Thursday, 20 November 2014

What makes a translation from French "standard"

I bought a new copy of The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas, in what was called “a new translation” by Richard Pevear. The edition is copyright 2006 so I assume the translation dates from that year.

The Wikipedia entry for Dumas mentions this translation approvingly (but without any justification):

The most recent and now standard English translation is by Richard Pevear, who in his introduction notes that most of the modern translations available today are "textbook examples of bad translation practices" which "give their readers an extremely distorted notion of Dumas' writing.

Well, if Wikipedia says this is now the standard translation, it must be, surely? Unfortunately, the bad translation practices look to me to appear in his own translation. There are repeated examples of elementary school errors, the sort of thing you are taught to avoid in the first years of learning French.

Schoolboy errors:

“Quinze jours” translated as 15 days, rather than a fortnight, and “huit jours” translated as eight days, instead of a week.

p499 “Two times you have nearly fallen victim” [deux fois] – how about “twice”?

p533 "a few leagues from the border. Once the siege is raised, we can go for a turn out there." [faire un tour] - what about "take a trip there"?

Over-literal translations

M de Treville smiled at this fanfaronade [the French is fanfaronnade]

p410 “A superb Andalusian horse, black as jade” [un superbe cheval andalou, noir comme du jais]  -the translation is jet, not jade  - the Gutenberg translation gets this right.

“An old procureuse of the Chatelet” – as the translator’s note reminds us, “procureuse” is the female form of “procureur”, prosecutor. That is, the woman is the prosecutor’s wife; but how many readers will simply assume it means “procuress”?

Expressions that are not used in English
Dumas is fond of using reprendre to denote “reply”. For some strange reason this version consistently translates this verb as “pick up”:
“This time”, Athos picked up …

Musketeers who call each other “my dear” – you might well say “mon cher” in French, but you don’t say “my dear” in English, when addressing another man. Except in this book:
p497 Ah, my dear, said d’Artagnan [to Athos], you are unbearable!

p526 "Buckingham ... might be revenging hiimself for that little betrayal." Should that not be avenging himself?

p514 "Well invested [investir] as La Rochelle was" - yes, there is an English word "invest", meaning to besiege, it is uncommon in English. 

Peculiar mixes of register:
“Yes, it’s I”, said d’Artagnan, “whom God has sent to keep watch on you.”

“My imprisonment?”
“I learned of it the same day. “

Translating into the wrong century
Often the translator uses a term that would be fine for a book written in 2000, or even 1950, but which seems hopelessly anachronistic for an adventure set in the early seventeenth century:

 p198 Bonacieux went back to his place [Bonacieux rentra chez lui].

If these are the errors I have noticed, what about the rest of the book? I have not yet compared this translation with the rival World's Classics edition by David Coward, but my experience with his other translations suggest he is a very reliable and sensitive translator from French.
Mr Pevear is no less than "Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature" at the American University of Paris, and the book blurb states he has translated not just from French, but from Russian, Italian and Greek.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Trollope versus Twain

Here are two books, one by a European about America, the other by an American about Europe. The first is Mrs Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), and the second is Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad (1869). I thought it might be interesting to compare the two, but in practice the differences are more interesting than the similarities.

First, what they have in common. Both books were written by would-be authors attempting to gain a reputation, so I guess they tried travel writing as a convenient starting point. But there the similarity ends. Mrs Trollope (mother of the famous novelist) was something of a pioneer. Few Europeans had visited the southern States at this time and written about their experiences, and so Mrs Trollope's account would have the value of a writer looking at unfamiliar surroundings. In contrast, Mark Twain's account is of a cruise from New York to the Mediterranean, and the places he visits (at least as far as I have read) are quite familiar: the experience of travelling by ship, then visiting Gibraltar and Morocco. So is that the difference between the two books?  Not quite.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference is the author's (implied) position. Mrs Trollope may have started to write a travel book to make money, but she clearly got caught up in the surroundings; she responded with a vigour and commitment that is compelling. When she complains about American males spitting in the street, you feel that this is not a casual observation but a fundamental objection to the American way of life.

