Friday, February 6, 2009

"Non versiones sed eversiones."

Thus said St. Jerome of the Latin translations of the Bible before the Vulgate, "Not versions but perversions." As a reader with only just English, I have great sympathy for all those poor buggers whose no doubt earnest attempts at the glorification of God through translation Jerome dismissed as so much grubby fumbling. The Vulgate itself has suffered it's share of criticism since, and not just from scholars and Protestants. King James' men made some glorious English -- perhaps the most glorious English ever -- out of the same potage, and see how kindly they've been treated since.

Translation is a task beyond not only my competence but my ken. I know that languages come naturally to some by circumstances of birth and or education, or simply by "gift," but not to me. To be able to move smoothly from say French to Spanish to English and back again is to be, in my estimation, blessed. I have friends who can do this sort of thing and to witness them do it is, for me, to stand amazed. I watched one friend in San Francisco years ago, carry on conversations, all but simultaneously in Italian, English and ASL. To listen, uncomprehending of all but the bits of English, was to witness Babel undone. And to imagine someone undertaking to rewrite a work of literature not one's own, as I've recently seen a coworker do just for the love and exercise, is to be humbled indeed.

This morning when I came down to post my quote for today's Daily Dose, I was ill-prepared to face this site inexplicably, magically translated into -- what? Thai? There it was, all the instructions, even my own brief Anglo name, rendered in some beautiful and incomprehensible language which to my blue eye looked like nothing so much as so many lovely scrolls of brush work. Panic. I understand so little of just what it is the wee folk I assume to live behind my Mac screen do to make my typing turn into a blog, that when, from elfin perversity or, more likely a keystroke mistakenly made by me, my computer begins to speak in tongues, I sit and quake and know nothing to do but light candles, turn switches on and off and bow my head in true humility. By the time I went to work, the striking of arbitrary keys and other such foolishness had changed the Thai into Hebrew (!) and I was well and truly in despair.

I asked help of a dear coworker, younger & brighter, but help as he might, and he was good to try, we could not get things back to my mother tongue. I gave up for a few hours and simply did my work, convinced I would never write this way again. Signs and wonders was all I could sadly think, signs and wonders.

Eventually, calmly, I tried a pull-down menu I must have clicked on all unknowingly before and there, at last! was my lost and beloved "English" non-UK, and so back at it I am tonight, through simple luck or more likely by the renewed kindness of the Macintosh faeries.

Had I inadvertently changed this site into Latin, I might have spied out my mistake sooner. I had a kind of Latin taught me, just, in High School. Spanish or Italian my dear A. might have been able to help me with. French I might have parsed out with a dictionary, or with the help of my friend R., but Thai?! if that's what it was, or Hebrew, as it ended up to be? No hope.

Made me all the more respectful of anyone who can read and render into English any other language, and it made me think again with gratitude of all the translators who have labored that I might read Proust.

My favorite translations, when there has been more than one on offer, tend not necessarily to be considered the best, if best is meant to be accurate to either the letter or spirit of the original. I never loved Homer, but finally found I could enjoy him enormously when Alexander Pope hung his turban on the Iliad. Likewise Dryden's Plutarch is mine, no matter better scholars having come along since. Even English, if Olde, never held me until, again, John Dryden had a go at Chaucer.

I would not presume to know what is good or bad in those poets' Greek, but I recognize and delight in a story told in a music that pleases even my untrained ear.

May the Gods smile on all translators, good, great and poor, even as I thank them, in plain American, for their gifts. (Now if only I could relearn my basic typing.)

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