Posts Tagged ‘translation’

Struggling with Hofstadter

Friday, 1 October, 2010

I’m still working my way through Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau de Marot, mentioned twice before. I set it aside for several weeks because it was just getting too painful to keep reading it. I picked it up again this week.

I wanted to like this book, I really did. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach is a true work of genius, and I’ve enjoyed a couple of his other books. And this book, Le Ton Beau de Marot, has all the hallmarks of being something I would really love. It’s about translation, which I am interested in, and particularly the difficulties of doing a faithful job of translating that captures the “true spirit” of the original, which is an aspect that I also am particularly interested in. And Hofstadter wrote this book as a healing epiphany after the tragic loss of his beloved wife, and it is sprinkled with anecdotes about their life together and how they relate to a shared love of language. It should by turns be poignant and moving and inspired and intelligent and well-argued and full of little details that have you marvelling at what a great writer Hofstadter is.

But I am struggling to get through it. And not in the good way that I struggled with Gödel, Escher, Bach, which requires concentration and clarity and deep thought to absorb the import of what is being said. I’m struggling with Le Ton Beau de Marot because Hofstadter appears to have written a curmudgeonly and unapologetically polemic screed that promotes his own opinions about translation as incontrovertible, obvious, and inviolable for any reason whatsoever, and he attacks without mercy any and all authors who disagree with his stance. His stance, moreover, is built on a house of cards.

Basically, Hofstadter’s opinion can be summarised as: a translation MUST preserve the form of the original, otherwise it’s weak, limp, unworthy, a cop-out, a travesty, and of absolutely no worth whatsoever. In particular, through exhaustive examples, he hammers home the point that a translation of a rhyming poem must also rhyme, even if that demands sacrificing some of the meaning of the original to enforce the rhyme in the new language.

From small poems he than launches into an analysis of English translations of Eugene Onegin, the classic Russian novel, written by Alexander Pushkin in verse. There have been several English translations which preserve Pushkin’s verse structure, and which Hofstadter applauds to various degrees. But there is also a well-known English translation by Vladimir Nabokov, which is an attempt to preserve as much of the meaning of Pushkin as possible, line by line, but sacrificing the rhyming verse structure. Hoftsatder is scathing in his excoriation of how ridiculous this so-called “translation” is.

The really sad thing about all of this is that Hofstadter then goes on to describe how Nabokov also wrote an extensive accompanying volume about how he approached his translation of Eugene Onegin, in which Nabokov ridicules the verse translations as unworthy travesties, and how only a more literal-minded non-verse translation can possibly convey the true essence of Pushkin’s novel to an English speaker. Hofstatder absolutely rips this opinion to pieces, blind to the irony of himself doing exactly the same thing as Pushkin, just with the opinion reversed! It’s even worse because Hofstatder actually admits that he has found Nabokov’s translation helpful to understand the true literal intention of Pushkin’s original Russian when comparing different verse translation versions to understand where their differences and divergences come from – while at the same time saying that Nabokov’s translation is a useless travesty of the original!

If Hofstatder is deliberately setting himself up as an overblown and ridiculous straw man, only to later in the book knock himself down as an example of how uncompromising black and white thinking cannot be applied to such a fluid and dynamic problem as translation, then he is doing a brilliant job. Because at this point of the book, I find his argument not only unsustainable and full of logical holes, but also rude, crude, and downright offensive. Surely the man can see that he’s using the same bitter and vindictive argument that he is criticising as unsupportable?

I don’t know what continuing to the end of this book will bring. There is interesting material about translation, to be sure, and it’s fascinating to read those nuggets. But the more I progress, the more I find myself losing respect for Hofstatder, and that’s an extremely painful thing to find happening, both after the brilliance of Gödel, Escher, Bach and given the fact that Le Ton Beau de Marot is his tribute to his dead wife. I’m finding this an extremely sad book, but for all the wrong reasons.

Has Hofstadter changed?

