Tag Archives: Translation

Comparing Translations of Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities

It just so happens that I started to read Musil’s magnum opus, The Man without Qualities, in the Sophie Wilkins translation which was widely available in paperback when I bought my copies.  I was also lucky to find a first edition set of hard copies at a bookshop in Boston.  When a few of my fellow bloggers and readers on Twitter shared their copies of the Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser translations which feature the Egon Schiele covers, I decided to buy these as well and compare translations.  A few of my favorite selections that I am discussing here are from Volume I of the Sophie Wilkins translation and from Volume II of the Wilkins/Kaiser translation.

When Diotima and Arnheim, who are in love with each other but can’t decide how to move forward in their relationship, have a discussion about their feelings, Diotima says in the Sophie Wilkins translation:

Words can do much, but there are things beyond words.  The real truth between two people cannot be put into words. The moment we speak certain doors begin to close; language works best for what doesn’t really matter; we talk in lieu of living.

And in the Wilkins/Kaiser translation:

The word can accomplish great things, but there are things still greater! The true truth between two people cannot be uttered. As soon as we speak, doors close.  The word does better service to the unreal communications.  One speaks in those hours when one does not live.

In this first example I prefer the Sophie Wilkins translationsfor a few reasons.  The Wilkins/Kaiser use of the polyptoton “true truth” seems awkward in a prose translation, and “real truth” seems to flow better.  In addition, the translation of the second sentence in the Wilkins/Kaiser translation seems unclear: “The word does better service to the unreal communications.”  The Sophie Wilkins translation is more eloquent and makes the meaning of the sentence much more apparent: “Language works best for what doesn’t really matter.”  Finally, I think that the semicolons that Sophie Wilkins uses make the entire sentiment of the paragraph flow better whereas the periods in the Wilkins/Kaiser translation make the writing feel more disconnected in what is supposed to be discussion.

Next is a comparison of Musil’s satire of the media which I mentioned in a previous post.  Sophie Wilkins renders the paragraph as:

If he were alive today, Plato—to take him as an example, because along with a dozen others he is regarded as the greatest thinker who ever lived—would certainly be ecstatic about a news industry capable of creating, exchanging, refining a new idea every day; where information keeps pouring in from the ends of the earth with a speediness he never knew in his own lifetime, while a staff of demiurges is on hand to check it all out instantaneously for its content of reason and reality.  He would have supposed a newspaper office to be that topos uranios, that heavenly realm of ideas, which he has described so impressively that to this day all the better class of people are still idealists when talking to their children or employees.  And of course if Plato were to walk suddenly into a news editor’s office today and prove himself to be indeed that great author who died over two thousand years ago he would be a tremendous sensation and would instantly be showered with the most lucrative offers.  If he were then capable of writing a volume of philosophical travel pieces in three weeks, and a few thousand of his well-known short stories, perhaps even turn one or the other of his older works into film, he could undoubtedly do very well for himself for a considerable period of time.  The moment his return had ceased to be news, however,  and Mr. Plato tried to put into practice one of his well-known ideas, which had never quite come into their own, the editor in chief would ask him to submit only a nice little column on the subject now and then for the Life and Leisure section (but in the easiest and most lively style possible, not heavy: remember the readers), and the features editor would add that he was sorry, but he could use such a contribution only once a month or so, because there were so many other good writers to be considered.  And both of these gentlemen would end up feeling that they had done quite a lot for a man who might indeed be the Nestor of European publicists but still was a bit outdated, and certainly not in a class for current newsworthiness with a man like, for instance, Paul Arnheim.

