Weekend Read: "The queer world of verbal transmigration" | Harper's Magazine

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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.

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