Tuesday, 27 July, 2010

So I’m working my way through the early chapters of Le Ton Beau de Marot, as mentioned earlier. While I’m finding Douglas Hofstadter’s writing as fascinating and thought-provoking as ever, I ran into such a severe pothole in the road that I’m left puzzling about this book and wondering if his personality has changed completely since his earlier works.

The book is about translation. In Chapter 3 he recounts a story about translating a science fiction story by Stanislaw Lem from Polish. The story poses a thorny linguistic problem in any attempt to translate it to another language, concerning the spelling of words in a way that is important to the plot. A straightforward English translation would not work, because one crucial word is spelled too differently from its Polish equivalent. Presumably this is why Hofstadter chose to recount the tale, as it provides an interesting demonstration of the difficulties translators face.

Anyway, he begins by offering his own translation of a few paragraphs into English (done when he was learning Polish), and his solution to the problem. He then offers translations by two other people, each of whom approaches the problem in a different way, by tweaking different elements of the story. Hofstadter then lists the solutions, plus three other possible approaches – two of which he says, point blank, are “barely plausible, fairly desperate manoeuvres”.

He then lists five more possible approaches to the translation problem, the first of which is to simply translate the problematic word into its literal English equivalent and add a footnote to the effect that in the original Polish the word was spelled in such-and-such a way, which makes the plot-important spelling aspect of the story work. Now to me this seems a perfectly valid approach to this difficult translation issue. Admittedly perhaps not the best approach, but certainly one that preserves the original intent of the author and explains to the reader exactly what is happening, and which does not materially alter the story since the reader is made aware of the issue and can understand what’s happened.

Hofstadter, however, completely dismisses this approach as a “total wimp-out”. He rants:

you will meet translators, some famous, who prefer to translate in just that style, and some of whom even try, using pompous scholarly language, to demonstrate the superiority of their wimp-stance. This option is sad.

What? Since when did Douglas Hofstadter become so monumentally pompous and judgemental himself? I was so appalled by this display of arrogance by Hofstadter that I was moved to rant about it myself, to my friends at work, and now to you. Hofstatder himself, in his attempt at translating Lem’s story, changed some of the plot elements and worked in a barely plausible shovelling under the carpet of a considerable linguistic flaw, just to avoid having to admit to the reader that here was a bit of wordplay that he couldn’t translate faithfully from one language into another. Surely his entire point in this book is going to be that translation is a difficult job, and perhaps sometimes it’s actually a good idea to present a literal version, with notes explaining that in the original language there was some additional nuance of wordplay that cannot easily be expressed in English? I would expect that someone as deeply interested and fascinated by translation as Douglas Hofstadter must surely appreciate the enormous difficulty of the task, and that footnotes may sometimes be necessary.

Sure, this is not the best approach in all cases. If you want something poetic, then a poetic translation that plays a bit loose with the literal meaning is worth pursuing. But that’s not the be-all and end-all of translation. Sometimes the literal meaning is important, and the reader wants the understanding that this is a translation from an original that may contain deeper levels of subtlety, even if that subtlety cannot easily be conveyed in English without footnotes. Surely…. surely… surely Hofstadter understands this? Surely he cannot be so vehemently against one method of translating that he’s resorting to calling people names about it??

As I said, I was so stunned by this apparent close-minded aberration from an admired author, that I felt the need to share my amazement. A friend suggested to me that perhaps Hofstatder has been too clever for me. He is setting himself up as a ridiculous straw man, and will reveal later in the book that his initial opinions on translation were naive, that translation is such a difficult task that sometimes you simply can’t do it perfectly, and that a footnoted literal version is indeed a valid approach. And you know, having seen the sorts of tricks that Hofstadter plays in his books, I wouldn’t put it past him. I guess I shall see as I continue reading.

