Translating Winds and Currents

Acrylic on cardboard.

(Continued from )

An interesting feature of a translation is how “faithful” it is to the source text. Faithfulness (a slippery term) tends to be a matter of degree, to fluctuate as the translation goes forward. The translator, sailing his small boat, tacks as necessary to maintain a heading. Gauging how he inhabits the wind needs a vocabulary. Here’s one I’ve devised for comment on translated text:

Congruent: matches the source text fairly closely, with minimal liberties taken for readability.
: adds interpretive structure or content not discernible in the source text but plausibly deriving from it.
: carries the “expansive” element to a level not obviously supported by the source text.

Note the adverbs “fairly,” plausibly” and “obviously” used above; they signal choppy waters respecting rigor and consistency of application.

There’s a fourth and final label to be used sparingly because it suggests that the translation betrays the poem in some way — a bold allegation. The label is Transgressive.

This excerpt from ‘Song’ (1) applies the labels line-by-line for illustrative purposes. In practice, there’s little need to mark congruency — it’s the departures from it that illuminate. (The published version is in italics.)

Sang the spring —
[ḡannā-r-rabī^a —]
He sang springtime — [Congruent]

the flowers that grow
[‘al-azhāra-l-latī tanmū]
the flowers that open themselves [Expansive. Root n-m-w of tanmū is only “grow,” but the suggestion of “opening,” as in blooming is congenial to the context. I find the reflexive verb “open themselves” oddly specific. On the other hand, “grow” is flat and general. The poet was capable of writing the equivalent of “opening themselves” in Arabic, and did not. To what extent the translator is entitled to groom his rendering to make it spicier or more attractive to the ear of the target reader is a delicate issue. I cautiously favor submissiveness to the tone and tenor of the source so far as the translator can apprehend and reflect these.]

after a long night.
[min ba^di laylin ṭawīlin]
after a long night. [Congruent]

Sang the streets,
He sang the streets [Congruent]

did not sing the walls.
[lam yuḡanni-l-judrāna]
but he wouldn’t sing the hindering walls. [Inventive verging on Transgressive. The Arabic is starkly declarative and unconditioned preterite. The coordinating “but” is absent; in the translation it introduces a contrast.“Wouldn’t” lends a suggestion of rebellious intent, of refusal, a willful withholding of song by the singer. “Hindering” isn’t an exclusive trait of walls; they can also protect. It’s possible the epithet volunteered here becomes meaningful later in the poem. If so, is it fair for the translation to get ahead of things? If it doesn’t find subsequent validation, “hindering” seems all the more unsolicited.]

A pause for meditation: Hemingway thought he admired Dostoyevsky’s writing, but knew no Russian. It was translator Constance Garnett’s carved down version of the Russian’s prose into a trimmer English shape that constituted what the American was exposed to. He liked those short, declarative sentences that Dostoyevsky didn’t write. (2)

To be continued.



(1) Gilgamesh’s Snake and Other Poems, Ghareeb Iskander, Bilingual Edition, Translated from the Arabic by John Glenday and Ghareeb Iskander, Syracuse University Press, 2015.
(2) David Remnick, “The Translation Wars,” The New Yorker, 10-30-05):

(c) 2022 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day. I like to read and memorize poetry.
This entry was posted in Anthology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.