Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Version or translation...?

Terminology gets complicated when a poem is rendered into another language.

Before dealing with the thorny issue of the difference between a version and a translation, it’s worth clarifying another term that gets far too much snotty treatment: literal translation. Its original meaning referred to a mistake that some translators make in their work by working word by word without forming language into semantic blocks and setting off from there. A consequence is that sense is often lost and an incomprehensible text results, such as in the case of certain dishwasher instruction manuals.

In the above context, the use of the term literal translation is clear and precise. However, it’s also thrown pejoratively at literary translators who do their utmost to stick close to the text, trying to stay in the background as much as possible. Its original meaning thus gives us the impression of a translator who’s leading us astray by lacking imagination or creativity. Instead, such an approach is hugely demanding on the translator and involves a rigorous method. Moreover, it’s no more and no less valid than the following term: interpretative translation.

In the interview with Michael Hofmann that I discussed last week, he provides an excellent description of how an interpretative translator approaches a text:

“One of his guiding principles for translating, he says, is to avoid the obvious word, even if it is the literal equivalent of the original. When the opening page of a Roth novel contained the word Baracke, he insisted on going with “tenement” rather than “barracks”. In the second paragraph of Hofmann’s version of Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa doesn’t ask “What happened to me?” (Was ist mit mir geschehen?), but “What’s the matter with me?”. He liked the phrase, he says, because it sounds like someone having trouble getting up after a heavy night.”

“Nobody will notice, but you have taken a step back from the original. You have given yourself a little bit of self-esteem, a little bit of originality, a little bit of boldness. Then the whole thing will appear automotive: look, it’s running on English rather than limping after the German.”

At this point, it’s useful to take Hofmann’s quote and compare it with statements from Don Paterson about how he worked on Antonio Machado’s verse, the key point being that Paterson eschewed the word translation and opted for version.

“…these poems are versions, not translations. A reader looking for an accurate translation of Antonio Machado‘s words, then, should stop here and go out and by another book…

”… literal translation can be useful in providing a snapshot of the original, but a version — however subjectively — seeks to restore a light and colour and perspective…”

Is Paterson thus using version as a synonym of figurative translation? Or is he simply allowing himself greater scope for individual creativity, using Machado’s verse as a point of departure. A close analysis of the Spanish and English texts shows that the latter is the case.

In other words, there’s an argument that a progressive line can be drawn, starting at the original: from literal translation to figurative translation and on to version. Of course, there’s an inevitable grey area in each case as to where one begins and another ends.

All these attempts to find answers lead us back to the start: maybe all translations are versions, maybe all translators are traitors. Once again, it’s a question of terminology.


  1. Dear Matthew

    On his own admission, Don Paterson is not a linguist. Therefore he calls his translations 'versions' in order to hedge his bets and not be vulnerable to criticism from someone who is very familiar with the original. Incidentally, I recently bought your pamphlet 'Inventing truth.' I thought that my poems were concise and to the point but yours are even more so. I enjoyed them all but particularly Kleptomaniac.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

    1. Dear Simon,

      Thank you for your lovely comment about my pamphlet. Here's hoping a full collection might be on the way at some point in the future...!

  2. The following comment was made by Alistair Noon on Facebook and is posted here with his permission:

    Hi Matthew, Thanks for the useful distinctions you draw here. I'd emphasize what you say about grey areas: in my experience the grey areas may actually be more prevalent than the black and the white ones: i.e. transpositions of one poem to another language very often evince more than one tactic, depending on the exact material at hand.

    I don't know the full text or context of Don Paterson's Machado introduction, but there is of course a contradiction in those two quotes. In the first he talks about an “accurate translation”. Then he talks about a version that can “restore a light and colour and perspective”. This begs the question of what “accurate” was referring to in the first place. For me, accuracy is much more than semantic accuracy – though it can be that as well. It refers to every aspect of the original.

    One touches on this in one's own (minor) translation rant here:

    1. Hi Alistair. I think Paterson´s main aim was to ensure the collection wouldn't be classed as a translation so as to guarantee its eligibility for all the major prizes!