And the Wilkins/Kaiser translation:

Plato—to take him as an example, because he, among a dozen others, is commonly referred to as one of the greatest thinkers—would, if he were still alive, quite definitely be enchanted with that world of ‘news’ in which every day a new idea can be created, exchanged for another, or refined, in which a mass of reports comes pouring in from all the ends of the earth, at a speed he never dreamt of, and where a staff of demiurges waits in readiness to test it all immediately for the quantity of reason and reality it contains.  He would take a newspaper office to be that topos uranios, that heavenly realm of Ideas, of whose existence he wrote in such details and so impressively that even nowadays all the better sort of people are idealists when talking to their children or employees.  And of course, if Plato were today suddenly to walk into an editor’s office and prove he was really that great author who died more than two thousand years ago, he would cause a tremendous sensation and be offered the most enviable contracts. Supposing he were then capable of writing a volume of philosophic travel-impressions inside three weeks, as well as a few thousand of his well-known short stories, and even perhaps sell the film-rights of one or the other of his older works, he would certainly do pretty well for quite a time.  As soon, however, as his return ceased to be topical and Mr. (as he would be now) Plato tried to put into practice yet another of his well-known ideas, which never really came into their own, the editor would merely urge him to write a nice little feature-article on the subject now and then for the woman’s or the book page of course not in that difficult style of his, but as light and readable as possible, with the paper’s readers in mind, and the feature-editor would add that he was sorry he could not use such a contribution more than once a month at the most, because there were, after all, so many other good men to be considered.  And after that both these gentlemen would have the feeling that they had done a great deal for a man who, although he was the father of European publicists, was nevertheless a little out of date and as regards topicality simply not in the same class as, for instance, Paul Arnheim.

In this example I prefer the Wilkins/Kaiser translation because of a few subtle differences that enhance the satire and humor: their capitalization of Ideas, for instance, and their aside in parentheses explaining Mr. Plato (as he would be now).  The Wilkins/Kaiser  use of the word “travel impressions” seems much more humorous, especially in relation to the great philosopher Plato, than the “travels pieces” that Wilkins uses. And finally, the Wilkins Kaiser use of “woman’s or book page” instead of “Leisure Section” is not only funnier, but is more fitting for Musil who goes on to satirize authors as well (he is especially disgusted with so-called “popular” authors and books.)  The Wilkins/Kaiser translation also uses a minimal amount of punctuation in the large, run-on sentence that makes up the bulk of the paragraph which, I think, lends to the hyperbole of the writing. As a side note, I did appreciate Sophie Wilkin’s use of “Nestor” in the final sentence, but this is a very specific Homeric reference that many readers might not appreciate.

One final comparison is a translation of Musil’s satire involving authors.  The Sophie Wilkins translation reads:

Meaning no offence, but dogs prefer a busy street corner to a lonely cliff for their calls of nature, so why should human beings who feel the higher urge to leave their names behind choose a cliff that is obviously unfrequented? Before he knows it, the Great Author ceases to be a separate entity and has become a symbiosis, a collective national product in the most delicate sense of the term, and enjoys the most gratifying assurance life can offer that his prosperity is most intimately bound up with that of countless others.

And the Wilkins/Kaiser translation:

Be it said without offence, where their natural needs are concerned bogs prefer a busy street-corner to a solitary rock; and how then should human beings, who feel the higher need to leave their name publicly behind them, fail to choose a rock that is noticeably solitary?  Before he knows that is happening the superman of lettersis no longer a being to himself, but a symbiosis, in the most delicate sense the product of national cooperation, and experiences the most exquisite assurance that life can give—namely that his own prospering is most intimately bound up with the prospering of countless other people.

In this final example I don’t have a preference as I equally enjoyed both translations.  The biggest difference between the translations is their rendering of the very thing that Musil is satirizing: Sophie Wilkins uses the “Great Author” with capital letters while Wilkins/Kaiser use the superman of letters.  Both serve their purpose and are humorous.

So in my final analysis I would say that we are lucky to have two excellent English translations of Musil’s The Man without Qualities.  I will continue with the Sophie Wilkins translation for the final four-hundred pages of the novel since I began with this one.  But when I reread Musil I will happily use the Wilkins/Kaiser rendition.  My analysis is not meant to critique the literal translation from English to German as I do not read German.  These are simply my aesthetic views and preferences as someone who has read well over a thousand pages of Musil in translation.  If you have a preference for one of these translations I would be delighted to hear about it.



