Sunday, July 15, 2012


It has been nice to be back to translating this week, even if it is going quite slowly. Translating well is a slow process at the best of times because it requires great sensitivity in both languages and the sense of knowing when to stay literal and when to loosen up. Rendering Latin into good idiomatic English, while retaining the sense of the original, is challenging. I can crank out an accurate and very literal translation of Sulpicius Severus reasonably easily. The grammar and vocabulary he employs is not extremely complex and he doesn't write high poetry like Vergil or highly rhetorical prose like Cicero. Yet, many, many times, I find myself struggling to get the best sense out of him and into the English without it sounding awkward and forced.

For example, consider what I was working on last night in the (probably) vain hope that I can post the Sulpicius' 1st Letter. I sat down to work on it and, in the first sentence, ran into one of these 'I-know-all-the-grammar-and-vocabulary-but-how-do-I-say-it-in-English' problems. Here is the passage in Latin (for my readers who know it-the rest will just have to take my word for the problems I relate):

Hesterna die, cum ad me plerique monachi uenissent, inter fabulas iuges longumque sermonem mentio incidit libellli, quem de vita beati uiri Martini episcopi edidi, studioseque eum a multis legi libentissime audiebam.

English speakers will, of course, wonder at the length of the sentence and the multiplication of subordinate clauses, but anyone familiar with Latin or ancient Greek will recognize this as a sentence of rather average length. Latin does allow compression of thought, but it  tends to like subordinate clauses, although, here at least, the number of participles is down to a minimum. (Later Latin tends to like main verbs in subordinate clauses more than Classical Latin). So, really, the grammar is pretty straight forward as far as that goes.

Here is a pretty literal rendering of the passage:

Yesterday, when very many monks came to me, amid fresh tales and long conversation, mention of my little book, which I published on the life of Bishop Martin, the blessed men, occurred and I was listening very gladly that it was read by many enthusiastically.

As for as it goes, this isn't a terrible translation nor is it overly literal. I did take some liberties to clarify the English, but something about that second clause bothered me. It just didn't sound quite right. It took some time, but I realized that the problem was with the way that mentio and incidit were interacting. mentio is a fairly straightfoward word. Not surprisingly, it is the Latin equivalent of 'mention' in English. That makes sense because it is clearly the Latin root of the English word.

incidit was a rather more difficult word to deal with. The basic meaning of it is 'to fall in, fall, light upon', but its meaning extends to 'occurs, happens', which explains my initial translation. However, the more I thought of it, the more my translation sounded odd. Does a mention occur? Doesn't sound right, does it? Besides, my first translation of incidit really wasn't getting the tone of the word the way I wanted. incidit has the feeling of something which just, well, happens. That is, it has an almost random quality to it, so, in employing it, Sulpicius is trying to say that he didn't bring it up the subject of his book on Martin , it just happened that people started to talk about (and praise) it. This tone is in keeping with the studied modesty of Sulpicius Severus which is a feature of the Life itself (see particularly, the Preface of the Life of Saint Martin for a demonstration of this rather affected modesty). Indeed, this tone is already reflected in the choice of rather self-deprecating use of libellus- little book- to describe the book. incidit falls in with that tone.

So, what did I finally do about it? I had to adjust both the meaning of mentio and incidit beyond the standard dictionary meanings to get the English idiom I needed. Here is what I came up with (for now):

Yesterday, when very many monks came to me, amid new stories and a long conversation, the subject of my little book which I published about the life of the blessed bishop Martin, happened to come up. I heard with very great pleasure that it had been read with enthusiasm by many.

Better. The subordinate clauses are still piling on top of each other in odd ways. Particularly, the 'my little book which I published...' part sounds like odd English (if my students wrong something like this, I'd tell it was Latlish- not quite English, not quite Latin). And I'm tempted to change that last clause from the passive voice to the active because the active voice sounds better in English. Or not. That passive (to be read) fits with the sense that Sulpicius is trying to distance himself from praising himself. I still need to think that out a bit.

 I know that this blog entry has been rather a long discussion of what looks like very little. Yet, I think we can get rather blasé about the process of translating, partly because of the wide availability of translations of ao much of world literature and partly because we modern North Americans, as a consequence, don't think it necessary to pursue language study, even at the graduate student level, in its own right. So, we become language phobes who are afraid to do serious language study. That is a dangerous position to take because, while the language in, say, our Latin texts doesn't change, our language, the target language, does and there is a need to retool and refit translations with each generation. All one has to do is to read translations from even a generation ago and one will find them hard to follow. Regular updating of translations enables us to engage more fully with the literature from other culture - whether ones that have passed away or those which continue alongside us. Translating isn't an easy activity, but it is a culturally important one and one which deserves to be taken more seriously.


Magister Christianus said...

Phil, I ran across your post this morning and had to read it and reply. You have touched on a topic that is very close to my hear and my head. I have written numerous pieces on matters of translation and translation theory, including those that follow. I am glad to hear of others who take the matter of translation so seriously.

kkollwitz said...

I was going to send this link to Magister, but he's here first.