Saturday, September 4, 2010

Translating for the Fun of It

Back in the 1970s, when Bianca Sherwood and I first looked at the reports of translating done by young bilingual children (Natural Translators), one thing that struck us was that not all the translations were functional, in the sense of motivated by a need or desire to communicate information. We were rediscovering something that the famous pioneer of child language studies, Werner Leopold (see photo), had observed some years previously. Leopold was German, but he moved with his family to teach in the United States while his two daughters were still infants. He continued to speak German with his children although they soon picked up English in their new environment.
Like her sister, KL [the younger daughter] eventually realized that her father understood his children’s English, but she too continued to translate as part of a family game: “She treats it as a joke.”
To give the phenomenon a learned term, we called it ludic translation, i.e. translation as a game.

Ludic translation is not confined to children nor to Natural Translators. Native Translators and Expert Translators do it too. Here’s proof for Native Translators, i.e. people who have learned from their environment to translate to conventional standards without formal training. The examples in this instance are literary. Most literary translators start out as Native Translators, whose learning environment is the literature, including other people’s translations, that they avidly read. Today there are some university courses and workshops on literary translation, but only a few of the hundreds of practising literary translators have taken them.

A few days ago, a journalist wrote an article in The Guardian newspaper on the history of translation in English literature. He ended it by inviting readers to send in their own translations, which he then published. Not being a literary critic, I won’t comment on the quality of the submissions; but what first impressed me was the sheer quantity received within the next few days. The article drew 213 contributions to its ‘Comments’, most of which were actually translations. That’s a very large number for a literature blog. Furthermore, it’s generally considered that poetry is the most difficult genre of literary translation. People who can do it successfully, if they aren’t Experts, must be Advanced Native Translators. Nor did they go for the easy ones: Rilke and Baudelaire were favourites. “Translating is a bitch,” remarks one contributor. (St. Jerome put it more politely; he said it was a struggle.)

From which we may deduce that a lot of people like to translate for the pleasure of it. Why? For the challenge? Because, in the case of poetry, it’s a form or creative writing? Or, as in the case of Leopold’s daughter, as a game? Not that I think it’s anything peculiar to translation. Translating is a skill. Even when there’s no immediate need for our skills, we like to practice them and show our prowess.

Well, I can’t end without quoting one or two examples from this abundant anthology.

The Cat
After (a very long way after) Baudelaire
Version by Jack Brae Curtingstall

Cat, see my heart flare;
reduce your claws to hint,
and let me meet your stare
of speckled flint.
My fingers trace the charts
of your spiralled fur,
as I drink in thoughts
not of you, but her:
my girlfriend's in my brain. Her look
(like yours, vicious queen),
cold, searching, grips me like a hook;
steely, gun-metalled, mean -
then her scent, deceptive, ish -
her body dark as liquorice.

Curtingstall is a poet. He says somewhere, “I read poetry every day.”

From ‘graceandreacchi’
“Not so much a translation as a 'version' of an old favourite.”

Catullus – Carmen 85
odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

I hate and I love you. Why?
I don't know. But I feel it and
am crucified
Finally, I thank ‘smpugh’ for contributing this witty put-down from Ogden Nash:
He was once told by a lady at some event that she liked one of his books but preferred it in the French translation. "Yes", he murmured, "my work does tend to lose something in the original."


Werner F. Leopold, 1896-1984. Speech Development of a Bilingual Child: A Linguist’s Record. Evanston IL: Northwestern University Press, 1939-1949. There was an AMS reprint. Out of print, but Amazon USA sometimes has a second-hand copy.

Brian Harris and Bianca Sherwood. Translating as an innate skill. In D. Gerver and W. H. Sinaiko, eds., Language Interpretation and Communication, Oxford and New York, Plenum, 1978, pp. 155-170. Digitised copy available free from

Billy Mills. Poster poems: Translation (Books Blog). Guardian Unlimited, August 20, 2010.

Photo: Kenji Hakuta

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