Thursday, April 10, 2008

Against Prissy Translation

I'm reading Richard Burton's translation of the Thousand Nights and a Night (a.k.a. The Arabian Nights.) I've also read a very entertaining commentary: The Arabian Nights: A Companion, by Robert Irwin. This book greatly endeared itself to me by referring to Burton's "barmy erudition." Burton's notes are copious, learned, and eccentric in the extreme: he seizes any excuse to display his extensive, bizarre, and highly unscientific knowledge of foreign sexual habits; and tells us, for example, in far more detail than we want, exactly how various peoples go about blinding or castrating unfortunate superfluous heirs.

But Irwin also attacks Burton's translation, and I don't agree with him about that. The things he accuses Burton of doing, Burton does indeed do. He fetches up archaic English words with abandon (this possibly bothers me less than people who may have to look more of them up, but he has excellent judgement about what words to use: many of them should never have fallen out of usage -- hent, dight, etc.: marvelous pithy words that I'd be glad to see rescued from the linguistic attic.) He also translates the poetry as poetry -- not always as wonderful poetry, and, since I'm innocent of Arabic, I can't say whether that's accuracy or clumsiness. Irwin also takes Burton to task for preserving the "rhymed prose" of his original, and that's what I really want to talk about.

Rhymed prose is something I had never encountered before reading the Nights, and the effect is charming. When the pitch of the narrative is to rise -- for example, when we meet a particularly beautiful lady or particularly fearsome demon -- you'll find the final words of clauses rhyming. Irwin singles out this as a particularly "unattractive passage":

But in the stress and stowre I got sundry grievous wounds and sore; and since that time, I have passed on my back three days without tasting food or sleeping aught, so that my strength is down brought, and the world is become to me as naught.

Now certainly Burton has to work to make the rhymes; to use inversion, and to fetch in quaint words to do so. But why he should not even attempt to translate such an interesting and integral feature of his original as the rhyming prose is beyond me. Also beyond me is why he should not reproduce the archaic language in which the original is, I don't doubt, written. Again, I know no Arabic; but I know something of various oral and semi-oral storytelling traditions, and they all use archaic, quaint words. Why exactly a translation should not reproduce this part of the reading experience baffles me. The argument, if it were explicit, would l suppose be that "accurate" translation trumps "atmosphere," but I don't think that holds water for a moment. There's no way to really separate out the semantic charge of a word from its atmospheric charge -- and anyway, why would we want to do so? Why is conveying the one a legitimate task of translation, and the other not?

Someone who translated, say, Tolkien, without attempting to follow the changes into archaic language, would in my opinion seriously distort him. The fact that many modern people, particularly literary people, roundly dislike dropping into archaic language in order to signal a change in formality, and prefer the boundary between poetry and prose to be clear-cut, does not give the translator carte blanche to simply erase these features and replace them with something the audience likes better. The whole point of translation is to bring something strange and new to readers -- not to convince them that the whole world shares their provincial tastes.

And in this, Burton triumphs. The reader of his Nights enters a different world. And Burton was perfectly fitted for this task by his very defects: he's juvenile in just the same way the composers and audience of his book were juvenile. He loves the bizarre and sensational. His racism and sexism echoes theirs. He is attuned to them. Reading his Nights is not always a pleasant experience, but it is always an illuminating one.

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