I would like to return to a topic I wrote about many moons ago, and that reared its ugsome head once again as I was reading Umberto Eco’s book Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation (Phoenix, 2003). The book is a series of essays on various aspects of translation, material which he had presented at the Weidenfeld Lectures at Oxford in 2002. On the whole it is quite useful as an introduction to many of the questions literary translators will face. A few sections of the book struck me as dull but this is perhaps to be expected… In the introduction he states his conviction that “in addition to having made an intensive study of translations […] translation scholars should have had at least one of the following experiences during their life: translating, checking and editing translations, or being translated and working in close co-operation with their translators” (1). As someone who has been in all three of these positions, he has a somewhat unique perspective on matters of translation.
What I want to focus on are just a couple pages in the book that gobsmacked me, in particular a single line translated by the late, celebrated Italian-to-English translator William Weaver.
Discussing the problems of translating “profanities or vulgar expressions” into different languages, Eco states,
There are languages (and cultures) in which it is customary frequently to name God, the Virgin and all the saints by associating their name with vulgar expressions (usually this happens in Catholic countries like Italy and Spain); others that are pretty indulgent with curses related to sexual and scatological affairs; and others that are definitely more demure or at least extremely thrifty in mentioning Our Lord and His saints. Thus an exclamation that in Italian can sound acceptable (at most very rude but not unusual) in German would sound intolerably blasphemous. (39)
To illustrate this, he looks at how his various translators have dealt with a line from his novel Baudolino. Eco describes the scene in which the line occurs, before giving us the blasphemous line and its six different translations:
In the second chapter […] Baudolino, on his horse, enters the Church of St. Sophia in Constantinople, and to express his indignation for the simoniac behaviour of the crusaders who are pillaging the altar cloths and holy vessels, shouts some horrible profanities. The effect, at least in Italian is intended to be grotesque because Baudolino, in order to charge the crusaders with blasphemy, utters words that Our Lord would not approve of. But to an Italian reader Baudolino appears as a scandalised (albeit excited) good Christian, and not as a follower of the Antichrist. (39-40)
Here is the line Baudolino delivers, followed by the various published translations:
Ventrediddio, madonna lupa, mortediddio, schifosi bestemmiatori, maiali simoniaci, è questo il modo di trattare le cose di nostrosignore?
Ventredieu, viergelouve, mordiou, rèpugnante sacrilèges, porcs de simoniaques, c’est la manière de traiter les choses de nostreseigneur? (French, trans. Schifano)
Ventrediós, virgenloba, muertediós, asquerosos blasfemadores, cerdos simoníacos, es ésta la manera de tratar las cosa de nuestroseñor? (Spanish, trans. Lozano)
Ventre de deus, mäe de deus, morete de deus, nojentos blasfemadores, porcos simoníacos, é este o modo de tratar las coisas de Nosso Senhor? (Portuguese/Brazilian, trans. Lucchesi)
Pelventre dedéu, maredédeudellsops, perlamortededèu, blasfemadores fastigosos, porcos simoníacs, aquesta és manera de tractar les coses de nostre Senyor? (Catalan, trans. Arenas Noguera)
Gottverfluchte Saubande, Lumpenpack, Hurenböcke, Himmelsakra, ist das die Art, wie man mit den Dingen unseres Herrn umgeht? (German, trans. Kroeber)
God’s belly! By the Virgin! ‘sdeath! Filthy blasphemers, simonist pigs! Is this any way to treat the things of our lord? (English, trans. William Weaver)
Eco’s point in collating these translations is that the French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan translators faced no problem at all — they could for the most part rely on cognates and did not have to worry about a tonal or truly blasphemic shift in meaning that would occur. Weaver, Eco says, “tried to be as blasphemous as an English speaker can be” (40), and as we can see he mitigated the effect a truly literal translation from the Italian would have had. The German translator has avoided any perception of blasphemy altogether, in line with the tendencies of the German language and culture, and his strongest curse is Himmelsakra, “Heavens and Sacrament” (not so strong, Eco tells us). “This is another case in which the translator must accept a definitive loss,” Eco concludes.
Curiously, Eco passes over Weaver’s use of four exclamation points, where there were none in the original, and none in the various translations, without so much as a mention of them. I have not read Eco’s Baudolino but to me those exclamation points are quite jarring and they suggest another register altogether than the one Eco intended — one of ridiculous puppetry and farce. Is Baudolino like that? I can’t say. But my rule of thumb when it comes to translation is to observe the punctuation tendencies of the original as much as possible. Not only has Weaver added exclamation marks and changed the tone of the passage, he has also broken up a single, sentence-like unit of words into five choppy ejaculations.
