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Thoughts on translation


t long last, we're down to the nitty gritty that most people think of as translation. I wanted to first show some of the more fundamental issues that either get ignored or taken for granted. Now, on to vocabulary and phrasing:

One of the first questions is, what's a singe? Is it a monkey? Or an ape? The word refers to both in French. I chose a monkey - a heroic monkey in a tiger suit is as silly as a distant descendant in Napoleon's mold (see the commentary for more about the poem itself). A great ape, I think, is big enough to fend for itself; it wouldn't need a tiger suit.

Once we've selected a monkey, his antics unfold relatively easily until "Il se mit à grincer des dents..." I began recreating these lines by making a literal translation and looking for a rhyme - any rhyme - that could be made. I chose "cry" and "I" by shifting the end of the first line to the second. This wrecked an enjambement (see the poetry guide) and forced me to stretch out the first line, but it allowed me to maintain the monkey's melodrama. Additionally, I have translated "halliers" as "jungle". "Thicket" or "shrubbery" would be a more accurate translation, but I could not hear the phrase "conqueror of the shrubbery" without thinking of Monty Python, and suspect this might be the case for many anglophones.

The next couplet required some rearranging, but nothing out of the ordinary. The following couplet - Egorgea les passants... - posed two challenges. Egorger is a disturbingly compact verb meaning "to slit the throat". It's not an everyday verb, but is heard every time the Marseillaise is sung. Whether Hugo had that association in mind I do not know; it seemed so to me and I therefore stretched the line to fit in the whole meaning. The Blackmores neither did, nor could - if they wished to hold to their meter. The second challenge is passant - (a [person] who is) passing.

The next couplet needing comment begins "Il s'écriait..." Both the Blackmores and I added - they mixed "groans" with "roars" to get a rhyme for "bones"; I read more into bones than it actually said to get a rhyme with "roar".

We have already discussed "Les bêtes l'admiraient...", which leaves just the final couplet. The first line in the couplet reads literally, "He ripped apart the skin as one rips apart a piece of linen." In English, we don't really discuss linen that often; I selected tissue as something easily torn apart and rhymed an unnecessary "you" to finish the rhyme and give a lightly indignant touch, fitting for the end.

These notes, of course, are not a primer on translation, an art that has to be learned in part through practice, in part by studying other models, and always over time. As noted at the beginning, in time these notes should become part of a larger essay and explanation for those who are interested. For the moment, they stand at least as an indicator of some of the pitfalls one faces and means of getting past them.

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Page 4: All about rhyme