Thursday, July 10, 2014

Lost in Translation #1: Vergil

Perhaps the most difficult tasks for the teacher of foreign languages is to persuade students of the need to read a work in its native language. In an era not only of plentiful translations but of numerous good translations, why turn to the original? The difficulty of this task of persuasion is compounded by the fact that it's nearly impossible to make this point clear and attractive at the introductory level when students are performing the thankless work of basic mechanics. Yet if the student does not grasp this notion at some early point, he risks wandering astray from the appreciation of his acquired language as a conveyance of literature. It's a terrible fate that the first utility of Latin, for example, is so often said to be its ability to improve one's English vocabulary.

Toward the end of showing Latin as a language of literature I would like to take a look at some passages of choicest Latin and compare them not merely to good translations, but to fine ones. I hope to demonstrate in this Coleridge's dictum that, "one criterion of style is that it shall not be translateable without injury to the meaning." (Lecture 14 on Shakespeare) I don't mean in any instance to denigrate the translator, moreover in studying the Latin and English in parallel one's appreciation for the task and success of these translators can only grow. Still, that task is in the end impossible to fulfill to perfection, at least for any work which maximizes the possibilities unique to its native language.

It seems prudent to start with one of the best and best known passages of Latin's most famous work, the Roman Classic, the Unclassical Classic, the Homeric reincarnation, the Augustan renaissance, Vergil's Aeneid. The translation is by Robert Fagles, published 2006.

We enter in Book IV, where a seething Dido rages at Aeneas, whom she caught stealing away.

365 'nec tibi diva parens generis nec Dardanus auctor,
366 perfide, sed duris genuit te cautibus horrens
367 Caucasus Hyrcanaeque admorunt ubera tigres.

/ "No goddess was your mother!
No Dardanus sired your line, you traitor, liar, no
Mount Caucasus fathered you on its flinty, rugged flanks
and the tigers of Hyrcania gave you their dugs to suck!

English eschews both leading with the dative form and the dative of possession (it is to you, vs of you, or the possessive adjective your), so Fagles presents us first with goddess (diva) and the possessive adjective your. The logic of the sentence is preserved, but the effect of leading with Aeneas (tibi: to you) and concluding with Aeneas (perfide: you traitorous one) enjambed onto the next line is lost, and the effects are that of 1) amplifying the accusatory tone of the line and 2) linking the two lines.

An understood linking verb (est: was) links diva to parens and Dardanus to auctor, a gapping which produces a line of stark juxtapositions. In the English, Dardanus auctor spills into a whole clause just for the need to use as a stand-in for auctor (founder, originator, progenitor), English's sired (forefathered), whose noun form sire is both deprecated and tied up with associations of its use as a salutation. Now sired is probably the best substitute, but its use results in a circumlocution which comes at the price of brevity and thus potency. Likewise perfide (faithless, traitorous, deceitful, false) becomes traitor, liar, which still doesn't quite capture the sense of scandal and outrage of perfide.

Fagles truly does a superb job with 366, so much that the layer of translation fades to an invisibility which would do Coleridge proud, but again there's no way to mimic the word order permitted by inflection, and thus the ensuing effects. Here, after in 365 declaring from whom Aeneas was not born, Dido describes who were his parents, according to her insult. The whole line is a preparation though, which isn't fulfilled until Caucasus enjambed into the beginning of 367 tells us just who was his father. Likewise lost is Vergil's sandwiching of te (you, i.e. Aeneas) between duris and cautibis (on hard crags.) Too, while flinty is a brilliant substitute for duris, conveying both physical and emotional hardness, rugged doesn't capture the sense of dread in horrens. Finally, in English we lose the emphasis of the parallel placement of Aeneas (perfide) at the beginning of the line and horrens at the end.

Again, though, Fagles' 367 captures the meaning of the line, but the style and imagery is in rerouting, lost. First, the English is cluttered with and, the, of, you, their, and to, a volume which dilutes the potency of the idea. Next, the stark back-to-back placement of Caucacus and Hyrcanae is an exotic splash which is lost in separation. What the Latin says obliquely or subtly in image, admorunt ubera tigres, the tigers drew up/near their teats, with "for suckling" implicit, Fagles says literally with "gave you their dugs to suck." This is quite a subtle difference, but the phrase "drawing up the breast" typifies the action as associated with nursing, whereas Fagles English spells it all out. Also lost is tigres' emphatic separation from its adjective Hyrcanae and placement at the line's end.

Finally, ubera tigres in Latin is a tight-knit pair of noun and direct object, linked by their constituting the hexameter's famous zippidy-do-dah final feet. Though they are in different cases and thus function differently, Latin can place them together and produce a non-grammatical, purely visual-aural relationship between the two. Here, the two words simply by their proximity produce a clear image: tiger nipples. It may sound silly, but that's a very bestial image which perfectly concludes Dido's scurrilous contention that Aeneas is not born from the soft goddess of love and a son of Zeus, but hard crags and animals. He's inhuman, to her, and this is the perfect image for that sentiment.

In contrast, Fagles' English shows the same images in a different series with different connections for a different effect. Compare the following and try to visualize each image as it comes:

Latin: Hyrcanian gave nipples tigers
English: tigers of Hyrcania gave you their dugs to suck!

More processing is required by the Latin to supply the understood information, but the brevity and word placement produce a more compact, more vivid image, compared to which the English seems rather literal, as if the image is being explained to you rather than presented. The potential of this cascade of images and associations is one of the chief powers and pleasures of the Latin language.

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