Friday, July 19, 2019

Affective Translating

It’s widely assumed that the main function of language, its raison d’être, is to express and communicate our thoughts. That may be, but it also has other functions, conscious or unconscious.

There are, for example, what philosophers and linguists call illocutionary speech acts. An illocutionary speech act is an utterance that not only presents information but performs an action as well. For example, “The Board will meet twice a year” gives predictive information, but “The Board shall meet twice a year” lays down a by-law. Such acts are usually intentional and Expert Translators should be able to detect them.

Another function of language, the one that concerns us here, is that of affective or emotlve language.
“A cross-linguistic analysis indicates that languages dedicate phonological, morpho-syntactic and discourse features to intensify and specify attitudes, moods, feelings and dispositions.”
To these features we must add another that is equally important: the choice of vocabulary.

It follows that affective translation is the translation of such language, Expert Translators may perform it deliberately, but even Natural Translators may do so intuitively. And a corollary is that affective translation maintains the emotional effect of the source, often by using similar devices.

This function is particularly important in literary translation, because authors exploit it intentionally. It’s foremost in poetry.

One such poem has already been treated on this blog, though for a different reason. It’s Ezra Pound’s Cathay, which consists of translations from Chinese. To retrieve the post, enter cathay in the Search box on the right. One reason for the popularity of Pound’s translations lies in his mastery of affective English.

Some church interpreting is of this type. For an example, enter buea in the Search box on the right.

Let’s take as another example Edgar Alan Poe’s famous poem The Raven. Fortunately for our purpose, there’s a French translation of it, also famous, by his near contemporary Stéphane Mallarmé. It’s particularly interesting because Poe was a very conscious exponent of affective devices and he explained it himself in his essary The Philosophy of Composition. He went so far as to say that writing a poem was a methodical process.

Among the qualities Poe sought after were tone, which in The Raven is melancholy; and refrain or keynote. The refrain is his raven’s Nevermore, for which he chose a single word. The word had to have a certain character. It had to be sonorous and – since it was repeated at the end of almost every stanza  – be “susceptible of protracted emphasis.” Determining the long o as the "most sonorous vowel," Poe thought about what would connect with the most "producible consonant" to reach the desired result.

And so on. For a complete analysis, consult the Lippmann paper listed below.

Now let’s turn to the Mallarmé. The most striking thing about it is that Mallarmé did a prose translation. Prose translations have their uses – I used  Rosetti’s prose translation of Dante’s Inferno to understand the Italian – but they immediately sacrifice the affective devices of metre (i.e.regular rhythm), and rhyme, which were quasi-universal in poetry until the early twentieth century. So Mallarmé had to compensate for this loss. He did it in two ways. One was by choice of vocabulary:
“The opening lines of "Le Corbeau" provide a stylistic sampling of how Mallarmé used French to make The Raven even spookier. The familiar “midnight dreary” we associate with Poe’s version becomes the more funereal and morbid “minuit lugubre” in French. The nervous narrator’s book collection, described by Poe as “quaint and curious,” is transformed by Mallarmé into “curieux et bizarre,” infusing the lines with an even stranger, more unsettling tone.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,/ Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—/ While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,/ As of some one gently rapping—rapping at my chamber door./ "'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door/ Only this and nothing more."
 Une fois, par un minuit lugubre, tandis que je m'appesantissais, faible et fatigué, sur maint curieux et bizarre volume de savoir oublié— tandis que je dodelinais la tête, somnolant presque: soudain se fit un heurt, comme de quelqu'un frappant doucement, frappant à la porte de ma chambre—cela seul et rien de plus."

The other way was by the more surprisng device of accompanying his prose with etchings by his friend Édouard Monet. Translatologists may class this as intersemiotic translation. Monet’s image of the bird has become definitive.

To be continued.

Elinor Ochs and Bambi B. Schhieffelin. Language has a heart. Text: Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of Discourse, vol. 9, No. 1, 1989, pp.7-25. Click [HERE] or go to

Edgar Alan Poe. The Raven, Evening Mirror, 1845.

Babette Lippmann. EdgarAlan Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition”: an analysis of his work. Grin, 2005. Click [HERE] or go to

Edgar Alan Poe. Le Corbeau. French translation by Stéphane Mallarmé, illustrated by Édouard Monet. Paris: R. Lesclide, 1875, in an edition of 240 signed copies.

Jared Spears. How Poe’s French translator made The Raven even spookier. Mental Floss, 2016. Click [HERE] or go to


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