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The relatively short story Les Étoiles, by Alphonse Daudet is from Lettres de mon Moulin first published in 1866 and telling of Daudet’s life in Provence. Often described as ‘charming’, these stories have that simplicity which tempts even the possessor of only school-boy French to think that he might be able to offer them in translation.

I tried with Les Étoiles, and soon found that simplicity is not the only attribute. As with other Daudet ‘lettres’, there is a musicality to the telling, and a large part of its success lies in the convincing evocation of the magic of a starlit summer night in the Luberon.

The plot is simple: a mountain shepherd tells of a night, years before, when his supplies were delivered, not by the usual farm boy or old woman, but by the beautiful daughter of his employer, with whom, of course, he was madly but secretly in love. Arriving late, by virtue of having lost the path, she is forced to abort her return journey to the valley and to seek shelter in what we might call his bothy. Conscious of the need to behave well, the narrator recalls how, when she could not sleep for fear of the night-sounds of the mountain, they sat together by a camp-fire until the dawn, and he told her the stories of the stars that shone above them.

It is a romantic, even sentimental tale, but the sentiment is true, and it ends with his observation ‘et par moments je me figurais qu’une de ces étoiles, la plus fine, la plus brilliante, ayant perdu sa route, etait venue se poser sur mon épaule pour dormir…’


‘And from time to time, I thought that one of those stars, the finest, the most brilliant, having lost its way, had come to rest itself upon my shoulder and sleep….’


There are plenty of essays by those fluent in more than one language, those who are truly bi- or multi-lingual, where the problems of translation are rehearsed. If language splits reality into segments, then different languages split it into differing segments: words do not match each other exactly – no more, perhaps than they do from individual to individual within a single language. We can only approximate our experience and feeling in words. Yet I recall a visiting lecturer more than forty years ago asserting that language is ‘the nearest you can get to the centre of your own consciousness’.

It’s the musical differences that strike me most however: the metre, the syllabic arrangements of the phrasing: ‘par moments’ might have the sense of ‘from time to time’, but ‘from time to time’ does not dance to the same tune as ‘par moments’. And where has that repetition gone from ‘la plus fine, la plus brilliante’?

To get similar sound qualities, and similar meanings is difficult enough: to get the same blend of meaning and sound, impossible. To translate one language’s idiom into another language’s equivalent, might founder on the fact that the two might use a totally different metaphor to get across a similar mood, or conversely that a very similar metaphor might hold different semantics in each case.

Something else that the act of translating brought home to me, was that the social mores of our times has changed in the century and a half since Daudet was writing. Stories in other languages than your own will also date! The sense of shock, and possible outrage at the thought of an unmarried couple spending the night alone upon the mountain is not so great, nor so insistent as it was. That is not to say propriety does not exist, nor that in our own times eyebrows would not be raised, jokes would not be made. Reputations, though, might not be under such threat nowadays, or rather, not under the same threat.

That put me on to the idea of adaptation, or re-writing in addition to ‘simple’ translation. Could this story be taken and re-told for our own time. And could it be re-told for my own place? Living on the foothills of the Lake District mountains, and within sight of the Scottish Border hills, and the north end of the Pennine chain, I have experienced evenings and nights not unlike the one that Daudet described. Home time after a day spent in the Lake District, we have often commented, is precisely the time to stay put in the middle of it! Could I imagine a circumstance, though, in which a similar train of events, with characters in a similar situation might take place.

Curiously, when I started to re-write it, I found that I automatically set my story forty years into my own past, and drew upon memories over more than ten years, not quite evenly spaced either side of the specified date. Other elements of the story, equally unplanned, were distorted, by the change of location in time and place, and of culture, more than by the change in language. It perhaps goes without saying, and I’m not sure of its significance, that writing the story turned out to be easier than completing the translation!

A fistful of BHD stories can be found in Other Stories & Rosie Wreay

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD


And there it was: Vita dei campi, which even the slightest whiff of Italian or even Latin – (15% at O level, don’t get me started!) might allow you to guess means Life in the fields, the Italian version of Giovanni Verga’s break through collection of short stories, reprinted from the 1880 edition. The wonders of the internet, and shopping on it! (I’m now getting pop-ups for all sorts of products in Italian, btw).

The She-Wolf becomes La Lupa, and I can follow up  my curiosity about those three versions of translation I blogged about a little while ago.

