Sentences — July 25, 2008, 12:33 pm

Weekend Read: “The queer world of verbal transmigration”

This week, I’ve touched on the matter of translation, a subject that rouses the interest and ire of anyone who invests in books, whether reader or writer. ‘Bad translation’ is, in some circles, a near redundancy:

Three grades of evil can be discerned in the queer world of verbal transmigration.The ?rst,and lesser one, comprises obvious errors due to ignorance or misguided knowledge.This is mere human frailty and thus excusable.The next step to Hell is taken by the translator who intentionally skips words or passages that he does not bother to understand or that might seem obscure or obscene to vaguely imagined readers…. The third,and worst,degree of turpitude is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape,vilely beauti?ed in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public.This is a crime,to be punished by the stocks as plagiarists were in the shoebuckle days.

That grim gradation of comes from a 1942 New Republic essay by, of course, Vladimir Nabokov. And as bracing as it is to read of a discipline’s indecent shortcomings, it’s also fun to read of its optimistic possibilities.

As such, for your weekend read, I propose you browse or perhaps download Essay on the Principles of Translation, by Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee (1747-1813). The particular scanned copy of this sober exploration of the discipline comes from the New York Public Library, in which Nabokov himself sat, in the early 1940s, preparing the lectures on literature that he would soon begin to deliver, over the next 15 or so years, at American Universities. Tytler’s work is the antipode to Nabokov’s ire: largely calm, largely reasonable, but also largely unpracticable. It makes for a fine primer, though, one with which any working translator will agreeably disagree. And agreeable disagreement is something we could all use a little more of. The Tytler starts like this:

There is perhaps no department of literature which has been less the object of cultivation, than the Art of Translating. Even among the ancients, who seem to have had a very just idea of its importance, and who have accordingly ranked it among the most useful branches of literary education, we meet with no attempt to unfold the principles of this art, or to reduce it to rules.

And continues here.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

Weed Whackers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
Article
The Neoliberal Arts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.”
Artwork by Julie Cockburn
Article
A Goose in a Dress·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Through Itself is not a restaurant, although it looks like one. It may even think it is one. It is a cult.”
Illustration by Steinman and Tear

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today