26 October 2006

Of lightning and lightning bugs

As Mark Twain famously quipped, "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning."

Margaret Jull Costa (translator of books by José Saramago, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Luis Fernando Verissimo, Javier Marías, Ramón del Valle-Inclán, and Fernando Pessoa) offers a fascinating translation exercise, based on one of my favorite passages of Pessoa's:
Pasmo sempre quando acabo qualquer coisa. Pasmo e desolo-me. O meu instinto de perfeição deveria inhibir-me de acabar; deveria inhibir-me de dar começo. Mas distraio-me e faço. O que consigo é um produto, em mim, não de uma aplicação da vontade, mas de uma cedência dela. Começo porque não tenho força para pensar; acabo porque não tenho alma oara suspender. Este livro é a minha cobardia.
She offers a literal translation (for those of us who don't speak Portuguese), with multiple word-choice options, and asks:
How will you translate 'alma' - 'soul' 'heart', 'courage', 'guts'? What should you do with the last sentence?

Read your finished version of the whole text out loud. Does the language flow, does it have the right cadence and rhythm?

Are there any awkward juxtapositions of sounds or unnecessary repetitions of words?
What can you come up with?

After a brief discussion on the points raised, she offers some final thoughts:
What I hope this workshop has made clear is that while there is no single correct translation or version of a text, that certainly does not mean that any translation will do. Translation is always a balancing act between faithfulness to letter and faithfulness to spirit. You have to understand what the author means not only at the level of denotation, but also of connotation. You have to be aware of the sound of words and their register, as well as the rhythm and sound of the sentence in the translated version, so that the finished product is as cogent, fluent and convincing in the new language as it is in the original.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That is wonderful