broadening the common definitions of translation or simply ignoring it completely?

Perhaps he is adopting an approach similar to Ezra Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius. John Sullivan refers to Pound’s poem as a creative translation which, he explains, does not require the translator to produce either an accurate text or even a complete one. In essence, the translated text may be more accurately described as a creative paraphrase, an adaptation or imitation of the original or a text “based on” it.

Quite clearly, the mythic context of the Van Heerden poem places certain demands and limitations on the diction available to the translator.


In the main, we are literary translators, with a particular preference for poetry, although we have tackled literary prose. We focus on poems for two reasons: first, we write poems, and, secondly, poetry represents the most challenging form of literary translation.

We opt for poetry because we believe that, as poets, we have a sound working knowledge of what goes into writing a poem, and can bring that knowledge to bear when it comes to the intricacies of rewriting someone else’s poem in English. Sullivan argues that “Great translations are … genuine creations; at very least, they are re-creations” while John Felstiner suggests that “Translating a poem often feels essentially like the primary act of writing, of carrying some preverbal sensation or emotions or thought over into words.” And the ubiquitous Newmark says quite simply that “A successfully translated poem is always another poem.” We subscribe to that maxim.

Of course, to translate poems, one has to find appropriate texts. In most cases, those we have translated have been texts that have come to us serendipitously. But there are occasions when someone invites you to translate. Our most recent pieces appeared in the new anthology, In a burning sea, edited by Marlise Joubert. This proved to be a most stimulating and creative process: the translators were in direct contact with the poets who read and commented on our translations. In most instances, and to our considerable relief, the poets were either entirely satisfied with our work or suggested only two or three minor alterations. However, in one instance, our translations were returned with more than a hundred changes. We were disheartened, even disillusioned. So we re-examined our translations and compared them to the revised versions the poet wanted. What we discovered was that the poet was actually altering and rewriting the Afrikaans originals every time we submitted revised translations. Eventually, it was decided that the original versions of the Afrikaans poems were to stand, together with our initial translations. Had deadlines not been looming, it might have been instructive to enter into a discussion about the ways in which our translations seemed to have precipitated the reappraisal and revision of the original poems.


At this juncture, I need to say that my wife, Gisela, and I translate as a team. There are advantages to this arrangement since she is a mother-tongue Afrikaans speaker, and I am a mother-tongue English speaker. As far as the translation process itself is concerned, this combination amounts to bringing the best of both worlds – a sound knowledge of both source- and target-languages – to the work at hand.

And for those inquisitive readers who wonder whether working together is stressful as far as our relationship goes, the answer is, unequivocally and perhaps disappointingly, no. That is because the translation process is one of negotiation. It is an adjunct to the processes of negotiation that Umberto Eco discusses in his book on translation, Mouse or Rat?: Translation as Negotiation.

So, assuming that some readers might be interested in such things, here are some insights into the way we work.

I usually do the initial rough draft into English, usually working from grammatical unit to grammatical unit rather than line by line. If there are lines or words that I have difficulty understanding, I retain the Afrikaans in the rough draft exactly as and where they appear in the original. At this stage, getting an overall sense of the text, of the poet’s style, while creating a document we can work on is of more immediate import than fiddling around with dictionaries.

Once the rough draft is completed, my wife joins the process. Together, we go through the problems I’ve had with the original text. We sort those out by discussing the implications of the words or phrases, and deciding on some suitable English possibilities while excluding others.

Typed up, the draft might look something like this, the initial draft of the last four lines of the ninth section of Phil du Plessis’s poem, “Asemgedig”:


Ek sal met hale van ’n blou kwas

’n stortvloed van reën

’n gety van vergetelheid

oor die landskap laat spoel



I shall with strokes/dashes from a blue brush

a flood/torrent/deluge of rain

a tide of vergetelheid

over the landscape let flow


With creation of these lines, a couple of questions arise: Where should one put the phrase, “oor die landskap”, in the English version? What would the impact be of having it at the beginning? And which alternative nouns are most suited to the context and the syllabic count of the lines? And is there an apposite verb to encompass, “laat spoel”? You’ll notice, too, that we’ve made no attempt to use English grammatical ordering at this point. It leaves possibilities open.

Once we have a rough draft entirely in English, we focus our joint attention on discussing the translation word by word, unit by unit, line by line, remembering all the while that we are working towards a text that reads like a poem written originally in English. We are quite aware of Peter Newmark’s question: “Why should a translation not sometimes read like one, when the reader knows that it is what it is?” That is all very well, but it may just seduce a translator into a literal rendering that might yield something like this: “I tripped on the carrot of a tree and broke my keybone.”

To get the English draft to a state that we are happy to abandon it – to corrupt Paul Valéry – may take days or even weeks. We revise the poem umpteen times, usually by reading it aloud, listening for stylistic infelicities, inappropriate words of the poem’s overall register, and the like. We discuss possible alterations, try them out, then retain or reject them. And so the process goes. We know we’re getting pretty close to finished when no changes come to mind immediately.


