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 February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Sentences April 29, 2009, 4:12 pm

A Certain, Wandering Light

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2014

The End of Retirement

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Octopus and Its Grandchildren

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Francis and the Nuns

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Return of the Strongman

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The End of Retirement·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“For those riding the economy’s outermost edge, adaptation may now mean giving up what full-time RV dwellers call ‘stick houses’ to hit the road and seek work.”
Photograph (detail) © Max Whittaker
Post
The Many Faces of Boko·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“People want education. Open a school and they will rush.”
Photograph © The author
Article
The Octopus and Its Grandchildren·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Stanford University’s origins and vision
“The pervasive fantasy that Silicon Valley doesn’t need the government obscures the role of that government in funding much of the research that built it.”
Photograph © Sallie Dean Shatz
Post
God Lives on Lemon Street·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Bethel was Oz-like for me. I mean that with all the awe, utter hopefulness, and mythic fear with which Dorothy and her friends had approached that magical city.”
Photograph (detail) ©© Clemens v. Vogelson (Flickr)
Article
Francis and the Nuns·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“A year and a half into his papacy, Pope Francis is looking an awful lot like his predecessors.”
Photograph (detail) © Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Tons of sulfuric acid used each year in the manufacture of Jell-O:

2,035

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University said that most alcohol-related airplane accidents happen at night and in bad weather.

The World Health Organization documented 46 new deaths from Ebola in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, bringing to 539 the total number of fatalities from an outbreak that began in February.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today