I hardly know any annoyance so deeply repugnant to English feelings, as the incessant, remorseless spitting of Americans. [Chapter II]

Compare this to Twain's description of the cruise ship's company viewing the rock of Gibraltar:

Here in Gibraltar he corners these educated British officers and badgers them with braggadocio about America and all the wonders she can perform. He told one of them a couple of our gunboats could come here and knock Gibraltar into the Mediterranean Sea![Ch VII]

Cleverly, Twain is able by fictionalising his comment to disclaim responsibility for the statement. But in so doing, he misses the opportunity to state his own ideas; the narrative describes various travellers on the voyage with Twain. These characters might be fictional, but their conversation is reported as if heard. Unlike Mrs Trollope, Twain does not make his own position clear, and he as a result runs the risk of being labelled as belonging to the group of philistine American tourists he mocks. In fact he describes himself as a participant, being swindled by a local trader when he goes to buy some gloves. His companions subsequently tease him for letting himself be defrauded:

Every now and then, my glove purchase in Gibraltar last night intrudes itself upon me. .. They let me alone, then, for the time being... But they had bought gloves, too, as I did. We threw all the purchases away this morning. [Ch VII]

In other words, while Mrs Trollope places herself firmly outside the world she is describing - she is English, and not American - Twain depicts himself as a member of the group. By placing himself on the inside of the group, I guess he makes the mockery more gentle for his readers, who will no doubt be Americans (I'm one of you, guys, so I'm not really being spiteful). But you can't both criticise your fellow Americans and  at the same time be one of the targets you mock. I'm afraid to say that from this book I am tempted to regard Mr Twain as rather stupid, certainly no cleverer than those co-travellers he mocks, while Mrs Trollope, who states quite clearly her limitations as a writer (no attempt to write about political systems, for example) comes across as a far more serious and committed commentator. Strangely enough Mark Twain recognises her achievement in his Life on the Mississippi:

Of all those tourists I like Dame Trollope best. ... She lived three years in this civilisation of ours; in the body of it - not on the surface of it, as was the case with most of the foreign tourists of her day.... Mrs Trollope, along of them all, dealt what the gamblers call a strictly "square game". She did not gild us; and neither did she whitewash us. [suppressed passage from Life on the Mississippi, quoted by Donald Smalley in his introduction to Domestic Manners

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Raphael: devotional or modern?

I’m reading Geraldine Johnson, The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction (2005), which provides what can be described as the Official view (since we are using capital letters) of the Renaissance, the view from the academic institution. The book opens with Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, one of the most widely known Renaissance works of art, and which is used to exemplify how different our modern interpretation of the picture is from that of Raphael’s contemporaries. Ms Johnson claims that while we moderns (and Goethe) treat such pictures as mystical objects worth of worship in their own right, Raphael’s contemporaries would have treated such a picture primarily as a devotional object.

What do you think? I disagree. I think we enjoy The Sistine Madonna because it appears to us to go beyond the tired and repetitive religious tradition of altarpieces within which it appears. There are plenty of devotional altarpieces from the Renaissance that we don’t look at twice nowadays, however successful they may have been as devotional objects. 

Nor do we look at this painting as “almost mystical visual contemplation”. The two small putti provide a humorous tone to the whole painting, as does the exotic hat placed in the bottom left-hand corner. None of these objects is in the least other-worldly. They are gently humorous, and in some way reassuring: we feel this artist is at one with us, and these objects inform our interpretaion of the figures above. The image of the woman in the centre of the painting is certainly not other-worldly; certainly a recent arrival, most likely by some modern form of air-driven transport, with clothes billowing in the wind, but with weight and solidity (even if not depicted as standing on the ground). The whole picture has a theatrical air to it, almost the result of a conjuring trick where the woman has been made to appear using some wind-based magic.

“The concept of “Art” itself must be contextualised through the “period eye” of 15th- and 16th-century beholders.” I disagree. If we only saw the art with contemporary eyes, we would see a very different picture. Having just read  Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography, which was written only some twenty years after this painting was created, I don’t think this picture would have represented a devotional object for many of its viewers, and certainly not for Benvenuto Cellini, and probably not for the Pope either. Nowhere in Cellini is there any genuine religious feeling, simply the folk-tradition of a God who rewards victory. Instead, there was a deliberate cult of the beautiful object, which could be paid for and treasured. Cellini is excited throughout his account by the sheer expensiveness of the art that he produces. That is a very modern phenomenon, and one that seemed to be shared by more than one of the Popes who commissioned him. Devotion seems to have had little to do with it. 