Filed under German Literature

Why I translate Ancient Languages

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί’ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε’ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ’ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προί̈αψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή

Wrath—sing goddess, about the wrath of
Achilles, son of Peleus, a destructive
wrath that brought unbearable grief to
the Achaeans, and which sent many brave
souls of heroes to Hades, and left their
bodies as carrion for dogs and vultures,
the will of Zeus was carried out.

These first five lines of the Iliad are, to me, some of the most profound, beautiful, emotional and simple lines in all of classical literature. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was translating Homer, someone commented, “The field is already populated with several translations. What are they missing and what is new yours is bringing to the table?”

First, “several” translations is an understatement.  Homer has been translated by countless people since Ancient Greek was rediscovered in the Middle Ages!  I have no intention of sharing a full translation of my work because, for me, translation is a very personal matter. I oftentimes print out the text and make notes or jot down bits of translations on a notebook or scraps of paper. Oftentimes I translate silently to myself, or out loud when I ask one of the other two people I know who also know Ancient Greek what they think of a particular translation.  My translations, I guess, are truly ephemeral.

And what I saw in a text like Homer, when I first encountered him at the age of nineteen, is very different from how I experience his works now.  Very different.   But the point of the exercise  for me is to interact with the text. Nothing focuses my attention—especially when I am sad or stressed out, etc.—like an ancient text. The cases, the word order, the verb tenses, the vocabulary—it is an all-consuming experience for me. The few translations I do share on my blog are, once again, very personal renderings of some of my favorite ancient texts, but certainly not read by a wide audience. Every once in a great while I will do a translation on request for someone; and even more rarely I will do a translation for a particular person as a sort of gift. But, once again, these are personal exchanges and experiences, usually only done for an audience of one.

So, what are other translations missing?  Well, not necessarily anything. But they aren’t my own….


Filed under Opinion Posts

Oh Gracilis Puer! Translations of Horace Ode 1.5

Horace’s Ode to Pyrrha can be interpreted in many ways, but I’ve always detected a note of jealousy over a woman and a love that eluded him. He has put aside his relationship with the woman who is now engaging in a tryst with a man he, rather condescendingly, calls a gracilis puer (simple boy.) He then accuses Pyrrha of being vain and shallow and believes that only those who truly know her realize that her beauty is skin deep. If he doesn’t care for her anymore, if he is so relieved to be free of her, then why protest so much? Why insult her?

I offer here two translations, one is my own and one is by a fellow classicist. We had great fun exchanging and critiquing (arguing over) one another’s translations. I won’t identify them, but one translation is very traditional, closer to the grammar of the original text and the other is more colloquial and captures the spirit of the poem without being as literal.

Translation #1:

So who’s that pretty boy, soaked in cologne,
grinding against you in the rose bushes
near that pleasant grotto, Pyrrha?
Is it for him that you do up your blonde hair,

stylishly simple? Ah, how often
he will be in anguish over fickle faith
and fate, and be caught off guard – astounded –
as if at the sea abruptly churned up by a dark gale.

He may be enjoying you now – your radiance –
always believing in your easy-going love, unaware
of the deceptive way the wind blows.

Miserable are they who’ve never basked in your glow.
As for me – see my dripping clothes hanging on the holy temple wall as an offering
for the powerful god of the sea? Well, they show that I’ve survived that particular storm.


Translation #2:

What simple boy, having doused himself in perfume,
hems you in on a bed of roses under cover of a pleasant
cave? For whom do you, Pyrrha, simple in your
elegance, arrange your golden locks?

Ah, how many times will that boy cry over fickle
faith and fickle fortunes and, in his insolence,
will stand aghast at the oceans made rough by
black storms;

That trusting boy, who now enjoys
you in all your magnificence and who always hopes you
are available and always hopes you are loveable,
is ignorant of your false charms.

Wretched are those to whom you appear glamorous
without knowing your true self. A sacred wall shows that
I have suspended my wet clothes there as a votive
prayer for the powerful god of the sea.

Which do you prefer?

