Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Jonson on the Translator's Pen

The following anecdote is taken from the Isaac Disraeli's widely admired multi-volume Curiosities of Literature, a compilation of observations on a life of book-loving, -collecting, and -making, edited by his son Benjamin, the future Prime Minister. In that collection, this entry appeared under the heading “Ben Jonson on Translation.” My gratitude to the good work of the Project Gutenberg volunteer community for providing the text.
I have discovered a poem by this great poet, which has escaped the researches of all his editors. Prefixed to a translation, translation is the theme; with us an unvalued art, because our translators have usually been the jobbers of booksellers; but no inglorious one among our French and Italian rivals. In this poem, if the reader's ear be guided by the compressed sense of the massive lines, he may feel a rhythm which, should they be read like our modern metre, he will find wanting; here the fulness of the thoughts forms their own cadences. The mind is musical as well as the ear. One verse running into another, and the sense often closing in the middle of a line, is the Club of Hercules; Dryden sometimes succeeded in it, Churchill abused it, and Cowper attempted to revive it. Great force of thought only can wield this verse.

On the AUTHOR, WORKE, and TRANSLATOR, prefixed to the translation of Mateo Alemans's Spanish Rogue, 1623.

   Who tracks this author's or translator's pen
   Shall finde, that either hath read bookes, and men:
   To say but one were single. Then it chimes,
   When the old words doe strike on the new times,
   As in this Spanish Proteus; who, though writ
   But in one tongue, was formed with the world's wit:
   And hath the noblest marke of a good booke,
   That an ill man dares not securely looke
   Upon it, but will loath, or let it passe,
   As a deformed face doth a true glasse.
   Such bookes deserve translators of like coate
   As was the genius wherewith they were wrote;
   And this hath met that one, that may be stil'd
   More than the foster-father of this child;
   For though Spaine gave him his first ayre and vogue
   He would be call'd, henceforth, the English rogue,
   But that hee's too well suted, in a cloth
   Finer than was his Spanish, if my oath
   Will be receiv'd in court; if not, would I
   Had cloath'd him so! Here's all I can supply
   To your desert who have done it, friend! And this
   Faire aemulation, and no envy is;
   When you behold me wish myselfe, the man
   That would have done, that, which you only can!

The translator of Guzman was James Mabbe, which he disguised under the Spanish pseudonym of Diego Puede-ser; Diego for James, and Puede-ser for Mabbe or May-be! He translated, with the same spirit as his Guzman, Celestina, or the Spanish Bawd, that singular tragi-comedy,—a version still more remarkable. He had resided a considerable time in Spain, and was a perfect master of both languages,—a rare talent in a translator; and the consequence is, that he is a translator of genius.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Translation industry boomin'

From "Found in translation: Global business demands, broadening foreign contacts and multicultural concerns in social services have created a growing market for translators and interpreters," in the October 31st issue of the Sacramento Bee:
In 2004, the last year that federal statistics were available, about 31,000 individuals in the United States were listed as translators and interpreters in schools, health care, courts, airlines, telecommunication and other fields.
This is just the most recent in a wave of articles all of which recognize that in an increasingly interconnected world, those with multilingual abilities are going to be in high demand. There is money to be made; the article cites a going rate $16.30/hr for freelance work, a sufficiently high wage to keep up with the costs of living even in some of the more cosmopolitan areas of the country, those in which the market for translation services is going to continue to rise. But how will this demand continue to be met? Will the financial planners of the American school system cease to view foreign language instruction as auxiliary to learning, rather than an essential component of a complete education? Will vocational training schools proliferate, or will departments of comparative literature on campuses across the country more urgently remind their propsective students that jobs are waiting for graduates? I don't think anyone is expecting machine translation to advance so far in the next five years as to stem the current growth in this industry, so this is a question that is going to remain pertinent.

I'm particularly interested in considering whether there is a distinction to be made between professional (service) translation, and literary translation. An analogy might be drawn to the relationship between commercial copywriter and literary writer. Whence literary creativity, in the working of legal documents, medical transcripts, or business records from one language to another? Is there a perceptible difference between those who identify with professional work, and those who see themselves as working in a literary mode? A rivalry, a bias? This is a question more well-suited for a sociologist, but one which deserves answering if the translation industry becomes sufficiently strong to begin demanding reasonable compensation for the translation of foreign literature into English.

In the Bee article, reporter Darrell Smith asks Argentina-born Monica Nainsztein, owner of Sacramento firm Spanish Media Translations, about her work composing subtitles for studio films:
"I grew up watching movies in Argentina saying, 'Hey, that's not what they said.'" [....] "You're helping people understand. You're connecting cultures, informing people," Nainsztein said. "And showing your family your work on screen? That's priceless."
I am aware of at least once collegiate study abroad program, that for Boston University in Madrid, that offers a course in which students are assigned to writer Spanish subtitles for Hollywood films. That is, to me, a terrific assignment, in which students are confronted literary, commercial, and practical constraints. All this, and the requirement that they produce output that is instantly understood by an audience having only moments to read the text. If someone knows where the topic of the translation of cinematic subtitles is discussed, I'd be glad to read more about it. It's a topic I think we should explore in a future issue of the print journal. Thoughts?