Friday, 4 July 2014

The Life of Benvenuto Cellini – a new (and not very inspiring) view of the Renaissance artist

Benvenuto Cellini’s Life must be one of the most boastful autobiographies ever written. Whether writing about his art, or about his fighting, he is determined to let you know he is the best.

Perhaps in later life he became more contrite, but thus far in his life (we have reached 1532) he is incorrigibly full of himself, and convinced that he is right in every situation. Many art critics have labelled Cellini a great artist, and of course, you may say, the end (great art) justifies the means (a boastful life). If Cellini’s account of himself in his autobiography was merely boastful, this would not prevent the reader warming to him. But there is more to it than that.  My interpretation of Cellini’s own account of his life is that if he had lived today he would have been imprisoned for a lengthy period. What is more, this is a life of a man who is fundamentally not of the Renaissance.

·         Deeply unchristian. Cellini fails to display any kind of altruism. The greatest motivation he has is to be show he is better than others, and to hit people who insult members of his family. References to God are like those mentions of the divine in professional  footballers: God is there to aid your victory and to ensure the other side is comprehensively defeated.  All means are fair, it would appear, once you have God on your side.  

·         Throughout the autobiography, Cellini is not simply irreligious but motivated by folk-learning (in his dealings with doctors) and belief in witchcraft (there is a long episode in which he visits the cellars of the Colosseum with a necromancer). I recently read an account of medieval travellers, which pointed out how these travellers mixed uncritically the things they had seen (people, places, and customs) as well as reporting with seemingly equal belief stories of monsters and fairies. Cellini is the same: he believes in omens, in superstition, and shows no sign of a disinterested humanism of the kind we expect from Renaissance figures.  Of course the Renaissance artist had to have an income, but Cellini from his own account seems to have no higher motives than selling art at the highest price and then gaining a sinecure for himself to guarantee a regular income. This is not, in other words, the cynical leaving the idealism, but cynicism alone. Cellini does not have an attractive character.

·         But worse than that, he murders without regret. The murder he describes appears to be premeditated, in the hope that during the period of electing a new Pope a pardon is granted to criminals [See the World’s Classics edition of Cellini’s Life, editor’s note to page 122: “it is difficult to believe Cellini’s killing of Pompeo was not premeditated”. ]. Cellini’s motive for murder, as with so many of his actions, is based around family loyalty. You hit my brother, and I will kill you.

·         So what becomes now of the Renaissance humanist, the sublime Renaissance artist? After committing murder, Cellini appears before the Pope, who, without any legal process having taken place, protects him.  As the Pope himself says to those who criticise him for exonerating a man accused of murder:

You don’t understand the matter as well as I do. You should know that men like Benvenuto, unique in their profession, need not be subject to the law; especially Benvenuto, since I know what good reasons he had.
·         Not only is Cellini above other humans, but he also has magical powers the rest of us don’t have – such as the way he reports conversations he cannot possibly have heard, since he was not present.  Yet he knows precisely how other have praised him when he isn’t there.  Would you, reader, defend such outrageous behaviour?
·         This is where it becomes interesting. It was in the Renaissance that the artist was labelled as divine, as superhuman. In the 21st century, we love such an exaggerated respect given to artists. But would we really defend a murderer?  English law distinguishes premeditated murder from manslaughter, but I believe Cellini would have been found guilty of the former.

·         Stranger still is the way that modern commentators, for example the Bondanellas, responsible for the OUP World’s classics, overstate Cellini’s education [“a very substantial education acquired from a variety of literary, artistic and historical sources”]. On the contrary, Cellini appears to have known little Latin, and I can see little evidence (as they claim) that he has read and appreciated Dante, or that he had any great knowledge about or interest in iconography except from what any Renaissance artist would have picked up from their regular studio practice.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Leopard - historical fiction as it should be written

I’m reading The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. After Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, the contrast is very marked. Tomasi di Lampedusa has created a historical novel that seems to rebound with ideas in the most vivid way, whereas Dickens seemed content to regurgitate very accepted and established (and not very well informed) views on the events he was describing.

