The craft of translation – an introduction by Ulrich Löchnerpresented at a bilingual (German/English) reading of Shakespeare’s sonnets in Pontardawe Library August 1999
German translation of the sonnets written and read by Friedrich Löchner
sonnets read in English by Jean Gill
Incidental flute music by Elisabeth Hengerer
Croeso yr llyfergell – welcome to the library – a place for lingering and enlightenment, a dangerous place at times where dangerous ideas are bred aloud or in silence, and strange tongues may be spoken.
I am not going to dwell on any of the mysteries enshrouding Shakespeare’s life or the Sonnets, or the sometimes wild theories perpetuated on the personnel in these poems. I will share with you a few facts on poetry and on translation, and I will pose many questions only to leave them unanswered. Let Shakespeare and Friedrich answer them.
All of us, when we see a fallen abbey, still recognise it as a one-time church. Will someone from a completely foreign culture recognise it as well? Seeing an Asian pagoda or a Buddhist stele, still we recognise it as a place of some kind of worship. Why?
When I say, “Fret not, I’m coming to your rescue”, why do you recognise that as being ‘poetic’? When I say, “Hang in there, I’m getting help”, why shouldn’t that be poetic? It actually can be – at the right place in the right poem, it would be poetic and the former would only be comic.
When Shakespeare says in Sonnet ii “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow…” why doesn’t he say, “Wait until you’ve got fifty years on your back!”? In Elizabethan times you were old at forty; today, that’s sixty, maybe seventy. When I translate a line like this, am I allowed to alter the ‘forty’ into ‘seventy’ to get the meaning right? If I do, I lose a syllable I just might need at another spot – or gain one if I’m already through with this line.
Now, here is a list of things I have to watch out for as a translator, and it’s in no way comprehensive:-
A Translator’s Plights
meaning; “the darling buds of may” – ‘month? plant?
has it changed over time?
has the spelling changed over time? – and the meaning?
the Welsh know that the same things can be phrased differently
can it be kept? should it be kept?
music… harmony …
are there corresponding terms in my language?
shall I use them?
HOW MANY DICTIONARIES DO I NEED?
where is the phone number/ e-mail address of my Vietnamese friend I could ask?
has something stolen in?
is it still the original poem or has it become mine? maybe I want it to be mine – shall I still call it a translation? will others recognise it as such?
what if I make a fool of myself?
“Am I fit to translate this?”
“Is my command of the language sufficient to tackle it?”
“Am I capable of recognising poetry if I come across it?”
“Do I possess the organ by which it is perceived?”
“Who has certified me that what I perceive is right?”
I may know what I like and admire; I may like and admire it intensely – but what makes me sure it is poetry?
“How much of a conscious effort do I have to put into a translation and how much of it comes easily to me?”
“What if I’m wrong?”
Coleridge said of literary critics – and that holds for translators as well - “the question should be fairly stated how far a man can be an adequate, or even good though inadequate translator of poetry, who is himself not a poet? But there is yet another distinction; supposing he is not only not a poet, but is a bad poet? What then?”
Now we’re back again to poetry – and stuck with it. The world’s been full of it for at least 3000 years and today still nobody knows exactly what it is, though its constituents have been pinned down in one way or the other. And we’re back at churches – at Margam Abbey, I learned the other day, there is a bilingual stone from about the 7th or 8th century, commemorating the Irish immigration into Wales. Whenever cultures meet, be it in trade or an invasion, translation is needed and developed and eventually poetry comes into it. There is clearly a religious component, something inherent to man he needed to develop in his brain to cope with himself, with his environment and with nature.
So let Shakespeare and Friedrich and Jean and Elisabeth answer some of the questions. Sit back and enjoy.
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