Ma Mignonne

Monday, 19 July, 2010

I’ve begun reading Douglas Hofstadter’s book Le Ton Beau de Marot. I’m barely one chapter in, and I’m starkly reminded of just how much hard work it was to read through his earlier book, Gödel, Escher, Bach. That book required a clear state of mind, full concentration, and a considerable amount of cogitation and effort to read, to absorb, and to appreciate.

This new book is about translation between languages and the intricate interplay of semantic and structural difficulties that this problem brings to anyone who tries to do it. The book is framed around a French poem, Ma Mignonne, by the 16th century poet Clément Marot. Without having “cheated” by glancing past the first chapter, I understand that the book will present dozens of different translations into English of this one short poem, accompanied by discussions of the issues involved and the adjustments that need to be made to make one language conform to both the shape and the meaning of another.

So at the end of Chapter One, which presents a brief outline of Marot’s life, Hofstadter presents the original Ma Mignonne in French, then a handful of translations into English. These translations are more or less literal, conveying much of the meaning of the poem but failing to reproduce its structure. The chapter ends with a request to the reader to attempt your own translation of the poem into English, assuring you that you already know enough to make a first attempt. Yes, just like GEB, this book asks you to do homework. And in all fairness to the book and to Professor Hofstadter, I feel compelled to complete the homework before continuing to Chapter Two.

So I’m about to present my translation of Ma Mignonne. But first, the original poem for anyone who has never seen it:

A une Damoyselle Malade

Ma mignonne,
Je vous donne
Le bon jour;
Le séjour
C’est prison.
Puis ouvrez
Votre porte
Et qu’on sorte
Car Clément
Le vous mande.
Va, friande
De ta bouche,
Qui se couche
En danger
Pour manger
Si tu dures
Trop malade,
Couleur fade
Tu prendras,
Et perdras
Dieu te doint
Santé bonne,
Ma mignonne.

Here is the basic, literal translation that Hofstadter provides to get you started in understanding what this poem says:

To a Sick Damsel

My sweet
I bid you
A good day;
The stay
Is prison.
Then open
Your door,
And go out
For Clément
Tells you to.
Go, indulger
Of thy mouth,
Lying abed
In danger,
Off to eat
Fruit preserves;
If thou stay’st
Too sick,
Pale shade
Thou wilt acquire,
And wilt lose
Thy plump form.
God grant thee
Good health,
My sweet.

Hofstadter explicitly points out the following points of structure for this poem in Chapter One:

  • The poem is 28 lines long.
  • Each line consists of three syllables.
  • Each line’s main stress falls on its final syllable.
  • The poem is a string of rhyming couplets: AA, BB, CC, …
  • The semantic couplets are out of phase with the rhyming couplets: A, AB, BC, …
  • Midway, the tone changes from formal (“vous”) to in­for­mal (“tu”).
  • The poem’s opening line is echoed precisely at the very bottom.
  • The poet puts his own name directly into his poem.

His literal translation clearly violates most of these. He does not ask that translators adhere strictly to all of these points, but wants to make sure you’re aware of them so that if you break one, you’re doing it knowingly.

I now offer my own translation, in which I have attempted to satisfy as many of the structural elements as I can, but sacrificing some slight changes in exact semantic meaning to achieve this. This is entirely my own work. I have not yet read beyond Chapter One of Le Ton Beau de Marot, nor have I sought or seen any other attempted translations of this poem online yet – though I have no doubt at all that hundreds of them must exist as other readers attempt this task and share their efforts. So it is a wholly original composition, but I would not be surprised if some lines echo lines in other people’s versions. Without further ado:

To A Sick Girl

My dear child,
Such a mild
Day outside:
Time you bide
Is duress.
I do bless
Your swift cure,
Then the lure
Of fresh air
Shows you where
You should be;
David’s plea
Is just this.
Go, young miss
Of sweet tooth,
Ill in truth,
Under threat,
Off to get
A pale shade
You will gain,
If your pain
Lasts too long,
And your strong
Form will flee.
God’s grace be
On you smiled,
My dear child.

Right. Homework completed. On the Chapter Two!