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Thoughts on translation


n confronting the poem, Fable ou histoire, the first thing one notices, almost unavoidably, is the title. This title is useful, both to the reader, and to the translator. The word fable transports the educated anglophone reader quickly to the land of Aesop, a land where animals act suspiciously like humans, and in the process teach lessons about humans. The French reader will more likely think of LaFontaine, but this is no great shakes since a) LaFontaine drew on the tradition of Aesop and b) he taught many of the same lessons - i.e. the concept of fable is relatively unified between the two traditions. The second part of the title - or history - serves to underscore that this is really about actual people. The information contained in the title gives the translator some important clues. First of all, it assures that just because an animal is acting like a human doesn't mean the translation is off. Secondly, it lets the translator know that he/she has a choice to make: Should the translation be literal? Or should it make allowances for the fact that different cultures ascribe different characteristics to animals, even if it requires changing the animals involved? Fortunately, the tiger and monkey are not drastically different between French and American culture.

Having determined a little something about the perspective of the poem and its implied tenor, we next confront one of the ugliest questions a translator deals with in poetry: form or function? Do we want Hugo's rhyme and meter, or his meaning? It sometimes seems that the two are irreconcialable, and yet the human brain is ingenious in dealing with such "impossibilities". I have before me another translation of this poem, one that I had read several months ago and pulled for comparison. Both the other translators and I began with the same essential goal, as we will see. Yet we arrived at almost completely different translations. Both translations are, I think, valid, underscoring that translation is the bringing of something to a new place or form - not designating its equivalent in a different space. The authors, incidentally, are E.H. and A.M. Blackmore, and if you're a Hugo devotee, you should seriously consider their bilingual Selected Poems of Victor Hugo. Both the Blackmores and I have at once a desire to capture Hugo and the humility to know we can't. Both of us agree that something should be done to represent, if not replicate, his verse, but we have chosen different approaches that affect the whole shape of our translations.

Hugo wrote Fable ou histoire in Alexandrine rhyming couplets (if you're curious about what that means, see my poetry primer). The form is stately, respected, and the Blackmores matched it with what at least appears to be a variant of Shakespeare's form - 10 crisp syllables per line. Prestige matched with prestige. I tried - poorly - to replicate the sound of the Alexandrine, which for me is rooted in its division at/into hemistitches. My lines do not, alas, break off into two sets of six syllables, but read aloud they can be broken into two roughly equivalent blocks, imitating the more sing-songy Alexandrine which takes on the lilt of a children's story or the sobriety of the most somber meditation equally well. Because of their choice, the Blackmores had to write compactly, at times condensing two related ideas into one. Yet sometimes, where long French words were met with short English words, they had to drop down ideas from earlier lines or provide filler to reach ten syllables. My freer approach allowed me more room for bigger thoughts, and the liberty of letting the short thoughts stay... short. This showed a (perhaps) greater fidelity to thought, but at the expense of discipline - a bigger failing with Hugo than with others because he could write by the book with ease and his violations of classical poetic conventions were usually deliberate and provocative, not the result of an inability to make the line work. In being disciplined, the Blackmores were more faithful to Hugo in their own way, while I strayed.

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