It would take a separate post to compare the two approaches. In this post, I think it is sufficient just to admire the sheer talent that Tomasi de Lampedusa has in weaving together the several themes covered by his narrative.  

The book is arranged as a series of self-contained chapters.  Each chapter forms a whole – in fact the introduction to the book suggests that one of the chapters was discovered separately to the other chapters, and inserted after Lampedusa death. You would never believe it on reading the book

Consider the first chapter, the depiction of a meal in the aristocratic home of the Prince of Salina (the “leopard” of the title) and his family. In terms of politics, Lampedusa and Dickens are probably not so far apart, dreaming fondly of an idealised nobility confronted by a changing political and social situation – for Dickens, the French Revolution, and for Lampedusa, the Italian Risorgimento. But the effect with Lampedusa is so much more powerful! This introductory chapter skilfully combines several themes:

-          The contrast of the Prince, attempting vainly (but with resignation) to maintain the aristocratic order of things, with his family, who have no such motive. The prince often displays a “controlled rage at table” to attempt to maintain this system.  The Prince is “watching the ruin of his own class”.  It becomes clear later that the Prince, unlike other members of his family, recognizes the need to change.
-          The unchanging ritual of the aristocratic life – the rosary recited every afternoon; the glassware with the family initials FD engraved on each piece.
-          The contrast of the ceiling frescoes, from classical (secular) mythology, with the religious ritual taking place anachronistically in that very room.
-          The unsuitability of the Sicilian aristocracy for any kind of effective management of things: “In a family which for centuries had been incapable of adding up their own expenditure and subtracting their own debts he [The Prince] was the first (and last) to have a genuine bent for mathematics”
-          The sense of ending, the impending disappearance of the aristocratic order, as witnessed by those words “the last” in the sentence above.
-          The overwhelming physicality and sensuality of the Sicilian environment: the garden that was “exhaling scents that were cloying, fleshy and slightly putrid”.
-          The very real conflict taking place between the revolutionaries of the Risorgimento and the Bourbon troops struggling to maintain the irrelevant and superannuated ruling monarchy, as conveyed in the horrific image of a soldier of the royal forces found dead and rotting under the lemon tree.  “He died for the King, of course … but there was something that didn’t ring true.”
-          The Prince’s response to the impending crisis of aristocracy against the impending liberal forces of Garibaldi – his immediate response is to run away to visit a prostitute in Palermo.

Of course, stated in this way, the book sounds like an artfully constructed recipe of clever themes– just mix the ingredients to create a masterpiece. But the achievement of the book is for these components to be blended together to form a magnificent whole, both an elegy and a recognition of the vast forces of change concentrated on the hitherto sleepy backwater of Sicily. By the end of the chapter, by the end of the book, we feel that the affairs of Sicily, the viewpoint of the Sicilians is anything but trivial.

Finally, what makes this an impressive work of fiction is that the main characters are not one-dimensional. The Prince struggles to maintain the existing aristocratic order, and yet he sees only too clearly he is struggling to save an order that is not worth preserving. He knows that most of his staff are cheating him, yet he preserves a feudal-style relationship with his villagers who bring him produce as a tax. Compared with the Dickens of A Tale of Two Cities is like stereoscopic vision after you have looked at things with one eye shut.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Eroticism - lost in translation?

Histoire de l'erotisme, by Pierre-Marc de Biasi (Gallimard, 2007)

Translating that  French title  L’histoire de l’érotisme, word-for-word makes you realise what a challenge such a title presents. The English don’t really do “eroticism” – they have pornography, but there isn’t much call for the word “eroticism” in English.  Only in France could such a book be done tastefully, as part of the Gallimard Découvertes series, which means an integrated four-colour layout with two narratives on each page, one for the text, and the other for the pictures. Of course, the limited space in the book means that many of the pictures are too small and the text (by the impressive Pierre-Marc de Biasi) has a breathless feel to it, since the author does not have space to develop his arguments.