(As a side note I showed both of these translations to my students and it sparked an interesting and lively debate about the art of translation. They were able to pick out which translation was my own. They are my Vergil students, most of whom I have had for five semesters of Latin, so they are all too familiar with my style, quirks, approach to translation, etc.)


Filed under Classics

Review: Nay Rather by Anne Carson

I have been on an Anne Carson reading binge lately and have also been slowly making my way through the Cahiers Series so I was thrilled when I discovered that Carson wrote Cahier #21.  Her essay in this Cahier, entitled “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent,”  includes her thoughts on the issues of resistance in translation, the untranslatable, and  the mistranslated.  Silence, which is oftentimes a problem with ancient manuscripts, is her starting point: “Silence is as important as words in the practice and study of translation.”  Carson points out that silence can be both physical and metaphysical;  physical silence, for example, happens when a manuscript of Sappho has been torn in half and there is empty space. This part of her discussion particularly resonated with me because it is one of the issues with ancient texts that my students have the most difficulty.  As I am translating Catullus this semester with my university level class, it bothers them to the point of argument, distraction and frustration when a piece of a text has been reconstructed with several possibilities from different editors.   They want to know exactly which word Catullus wrote in the original transcript and they don’t want to hear from me that such literary puzzles can be “fun” to figure out.

Metaphysical silence happens when it is impossible to translate a word directly from one language to another.  Carson’s example of this is taken from the word molu which appears in Homer’s Odyssey.  Molu is a plant that is sacred to the gods and Hermes gives this plant to Odysseus in order to protect himself from the magic of Circe.  Carson says about Homer’s use of this word and the intentional silence it engenders: “He wants this word to fall silent.  Here are four letters of the alphabet, you can pronounce them but you cannot define, possess, or make use of them.  You cannot search for this plant by the roadside or google it and find out where to buy some  The plant is sacred, the knowledge belongs to the gods, the word stops itself.”  When one encounters such words in teaching an ancient author it is difficult to convey to the students that translation is not an exact science.  It has been my experience, however, that my students enjoy the metaphysical silences much more so than the physical silences because they are able to have a debate over the metaphysical by using their previous knowledge of an author’s body of work, as well as their mythological and historical backgrounds.

Also included in this Cahier is a poem that Carson has composed about the Cycladic culture entitled “By Chance the Cycladic People.”  The order in which the lines appear in the text were determined by the author through a random number generator.  This unique strategy of mixing up her poem is a way in which Carson provides us with her own example of a poem that resists translation.  We can put her poem back into the correct order.  But should we?  Are the lines really meant to be put back into the original order or can we get a deeper understanding of her verses by seeing them in this random order?  I chose not to put them back in order but instead I noticed patterns of images and themes that reoccur throughout the verses: the sea, pots and pans, boats, mirrors, etc.   I wonder how others have chosen to deal with this poem?

At the end of this Cahier, Carson provides seven different versions of a translation from a fragment of the Ancient Greek poet Ibykos.  Her first translation is a traditional, straightforward translation of the Ancient Greek text.  But with the other six translations she limits herself to a series of specific words.  One translation is rendered using only words taken from John Donne’s “Woman’s Constancy, another translation is rendered using only words from stops and signs found in the London Underground.  My favorite is the translation of Ibykos she does using only words from p. 47 of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame.  Carson’s brilliance as far as translation and the nuances of this craft come into full play through her seven translations and we also see that she has a fantastic sense of humor.


Finally, the art work in this cahier is a series of drawings and gouaches by Sicilian artist Lanfranco Quadrio who was inspired by his reading of Carson’s text.  A piece of his work appears on every other page in the Cahier with verses from Carson’s Cycladic poem.  There is a primitive nature to them but they are also very colorful which reminded me of Cycladic and Minoan art.


