In his book, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, author Adam Nicolson makes, within parentheses, a tendentious claim about the King James Bible translation.
“Its great and majestic beauties, a conscious heightening of the word of God (often far more grandly expressed in Jacobean English than in earlier English translations or in the Hebrew or Greek of the original) is a window on that moment of optimism, in which the light of understanding and the majesty of God could be united in a text to which the nation as a whole,…could subscribe.”
The provocative part of Nicolson’s claim is not what he says about earlier English translations. Who can argue that the King James’ “Cast thy bread upon the waters” is not far more grandly expressed than the “Lay thy bread vpon wette faces” rendering of the 1568 Bishops’ Bible? But is it more grandly expressed than the Hebrew: שַׁלַּ֥ח לַחְמְךָ֖ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י הַמָּ֑יִם? And what does Nicolson even mean when he says “more grandly expressed?” He doesn’t say.
I am reminded of an amusing episode in Cervantes’ Don Quixote. It occurs in Chapter XXXI in Part I of the book. The Don has dispatched his servant Sancho Panza with a letter for Dulcinea, the woman who represents the ideal of feminine perfection in his imagination. In truth, Dulcinea is a “real,” earthy, peasant woman named Aldonza Lorenzo, quite the opposite of the picture Don Quixote has in his imagination. Upon Sancho’s return from his mission, the Don inquires how things went. Here’s an extended excerpt to illustrate the point.
“When you arrived, what was that queen of beauty doing? Surely you found her stringing pearls, or embroidering some heraldic device in gold thread for this her captive knight.” “I didn’t find her doing anything,” responded Sancho, “except winnowing two fanegas of wheat in a corral of her house.” “Well, you may be sure,” said Don Quixote, “that, touched by her hands, the grains of wheat were pearls. And did you notice, my friend, if it was white wheat or ordinary spring wheat?” “It was just buckwheat,” responded Sancho. “Well, I assure you,” said Don Quixote, “that winnowed by her hands, it undoubtedly made the finest white bread. But go on: when you gave her my letter, did she kiss it? Did she place it on her head? Did she engage in some ceremony worthy of such a letter? What did she do?” “When I was about to give it to her,” responded Sancho, “she was in the middle of shaking a good part of the wheat that she had in the sieve, and she said to me: ‘Friend, put the letter on that sack; I can’t read it until I finish sifting everything I have here.’” “A wise lady!” said Don Quixote. “That must have been so that she could read it slowly and savor it. Go on, Sancho. And while she was engaged in her task, what discourse did she have with you? What did she ask about me? And you, what did you respond? Come, tell me everything; do not leave even a half-note in the inkwell.”Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, translated by Edith Grossman
The Don’s “translations” of his servant’s answers are, if you will, an excellent example of words, understandings, meanings, or reasons, far more grandly expressed or understood in translation than in the original.
I don’t want to consider Nicolson’s claim concerning the King James translation of the Bible in any more detail. However, he raises an interesting question if we look at his point in the context of secular writing. Is it possible for a translation to be better than the work translated? “Better than,” is relative to the type of source text. Can the target language for translation of a technical manual, for example, provide more explicit instructions than the source text? I should add, “and still be a translation.”
Can the rendering of a literary work from a French original into English stimulate a more significant aesthetic response than the original work? Does it make sense to ask if C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way evokes a more intense literary experience than reading Proust’s original? Of course, we have to assume that we have a reader equally fluent in both the original and translated languages to answer the question. Can such a reader be more moved by the translated text than the source text? It seems possible to me. But if so, how is it possible?
In his insightful introduction to the late Michael Henry Heim’s translation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Michael Cunningham suggests an understanding of how such an enhanced aesthetic experience is possible. He begins with a bold statement: “All novels are translations, even in their original languages.” For Cunningham, the original work is not the text. Instead, it is a translation of something else, a striving to put into words thoughts, ideas, feelings, and emotions—what the author “saw,” the novel’s raw material.
If what Cunningham says is true, a remarkable conclusion follows. He continues: “Fiction is, then, at least to me, an ongoing process of translation (and mistranslation), beginning with the writer’s earliest impulses and continuing through its rendering into Icelandic or Korean or Catalan. Writers and translators are engaged in the same effort, at different stages along the line.”
Engaged in the same effort! Wow. So, what does this mean? Well, for one thing, when reading a translation of Cervantes or Proust or whoever into your native language, you need not feel that you are necessarily enjoying an aesthetic experience diminished or inferior to that of reading the work in the original. You’re having a different one, perhaps, but you needn’t apologize.
Nicolson’s and Cunningham’s ideas suggest what I would like to call a Platonic Theory of Translation. A theory in which the translated subject is not a text but a Platonic form. I will reserve discussion of that topic for a future post.
All the best,
Thank you for this thoughtful piece. I understand that for some of us, existence is a continuous creation, like electric current; not a collection of discrete objects, like lamps. In that spirit, maybe we can consider translation by reader or writer the same way. Today you read the “same” translation differently from the way you read it two years ago.
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Excellent point, Orrin.
I think any good translation is as good a work of art as the original (I have read very bad translations that just don’t flow in English, though I am aware that some languages are just more difficult to translate than others). The most interesting translation of a novel for me is that of George Perec’s La Disparition (lit. “The Disappearance”) translated into English as A Void. The original French is written without using the letter E, the English translation without using the letter A. So the two versions must by definition be different stories. I wish my French was good enough to read the original and do a comparison.
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