Saturday, 12 November 2011

Fear and Shame in Translating: Poetry or Prose?

I feel I'm opening my soul to public scrutiny. This is about my 5th attempt at writing this, as I get paranoid about translating something I feel deserves quality work. Is it right? Is it the right style? Is it worthwhile for the audience?

Sometimes the things I have done are trivial, so it doesn't matter. There must be past translations on this blog done for myself, for which the result is not important. Most weirdly, I have done "no one is gong to read it, but it's a condition of EU grant that there is an English summary" sort of thing, which I have been calm about.

There was even something I did helping someone in their English written work about Churchill, where I knew that I could help her improve, so there was no qualm of conscience on my part.


However, my first real test was in improving the English for a website on Saint Faustina. I was so enamoured by her story, that I wanted to recreate her words in a style that would be easily accessible to English readers so that they could easily understand the wonder of her vision.


I was very worried about some of the terminology I was using in making the story accessible, but this I could forgive myself: my attempts to discuss this with the nun who asked that I do it met continuously with prevarication: we never met. The biggest upset I had, however, was that I changed the words of the Saint. This was absolutely true, as the complexity of her language could not be translated word for word into English and make sense, even less get over her character and mission. Sentences needed to be rearranged and shortened: I particularly remember the phrase "the painter who painted the painting", which made sense in Polish, but sounds stupid in English.

Why did I care? Sister Faustina's story is worth knowing by those who believe in the miraculous power of the individual, whether religious or not. She was a lowly nun who was thought to be crazy by her religious colleagues around her, but yet created one if the great religious paintings known to the modern world.


One of my 'still to do things before I die' list of pending work is to write her story to my satisfaction.

I am avoiding the issue, however.

Bożena Trabulsje is the mother of a long time friend of ours, Mariola. Mariola suggested that I look at the professional translation that, with long delays, Bożena had received for her book. Since then, Bożena has become our friend as well.



I had realised some years before, when working in Poland, that I could not understand an English translation without looking at the Polish original, but even so, this professional translation was the worst I had ever seen. I started from Bożena's original, but I found that I was reading more than descriptive text, it seemed to me to be poetry. It was purely instinctive on my part, but a short time ago, after a recent visit by Bożena, I put this to the test. Taking two sentences at random, I found the following blank verse poetry:

Wiele z nich,
rozsypanych w proch,
z wolna wtapia sie w pejzaż regionu,
okrywając się płaszczem
stepowej flory
czy zwałami piasku.
Inne stawiają opór
niszczycielskiemu działaniu czasu
oraz beztroskiemu często człowiekowi,
dzięki czemu jeszcze dziś
urzekają pięknem starożytnej kultury i sztuki
zamkniętej w kształtach świątyń,
bajkowych wręcz kolorach mozaik
czy w pięknie ikon.


My translation for this is:

Many of them,
scattered like dust,
slowly settle into the surrounding landscape,
covered by a coating of plants
in the Syrian steppe
or overwhelmed by drifts of sand.
Others stand resistant
to the destructive work of time and,
too often unconcerned humanity,
and bewitch us still today
with the beauty of ancient culture and art,
held together in churches,
fabulous coloured mosaics
and beautiful pictures.


I could work on this for ages trying to get it better, but I think it is a fair reflection of the original.

Bożena's original text is straight forward prose:

Wiele z nich, rozsypanych w proch, z wolna wtapia sie w pejzaż regionu, okrywając się płaszczem stepowej flory czy zwałami piasku. Inne stawiają opór niszczycielskiemu działaniu czasu oraz beztroskiemu często człowiekowi, dzięki czemu jeszcze dziś urzekają pięknem starożytnej kultury i sztuki zamkniętej w kształtach świątyń, bajkowych wręcz kolorach mozaik czy w pięknie ikon.

My normal text version became:

Many of them, scattered like dust, slowly settle into the surrounding landscape, covered by a coating of plants in the Syrian steppe or overwhelmed by drifts of sand. Others stand resistant to the destructive work of time and, too often unconcerned humanity, and bewitch us still today with the beauty of ancient culture and art, held together in churches, fabulous coloured mosaics and beautiful pictures.

Knowing that Polish is structured very different from English and knowing that poetic English is very much of narrow interest, I don't know if this is even approaching an acceptable translation. However, failing to get across the beauty of the words, would in itself be a failure.

Information about Bożena's book is available from this PDF document.

I haven't read the book in English even though I have a couple of copies. There are some completely stupid mistakes in the English that I immediately see accusing me of incompetence. I have worked hard in my mind to make excuses. I think they are fair and valid excuses, but I knew the potential at the time ... and ignored it.

There is an easy question for me: why do I care? Bożena is a friend. Her language is beautiful and I want to reflect that: an ego thing. However, she has depicted what was, before recent revolutionary fervour, a Syria and historic Greater Syria as the centre of the evolution of much that is valued in modern civilisation. I see a kindred about my feelings for Poland with what Bożana, a Pole, feels for Syria.

Apart from this, it's all a miracle. The idea of someone with the Polish speaking capacity of an imbecile being able to translate beautiful, complex Polish text into any sort of acceptable English remains a mind-boggling concept. Thank you Kompas.

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