Translation Philosophies and Their Consequences: Part 1
I have written a number of times regarding translations of syllabic verse from other cultures in a manner that masks the syllabic nature of the original. I am particularly concerned with how this has impacted English speaking readers of Chinese poetry. It is my observation that almost all translations of Chinese poetry into English adopt a free verse line, even though the originals, particularly in classical Chinese poetry, consist of rhymed syllabic verse. The result of this is that there are many who have the strong impression that classical Chinese poetry was in some sense a precursor of contemporary free verse when the actual case is that classical Chinese poetry is one of the most constrained of formal verse traditions.
My concern with this is that it cuts off from those of us who are interested in formal syllabic verse a resource that could be potentially nourishing. To make a comparison, if the Italian Sonnet had been translated into English using free verse conventions, I doubt that the Sonnet would ever have taken root in English poetry. Similarly, whatever insights into how syllabic verse works that Chinese poetry has to offer the English poet are systematically hidden when classical Chinese poetry is translated using contemporary free verse conventions.
In this post I’d like to touch on how this has come about. The touchstone for this is to understand that there are a number of translation philosophies. And that the adoption of a particular translation philosophy leads to different results when translating the same work. In the second part I hope to show how these different approaches work in different translations of the Japanese work, “100 Poems by 100 Poets”, or “Hyakunin Isshu”, also known as the “Ogura Hyakunin Isshu”.
Broadly speaking there are two approaches to translation. The first one is often referred to as ‘literal’ or ‘word-for-word’. There are other names for this approach as well, but for this essay these will do. The basic idea in this approach is that the translator should, as closely as possible, given the constraints of the language being translated into, match the original ‘word-for-word’. In practice this ideal is not literally achievable by even those most committed to this philosophy of translation. But it is a motivating ideal, nevertheless. A translator holding this philosophy will attempt to adhere as closely as possible to the original text, only deviating from it when adhering to such an approach too strictly will generate incoherence. For example, Japanese word order is commonly subject-object-verb, while English word order is ordinarily subject-verb-object. In this case word order would be changed because adhering to the Japanese word order would cause unnecessary confusion. So we are talking about a guiding principle which should not be overstated or overinterpreted. Strictly literal translations are to be found in what are called ‘interlineal’ translations; where the original is on one line and immediately underneath will be an English translation of each word as it appears in the original. Interlineals are used by scholars for various reasons, but they are not read for pleasure or for comprehension. Again, as a translation philosophy, a ‘literal’, or ‘word-for-word’ approach implies that the translator will adhere as closely as possible to the vocabulary, diction, syntax, and form of the original, while at the same time hoping to make the translation meaningful in English.
The second approach is often referred to as ‘meaning-for-meaning’. Often translators who adopt this view refer to it as ‘dynamic equivalence’. I like to simply call it ‘meaning based’. The basic idea here is for the translator to grasp the meaning of the original and then find an appropriate, similar, meaning in English. Such an approach can deviate significantly from the original in terms of vocabulary, syntax, diction, sentence structure, etc. Even so, meaning based translators often feel they have captured the original more accurately than those who follow a word-for-word approach.
It is perhaps clear that almost all translations of classical Chinese poetry into English follow the meaning based approach. That is why the translators are unconcerned with the absence of any formal correlation between their translations and the original. Because ‘meaning’ in this context means conceptual meaning. I can’t stress this enough: for the meaning based translator form has no meaning and can be ignored. It is the conceptual meaning of the poem which must be grasped and translated. That is considered to be sufficient.
The two philosophies are not mutually exclusive. At times the literal translator must defer to a more meaning based approach. And at times the meaning based translator has to pay attention to the actual vocabulary and structure of the text in order to give the translation something of the idiosyncratic voice of the author. Nevertheless, translators tend to more strongly align with one or the other of these approaches.
The greatest work in the English language of a literal translation is the King James Bible. David Norton, one of the foremost contemporary King James Bible scholars refers to the KJB as ‘a triumph of judicious – rather than slavish – literal translation’ (The King James Bible, David Norton, page 199). The degree to which the translators adhered as much as possible to the originals is surprising, even astonishing. To give one example, the construction ‘noun+of+noun’ mimics the originals. It is not something found in Elizabethan English (a mistake people often make). For example, instead of saying ‘strong man’, the translators might choose ‘man of strength’. And instead of ‘most vain’, they used ‘vanity of vanities’. This is an actual mimicking of the underlying originals. What is surprising is how successfully it works in English. What this indicates is that in some cases, translators of poetry might successfully mimic syntactical features of the original language in English even if those features are not standard English. Needless to say this should be done judiciously; but there are times when it would work.