However, this overview doesn’t reveal the decision-making processes involved. So here’s a rather more detailed example.

The opening line of Dolf van Niekerk’s poem, “Lang reis na Ithaka” reads, “Ek ken die woede van die see”, and contains eight syllables. In this line, the only word demanding careful consideration is “woede”, since the remaining words all have English words that match both in meaning and in syllable count. It is crucial not to underestimate this line’s importance and impact as the opening of the whole poem. The word, “woede”, demands careful consideration because it is the word which initiates the atmosphere, the register of everything that follows in the poem.

According to the Pharos Afrikaans-English, English-Afrikaans Dictionary (2005:710), the word, “woede”, has the following English options: “rage, wrath, fury, ire, passion, furor”. To retain the source=language’s syllable count requires the English word to be bi-syllabic, thus excluding “rage, wrath [and] ire”. Thus we are left to choose between with “fury” and “passion”.

To be more certain of the decision, we then consider the English definitions of the word “passion”, of which there are a substantial number (Shorter Oxford Dictionary, CD-Rom, 2007):

passion /0ˈpaʃ(ə)n/ noun. OE.

[ORIGIN Old French & Modern French from Christian Latin passio(n-) suffering, affection, from Latin pass- pa. ppl stem of pati suffer: see -ion.]

► I The suffering of pain.

1 Christian Theology. (Now usu. P-.) sing. & †in pl. The narrative of the suffering of Jesus from the Gospels; esp. a musical or dramatic setting of this. OE. ▸ b The suffering of Jesus on the Cross (freq. including that in Gethsemane). Formerly also in oaths.

2  ▸ a The sufferings of a martyr; martyrdom. arch. ▸ b A narrative account of a martyrdom. ME.

3 gen. Any form of suffering or affliction. Long rare.

A painful disorder or affliction of a (specified) part of the body. Now rare or obsolete. LME. ▸ †b A violent attack of disease.

► II (An) emotion, (a) mental state.

5 (A) strong barely controllable emotion. ▸ b A fit or outburst of such an emotion. ▸ c A literary composition or passage marked by strong emotion; an emotional speech. arch.

6 (A) strong sexual feeling; a person who is the object of such feeling.

7 (An outburst of) anger or rage.

8 A strong enthusiasm for a (specified) thing; an aim or object pursued with strong enthusiasm.

► III 9 The fact or condition of being affected or acted upon by external agency; subjection to external force. Opp. action. Now rare or obsolete. ▸ †b A way in which a thing is or may be affected by external agency; a property, an attribute.

passionful adjective (rare) full of suffering, passion, or anger

The business here is to appraise every meaning not only as a suitable target-language option for the source-language word but also for its greater or lesser pertinence to the subject of the sea and the whole background of the Odyssean journey. It seems a little reckless to reject any definition until it has been fully contemplated for all its implications. In this particular instance, one cannot overlook even the definitions identified as “rare” or “obsolete”, as they may be suitable within the historical context of the poem’s subject. Given Poseidon’s persistent wrath toward Odysseus throughout the journey home, definitions 7 and 9 were distinctly attractive, while definition 3 could be easily related to Odysseus’ hardships, with definition 5 touching upon his anger towards Poseidon and vice versa.

Without making any hasty decisions about these possibilities yet bearing them in mind, we turned to the following English definitions of “fury”, also taken from the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary:


fury /0ˈfjʊəri/ noun. LME.

[ORIGIN Old French & Modern French furie from Latin furia, from furiosus furious, from furere to rage: see -y³.]

► I 1 (A fit of) fierce passion, madness, wild anger, or frenzied rage.

2 Impetuosity or violence, esp. in battle.

3 Inspired frenzy; (artistic) inspiration. Now rare or obsolete.

4 Violence of weather, disease, or other agency.

► II 5 An avenging or tormenting infernal spirit; spec. (freq. F-) each of the three Greek or Roman goddesses of vengeance and punishment. Freq. in pl.

6 A person resembling an avenging fury; esp. an angry or malignant woman, a virago.

Almost immediately, definitions 1 and 4 present themselves as apposite within the subject and context of the text, the “wild anger or frenzied rage” and the “violence” of the weather at sea capturing the enormous power of the natural forces Poseidon commands as well as his unbridled wrath towards Odysseus. Definition 5 carries similar overtones of Poseidon’s desire to wreak vengeance on Odysseus, not least for blinding one of his sons, the one-eyed giant, Cyclops; the first half of definition 6 also seems pertinent.

In this opening line, it is difficult to conceive of “woede” being used in any positive sense, given the mythic context of the Trojan War, mentioned immediately afterwards, in line 2 of the poem. Having weighed these possibilities and their implications, we opted for “fury”, which then yielded a translated line that reads “I know the fury of the sea”, a line that is also eight syllables long. However, at that point, we were also aware that there were still 217 lines to be translated!

