By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

"The Shakespeare Paradox"

ShakespeareImage by Jeroen Krah via Flickr
Dutch production of Shakespeare
In getting ready for a summer workshop in Latin poetry, I found this interesting excerpt in an introduction to an old translation of the Odes of the Roman lyric poet Horace:

The Odes of Horace offer us an especially lucid illustration of what may be called, in regard to translation, "the Shakespeare paradox." This is the paradox that a literary masterpiece that seems to enshrine the peculiar genius of a given language nonetheless succeeds in conveying its numinous power when translated into another language. Anyone who has had the curious experience of discussing the English bard's plays with, for instance, those who know them best in German translation cannot but be surprised by the strong claims of parity with the original on the part of enthusiasts of "unser Shakespeare" ("our Shakespeare"). In the case of short, exquisitely modeled lyric monuments such as Horace's Odes, the apparent paradox is even more pronounced. All our cherished assumptions about the inseparability of sound/sense, or form/content, in poetry are strenuously challenged when we confront the universal appeal of these finely honed poems to readers across diverse cultures and languages.

Gregson Davis, "Introduction" to Odes by Horace, trans. James Michie (N.Y.: The Modern Library, circa 1923), Kindle location 167 (bold added).

We often hear about the imperfections of translation. For example, one of my Greek professors used to say that the original is like color TV, while its translation is just settling for a black and white picture. If you are bilingual, you can easily see what that remark is getting at with its jibe at the difficulty of translation.

Yet, we know that translations do succeed. The over 400-year-old King James Bible (or "Authorized Version" for U.K. readers) is reputed to capture the grammatical structure of the original Hebrew very well, while its felicitous English style has in fact enraptured the minds, hearts, and souls of generations and, in fact, had a strong "Hebraizing" effect on the development of the English language. The translation known as the KJV worked. So, apparently, have some German translations of Shakespeare, as observed in the above excerpt.

What do I conclude? Yes, translation is challenging work. There are good and bad ones. Yet, when done well by those with the required knowledge, with a sense of style in the language of the targeted audience, and with an emotional and intellectual empathy with the text, translation works magnificently so that we get more than just a "black and white" version of a color TV picture. We can also get a "color TV" picture through translation, maybe with different hues and tones as required by the structure and style of another language.

So, if translations can and do work, what are the questions raised?

1. Does this reality not confirm our common human nature? I think so.

2. What does the success of translation say to those traditions that canonize one language as superior over all others? I think of the Islamic preference for Arabic. I also think of the obsession of some in my own tradition with Latin, especially when it comes to the Western liturgy.

3. Isn't the success of translation implied in the Pentecost event of Acts 2, where we see the same message effectively communicated in the various native languages of each one in the Jerusalem crowd?

4. What does the success of translation say to linguistic nationalists who sometimes go to extremes in pushing the superiority of an ethnic language over what is perceived as a "colonial" imposition? It may be that what was once a historic "colonial" imposition has nevertheless become part of the soul of the native population without detriment to the expression of that population's rightful aspirations. I think of the extremism of some linguistic nationalists in some regions of Spain. You can likely think of other examples.

I think that we often underestimate and forget how much more we have in common as human beings than what divides us into different cultures and ethnicities. As I like to say, millions throughout the world, without a drop of Chinese blood in their veins, like Chinese food. There is a common human nature.
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