Filed under Anne Carson, Cahier Series, Chapbook, Nonfiction

How Many Kisses are Enough?: My Translation of Catullus Poem 7


Frederic Leighton, Acme and Septimius, c 1868

Monday is the first day of the spring semester for me and even though I have been teaching for nearly twenty years I still get nervous whenever I step into a new class.  This year the enrollment in my classes are especially robust, which makes me feel even a bit more anxious.  My Honors course this semester will be translating Catullus and it is always my hope that they grow to appreciate the many layers of his intense poetry.  Since I have Catullus on my mind I thought I would continue my translation series by offering my rendition of Poem 7 which is also considered the companion piece to Poem 5 that I translated in a previous post.

Like many of Catullus’s verses,  at first glance Poem 7 seems deceptively simple.  The poem is a mere twelve lines in hendecasyllabic meter and it is about kisses.  What could be a more trivial and frivolous topic for a poem?  But a closer examination of the Latin reveals the poet’s talent at deceiving his readers:

Quaeris, quot mihi basiationes
tuae, Lesbia, sint satis superque.
quam magnus numerus Libyssae harenae
lasarpiciferis iacet Cyrenis
oraclum Iovis inter aestuosi
et Batti veteris sacrum sepulcrum;
aut quam sidera multa, cum tacet nox,
furtivos hominum vident amores:
tam te basia multa basiare
vesano satis et super Catullo est,
quae nec pernumerare curiosi
possint nec mala fascinare lingua.

You ask, Clodia, how many of your kisses
are enough or more than enough for me,
and my answer is as many as the great number of
sands that lie in the Libyan desert in silphium-bearing
Cyrene between the oracle of sultry Jove and the
sacred tomb of old Battis; or as many as the number
of stars in the sky that spy on the secret affairs of
lovers during the quiet of night.  To kiss you so many
kisses would be enough and more than enough for crazy
Catullus.  And nosy men would never be able to count
this number of kisses and put a curse on us!

I imagine that when he is composing this Catullus and Clodia are in the midst of their passionate and intense love affair; whereas in Poem 5 he seems to be still trying to woo her, in Poem 7 they have consummated their relationship.  I imagine them coming up for air after a particularly intense encounter and Clodia posing this question to him, “Just how many kisses will be enough for you, you crazy man?”  His hyperbolic response—he won’t be satisfied until he receives as many kisses as grains of sand in a desert or stars in the night sky—is fitting for the depth of their ardor.  Catullus sends this poem as a response to his lover knowing that she is a docta puella, an erudite and intelligent woman who will understand his Alexandrian references.

The Romans referred to North Africa as Libya, so that is the part of the world to which Catullus is alluding.  North Africa, and  Cyrene in particular which he also mentions, is the birthplace of the Alexandrian poet Callimachus whose style Catullus is attempting to emulate in his poetry.  In contrast to epic poets that are concerned with larger themes and the grand achievements of heroes, Callimachus and the  νεωτερικοί “new poets” of the Hellenistic Period compose brief, erudite poems about intense emotions experienced by ordinary men.  Their poems are considered highly perfected works of art in which every word is carefully chosen and placed on the page.  Catullus and his friends are considered the Latin Neoterics or, as Cicero disdainfully labeled them the Novi Poetae, and their poems are equally as intelligent and polished as those of their Greek predecessors.  By appearing to casually mention Libya and Cyrene in a love poem, Catullus is name dropping and only the most learned readers could understand that his verses are so much more than a love poem.  The reference to Battos is even more obscure since this man was a distant relative of Callimachus and the founder of Cyrene which Herodotus explains was a Greek colony of the island of Thera.

But I do think it is important to return to Catullus’s underlying inspiration and motivation for composing this poem, his love for Clodia.  He wants an infinite number of basiationes which can be playfully translated as “kissifications.”  He reminds us that their love affair is clandestine by inserting into line 8 the secret lovers who meet under the cover of night.  He subtly underscores his sexual relationship with Clodia by mentioning the silphium plant that was used as an ancient form of contraception.  And finally, he emphasizes the fact that people are gossiping—mala lingua “evil tongues”— about his time spent with Clodia whose powerful husband could destroy Catullus if word of their love ever reached his ears.  Catullus’s raw, ardent and visceral poems would not exist without the passion and risk he experiences while engaging in this love affair.


Filed under Classics