Friday, February 25, 2022

Translating Atmosphere and Tone

In previous posts we have discoursed briefly on emotion and forcefulness in translating. (To find the posts, enter affective and forceful in the Search box on the right.) This post will deal with a third quality of text or speeches and their translations, namely atmosphere.


Atmosphere differs from the first two in that it is never attached to a single word or expression but is diffused over the whole. It has partial synonyms like tone that we may need to use in order to find examples.  


It's important most in literary translation, but not only there. Here’s an example.


A freshly minted graduate from the school at the University of Ottawa went to work at trainee grade in the translation bureau of the Canadian government. At that level, new translators are supervised by an experienced translator or revisor. The first task she was given was to translate letters from members of the public to one of the ministers. She did her best and was dismayed when her revisor called her in to give her a dressing down.

“Look,” he said, brandishing a letter. “Here’s a letter written in uneducated French, full of mistakes. And what have you done? Your translation is full of low-grade English. There are even bits that are insulting. Why?”

“Because,” explained the unfortunate trainee, “I was taught to preserve the style of the original.”

“Oh no,” the supervisor went on, speaking partly in French, “Le traducteur ne doit jamais oublier qu’il est le porte-parole de l’État. [Our translators must never forget that they are the mouthpiece for the state.] That’s the atmosphere that must be maintained.”


 Now to our main topic, literary translation.


One of the most famous atmospheric poems in English is Poe's The Raven. Famous not only for the poem itself but because Poe gave a full, clear, conscious account of his aims and techniques. Extraordinary also because it has not one but two famous translations into French, one by Mallarmé and the other by Rimbaud.


There is only space to consider one of them here, Mallarmé’s, but they have one striking feature in common: they are both prose translations. Prose and blank verse translations have their usefulness as introductions or elucidations; not knowing Italian, I first read Dante in the blank verse translation of the Inferno by William Michael Rossetti. But rhyme is a powerful poetic tool that echoes in the mind and Poe consciously exploited it. The long vowel in evermore is not only evocative in itself, it's all the more so because of its rhyming with the same vowel in other line endings. However, Baudelaire and Mallarmé could not or would not emulate him and they lost out thereby. And insofar as that long ô evokes the tone of the poem, they lost in that respect too.


And so we come to the tone or atmosphere of the poem, about which Poe was explicit in his The Philosophy of Composition, where he states that its highest manifestation is the one of sadness or melancholy, which “is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.” 

Without more ado, here’s an evaluation of one verse of the Mallarmé translation.


A symbolist, Mallarmé obsessed over evocative language. And like Poe, he had a penchant for the supernatural. In 1875, he decided to translate Poe's poem into French—and, in the process, draped an even more chilling cloak over Poe’s already creepy masterpiece.


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.


And the poet didn't just use language in his translation: Mallarmé’s 1875 edition of "Le Corbeau" is made even more enchanting by the illustrations adorning the text. The shadowy black smudgings belong to none other than French painter Édouard Manet. Mallarmé and Manet had been friends for years (according to the Musée d'Orsay, they would meet every day to discuss painting, literature, and cats), and Mallarmé would write an impassioned article that would proclaim Manet’s influence “sways all the painters of the day.”

Mallarmé called the illustrations “so intense and at the same time so modern ... completely imaginative in their reality.


So it was not only an interlingual translation but also an equally atmospheric intersemiotic one. Manet’s visualisation of the raven, which can be seen at the head of this post, is haunting.


In addition, there is a secondary atmosphere in what is a complex poem. It is heralded by the opening words, Once upon a…, the typical opening of fairy stories in their mythical settings, partly echoed by Mallarmé’s Une fois derived from Il était une fois. It continues throughout, for instance in Poe's constant use of chamber instead of the modern word room, which has an effect lost by the French chambre. It’s a gothic atmosphere, in the sense of “a style of fiction characterized by the use of desolate or remote settings and macabre, mysterious, or violent incidents.”


For the rest, I’ll leave it to native French speakers to judge subjectively whether Mallarmé, and for that matter Baudelaire, succeeds in preserving the melancholy atmosphere.