One might object that Weaver did the best he could under the circumstances and that the exclamation points were a necessary negotiation. Perhaps, perhaps. What I see is an attempt to do the reader’s work for him/her — the original lets the reader sense the exclamatory nature of the remarks from their content, whereas the English translator red-flags it. Moreover, since the text is a pseudo-historical one, I would think it is relevant whether or not exclamation points here are historically verisimilar — I would say it is extremely rare if not impossible for exclamation points to occur in any usage from the time period Baudolino draws on, that of the 12th century. It would appear rather that the exclamation mark “was first introduced into English printing in the 15th century” (if we are to believe the encyclopedia I have nearest to hand). What is most surprising to me about all this is that Eco didn’t find Weaver’s deviation from the punctuation of the original worthy of remark.
Punctuation, or lack thereof, is an aspect of written language, and any theory or methodology of translation must account for it.
While working through successive drafts of my first book-length translation, I went back and forth at times about how to treat punctuation. There were some very long sentences containing commas, and at times I wanted to make them into semicolons. After discussing the matter with the author of the text I was translating and the publisher of my translation, I decided it was probably best to respect the original punctuation as much as possible.
It may be slightly more common in French than in English to string together independent clauses using a comma. That said, many native writers of English favor the comma over the semicolon, never or hardly ever using the latter, and also have no qualms about so-called run-on sentences. And conversely, many native writers of French make ample use of the semicolon. So, while there are some generalizations that can be made about the way native speakers of French and English use punctuation, I think nevertheless that the usage is not radically different. Individual authors may use punctuation idiosyncratically, and I think as a rule efforts should be made to respect original punctuation.
A case study: after checking out Go Figure by Réjean Ducharme (trans. Will Browning, Talonbooks, 2003) from the library today, I compared the first paragraph to that of the original.
Tu l’as dit Mamie, la vie il n’y a pas d’avenir là-dedans, il faut investir ailleurs. On le savait mais ça ne mordait pas. On avait le compteur trop enflé, les roues dentées ne s’engrenaient pas. On planait : c’est un état où on a beau n’avoir pas d’ailes on ne sent pas son poids d’enclume. On tenait à un fil. On ne tiendra plus à rien, c’est promis. Blottis dans le trou qu’on a creusé en s’écrasant, on a compris. On est plus doués pour s’ancrer. On ne risque rien à s’enfoncer un peu mieux en se serrant plus fort dans le lit du courant. Ça peut toujours s’emballer, en crue, en débâcle, on ne se fera pas avoir, ça ne nous en fera pas accroire.
You said it, Mammy, there’s just no future in life, we’ve got to invest elsewhere. We knew it, but it didn’t sink in. The engine was racing; the gearwheels wouldn’t engage. We had our head in the clouds: it’s a state in which it makes no difference that we have no wings, we don’t feel the anvil of our own weight. We were hanging by a thread. We won’t hang on to anything anymore — that’s a promise. Hunkered down in the hole that we hollowed out when we crashed, we’ve got it figured out. We have more talent for taking root. We risk nothing by sinking in a bit deeper while snuggling up closer to each other in the river bed. The waters may break, in a flash flood, in a debacle; we won’t let ourselves be duped; they won’t pull the wool over our eyes.
The original uses no semicolons, whereas the English has three (each of them replacing a comma). He also converts a comma into an em dash, and adds in two new commas. (Actually, if you count the first sentence — “You said it, Mammie” — three.)
Right now I’m trying to gauge whether these changes are improvements for the reader. One thing is clear, which is that they weren’t necessary changes; the text would still be as comprehensible if the original punctuation had been respected.
Browning’s translation, if it followed the original punctuation to a T, would look like this:
You said it Mammy, there’s just no future in life, we’ve got to invest elsewhere. We knew it but it didn’t sink in. The engine was racing, the gearwheels wouldn’t engage. We had our head in the clouds: it’s a state in which it makes no difference that we have no wings we don’t feel the anvil of our own weight. We were hanging by a thread. We won’t hang on to anything anymore, that’s a promise. Hunkered down in the hole that we hollowed out when we crashed, we’ve got it figured out. We have more talent for taking root. We risk nothing by sinking in a bit deeper while snuggling up closer to each other in the river bed. The waters may break, in a flash flood, in a debacle, we won’t let ourselves be duped, they won’t pull the wool over our eyes.
My point in writing this post isn’t to call out a noble translator, Will Browning (who has translated and continues to translate much of Ducharme’s work) for what I see as some egregious error. I don’t see the modification of the original punctuation so clearly as all that.
I understand that the fidelity of the translator is often a fidelity to the self-consistency of the translation, not just the original alone. And I also know that editors can be a little, oh, anal about punctuation. And that a translation is never just a literal transcription of a text. But I also wonder what it means to respect and stay faithful to an original.
I’m going to continue to reflect on this and, who knows, if we’re lucky I may post again soon on a related vexatious punctuation-in-translation topic: the dubious, idiosyncratic French colon.
If anyone wants to chime in as to their feelings about punctuation, I am all ears.