But was it any good? Yes, it had some genuine insights. The text ranged widely (although there was not as much about the East and about Japan as I would have wished), and the author cleverly comments on changes in contemporary attitudes by pointing out the date when a term was introduced. The word “flirter” appears in French with Emma Bovary, for example. The word “pornography” appears almost in the same year as the word “photography”. The word “sexy” appears in France in 1928. In the same year were published classic erotic works, which are in themselves enough to suggest the gulf in attitudes to the erotic between Britain and France:

-          Bataille, Histoire de l’œil
-          Aragon, Le con d’Irène
-          Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Some might say that Lawrence's novel is erotic; I wouldn't. More like an embarassing moral tract, for me, but that's another subject. 

As for the book’s major themes, I noted:

1.       The baleful role of the Church in determining erotic attitudes.  While in the Ancient World sex was polymorphous and celebrated, by the third century CE Clement of Alexandria was already identifying the Fall as a sin of passion, not due to curiosity or the desire for knowledge. By the time of Alexander, sex had become linked with original sin: “Procreation would be nobler if it could be achieved without sexual relations.” The Christian West created a single sexual sin, including within marriage, under the title of “concupiscence”. And the Church was very clear just how sinful sex was. According to Gerson, around 1400, incest was a lesser sin than masturbation.

2.       A common theme through book is the contrast between consensual eroticism, as represented by Casanova, and a feudal, dominant eroticism, as represented by Don Juan, de Sade, and in the 20th century by Georges Bataille. Don Juan seduces for the sake of it, without any compassion for his victims. In his 1957 book L’Erotisme, Bataille describes eroticism as “a painful, Sadean concept, criminal and nihilist” [une conception douloureuse et sadienne, criminelle et nihiliste].  For de Sade, libertinage was a tool for destruction ; there is no concept of shared pleasure with him. While the erotic could be about unrestrained pleasure, a dominant theme in 20th-century eroticism has been this aggressive, tyrannical, dominating attitude to sex.

3.       So what’s the author’s view? He is a life-affirmer. In his initial definition of eroticism he describes it as “sexual pleasure for its own end, without any biological injunction. But its object is spiritual.” It is an achievement of the author that while praising the erotic, as he is more or less obliged to do in a book of this title, he makes it clear the erotic can have a spiritual element, and need not be dominating. He describes the public recognition of homosexuality as the greatest achievement of eroticism in the last 30 years, and ends the book with a tantalising (because unexplored) yet fascinating defintion of modern eroticism: the art of loving and of living together that will make all of us artists [un art d’aimer et du vivre ensemble qui fera de nous tous des artistes.]

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Dickens and Parochialism

There is an unfortunate strand in English letters of placid acceptance of a kind of status quo. There is a  number of  great writers (of whom Dickens is one) and every conceivable aspect of their works is comfortably (and not very questioningly) celebrated. The TLS of April 11 2014 contained a fine example of such complacency.

Two pages are devoted to a review of the two-volume collection of essays, The Reception of Charles Dickens in Europe. This book, we are told, offers “much for English-speakers to learn through dialogues with their European colleagues”. But it is clear throughout the review that what is meant is less “dialogue” than sermon – that Dickens should be enlightening the European reader, and the European reader is expected to respond with unquestioning admiration. The book, for example

offers a number of engaging facts about Dickens’s European legacy. For instance, no single novel by Dickens has ever been translated into Icelandic, but he is still, asserts Astradur Eysteinsson, an important figure in the development of the Icelandic novel … In excessive contrast to the apparent Icelandic neglect, more than 1,000 editions of Dickens were published in Russia between 1838 and 1960.

Perhaps the population of Iceland is so tiny that there was no business case for translating Dickens? Perhaps the level of English was (and is) so high in Iceland that Icelanders read him in the original English? It seems a very bland comment to make by the reviewer.  If Dickens was “neglected”, how can he have been an important figure?  It would be more valuable to explore if the number of editions is indicative of a novelist’s worth.