Why on earth would I do that? you might ask. I’m no Italian scholar, but short stories interest me, and one thing I’m sure about, where they are concerned, is that James Joyce’s ‘right words in the right order’ applies even more to short stories than it does to anything else – even legal documents! (OK, maybe jokes too.) And I wanted to see for myself which order, and which words Verga had used, and finds out whether those translators had messed about that, and if they had, what difference it might make to how I reacted to the story.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that. Words have a feel about them, and quite a personal feel too. I get into heavy metaphors to elaborate this point, but I’ll leave you to your own. The fact is though, and I think it is a fact, that the emotional power of individual words will vary from reader to reader, writer to writer, and speaker to speaker, and it will do that because most, if not all of the words we encounter in life, will will encounter, and will have encountered for the first time, in situations that are to greater or lesser extents emotionally charged. When we get the meaning of a word for the first time, even if we’ve looked it up in a dictionary, we will be getting it in a context, and that context will carry, or won’t carry, an emotional charge for us. My guess is that whatever the charge or lack of it, in that first meeting, will influence, not necessarily forever, our emotional understanding of, and reaction to the word.

When dealing with words in our own language(s) that will vary for each of us, but we will to some extent, perhaps, have an idea of what those variants might be; of what the words will mean to our fellow users of the language. When dealing with foreign words, I suspect, the variations will be there, but will largely be beyond our focus.

So my little test might be of use, but it might also mislead.

Well, you might ask, are the words the same? Is the word order the same? Watch this space (or rather, watch out for another one in a few days, and I’ll let you know!).

I’d spotted Giovanni Verga a few months before Christmas: he has three stories in Volume II of Hammerton’s The World’s Thousand Best Stories (and also the useful fact that they give only his date of birth, setting the timing of the publication before his death in 1922, a decade earlier than I’d previously guessed). I made sure his name went up the chimney, and in due course (i.e. Christmas morning) a sooty copy of the Penguin Classics edition of Cavalleria Rusticana and other stories came down among the ashes of the Christmas Eve fire.

Both the title story and two others are in Hammerton (The She Wolf and War of the Saints), which enables a comparison of the translations. Somewhere down the line I’ll try to get the originans and give them a whirl too – I’m three sessions into learning Italian, but even a comparison of different English versions can teach us something. The Penguin translator, G.H.McWilliams, makes a point, in his introduction, about the poor quality of earlier translations, citing schoolboy mistakes in D.H.Lawrence’s attempts. Lawrence had more than three sessions under his belt, and may have been better than Hemingway when it comes to Italian, but he wasn’t fluent, and certainly not in colloquial Sicilian! I have no idea who did the Hammerton translating. It’s something they rarely give, unless it gets a mention in the brief introductory paragraphs to each volume. It could, I suppose, be Lawrence!

McWilliams’ translation is dated to 1999, which means that a lifetime of language has passed between it and the Hammerton versions. Within a single language, and especially one like English, that moves on, Hoovering up the bits and pieces of other language which it thinks might be useful, a lifetime of evolution moves a long way. Quoted in a paperback from thirty years ago, is the nun who wrote Over the Wall, the story of her escape from being a bride of Christ. Of all the changes in the world, she said, including cars and planes and radio, it was the changes to language that she found most striking. And was it not said, after the Berlin Wall came down, that the new generation of Poles coming to the UK, spoke a language quite different to those – around a million of them, I believe – who had stayed on, and preserved their language (and their liberty) at the end of World War Two.

Where I find the interest in this rests on the speculation that a translator of 1922, in trying to cast Verga’s direct and vernacular Italian, as spoken by his Sicilian peasants, into an English that would both be intelligent and seem colloquial to his readers would need to be quite different from one attempted nearly eighty years later for the readership of its own time.

That there are differences becomes immediately apparent. What they signify, of course, might take some unravelling. The first sentence of The She-Wolf  is rendered, respectively, thus:


‘She was tall and lean: her breast alone revealed the firmness and vigour of the brunette type; and yet she was no longer a young woman.’ (1922)


‘She was dark haired, tall and lean, with firm, well-rounded breasts though she was no longer young, and she had a pale complexion, like someone forever in the grip of malaria.’ (1999)


You can safely bet that I am eager to get my hands on the original. In a form that depends so much on building with what has preceded, the context for what will follow, I want to know in what order Verga presented his images; and whether he used semi-colons or commas; and if that malaria reference was in his first, or second sentence. And what about the paragraphing, which I haven’t even looked at yet? And while we have the breasts, let’s consider whether that firmness belongs to them, as in the 1999 version, or to the ‘type’, as in the 1922, which to my mind, is a significant divergence.