Lost in Translation

by J.D. Roth

All day long, I think about Spanish. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I think in Spanish (though this never lasts for long). When I’m not working on my Spanish, I wish I were. And sometimes, like last night, I’ll stay up long after Kris has gone to bed just so I can read more Spanish or do more flashcards.

My favorite activity is translation. I love taking a Spanish-language book or poem or song or comic and working out the English translation. It’s such lovely, imprecise work. (Aly and I have had some good conversations about how translation is never an exact thing because words in different languages never have direct analogs, and because of cultural nuances.)

Here’s a poem I’ve been working on today, a poem by Amado Nervo, a Mexican writer from a hundred years ago. This poem is called “En Paz“, or “At Peace”. It’s about a man nearing the end of his life.

En Paz por Amado Nervo

Muy cerca de mi ocaso, yo te bendigo, vida,
porque nunca me diste ni esperanza fallida,
ni trabajos injustos, ni pena inmerecida;

porque veo al final de mi rudo camino
que yo fui el arquitecto de mi propio destino;

que si extraje la miel o la hiel de las cosas,
fue porque en ellas puse hiel o mieles sabrosas:
cuando planté rosales, coseché siempre rosas.

…Cierto, a mis lozanías va a seguir el invierno:
¡mas tú no me dijiste que mayo fuese eterno!

Hallé sin duda largas noches de mis penas;
mas no me prometiste tú sólo noches buenas;
y en cambio tuve algunas santamente serenas…

Amé, fui amado, el sol acarició mi faz.
¡Vida, nada me debes! ¡Vida, estamos en paz!

And here is my very amateur translation, with an attempt to keep things poetic:

At Peace by Amado Nervo

As I approach my twilight, I bless you, Life,
because you never gave me false hope,
nor unjust labor, nor undeservéd pain;

because I see at the end of my long journey
that I was the maker of my own destiny;

that if I’ve taken sweetness or bitterness from things,
it was because I put sweetness or bitterness in them:
when I planted roses, I always harvested roses.

Indeed, my blossoms will continue into winter:
Although you never promised me an eternal spring!

It’s true that I’ve had long nights filled with pain and sorrow;
but you never promised that I’d only have good nights;
and in exchange, some nights were holy and serene.

I loved, was loved, and the sun caressed my face.
Life, you owe me nothing! Life, we are at peace!

I’ll freely admit that I may have messed up this translation in places. I’m not familiar with many Spanish idioms, and I suspect there are a few phrases here that I’ve translated literally but which ought to be taken in another way. (“Trabajos injustos“, for instance, and “pena inmerecida“.) But I’ve done my best to convert a beautiful Spanish poem into English.

Note: Here’s another example of translation difficulties — at least for me. There are several subtle different ways to translate the line “cuando planté rosales, coseché siempre rosas“. Rosales could be “roses” or it could be “rosebushes”. Rosas could be “roses” or it could be “pink” (or “pinks”). The latter may always imply the color — I’m not sure. So, how does one translate this? For me, to get the meaning that I think the author is going for and to remain poetic, I used the English word “rose” in both cases. But I could be wrong.

Back when our book group read the first volume of Proust, I remember that Pam complained that the translation was imprecise. She wanted it to be literal. The translation we read was the classic from C.K. Scott Moncrieff, who translated for mood and feeling and not exactly word for word. This bugged Pam. It didn’t bug me.

Note: For instance, the literal translation of the title to Proust’s huge novel is In Search of Lost Time, but Moncrieff translated it as Remembrance of Things Past, which was more poetic, a reference to Shakespeare, and attempted to capture the mood of the work. The modern, literal translation of the second volume’s title is “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower”, which is hideous. Do the literalists actually like this? Moncrieff translated it as “Within a Budding Grove”, which is poetic and hints at the sexual awakening without being so overtly clinical.

The more I learn about languages, the less I like word-for-word translations. They may capture the technical meanings, but they don’t convey the deeper dimensions, the wonder behind the words.

I still have a lot of Spanish to learn — I’ve barely begun my journey — but I look forward to lots and lots of future translating. It’s my favorite part of this process.

Updated: 28 August 2011

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