More fundamental, the review seems to accept without question some of Dickens’s most dubious national stereotypes. Despite Dickens spending “lengthy spells” in France and his French apparently becoming fluent, and despite the way that Dickens’s work “frequently undercut British pretensions to global mastery”,  there is not a hint that his novel A Tale of Two Cities is guilty of the worst stereotyping of France and the French.  Indeed, the reviewer blithely states “while we might imagine that A Tale of Two Cities would be popular in France”, an astonishing statement given the novel’s slanted and one-sided depiction of the French. In Dickens’s novel, the only good Frenchmen and women are those who have spent some time in England. Dickens’s view of the Revolution seems to be wholly in agreement with that of Thomas Carlyle, in his reactionary The French Revolution. Perhaps that is the reason why for the French “it never was to become one of their favourite novels, even after Mrs Thatcher gave it as a state gift to Francois Mitterand [sic] in 1989 as a state gift.”

Did Mrs Thatcher ever read A Tale of Two Cities? If she had, she would never have given it to the French president. Is it not supremely ironic that a not very cultured English head of state gives an insulting depiction of the French to the French head of state, and the reviewer seems to be surprised the book is not more popular. Is would appear perhaps to this reviewer that any work by Dickens, however insulting to the recipient, should be beneficial to them. Such a supine attitude to things cultural (that they are always somehow “good”, if the author has a sufficiently high status) is the parochialism I referred to. For this reviewer, Dickens is de facto a great writer, and the Europeans should be engaged in appreciating him (even if they have inexplicably failed to translate him with sufficient enthusiasm. 

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

A Tale of Two Dickens

I’ve just finished A Tale of Two Cities, and my reaction is pure astonishment.  I confess that I like Dickens. I read and greatly enjoyed Great Expectations, and A Christmas Carol, and yet I am astonished that Dickens could write such good novels set in London, and yet how his touch deserts him when he attempts to write about France. Is this the same novelist?

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Philippe de Champaigne

Philippe de Champaigne seems at first thought to be one of the also-rans of 17th-century French art. He is responsible for many of the vast canvases in provincial French museums illustrating a religious subject, but not as well as Poussin might have done it, with a more solidly drawn shape to the figures, and if a landscape, not depicting it as well as Poussin or Claude would have painted it.

But there is more to him than that. A case for Mr Champaigne is made in the TLS by John Rogister (2008). There was a big exhibition devoted to Philippe de Champagne in 2007, following with there was a lavish book published by the Reseau des Musees Nationaux (2007).  Rogister's review suggests Philippe de Champaigne's work "was mainly produced for churches and convents and whose portraits were hidden away in family collections until the last century".

But then remember the amazing portrait of Cardinal Richelieu in the National Gallery - as powerful a portrait of a politician as anyone could wish, and utterly secular in effect. Rogister's view is that the artist moved progressively away from this kind of depiction of secular power to an increasingly religious, specifically Jansenist view of life. His portraits tended to be of people associated with Port-Royal, including his own daughter, who became a nun there in 1657.

Yet the portrait of Cardinal Richelieu (around 1637) seems to be the magnificent exception that doesn't ssupport Rogister's theory. De Champaigne painted French king Louis XII more than once, and all theones I have seen seem very poor by comparison with the Richelieu painting and with the later works. The Vow of Louis XIII, for example, painted in 1638, is praised by Rogister as "a superb example  of the artist's subtle rendering of flesh and drapery".

He is presumably describing the flesh of Christ, and perhaps the robes of the king, and I can accept the image as a Counter-Reformation statement of faith, but I find the figure of the King - his feeble commonplace face and expression, and his lack of classical stature, clashes with the remainder of the picture. Is this a religious statement? In which case why include the king. Is this is depiction of the French monarchy imposing a vision of a kingdom? In that case, it's a pretty feeble kingdom that is being established. It's like the intrusive donors in early Renaissance altarpieces that jar with the main religious subject. The Christ is not trivial, but the king is.

Far better, for me, are the searching later portraits, not just of priests, but of secular figures associated with Jansenism, such as the powerful expression of Omer Talon in the portrait of him (National Gallery, Washington):

For me, although admittedly not to everyone's taste, the best paintings include such austere images as the "Ex-voto" portrait of two sisters of Port-Royal (Louvre), one of whom was his daughter. It depicts a very different world from the brash exuberance and unconcerned nature of much high renaissance art: powerful by its very starkness and concentration, a very serious work of art.