To sum up the three posts in this trilogy: Next time you want to judge a literary translation, don’t start by nitpicking whether each chunk accurately repeats the information in the original. Rather, ask yourself, “Does the whole express convincingly its emotions? Does it do so with the same forcefulness? Does it maintain the same atmosphere?” 


Edgar Poe [sic].  Le Corbeau. Translated by Stéphane Mallarmé with illustrations by Édouard Manet. Paris: Lesclide, 1875.


Edgar Poe.  Le Corbeau. Translated by Charles Baudelaire. In Histoires grotesques et sérieuses, Paris, 1865.


Poe, Edgar A. The Philosophy of Composition. Graham’s Magazine,1846.


Siavish Bakhtiar. Charles Baudelaire et Stéphane Mallarmé, traducteurs d’Edgar Allan Poe. Available from:'Edgar_Allan_Poe.

Jared Spears. How Poe's French translator made "The Raven" even spookier. Mental Floss, 2018.


Dante Allighieri. The Comedy of Dante Allighieri ... Translated into blank verse by William Michael Rossetti, with introductions and notes. London ; Cambridge : Macmillan, 1865.


Gothic. Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, 2022.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Literary Translation in India



Surprising though it may sound, I dare to say, though I don’t have the statistics to prove it, that the country with the most literary translation into English is not the UK nor the USA but India.


Two of the most popular posts on this blog have been the ones by Prabha Sridevan. (To retrieve them, entern sridevan in the Search box on the right.) She is representative of the current Indian translation scene. Like most literary translators everywhere, she is one of the category that we call Native Translators, that is to say translators who have not trained formally as translators but have picked up how to do it by example and by reading original literature. As she says herself, “I wandered into ‘translation’. I did not know it had a technique; or that it was both a science and an art.” But she knew Tamil literature and she knew impeccable English.


In the discussions of whether the Raj was beneficial or detrimental to India, an element that is generally left off the balance is the widespread and profound knowledge of the ruler’s language. By chance it provided India with a language of international communication and, even more important, it bequeathed the country a language that was not tied to any of its competing ethnic communities. We need to bear in mind that India has 22 regional languages. In spite of all the political pressure to make one of these, Hindi, the national language, use of English as a lingua franca persists: “The business in the Indian Parliament can only be transacted in Hindi or in English. English is allowed to be used in its official purposes.”


The success of translators like Prabha has been supported by Indian publishers, notably the Indian branch of the Oxford University Press, publisher of her Chudamani translations, and Ratna Books with its Translation Series under Dhanesh Jain. But this is not enough. A recent study concludes thattranslated Indian works must be more visible to Anglophone publishers, and this also requires promoting writers and translators, and inviting publishers to India to engage with the publishing and literary ecosystem.”


Ratna is the publisher of Prabha’s latest volume of translations, Meeran’s Stories. It’s a collection of Tamil short stories by Thoppil Mohamed Meeran (1944-2019). Both Chudamani and Meeran are skilful short story writers. The first story in the Meeran collection has a surprise ending worthy of O. Henry. However, there’s a major difference between the backgrounds of Chudamani and Meeran and it’s that the latter was a Muslim. Here we come up against a major Western misconception about the Indian subcontinent: it’s that India is all Hindu and it’s Pakistan that’s Muslim.  The fact is, India contains a large Muslim minority, about 14% of its population. So here we have two authors writing in Tamil and brought up in Tamil Nadu with backgrounds that are in large measure the same but with a noticeable difference.

“Meeran’s stories give us a glimpse, a once, of the inner life of two entities, two identities. First, of South India. Second of Muslim South India. They are about a particular people but more, they are about people. They are about a particular place but more, about the place of feeling in the desert of custom.”



Translated Indian works must be more visible to Anglophone publishers: Study. New Delhi: Devdiscourse, 2022. 


R. Chudamani. Seeing in the Dark. Translated from Tamil with translator's introduction by Prabha Sridevan. New Delhi: OUP India, 2015.


Thoppil Mohamed Meeran. Meeran’s Stories. Translated from Tamil by Prabha Sridevan. Delhi: Ratna Books, 2022.


Gopalakrishna Ghandi. Rear dust jacket of Meeran’s Stories.

Religion in India. Wikipedia, 2022.