Asaf Bartov (ijon) wrote,
Asaf Bartov

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Anecdotes on Translation, from A. Mirsky's lectures

I bought this ridiculous little book, sixteen pages in all, containing transcripts of three lectures on translation by Aharon Mirsky. They are speeches, not lectures, delivered on the occasion of receiving a translation award, in the early 1990s. I don't know whether A. Mirsky is related to the famous translator Nili Mirsky, but it's not unlikely.

Mirsky discusses how translators fret over finding just the right words, and the great frustration they endure when they are not satisfied with the best their target language has to offer. He tells of Friedrich Leopold von Stolberg, who translated the Iliad into German: when Stollberg reached the line  δακρυοεν γελασασα  in the sixth song, line 484, he translated it to "Lächelnd mit weinenden Augen". He was so troubled by the weakness of his translation of the supple Greek phrase, that he wrote a footnote reading O! lieber Leser, lerne griechisch und wirf meine Übersetzung ins Feuer. (my translation: O! Dear reader, learn Greek and throw my translation in the fire.) It's a fine example of a very real sentiment translators sometimes feel when they work.

Later in the same talk, Mirsky argues for the superiority of Hebrew over other tongues, mostly by virtue of being the language of the bible. To support his claim, he summons Shakespeare himself to give testimony. Mirsky shows that in King Richard II, first act, first scene, lines 174-175, King Richard says: "lions make leopards tame". Mowbray replies "Yea, but not change his spots". Mirsky points out the grammatical discrepancy in number -- the King speaks of lions and leopards, in the plural number, and Mowbray responds in the singular. Shakespeare was, of course, thinking of the biblical phrase in Jeremiah 13:23, which says, in the King James Version Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? [...]

Mirsky argues that Shakespeare bowed English grammar to the authority of the Hebrew language. I find it a weak argument -- I know Shakespeare bowed English grammar on quite a few other occasions, and for languages and subjects Mirsky would deem a lot less noble than Hebrew. Had Shakespeare thought of a good phrase to allude to in Italian, he would have made the necessary alteration to the text in order to evoke the Italian phrase, no doubt. But it was interesting to be pointed to this technique of Shakespeare, so I bring it to you, too.

I'll follow up with two additional anecdotes at a later time.

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