Tuesday, March 10, 2009
flying, translation, crocuses
I am returning to Proust, whom I left one third of the way through A la Recherche du Temps Perdu , a few months ago. The prospect of continuing to read it in French is none the less daunting. I wish to lose no nuance in a work overflowing with nuances, and my French is not nearly good enough to grasp the finer points of those elongated sentences from which exploring tendrils reach into the most obscure corners of the mind.
So there is no alternative but to read the original alongside the Kilmartin translation, as well as a dictionary. To my surprise, I find that I am enjoying myself. The complex thoughts and descriptions unravel in two languages. I am a slow learner, who is forced to learn more slowly than usual. The odd thing is that if I were studying for an exam, I could not be reading the book more carefully, and yet I am doing it only for pleasure. I hope that in time the need for the crib may fall off, but I want to miss as little as possible.
The whole exercise makes me ponder the problems of translation. Does it ever approach perfection? It seems to me that the chief difficulty is to capture the essence of the original, which inevitably is founded in language. When the language changes, however satisfactory equivalent words may be, something important is lost. One example which comes to mind is the use of regional accents in the performance of translated radio plays. A production of the Don Camillo stories on Radio 4 a few years ago has Don Camillo speaking English with a north country accent. OK, he has to speak English, but the regional accent localises it in a way which makes suspension of disbelief more difficult.
In Proust, the use of idiomatic expressions in dialogue in particular, when translated localise the usage, not necessarily in respect of region, but in respect of time and class. The translator, hoever good he is, can't help creating something separate from the original, but it is separate and different as well in a way that cannot happily be bridged. Does it matter? We shall see.
After the rain, the crocuses in the Grove, which, with their long pointed petals, have done well this year, have tumbled over, and look, from a distance, like litter.