This was the view from my window a few days ago. I wrote once that I had always been presented with a difficult choice between some lovely scenery of my district and the ugly industrial sites overshadowing it.
Looking at this photo that came out rather well made me recall George Orwell’s admitting that industry can, in fact, be designed to look beautiful, in order to conceal everything that is unwholesome about it. And indeed, many plants and factories today are built to be pleasing to the eye. They are no longer those terrifying gigantic blocks of brick or steel; instead, they are often light in both colour and shape to look elegant and inviting. To the younger generations industry has nothing to do with unhealthy vapours, low pay and child labour.
The picture thus illustrates my favourite topic of what we choose to focus on. Considering this is the view I am most likely to see from my window, the question is: what do I look at? Do I look at the thermal electric station in the distance and pity myself, or do I look at the trees, the vast terrain and the sunset and enjoy the natural beauty?
Samuel J. Peploe – The Pink Dress. A Study of a Burmese Girl
I am reading a book by the famous Soviet writer and translator, Kornei Chukovsky. Among other things, he translated Walt Whitman into Russian. At some point he amassed all his observations and experience as a translator into a book on the subject, the one I am ploughing through now.
The problems that often haunt translators, especially who try to translate poetry, are those of equivalence and exactitude. On the one hand, we need to translate what is written, i.e. the words. On the other hand, we need to translate what was meant to be said, i.e. the meaning. Between the words and meaning usually sits an image that conveys an emotion – an altogether alien thing, if you dream of any sort of ‘scientific’ method to apply to the translation. As a result, some translators are carried away with the imagery of a poem, while others painstakingly render the words into the target language, with the hope that the reader, should she want so, will figure out the images and their emotional filling by herself.
According to Chukovsky, such should not be the case. A translator must aim at translating both the words and the ‘iconography’ of the poem, its emotional message, as well as meaning. I would also mention Goethe who said that a translator should reach for the un-translatable, in which case a true, accurate translation is at all possible. If we follow Goethe, this would mean that we need to first understand the imagery, emotions and meaning, before venturing to translate the words.
Chukovsky also studies various examples of correct and incorrect literary translations of poems. A great Russian Symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont, for instance (whom I love greatly as a poet in his own right), ‘Balmontised” Percy Bysshe Shelly so that Chukovsky jokingly says that the result was a new poet under the name of “Shelmont”. I have noticed in the past, and I guess this may have been his own method, that Balmont often expanded the poems, if they happened to be too short. As a result, Shelly who was sometimes short for words in a very English way became too eloquent and too Symbolist – just like Balmont.
Samuil Marshak, on another hand, would also occasionally be untrue to the exact words of the source poem. His gift, however, was in understanding the symbolic message of the original and the ability to convey it with the literary means of the target language. He was a great poet, after all.
I used his method when recently translating a poem Romance by George Orwell. I’ve been reading a lot of Orwell recently, and this particular poem has been translated a few times into Russian, but I do not think any translation is satisfactory, if only because nearly all of them thwart the Russian words one way too many. The story is very simple: a young soldier falls for a beautiful young girl, and wanting to satisfy himself and be good to her, offers her money in exchange for sex. The girl understands that one day or another a man would “know” her anyway, and since the soldier is asking kindly she raises the bar and instead of “twenty silver pieces” asks for “twenty five”.
This is a heart-rendering story of how Imperialism dehumanises relationships, even the most intimate, romantic and innocent of them. Now, the difference start with the title of the poem. “Romance” was widely translated as “романс”, a kind of Russian song, similar to the French chanson. I’d argue, however, that this not a song; I dare anyone to sing this “song” from the stage. Therefore, it is a romance in the sense of a romantic story, which is correct. None the characters in the poem is against another; the conflict is in the money that cynically underpins the story.
I omitted such “details” as Mandalay, for example; we’re already told that the soldier fell for a “Burmese girl”, and we know that Orwell did serve in Burma, so that will do. The comparisons he draws in the first two lines of the second stanza – “her skin was gold, her hair was jet, her teeth were ivory” – are rather banal (why should not a soldier be banal, anyway?) I reworded the lines as “her skin, and teeth, and jet-black hair are just like treasures”, which is correct, if we consider that gold and ivory were often found in treasure sites. And since the next two lines deal with the ‘sale’ of virginity, i.e. a kind of betrayal, I thought it best to translate “twenty silver pieces” in a way that clearly nods to the thirty silver pieces for which Judas had sold Jesus.
The third stanza is slightly more complex as it gives out so many clues as to what the girl feels: her voice is lisping, virgin, i.e. childish, her look is sad – but she realises that she is offered money for something precious, and she “stands out” for a higher price for this “treasure”. The verb indicates that she does not merely ask for more money, but sort of “pushes” the price. There is no indication if she was prepared to bargain, but this may well have been the case.