Readers will notice how the decision-making process involves not only the appropriateness of a definition’s meaning – to say nothing of the number of syllables it contains – but also its pertinence to the context of the myth and the Homeric account on which van Niekerk has drawn.


Reading translations is an integral part of developing one’s awareness and skills as a translator. Indeed comparing different translations of the same text can be an extremely instructive exercise, as I discovered when I did some comparative work on a selection of translations of The Dhammapada, a Buddhist text. It is fascinating to see what different translators make of the same source-language text. I even encountered a version which, the author stated, was not based on the source-language text but from a range of English-language translations done by previous translators.

Comparing translations of the same works can also be extremely insightful. The problem here is that it is not always easy to find multiple translations of the same work. But there are valuable exceptions. Here is an example of a particularly special form of comparison. The opening seven and the last two lines of these two translations are juxtaposed:


What are we waiting for, gathered in the market place?

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?


The barbarians are to arrive today.

The barbarians are due here today.


Why so little activity in the senate?

Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?


Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?


Because the barbarians will arrive today.

Because the barbarians are coming today.


What laws should the senators make now?

What’s the point of the senators making laws now?


The barbarians, when they come, will do the legislating.

Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.



And now, what will become of us without the barbarians?

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?

They were a kind of solution.

Those people were a kind of solution.


The first translation of C.P. Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians”, was published in 1980; the second, in 1992. And one might readily detect that from the differences in diction. But what makes this comparison most intriguing and worthy of particular consideration is that they were both done by the same translators, Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. If one were going to translate this poem into Afrikaans, as Cas Vos has done recently, which text would one choose, if one weren’t working directly from the Greek original? One might even opt for a melange of lines drawn from both translations, depending on which line seemed the most “translatable”.

Equally informative are the perceptions translators themselves offer about translation. Unfortunately, it makes rather gloomy reading; there is no shortage of concurring opinions about the apparent failure of the whole translation enterprise.

Generally, there is something apologetic about their tone, especially when they are talking more specifically about the translations they have created. Jack Cope, for example, speaks of “the inadequacies translators always feel”. He goes on to say: “If translations cannot fully reflect the niceties of poetry or prose, at least one hopes they convey a sense of the meaning … and in general the vigour of expression in the original language.”

But such apprehension or anxiety is not a recent phenomenon. As far back as the seventeenth century, James Howell (c. 1594-1666) was already contributing to the sad litany:

Some hold translations not unlike to be

The wrong side of a Turkish tapestry.

If there was something sufficiently suspect about Turkish tapestries to make them a suitably sombre analogy for translations, the same was evidently true of their Flemish counterparts. In Chapter 62 of Don Quixote, Cervantes puts these words into the protagonist’s mouth:

But yet it seems to me that translating from one tongue into another, unless it is from those queens of tongues Greek and Latin, is like viewing Flemish tapestries from the wrong side; for although you see the pictures, they are covered with threads which obscure then so that the smoothness and gloss of the fabric is lost; and translating from easy languages argues no talent or power of words, any more than does transcribing or copying one paper from another. By that I do not mean to imply that this exercise of translation is not praiseworthy, for a man might be occupied in worse things and less profitable occupations.

Perhaps we should take strength from the idea of translation as a deterrent for social misdemeanour? One might even propose, albeit frivolously, that dubious social misconduct ought to be punished by a sentence of compulsory translation.

These gloomy themes persist pretty much to the present day. There is nothing like a translator’s preface to draw a melancholic pall over the day, so I shall refrain from reciting any more examples, although they seem ubiquitous in the profession.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his vast experience and accomplishment as a translator, Roy Campbell (amongst several others to whom the statement is attributed) once asserted: “Translations (like wives) are seldom faithful if they are in the least attractive.” Which probably says more about Campbell’s attitude towards women than towards translation.

Perhaps the apprehension some translators feel may be traced to some quite brutal understanding of translation. In discussing Ezra Pound’s version of Sextus Propertius, for example, J.P. Sullivan draws attention to the Italian maxim: Traducttore traditore (often translated as Translation is compromise), while Israel Ben-Yosef and Douglas Reis Skinner (in the introduction to their book of translation from modern Hebrew, interestingly titled Approximations) go so far as to say: redder est trader (to translate is to betray). If, indeed, compromise and betrayal are inherent in translating, then it is hardly surprising to find a certain reluctance to admit success. However, such assertions seem rather melodramatic when one considers the nitty-gritty of the process.


As we mentioned at the beginning, Paul Jennings once remarked that it is difficult to decide whether translators are heroes or fools. One wonders whether his words should be construed as synonymous or oxymoronic. Whatever the case, translation is what some of us feel driven to do, no matter how we might be labelled. If, as the pessimists tell us, translation is preordained failure, futility epitomised, unavoidable compromise, or even betrayal of a kind, it nevertheless brings worlds, cultures, and literatures to us that we cannot know in any other way.

Besides, translations are, by their very nature, transitory. But then, so too are translators.

(c) Tony Ullyatt / December 2014