The success of the KJB, its placement for about 300 years at the center of the English speaking world, buttressed the literal translation philosophy. In fact a literal approach was taken for granted for a long period of time. But beginning in the post-war period, the meaning based approach began to make headway. Interestingly, this philosophy first left its mark in modern Bible translations, and then spread to the rest of academia; including the world of poetry translation.
For those of us interested in the potential of syllabic poetry in English, and looking for resources in syllabic traditions, it is helpful to be aware of these different philosophies and the consequences of adopting one or the other. An example of a literal, or word-for-word approach would be Helen Craig McCullough and her translation of the Waka Kokinshu. It is a triumph of judicious literal translation from the Japanese into English. And the great virtue of this work is that it demonstrates that the formal elements of Japanese poetry, in particular the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabics, work in English.
An example which begins moving towards a meaning based translation would be Jane Hirshfield’s translation of Ono-no-Komachi’s and Izumi Shikibu’s Tanka, ‘The Ink Dark Moon’. The translations are beautiful. But notice how some of the formal features of Japanese poetry are lost. Again, this is because for the meaning based translator form has no meaning and can be ignored as long as one captures the essential thought. To be fair, though, Hirshfield's approach does retain some commitment to formal elements of the Tanka in that her translations retain the traditional five line format.
Again, these two philosophies are not mutually exclusive and in observing any particular translation one can see both views operative at different times. It’s a matter of emphasis. McCullough’s translation indicates a strong commitment to a literal translation philosophy. With Jane Hirshfield’s ‘Ink Dark Moon’ we move away from a strong adherence to a literal translation philosophy, taking steps towards a meaning based approach. This is seen in Hirshfield’s lack of a syllabic commitment in her translations; that is to say her translations, unlike McCullough’s do not adhere to the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure. At another level, though, Hirshfield does acquiesce to the original formal structure in that Hirshfield mimics the traditional five line structure in her translations. Finally, with Peter McMillan’s translation of the ‘Ogura Hykunin Isshu’, or ‘One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each’, we observe a completely meaning based approach. McMillan abandons all of the traditional formal parameters of Japanese Tanka; syllable count is unconstrained and a free verse line is substituted for a formal line; and the five-line count is also abandoned. McMillan’s line counts range from four to 31 lines. All connection to the formal tradition of Tanka has been eliminated.
The debate between these two approaches continues to unfold. My view is that they each have their merits. But, for those interested in syllabics, a literal approach has more to offer in terms of being able to learn the specifics of a syllabic approach to poetry, particularly if one is interested in formal syllabics; by which I mean specific forms with specific line and syllable counts.
In part two I’m going to compare three translations of ‘100 Poets, One Poem Each’. This work has been translated numerous times into English (and there are more on the way). I have chosen one which mimics the Japanese formal structure; it is by Tom Galt. Another one is the one by Peter McMillan mentioned above and is meaning based. And the third by William Porter takes a third approach which I think is worth looking at.
In closing Part 1, I want to make one observation about my own view of human language and translating across linguistic divides so that the reader will understand where I am coming from. It is common today for translators to speak of the great difficulty of transmitting meaning from one linguistic context to another. This is often stressed by meaning based translators in particular, but is not confined to this approach. I want to suggest that this may be exaggerated. Personally, I think people are much the same the world over; and that they were much the same in the past as in the present. People and cultures aren’t really that different. They have their loves, hates, families, feuds, wars, reconciliations, lusts and obsessions wherever you go. Every culture has its Saints and Sages, as well as those who embody malevolence. Though it is widely believed today that linguistic structure encodes certain meanings which are difficult, or even impossible, to transmit to other linguistic contexts, I am skeptical of this idea.
There are certain areas, for example, where a translation is considered to be completely efficacious. Euclid’s ‘Elements’ is a stellar example of this. That is to say an English, Russian, or Japanese translation from the Greek original fully captures the meaning. No Geometry professor insists that students must read the original in order to comprehend Geometry.
Yet it is commonly assumed that one must read the original of a literary work in order to ‘fully’ understand it. I am aware that there are significant differences between a mathematical work like the ‘Elements’ and a literary work like the ‘Waka Kokinshu’. And these are differences in how meaning is communicated. Still, I have gradually come to the view that we have, as a culture, exaggerated the idea that language creates a chasm between people, a chasm in understanding that cannot be bridged. Personally, I think we are all more alike than different and the ways that we speak are more shared than we might, at first, think.